It’s silly, I know, to humanize plants, seedlings and seeds, but with so much information out there, much of it contradictory and most of it ‘ticklist’, it’s something that helps my little mind prioritize and it sorts things out in my head. Sow in March directly into moist raked soil – says the packet. Well what if it’s still cold in March? What if there’s not enough oomph in my soil? Obviously you need a degree of knowledge for successful growing of crops, but empathy, and connecting with an intrinsic common sense, goes a long way. One of my tools is to treat my seedlings like I would any little person, and if you listen and watch hard enough, the answer is often there.
After all, I’m spending a lot of time with these little fellas, they are getting a lot of attention, both in terms of how much they get from me, and how their performance reflects on me professionally, so they become ‘my girls’.
The tomatoes are important at Pattendens (my main place of work). The clients eat a lot of them. 4 varieties this year, 3 cordon and 1 bush, and they have already been pricked out and potted on, this is an important step – they sit on propagators, so I am always keen to get them potted up as soon as the seed leaves are unfurled. Having their own pot means they are able to grow away without getting spindly in the race for more light with their mates, also the tendency for the whole pot to dry out is increased if we have a number of seedlings in one pot.
Aubergines and Melons have been moved on in exactly the same way – all now sit individually in a heated propagator, the first perilous part of their journey to fruition completed. Moisture levels are checked regularly – not too much or too little – a balancing act for me as I only get to visit twice a week, although I will pop in midweek if I feel the need. It’s a bit like having a small baby, high inputs at this point, but it does get easier.
I leave the watering can on the propagation mat in the greenhouse. It warms the water nicely so my girls don’t get a cold shower. Instead the watering becomes ‘a treat’ – a warm watering from a fine rose. A cold soaking every now and again might not impede germination and growing on fully, but I can’t help but feel it doesn’t help. I try to leave as much space between plants, to enable airflow and eradicate the build up of disease, I am giving them the room to grow – just as I stand away from my daughters and allow them to explore and grow without their embarrassing dad too close.
I will find different spaces within these protected environments for plants and seedlings with different needs. I am always attempting to ‘read’ what is going on and then act on those conclusions.
Out in the garden, I am doing similar work. Old bits of glazing go down on the soil, ready for sowing. This will warm the earth beneath, giving any subsequent sowings a better chance of ‘getting away’ – like baby turtles hurtling to the waves, so germination will be the first big test and I will be there to nurture and aid. We have mice at Pattendens, too – and I don’t like to put down poison, though I wouldn’t be averse to a cat or two in this space. But I have to think differently if I want peas (and I do). It appears, after a few years of wrestling with the problem of mice eating my peas before they get going, that the solution is to germinate them indoors and plant them as small plants. The pea before germination appears to be the treat – not the small plant (that appears to be pigeon fodder – but nothing a little chicken wire doesn’t fix.) And the broad beans, whilst being a very easy baby, requiring little care and being happy plunged into cold Autumn soil, will turn into a gangly juvenile. Hazel coppice crafted into a support structure will protect these youths from getting too ‘leggy’ and the inevitable flopping, just like a drunk sixteen year old not understanding his limits.
It’s useful, at least for me, to think like this when dealing with plants that we annually grow for crops – they require care and attention, and the inputs are pretty large. If we think like this, it becomes less of a to do list and more natural. I have had clients and friends quite fairly say that the price of fruit and vegetables are so low, that it makes no sense to grow your own, and to an extent they are right – but that argument misses the main points. Yeah – it’s a hassle, if you’re not naturally inclined to grow stuff (actually, I believe we are ALL naturally inclined – it’s just that we’ve forgotten over the centuries) and modern life gets in the way of nurturing something to fruition – there is often something that feels more urgent or important to do, and we have instant gratification everywhere. BUT if we swing the thinking around a little (or a lot) and looking after a tomato plant, or a row of spuds can be life changing. Bear with me.
The reason growing your own is so special is because it is not always easy. Like life itself, supporting a rubbish football team and going through adversity, you come through stronger, more philosophical and more able to deal with the future. You also learn how to grow good food, which is no small thing – especially in this uncertain world. It’s a learning curve you will never master, you will be forever a student because, for all the advice and books and courses, and maybe even this blog, mistakes will be made. Anyone that says different is almost certainly fibbing. Growing food will always throw you a curve ball – because that’s intrinsic in the nature. It’s why commercial agriculture uses so many ‘weapons’ to curtail the chances of those curve balls – of course, in the long term, some might say those practices are storing up one whoopass problem in the not too distant future, but maybe that’s for another day. The point is that growing food is an experience that can help the individual grow and heal. Nature can be read, and this is a intense course. The advantages of growing your own are actually infinitesimal- it’s healthier both for you and the planet. It’s also tastier. In the end, it can be cheaper, though certainly not at first, but the real bonus is a connection with your piece of earth, and the mental gymnastics and common sense practiced to perform to coax life and food from it. This allows philosophical thought and an escape from the vast amounts of bull shit that is heaped upon us every day. It connects us with the rythms of nature and unearths the meaning in things. It cuts through the noise and creates peace. Of course that’s until you get potato blight or Carrot root fly. Nobody said bringing up kids was easy!