A step towards another life

We live in London, a mere drunken banker’s stagger from Canary Wharf and the new financial heart of London. We are lucky enough to have a ground floor flat with a small south-facing garden. In this garden, we can enjoy good weather by eating and loafing in the garden, admiring SWMBO’s flowers and shrubs. For this, it has to be said, is her domain. Were such matters within my remit, all the garden bar the patio and the shed, would be be given over to cultivating vegetables with, perhaps, the odd decorative planting here and there.

As a child, I grew up in a home where in the back garden, my Dad grew a fair proportion of the vegetables we ate. Although this was done partly by choice, it also helped to supplement the far from stellar incomes of a self-employed engineer and nurse. Although we were far from self-sufficient, I now realise that we were living an mild approximation of the lifestyle later portrayed to great comic effect in ‘The Good Life‘. Although I don’t remember playing a very active part in the actual market gardening, I do remember being captivated by John Seymour’s seminal book, The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. Seymour’s plain economic yet evocative prose made the backbreaking and often thankless life of a smallholder seem simple, achievable but most of all, enviable. Not that this spurred me into action at the time, I simply did as little as possible to help and grew up eating good food that was well prepared with ingredients whose provenance was, for the most part, known. In the intervening years, my awareness of issues environmental has quietly grown and I have long held the desire to have a less frenetic and immediate life, hoping instead to ‘downshift’, as it is now called. Recently, SWMBO and I have discussed a variety of ways in which we can bring this about – ultimately, to find a way in which can spend far less time in traditional work environment (nine to five, stressful work, long commute, little family time*), enabling us to spend more time together working in, around and maybe from the home. Over the years and months, various bouts of online research and reading have brought us to the point where we are now seriously looking at a number of ways in which we can make this idea a reality, whether at home or abroad. Although I am by nature a serendipitous optimist, I am no wearer of rose tinted specs and I am realistic enough to know that a corporate salary will be a necessary evil for a while yet if we are to affect such a change. Having said that, I recently came across the Down The Lane website and I have to say that the lifestyle Richard Cannon is creating for himself is probably the most realistic work/life balance I have seen and close to that which I believe I would be happy with. One of the key factors in wanting to find a smallholding or, failing that, a house with a large garden in a more rural setting is our determination to have greater control over the food we eat. We try and shop wisely and we try to ensure that we eat healthily – or at least we thought we did until we read the Chemical World investigation supplements recently published by The Guardian. If you are not disposed to read it, I won’t cover the same ground here, save to say that I have not bought prepacked washed & ready-to-eat salads since. Although farmer’s markets and organic box deliveries are a boon for those seeking safer organic alternatives, they are a tad too strong for our budget and still keep us at some remove from the source of the food. Likewise, the exceptional quality of the produce of Rick Stein’s food heroes – whilst quite rightly lauded and championed – comes at a price that puts it into the occasional treat category for us. I suspect that in approach if not execution – I don’t have a Channel Four production budget to play with – we are more inclined towards the path trod by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In essence, we would like to be able to grow a fair proportion of the food we eat and make informed decisions on the produce we buy in. In the last year or so, I have taken to carting the sprogs off to the Borough Market to show them what meat looks like before it is skinned and butchered, how a large fish is filleted in seconds by an experienced hand and to buy vegetables with dirt on that they can handle, smell and taste before buying.

All of which is a very roundabout way of getting to the point of this post-with-pictures. Earlier today, I and three of the sprogs had great fun setting up a couple of organic growbags on our south-facing patio today and planting them out. Anything which involves mucky hands, full watering cans and sharp knives is a winner with kids so a good time was had by all. Ranging across the two bags, we have gone for old favourites like tomatoes (plum for sauces, ordinary for salads) and cucumbers and the less ordinary aubergines and chillis.

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As all these like a deal of warmth and sun, we decided a little husbandry was called for. With no budget or inclination for shop bought stuff, the eldest and I decided to scrabble around the garden and shed for the wherewithall to build a ‘greenhouse’. An hour later, we had fashioned a detachable and re-usable leanto affair from transparent rubble sacks, canes, scrap fence wood and tapes both parcel and duct. As you can see from this rather iffy shot, the result is an exercise in frugality, recycling and craftsmanship.

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Whilst I have done this sort of thing before, it is a first for the kids so I will attempt to diligently report on their progress as super-smallholders in the weeks to follow.

*Strangely enough, whilst taking a breather after losing the first draft of this post, I read Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian Weekend piece ‘‘Sweet smiles, hard labour‘ which contains a damningly accurate summation of what it is like to work in my industry sector at the moment. Is it any wonder that folks at all levels of corporate life want out? I hinted to SWMBO that she might read it to better understand why I can be less than communicative upon returning from work on a Friday.

Footnote: Now the peed-offness has subsided, I can releate that I lost a version of this post after writing for an hour or so earlier today. I was particularly annoyed as I nearly always hardcode my posts in EditPad Lite or HTML-Kit, saving frequently as I go. I didn’t on this occasion as I was bracketing the pictures with text so I thought I would try Blogger’s Preview function as a handy way of seeing how things were looking. Suffice to say, I shall be sticking to tried and tested methods in the future.

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