Aly and I went together to learn how to grow Vegetables. The day long workshop took place in a walled garden and was delivered by the Head Gardener. The gardens were saved for the community when the house whose grounds they were part of was demolished and the land sold for housing. For years they were maintained by volunteers but more recently funding was secured to refurbish them. They are now run by a CIC who are looking to raise revenue as part of their business model. The course we were on was part of that plan.
The gardens themselves were stunning. We had set off early driven out of the city and by the time we arrived the sun was up and the gardens bathed in the soft glow of early spring. We were taken through to a small cold room where we were introduced to the head gardener and the 4 other people who were going to be our companions for the day. It was in inauspicious start. The head gardener was apologetic both about the low numbers and by the fact that he felt it an impossible task to tell us all we needed to know in one day when he had spent a life time of learning and still didn’t feel like an expert. Out of nervousness he forgot to let us introduce ourselves and although a small group this made it feel hard initially to ask questions. Not knowing who we were and what our experience or expertise was also meant that he struggled at first to find the right level at which to pitch what he had to share.
But once we left the class room and began walking through the green houses and out on to the ground the dynamic changed. He was in his comfort zone now and he shared all sorts of really interesting stuff. Observations and tips about soil, the preparation of seed beds and stories about the history of the house and what was grown and not grown in the past and why. The kitchen a hundred years ago was charged with the task of showing off the wealth of the house hold through the food it prepared. This meant the gardeners in turn being charged with growing things which were rare or difficult such as pineapples. A food that could be produced earlier or out of season also had a particular social cache. So huge efforts went into the creation of green houses to extend the season. These were heated by pipes the water in which had been heated as it passed through pits of rotting manure. Whilst the rooms where the gardeners potted up and worked were, and remain, unheated the cucumbers, melons and pineapples would have been sweltering in a tropical haze. Another story he shared was of the Masters walk. Apparently the original owners of the house were displeased by the sight of sweaty labourers in the gardens so prior to his walk a bell would be rung and the gardeners would remove themselves from the eye line of the path on which the Master did his circuit of the gardens and the greenhouses. He could then walk along imagining, if he thought of it at all, that all that fecundity had been created by the intensity of his own desire for it and without the help of anyone. These stories made us think how much, and how, little the world has changed. Perhaps those people who grow our food now feel as out of sight and out of mind as much as they were in the days of the Master’s Walk?
The lessons we took from the day were wide ranging. In terms of the atmosphere of the place we felt that it was a little cold, a little stilted and intuitional. By modernising the buildings they had removed some of its character and it felt that even the Head Gardener felt a little out of sorts there. It made us feel a bit more comfortable about the slightly ramshackle way we approach what we do in the park. Perhaps a little bit of shabbiness and make do and mend makes people feel more comfortable in pitching in? But we learnt loads from the Head Gardner once he got in his stride. Practical tips about preparing beds and sowing and potting on and advice about how to think about what you want to grow, where and when. But it was his emphasis on soil and the environment in which the seed, then the plant and its harvest develops which particularly struck us. There is a tendency in all things to emphasis the individual rather than the environment in which that individual finds itself growing. The extent to which that growing individual needs a enabling context and access to nutrients and a watchful eye to make sure that it is not over crowded or predated festinated Aly who immediately connected it to his own upbringing. It was a childhood which was so harsh and hurtful that as an adult he has struggled to risk trusting or attaching to anything. Yet as a human the responsibility for that is placed on his shoulders with no allowance given for the fact that in the circumstances both his struggles are understandable and it is amazing that he has the capacities, for joy, compassion, empathy and kindness he has. So it seems fitting to leave the last words to him
This course helped me understand gardening from a completely different natural view of how we nurture nature. In a way we prepare and ready a home for what we need and grow and take care of it. I think the main focus here is to learn and grow with the little patch of earth that you have borrowed and embrace self sufficiency along the side of nature. This is how it should be.