Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A list...

The sound of an owl at dusk.

Baby caterpillar on my arm.

Plaster over a cut on my knee.

Filling watering cans from the water butt.

The smell of tomato plants.

Scratch on my leg from a bramble.

Twist of a bean plant up a bamboo cane.

Marigold buds.

The first growth of baby courgettes.

Tangle of strawberry runners.

Bright blue borage flowers.

Pink gooseberries.

Clank of the gates.

First sweet peas.

Prickly comfrey leaves.

Trug filled with weeds.

Scrape of a fork.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Butterfly Effect

The first short story I remember reading was Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder'. I was in third year of high school in Mr Bradbury's English class. Until then, I'd hated English classes. Two years of Mrs Jackson giving us comprehensions, lessons in grammar and enunciating my name with every syllable every time I moved. But, these classes were different. Mr Bradbury wanted us to write poetry and I remember clearly reading Ray Bradbury's story and the feeling of oh my god in the pit of my stomach as I was reading it. It was like a switch inside me that never turned off again.

I read it again this morning for the first time since I was 13, and it still holds the same power, and I experienced a similar compulsivity when reading it. But I'd forgotten how beautiful his description is, how the tension builds slowly. It's an amazing short story.

Last week I handed in my 8 weeks notice at work, after a very strange few months that I haven't been able to write about. We found out at the end of March that the funding for our service will end in September. I knew it was coming in a way. It was no surprise, let's say. With the £110 million cuts that our local council has to make over the next three years, I had a sense that our small service could easily be one of the many cuts it would choose to make. We were a relatively new team delivering a preventative service to families where there is a child in need or at risk, and I'm not sure how much preventative services have a place in the current political climate. And most importantly, we weren't meeting our targets. Yet. We've spent an awful lot of time building the work, rolling it out over a whole city with a significant level of problems, getting our service known, encouraging referrals, and learning the work as we were going. So, I knew in reality that further funding was a dim possibility.

All the same, being told that your project is going to end is hard news to hear. It was one of those hit by a bus feeling. And then a slow dawning question about what the heck are you going to do. Everyone reacts differently to news like this, and at first I figured I'd be fine, that as an employee for over five years I would get a decent redundancy payout if my employer couldn't find me another suitable job elsewhere. I've had friends who have faced redundancy and they had good payouts that gave them enough time to find other work without a huge financial worry. Other friends have decided to use the opportunity to take a little time out of work and write or travel. So, I tried to see it as an opportunity.

I started to do a little research, checking the jobs bulletin, read the redundancy policy. And this was when I discovered that redundancy can mean very different things. It can mean generous payouts or it can mean statutory payouts. I was shocked to find out that statutory redundancy pay is one weeks pay for every year you're worked, which added up amounts to very little in the context of mortgages and bills and the cost of living. My options became much narrower. redundancy was not going to be much of a safety net.

There haven't been many jobs out there. I'm not sure how many people are looking for work at the moment. I feel lucky to have found a decent job, it's not permanent, and it's part-time. So, I will have to find some extra work to get the income I need, but I can also have more time to write and dig and relax more. It's a good move. It's a move I'm not quite ready for, but life is pushing me on, challenging me. I'm not sure whether it's the right move, but I've decided to take the chance.

It has struck me a few times... if I'd have worked that little bit harder... approached the work differently, gone for quantity in my work rather than quality... would this still be happening? Perhaps the world would be a different place if there was one thing I could have done or said. Or if the political world was different, if we didn't have this Government, and the council was not being forced to make radical cuts, would we have been given the chance to build our service up more so we could have met our targets?

The butterfly effect is not comforting to think about. It somehow makes it harder to face change, because you keep thinking, was there one small thing that would have made the difference? could I have been better? made less mistakes?

But that's not helpful, sometimes life just hammers us with things and we have to face them. The reasons why don't matter, what could have been done or not done in the past isn't helpful. It's just a case of suck it and see. Get on with it. Try and trust somewhere that this fits in with some wider plan we have no idea about. Or it's just random life. No reason for it, just one in a long line of things we have to deal with.

There's time now to prepare, to adjust, get used to the idea. I'm thankful for the time. Some people lose their jobs within weeks and are left picking up the pieces. But I've landed in a decent place, and maybe the change will be a good one?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Digging for England...

It's June and I have less time for gardening than last year and twice as much allotment. What is a girl supposed to do...?

The best she can with what she's got.

So, with 270 square yards, a very old spade, two second hard garden forks, a tin full of seeds, a pile of horse muck and lots of donated and acquired netting, scaffold planks, used tyres, old railings, bamboo canes, and a free-cycled greenhouse... this is what I've done so far, this year...

January saw too much frost, snow, cold and damp to do anything at the allotment...

February saw a delivery of cow muck, some rough and wet digging with wellies caked in muck, and buying far too many seeds. I acquired a greenhouse, which Dave and Eric (fellow plot-holders) kindly erected for me and glazed. It's a rebuild of three different greenhouses all from freecycle. It has a window in the roof, and some slatted windows at the back, both open up when it reaches a certain temperature. It has a path of three small flagstones, and (also from freecycle) some bamboo blinds to protect my baby plants from too much direct sunlight. It's surprising how much is going on at the plot in February.... rhubarb shoots are coming through... onions, shallots and garlic planted in the Autumn were all growing. Tulips and bluebells pushing through the ground. All my fruit bushes had buds on. Everything else was waiting for some warmth.

March saw washing the greenhouse, more wet digging, sorting out my trays and pots, digging out failed purple sprouting brocolli and old leeks, and starting to plant things! I started off most of my seeds in the greenhouse or at home... peas, tomatoes, squash, courgettes, peppers, aubergine, brocolli, cabbage, sprouts, lettuce, sweet peas, sunflowers. Outdoors, I planted parsnips, radishes, beetroots, spring onions, Charlotte potatoes and more... I don't want to make out like planting is easy. It can take ages, so with my potatoes I had to dig over the bed, dig in some manure, leave it a while, dig it over again, dig trenches, line them with manure, bury my seed potatoes, earth them up as they are coming through... hours and hours, achy back, sore hands, a few bruises on route, bending down a lot, standing up, measuring, wheel-barrowing. I planted a LOT of potatoes on weekends in March and April... about 40 plants altogether.

April is wonderful on the allotment. The clocks have changed, the light is better, thermals come off and this April was scorching so it was shorts and vests and digging until 7.30pm. It was a month of barbeques and breakfasts at the allotment and people bringing their babies and friends down. I visited the allotment as many times as possible to water the greenhouse, and even got out the hosepipe. It was 'get as much as possible into the ground' month: the rest of my potatoes, early and maincrop, more parsnips, beans, marrows, swedes, kale, more beets, spinach, pak choi, about 100 flower bulbs (thanks to a cheap batch at Aldi), and loads of my seedlings went outdoors, the ones that could cope with late frosts.

I had a few helpers in April, which I bloody needed because I had a lot of new digging to do and the ground was hard. The woman who had the allotment before me (the bit I didn't have last year) hadn't done much work in a long time, so there were a lot of weeds and grass, the ground is solid, it had flooded like mad in the winter, and is like clay in parts. It was awful to dig and it took hours to clear even a few feet. Back-breaking digging, my lower back has ached since the end of March! Luckily I could alternate this with digging over the the part of the allotment I started with last year. With all the manure I dug in, the soil is rich and crumbles easily with a fork when I dig it. So I am learning, and the newly dug parts of the allotment are getting barrow loads of manure dug in.

I had slug and snail trouble in the greenhouse... so had to plant a whole new batch of seeds... and more new seeds... sweetcorn, nasturtium, coriander, parsley, rosemary...

Everything was starting to grow and push through in April... potatoes becoming bushy, salad leaves and radishes ready for picking, beautiful ruby beetroot leaves, onions and shallots getting fat, flowers on my blackcurrants, raspberries, gooseberries, jostaberries, huge thick rhubarb stems (which I SO wanted to pick, but left it to established for next year), gorgeous purple flowers on my chives, spearmint bushing out of its tyre.

And May was even busier... The greenhouse was bursting with seedlings in May, and I still had a load of digging to do... the digging never ever ends... to create space to plant them out.

I built two new raised beds by sawing scaffold planks and getting Eric to help me nail them together with six inch nails. I spent a whole day nearly trying to cover things with nets, and building all kinds of weird and wonderful protection for seedlings. Eric saw a pigeon lie on its side and shimmy under the netting to eat Carol's plants, so it really is like a full on war with the birds, mostly the big ugly ones like pigeons, crows and magpies. We also have rats, foxes, mice, cats and god knows what other creatures. (And sometimes intruders, Eric had his meditation hut vandalised and pissed on, although I tried to convince him it could have been a pair of amorous foxes).

More digging. One of the other plot-holders offered to help me dig a big section of my plot, and he digs like an ox, or a machine. He helped me make huge progress. I acquired some railway sleepers (via Eric, I think he was a womble in a previous life) for another raised bed and I was glad of a strong pair of hands to help me shift them because I couldn't even lift one of them on my own. They make a beautiful octagon (see the photo) and I can't wait to fill them with flowers and veg.

I caught the sun at the beginning of the month, and had to dig through a crust the soil was so dried out. But then the weather broke, which is great for the plants as they have been so thirsty, but not good for me. I got caught in thunderstorms, scatterings of rain and drizzle. I lacked the time to get out and do what I wanted to do. It's frustrating. Having an allotment is almost like a full-time job.

I got peas planted and beans in the ground, with my 8ft bamboo wigwams already trussed up with green string ready for them. I planted out brocolli, celery, sweet peas, the first lot of sweetcorn (I've gone crazy for it this year as it was SO good last year - 32 plants I think!). My courgettes and squash are flowering, big beautiful yellow flowers, which I would never have expected. My tomatoes are in the greenhouse flowering beautifully, and they smell divine when I water them, I think it might be my favourite smell in the world. My fruit bushes all have berries slowly ripening. I have lovely fuzzy carrot tops in a tyre, pea flowers, ragged swedes where the birds chomped at them, but still surviving, the most beautiful foxgloves which I planted from seed last year. I picked half a kilo of the juiciest strawberries yesterday, and there are lots more ripening.

My battles have been with the weeds, slugs (ongoing) and birds (ongoing). The birds stripped my redcurrant bush before I got the chance to cover it with netting. I have decided to share my strawberries with the slugs. There are so many, it seems only fair, and without miracles I can't keep them away.

The time just flies when I am down there. I get immersed and before I know it two, three, four hours have passed. I start on a job, like watering the greenhouse, and before I know it I have pulled out the flags to put hardcore underneath them, re-potted all my tomatoes, planted some in the ground, tied them to canes, dug a few weeds out and bang bang, there goes another two hours. I have a list of things to do as long as my arm, and I make slow progress all the time, but the list never ends. I would actually love to just sit in a deckchair with a book and enjoy it, but there is always another job to do, weeds to pull out, plants to put in the ground.

It's felt much more hard labour, than labour of love this year. It's been tough, and I haven't been at all sure a lot of the time whether I'm managing it. I'm a little behind getting things in the ground. Some of my seedlings are ankle height when other peoples are knee or hip height. My muscles ache. I don't have enough time.

Yet, I still keep turning up. I'm prodding myself to keep at it, thinking that the first couple of years is the hardest, everyone says it takes a good few years to get established. And it is worth it, I took these photos this weekend to show myself how far I've come...