On Friday I was on the way out to get to the pet shop before it closed and a lady two doors down shouted me over. She introduced herself—in a year we’ve never spoken—and asked me if she could ask for some advice. I had no idea what she wanted to ask me about, but before I knew what was happening I was standing in her back garden looking at an array of bins and pots and old plastic buckets filled with soil and seedlings. She wanted to ask how to make sure all her vegetables weren’t ready at once and I found myself telling her about successional sowing of beans and peas and the like, explaining that potatoes are stored anyway and can last months in paper bags, and are ready when they’ve flowered or can be left until the plants themselves have started to wilt, and that parsnips can be left in the ground until needed and even benefit in flavour from experiencing frost.
I also mentioned a great River Cottage book on preserves that a friend got me for Christmas last year, and how many vegetables and fruit can be turned into jams, jellies, pickles and so on, or frozen, or stored in boxes filled with sand, or dried. She told me she’s been watching the River Cottage series on TV lately, and is loving it all.
She really appreciated my help, and asked if she could buy some eggs, having noticed that we’ve got hens. I told her any time, that the hens are fed organic pellets and corn, that we don’t use weedkiller in the garden either. She had her grandchildren with her and so I told her that she can even bring the kids over to meet the hens that provide the eggs for their dinner. She loved that idea and will take me up on the offer, she says. I gave her a first box of eggs free ‘as a sample because I know they’re great’. Well. They are.
We also talked about ‘cut and come again’ salads, and it was obvious she’s been eyeing our garden developing over the past 16 months we’ve lived here with a moderately envious eye. As, I realised, have a lot of our neighbours most probably. It’s gone from lawn to urban farm in a very short period of time.
It was gratifying to see someone else giving growing vegetables a go for the first time, and I explained that until we moved here the most I’d ever grown was houseplants and a few herbs. That snippet of information seemed to provide her with a great deal of encouragement, and I came away happy to have provided inspiration and support, and hopeful for our future as a nation. I know you can’t extrapolate, not really, from one conversation, or at least you probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. I do think it’s significant. Maybe there is a sea change in attitudes taking place. Maybe there is a resurgence of ‘Blitz spirit’ in the UK in this time of unrelenting recession misery.
There’s more. The lady said she was sick of giving money to Morrisons, the supermarket. I said I knew where she was coming from but that for me the spur to action was Tesco, that I won’t shop there any more because of their support for cruel and intensive animal farming to sell chickens for £1.99. And she understood completely. For her it was price and poor quality, those were the issues. Perhaps more and more people are asking what the real budgetary, human and planetary cost of convenience is. And it is true that farming your garden or your windowsill has become the fashion, arising not from vanity or self-indulgence but sheer necessity in the face of rising costs and nutrient-poor, chemical-rich so-called foodstuffs wrapped in plastic and sold using advertising that once was seductive but is becoming less so. I don’t think the fashion will go away, either. It can only be taken up by more and more people as reality bites, commodities become scarce, and taxes rise.
But I was also left wondering, when did this happen, when did I become someone to ask for advice on these things? The encounter left me realising just how much I’ve learned and am learning. I am more than the man I used to be, still the same but with new skills self-taught. Without being patronising or condescending I was able to give a gift of knowledge, to share my enthusiasm. In short, it was good for our neighbour and definitely good for me. A blessing all round. I wish her all the best and hope she too finds the experience of growing food for her family a positive one. I think I also made a new friend, and that’s no bad thing either.
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