Postcards from my food growing journey
When my son was two he made a seed bomb at Haringey Independence day. We threw it on a hard and unloved patch of earth on the way to nursery, between Somers Town and Coram Fields, and for a year he made me stop every day and we would peer at the small patch of ground, wondering if every new weed was one of our wildflower seeds starting to bloom.
When we moved we planted carrot seeds in the communal garden of our estate. We chose the least used looking bed, in a part with no municipal shrubs, by the large hedge. It was the most shady part of the garden, with almost impenetrable topsoil, and underneath hard, pure London clay. Our carrots didn't grow.
We tried again with carrots and beetroot, this time inside, in clear plastic strawberry cartons, on our dining table far from the window. Our seedlings came straight up, tall and skinny, the beetroot ones with red stalks. We were elated but they survived a week then died, leaving us wondering why, taking my hope with them.
We bought herbs and geraniums in pots for the windowsills, they looked pretty, the green and red making me happy to wake up in the morning. But a month of depression arrived in August, and I stopped watering them. Losing hope, lying under the clouds by the deserted lido while my son paddled, buying sunflowers in the market to cheer oursleves up. The herbs went to seed and the geraniums died.
That Autumn we went to a container growing workshop, in the upstairs of a pub on Haverstock Hill. We drew our garden, what we wanted to grow and where we could put our containers - tomatoes on the sunny wall, potatoes in bags by the bench, salad and herbs on our windowsills. It felt like more than a drawing, it was a mission, a map of future activity, a statement of intent. Our teacher, Mark, showed us different compost mixes; gave us charts of sun, shade, container size and depth; and small brown envelopes of mustard and coriander seeds to take away.
February arrived and on a rainy Sunday where I lay frozen and dark on my bed, I made it outside to the garden centre, where armed with Mark's charts, a list and a tape measure, I selected containers, seeds and organic compost, consulting our garden drawing like a map of the holy grail.
I rush home from work one day in April and between parents evening and going out that night we plant sacks of potatoes, me in my dress and lipstick, Luca excitedly dropping new compost over the tiny potatoes.
By summer the windowsills are full of basil, parsley, dill, coriander, sorrel and salad leaves. My neighbours decide to give me the tiny fenced off food growing plot in our garden. The man who had it before has moved, there are potatoes, a riot of never pruned strawberries, bare stony soil and slugs. This is a moment of pure joy in a month of pain. The day before my birthday, exhausted, uncelebratory, my mind in pieces, Luca and I spend a quiet and wonderful day planting nasturtiums, herbs, endive, every kind of salad seed, tomato seedlings, and his choice of a pumpkin plant (which will grow magnificently, trailing over the fence and across the concrete but never bear ripe fruit). We plant comfrey seeds in pots to use as fertiliser and sprinkle crimson clover and wildflower seeds in between everything. We play snail racing in an attempt to divert them from the strawberries.
I am in the garden, the world has ruptured, I need to change everything but don't know how. Neighbours and children ask about the plants, noticing the changes. It is the first time I have spoken to some of them. It gives me hope and a way to move on.
In September I begin to take everything out and start again. The topsoil is hard and dry with solid clay underneath. When I water, pools form on the surface, hours later it is cracked and barren once more. I start to make long raised mounds of compost and eventually a mini hugle. It takes a long time. Just pruning and moving the strawberries takes days, but I make more than 50 new plants from the runners which I later take to the Transition Dartmouth Park Christmas give and take launch party. The only thing I leave are the nasturtiums which continue to flower abundantly until the first snow.
Christmas, and I plant out broccoli and cavalo nero seedlings - Luca's favourites. The rasberry canes I get at the give and take look like dead and barren twigs, I cannot imagine they will ever have leaves. Snow finally arrives in January; we stop gardening, go sledging on Parliament Hill and watch old musicals in bed, the strawberries snug under their duvet of straw.
It doesn't always work. I remember the dazzling blue February sky, sun shining on the broccoli and kale plants, how straight they stood and their green stems against the fresh brown mounds of new compost, while black fear enveloped me and I gasped for breath, still looking at the sky and the soil, the sun so bright it hurt my eyes.
As winter slowly turns to spring we energetically clear, build raised beds in our garden and at the community centre and wheel and shovel mountains of fresh municipal compost, high from the smell, and the joy of so many people. I wake up the day after the compost delivery feeling like Christmas morning, standing in the garden in the early sun, moving herbs into a raised bed, sprinkling nasturtium seeds, transplanting seedlings - some far too early but like a child unwrapping the first presents I just cannot wait. Luca and I spend a windy morning on the Heath searching for fallen branches to make a Victorian pea structure. We plant them triumphantly into one of the new raised beds and tie them together with saved bits of string.
It is the hardest thing in the world to listlessly push seeds into plug trays of compost on days when despair is so complete you don't care if you ever see them grow. Despite this, a week later, in the greenhouse heat of my flat, huge borlotti bean leaves are climbing the windows. Some will quickly wilt and die but a few make it, and I realise I am getting used to the fragility of tiny plants - last year every time a strong seedling died or was eaten by snails it took a piece of my soul. This year I keep on planting. The beans are followed by the first leaves of tomatoes, sweetcorn that will survive despite the lack of sun, beetroot that start off red and tiny and which will much later grow a festival of perfect leaves.
On my birthday this year I realise something amazing. If you plant seedlings outside in the soil and it rains all summer, even if you give up completely, plants will grow and grow. Happy slugs have devoured all of the cougette, squash and artichoke plants, but the peas have outgrown the structure we built and are touching the sky, their strong stems abundant with lush leaves, thick with flowers and almost-ready peas. Beetroot leaves cover the ground beneath them. There are more strawberries than the slugs and snails can possibly feast on. I pick the first two ripe raspberries - one each for Luca and me, we eat them with mounds of red and white currants and the few yellow-red cherries I rescue from the black and orange insects who are living in their tree. Potatoes I must have left in the ground last year, push up huge leaves from the earth around them, defying my attempts at neatness. We do nothing to the rhubarb except eat it - every day - it's enormous leaves threatening to suffocate the espalier apple trees.
Late July and the deluge is finally over. Red runner bean flowers appear. We stand in the garden in the sunshine and share the first peas, raw from their pods, with our neighbours. They are fat, the brightest green and taste fresher than raindrops.
Images: 1. Rasberry canes, kale, broccoli and mini-hugel - February 2012; 2. Empty raised bed in my communual garden - March 2012; 3. Planting peas - late April 2012; 4. Raised bed in full bloom - July 2012; 5. First peas - July 2012