We’re taking January to refuel our tanks and slowly chip away at the planning stages of future projects that are keeping us motivated and hopeful for Spring, Summer, Autumn and next Winter too. In the meantime, we wanted to thank everyone for your support since last May when we first opened the virtual doors of SSAW and have written some insights into what we have learned from our own growing experiences since then.
One of the reasons I chose to focus my adult life around flowers and the natural world was because of the excitement I feel knowing that I’ll always be learning, and quite probably will never know it all. It feels a lot more appealing to me to know that there’s no ceiling to how much we can know about the plants, their environment and their impact on the world.
I realise you can probably apply that to any occupation or passion in life if it’s something you really love, but I definitely couldn’t really imagine feeling more inspired than I do when I make sense of the giant 9ft sunflowers towering above me were sown by me as seeds smaller than my baby fingernail. 2020 has been real proof of that, as I turned my focus from floristry to growing flowers, with the dream of being able to supply my own materials for creative work. The shift really took hold in a much bigger way than planned when all existing floral work disappeared as lockdown and covid took hold.
With a site just over an hour from home, my visits there became a bit of a ritual throughout March, April and May especially when it was the only route I took away from home aside from running the streets and parks of north London plus the occasional trip to the supermarket. Lulu and I spoke almost every day about the poly, how things were looking, what to plant next, where to plant it, how to space it (a particularly hot topic) whether to stake it, WHEN to stake it, why was it so bloody hot (May), why isn’t it working, where did all the ladybirds go, and I swear I didn’t order any hot pink zinnias?! As the months passed and we grew more accustomed to the site, we started to notice more, understand more - a lot of frustration over things we could have maybe avoided if we’d been more careful, had more time and knew more stuff. ‘Knowing more stuff’ has grown to be of greater significance to me this year I think than ever before.
To put it more eloquently, the need to learn is much more than just personal endeavour. It is a collective responsibility to educate ourselves and remain open to debate, discussion and constructive (but not always) criticism. The conversations around diversity and accessibility in horticulture have been and I know will continue to be hugely influential in my practice. I’m glad to say I felt a huge sense of relief when I finally accepted that this was going to be a lifelong journey of learning and not a just quick fix for my commitment to turn away from using imported flowers for good.
Last week James Wong wrote brilliantly about the current fixation with all things ‘low maintenance’ in gardening media and how perplexing that notion is when you think about it. It seems there’s a strange tendency in mainstream content to liken gardening jobs to household chores; the quicker they’re over, the better. Like so many things in the age of technology I suppose convenience has become king. However, truth being told the more gardeners and growers I get to know the more obvious it becomes that ‘the greatest reward is not in the finished product, but in the actual process itself.’ 2021 to me is about shifting even further into the process.
Growing is multifaceted, complex in a way that I find really difficult to pinpoint especially when trying to describe it to someone for the first time, and as I’ve already made clear, because I feel like I really don’t know very much in the grand scheme of things. Then again, when I am not completely overwhelmed by the intricacies of how a poppy seed becomes a poppy, I am comforted by the pure simplicity of it all: look after the soil and the soil will look after us; producing happy, beautiful plants, sequestering carbon and nurturing biodiversity. That’s all there is to it.
January, the time to write notes from the previous season which consequently turns into enthusiastically planning for the season ahead. My key growing reflections from this year are as follows:
Cover the soil
When we started at our plot in November 2019 the ground that the polytunnel stood on was merely dusty dirt. Both soil and dirt are made up of sand, silt and clay. The difference between the two is what does (or in the case of dirt, what doesn’t) live within. Healthy soil houses millions of living organisms and with that microbial life your soil becomes fertile and full of nutrients. When left bare and without moisture it becomes lifeless.
To achieve this healthy soil we started by grading the beds, removing rubbish and unwanted debris. We then added organic matter and began watering the beds weekly. In January 2020 our first annual seeds, Sweet Peas were sown and by early March they were planted out. Once their season had ended (in July) we cleared the beds, excitedly noticing the physical difference of our dirt. The condition of it was dramatically improving - it was starting to resemble soil. This observation alone made it overwhelmingly obvious that in order to keep improving our soil health we must keep the soil covered, whether it’s with a cash crop, green manure, cardboard, mulch or weeds, the soil on our plot will now always be covered. The symbiotic relationship between plants and soil is what keeps both happy and well. So this seems insanely obvious to me now, but 8 months ago I was none the wiser. Progress!
Sow in succession
Seasonal work can sometimes mean you have one shot at executing a task - if it doesn’t go to plan, you can find yourself waiting a whole year to try again. I know sowing in succession isn’t exactly a revelation, but I would really encourage gardeners and entry-level growers alike to make the most of the season by planning multiple sowings.
We sowed Cosmos three times this summer, in April, May and July. Our first crop was stunted. Stunting is often caused by a lack of nutrients, whether it is moisture or food or both. And it can also (unfortunately) be transmitted in the early stages of propagation from poorly produced compost. Our second sowing was an improvement, but still far from a prize crop. Perhaps due to the hot spring? ‘Should we sow again?’, we wondered. Well, the third sowing produced by far the best crop. Cosmos flourish on shorter daylight hours, (something we learnt when investigating for answers) which is often why the crop thrives in September. So despite the seed packet's advice to sow in April, we sowed our last succession at the beginning of July. The seedlings grew to be strong and robust, and reached 5ft tall before producing buds. They went on to produce elegant long stems with large blooms. The pattern between their success and the shorter days is definitely something that we’ll consider when we decide when to sow next year.
While we’re on the subject that’s another thing I’ve learnt - not to spend too much time debating seed succession. If you're in the height of summer and have the space, get the seed sown! Before you know it your crop will be blooming. I suppose what I’m getting at is this: through succession, not only do you get more from the crop, but you are also allowing your curious mind to notice, compare and learn by observation.
To be outside
Lastly, a personal observation that I feel certain about now - the positive and compelling mind space that comes with working outside and amongst nature. Working with nature has become an opening throw-away collection of words. Try saying it slowly, absorb the meaning. Your environment is alive, ever changing and unpredictable. Like many, I’ve found that my mental health thrives whilst being amongst it, bringing out my most passionate self.
Whether it is the harsh wind against your cheeks or the hot sun on your back, the weathering of your palms or the growing strength in your thighs, the satisfaction of seedlings growing or the first harvest or taste of a particular crop. Being amongst nature helps give perspective - it constantly stimulates the brain with eager anticipation of what the coming weeks will bring.
Knowing that all of this is under threat amplifies the importance to me of being out there in nature, trying to do my bit to improve ecosystems, and striving for a site full of diverse life above and below the ground. However small that contribution may be, it’s important to me!
“When life is not coming up roses
Look to the weeds
and find the beauty hidden within them.”
When I look back at the 2020 growing seasoning, I think in one sense I have probably learnt most from the sheer relentlessness of weeds. I must admit, I have always found something rather inspiring about weeds: Their resilience and resistance to hardship, their ability to grow despite adversity and to adapt to any hostile conditions.
This year, I have had more opportunity than ever to consider my admiration with days spent, often by myself, quietly weeding bed after bed to ensure that annuals weren’t competing for nutrients or perennials becoming too overgrown. Of course, weeding wasn’t always the top of my to do list, sometimes it was more procrastination than priority, other times it was just the only thing I could productively do when other things needed more pairs of hands, but eventually it became a welcome meditation - an opportunity to find satisfaction in doing something thoroughly. Accepting that there was no quick fix but to do it properly, pulling each one out completely from the root.
Weeds have a determination to survive no matter how difficult the circumstances and I am grateful to have them so readily available as an example of perseverance, of pioneering spirit (not one single patch of earth was left uninvaded) and a means to grow my patience.
Not only was I physically ‘in the weeds’ a lot this year but also metaphysically too. I recently learned that there are two meanings associated to that idiom that both seem particularly relevant to 2020: Firstly, ‘to be overwhelmed with work and unable to keep up with the pace’ and secondly, ‘to focus unnecessarily on the unimportant details’. I have definitely been guilty or victim of both depending on which way you look at it and with regards to weeding too. For the most part, weeds are just plants growing out of place, and in actual fact leaving soil covered with these kind of ‘weeds’ is much better than leaving the earth bare, what I have been referring to are noxious or injurious kinds like Bindweed, but still there were definitely times when focusing on a tidy plot was more for a tidy mind than a tidy ecosystem and that has been a lesson well learnt this year.
So, I am going to look ahead to 2021 and not be disheartened by the things that didn’t work but glad of the things that did, and proud that I didn’t give up - because there were plenty of times that I wanted to. And I am going to remain hopeful that the low growing clover I sowed to act not only as a green manure but as a weed suppressant, might not only keep the weeds at a mindful, manageable level but might allow me to focus on the important things like nurturing our community and continuing to see the beauty in all things because after all they were never just weeds to me.
Thank you to everyone who has weeded with me.
Additional photography by Keymea Yazdanian