Wormbags!


I love teaching children in my gardening groups about the function of worms. The first time they see them in the wormery, they scream, then after that their interest grows, even if they are just enjoying the thrill of grossing themselves out, and they want to keep checking up on them, giving them newspapers to eat, and seeing how long it takes for them to turn the food waste into compost.

Wormeries are a good tool for schools : to show how worms process waste, and they also produce useful solid and liquid fertilisers, but I am thinking about easier ways to recycle waste into the soil.

The wormery I use is a worm city one : looks a bit like a beehive made out of black plastic and is based on the 3 tray system, which works fine, but does take a little bit of maintenance. The reservoir on the bottom level gets clogged with worms and compost and needs clearing a few times a year. The trays are very heavy, even when half full. You have to season the compost to get the worms out and dry it a bit before using in potting mixes etc. I do use it for food waste, but do wonder if it isn’t all rather a lot of faffing about. Not to mention the fact that it cost me nigh on a hundred quid : and I resist the idea that gardening is just an extension of other kinds of shopping : buy something if you really need to, but think long and hard first about whether you can create something to do the job out of stuff you have already got.
There is some info online about worm towers, which are made by drilling lots of holes in some large size pvc pipe, which you then sink into the soil. At the risk of overemphasising how unwilling I am to toil, even for my soil, but for me this is still too complicated.
One of my gardens is a balcony used as a play area by a nursery : its a really restricted space, and can only be accessed from the outside by going through 6 doors, all the way through the building and out again : so, I ‘installed’ a bag system for composting weeds and plant cuttings etc, which was just made from some worms, plus weeds, the occasional banana skin, and some newspaper, in an empty compost bag. It works, but you lose the liquid fertilizer.

I am going to try a moveable worm system : where you put some worms into an empty compost bag with some holes in, put it where you want to improve the soil, add food waste and newspapers or leaves or whatever, and move it to fertilise different areas.
For raised beds, I’d like to look at a system based on recycled bottles : cut the base off , bury it in the ground by the neck end, with the lid off, add some worms, waste and newspapers, make a lid with a well fitting pot, or just the end of the bottle

IMG_20160226_173750

Community Gardening and the Pareto Principle


On my way to Canonbury School every week for my garden club, I cycle through an estate by Clissold Park built 1960’s style with concrete blocks, big windows, and literally acres of grass. Designed originally for the frolicking and the picknicking, the idea was to have an unbroken flow of landscape for people to use. None of this actually happens : no-one even bothers picking the legions of municipal daffodils, and I’ve hardly seen anyone even exercising their dog in the play areas.

Last week I went to a meeting to launch the garden group, and credit to them, they were prepared to fight for their right to par-tay : no accessible water, no available keys, access to only the tiniest of raised beds hadn’t defeated them.

There were 11 residents there : and eight others : the local councillor, the estate manager, three people from Garden Organic and Octopus, who have funding to help community garden groups, a local paper photographer, a lady marketing the local Transition group, and me, scoping out the estate for possible work for little red hen, which works with community groups to set up and run gardens.

I am interested in these kind of anarchic self formed groups, partly because I want a bit of a sneak preview of the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, but also, because I would like people to rediscover the lost art of working together, that capitalism has encouraged us all to forget. Gardening is the easy bit, the hard part is other people : but paradoxically its quite easy to get grant funding for community garden projects, but almost impossible to get paid to help people stop arguing, complaining and blaming, and do something fun.

I read about the Pareto Principle from this blog on the Decathlon Website about increasing the impact of your training,( having just bought some climbing shoes! ): http://www.decathlon.co.uk/blog/nutrition/7853/

Basically, you get 80% of your results from a productive 20% of what you do, while 80% of your effort brings no results. Good news for anyone on a salary, because this means your boss is paying you for FOUR DAYS EVERY WEEK for doing NOTHING. In sport, it means don’t bother dragging your sorry butt round the park every day : do a proper energetic run twice a week.  80% of the World’s  wealth is owned by 20% of the people, ( who do little with it, incidentally) and in business, 80% of your work comes from a very useful 20% of your clients. Pareto himself, as a gardener, maintained that 80% of his peas came from 20% of his pods, which I think is frankly taking what might be a good principle to a ridiculous extreme.

So the point is : ( apart from that you could have skipped 80% of this blog to get to this bit ) community groups are tiring themselves out doing all manner of pointless work, which is just making them annoyed:

producing leaflets and delivering them to every door, when they could just be saying hello occasionally and chatting to their neighbours : its a much more efficient and human way of ‘engaging’ people : any angry reclusive nutcase that lives near you can produce a leaflet and shove it up your slot, but people are more likely to go to local events where they know people.

Setting up new committees and running separate meetings when they could just piggyback on existing general residents structures, such as TRA’s. People want to do fun stuff, and nobody, but nobody, ever has fun sitting in a draughty hall listening to people moaning about why they are having to do all the work.

Organising large Community Events, with the sponsorship of funded groups, when a regular informal meeting would be a lot less work, and get more people involved. The Walthamstow Village Residents’ Association who are my gurus in this, have certain principles which are key to their success :

Meet every month no matter what, so people who miss one can go to the next, and momentum can be maintained.

Get everyone to bring some food to share, because everybody likes cake.

Have fun : even if you are moving 15 tonnes of compost in the rain, because its the fun that people come for and its the fun that will bring them back.

Have fun : because if you are working for free and you aren’t having fun, then you need to take a very long hard look into your psyche, and ask yourself what the heck you are doing it for.(Hint : Your ego might know the answer.)

I’m worried I might not have mentioned FUN enough times.

 

Five Wheelbarrows


I’m sometimes amused at how  people’s view of me is manipulated by  how I describe my job : ‘ social enterprise CEO’, is dynamic and interesting, Landscape Architect, is creative and interesting, sustainability consultant sciencey and interesting, but if I want them to start  scanning the room for someone with more potential, I say ‘school gardener’.

Why is it that ‘hands dirty’ jobs are considered not only unclean, but worse than that, boring? One of my tasks this morning has been fixing wheelbarrow tyres : this has involved dismantling, diagnosing, fixing and reassembling : a problem solving job : mental and physical, and yes, my hands are absolutely filthy. The last time the barrow wheel needed fixing was on a community day, and I asked an estate agent, who was one of our lovely corporate helpers that day, to go down to the ironmongers to get a new inner tube for the wheel. When he returned, pleased as punch, with the still punctured inner tube still in the wheel, but carrying it in the whole new wheelbarrow he had bought, I didn’t have the heart to make him take it back.

In that garden, we have two wheelbarrows we are using as planters, the one the estate agent took the wheel off, and two, including the new one, that we actually use as wheelbarrows.

jardins1

My journey from ‘designer’ to ‘gardener’  has been from the purely hypothetical to the practical :  I ‘designed’ what a space would look like : without getting too involved with those who would use it or maintain it. The ‘end’ of these projects were the end of construction phase pictures : what happened after that was really not my concern.

I have been talking this week to a group of children planning to design a garden space in their playground : I gave each of them a survey task : notice all the living things / look at the surrounding structures / make a list of plants / measure the dimensions / find the hot and cool spots / and while trying to hold back their teacher, who is more gung-ho than any of them to get designing, and never mind what’s good about the site already, I have been thinking about where the line is, between who is a designer and who is not.

In terms of gardening, anyone who has in their hand a packet of seeds, is making design decisions : as Wikipedia defines design as

 a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints;

translated : I am going to plant a seed, here, that will grow and provide food/flowers/nectar/joy.

 

The Old Way of Shopping


I spend too much money in supermarkets : there, it’s out, I’ve admitted my guilty secret, my name is Rachel and I’m addicted to easy shopping.

I have tried and failed a few times to kick this one : The first year, I made a grand announcement of my intentions, then had to explain to people in March why I was still going to Sainsbury’s. Turns out its cheaper : who knew?

The second time, I didn’t say anything, so I wouldn’t get the pressure of other people’s expectations, then I forgot about it, and slipped back into my old routine of popping in to the shops on the way back, and somehow finding two panniers’ worth of groceries that I didn’t know I needed until I saw t on the shelf.

The problem, of course, is time : they are open and there from 8 in the morning to 10 o clock at night as a bare minimum, and so they have insinuated themselves into our lives, much as the devil himself might do, were he a chain of food shops. Every Little Helps, Good with Food, Try Something New Today ( like what? a farmers market? ) Why Pay More? : These glib little slogans, designed to slide into our consciousness, convincing us they are on our side, keen to help, are the earworms of an industry designed to hide the sound of the waterfall that we are drifting ever closer towards.

I do know how to shop : I learnt in the 1970’s with my mother : we’d get the string bag, which was the weird khaki of plasticine all squashed together, and take it to the high street in either Halesworth or Bungay. Halesworth was better because we parked in the market place, near the pet shop with the Mynah Bird that squawked ‘Allo. One by one, we’d visit the greengrocers, ( three onions and a pound of spuds) the bakers ( sliced wholemeal and a free lollipop), the butchers ( He’d ask if my name was curly, which is a difficult question to answer at any age, let alone three) and the International Stores for butter, milk, and biscuits. Technically a ‘super’ market, in reality it was anything but : two aisles and a fridge with a single checkout, and a strip of green shield stamps for your book.

Veg Box Wars : Episode 2


And the winner is….

Drumroll…

nutella glass

Nutella

Well, they say you never know at the start of a journey, where it will end, and so my blog about my search for a new veg box became more about packaging than veg. This is how come Nutella, a product whose first two ingredients are, not the cocoa and hazelnut their adverts would seek to imply, but good ol’ fat n sugar, is the winner of the veg box challenge, for its simple, desirable, USEFUL, reusable packaging.

My search started because at the start of the year Riverford, who have been my veg box supplier du choix for the last ten years, suddenly reduced the quantity of veg in the boxes. Unlike Quality Street, who when they do this, at least have the grace to change the box so we supposedly don’t notice, Riverford didn’t, so we were faced with a ‘Large’ veg box, which was a large box with a quite small quantity of veg at the bottom. Ouch!

So I have now conducted my research, in my local area, and can tell you that in terms of quality of veg, and range of produce, Abel and Cole were the winners. You can choose never to have things you find horrible : a disadvantage maybe, as it doesn’t encourage you to push your boundaries, vegetatively speaking, but also, they supply a whole load of storecupboard stuff that will help if you are aiming to starve the supermarkets (of Evil) from as much as possible of your weekly food budget.

“Hang on, though, Abel & Cole?”, I hear you ask, “weren’t they taken over by some corporate food manufacturing giant, based in Hell?”

“Ok, well, it’s Hull actually, but apart from that, yes”

I don’t write them off for this : most of their produce is British, ( but they may quietly airfreight, unlike Riverford, who won’t) they have good links with local farms, they have a good variety of produce, they deliver at 7.30 am.

I also tried Farmaround, whose veg arrived at the bottom of a huge sack, no milk and sometimes no eggs available, and once, of the two orders I made, they sent me no veg bag with no explanation, charged me for it, and offered me a credit for future orders as a refund. No, no, and again, no.

The Organic Delivery Company : two different colours of potato do not count as two different types of vegetable, even in a large box of veg. You’re Fired!

FarmDirect were the most seasonal, and are also local to me : they have a weekend shop in Islington, and their depot is in Tottenham . They have Tim’s yogurt, rather than Rachel’s or Yeo’s, which makes a nice change! You could say I am just moaning for the sake of it, but one of the veg weeks I had four different kinds of green leafy veg : chard, kale, perpetual spinach/leaf beet, and cabbage : the triumph of seasonality over sanity!

There is also, apparently, a new one called CyclingVeg, who deliver everything by bike, but I didn’t try them because they don’t do any extras like milk, (presumably because of the refrigeration costs) and by that time I was quite bored.

boxes

And not to put too fine a point on it, my house was full of boxes! Yes returnable, but only when you get their box next week. The worst offender in terms of packaging was Abel & Cole, who are unsurprisingly using their corporate resources to spray out boxes and bits of random cardboard like there’s no tomorrow, as well as too much printed guff, so although they won the quality and range categories, they lost out to….

the ultimate winner : as all of them provided some very nice veg

(Drumroll)

 

FarmDirect, the provider of the indestructible black crate you see at the bottom of the pile. The environmental impact of designing, producing, printing and recycling all these boxes and catalogues, and newsletters, is ultimately, a bit of an insult to the principle of sustainability that these companies are trading on.

Farm Direct : local, sustainable, high quality. One box. All I need now is a recipe that uses cabbage and Nutella.

Veg Box Wars Episode 1


How many different kinds of leafy green veg have you got in your fridge right now? If the answer is more than two, I am willing to bet that rather than picking them out individually from the farmers market or (not so super) supermarket, you have had them more or less forced on you as part of a regular veg box delivery. If so, then you are one of a growing minority of us in the UK, that are turning away from the food goliaths for sustenance, and turning to the giant killers : mostly small scale,frequently cooperative, often social enterprises, emphasising organic, seasonal, tasty, quality produce straight from the farmers.

green-leafy-vegetables

As am I, and in my fridge today I have :Chard, Kale, Pak Choi, Chicory, Romanesco Cauli, and Savoy Cabbage : which more or less means that I am forced, on a daily basis, to chomp my way through more green stuff than I ever did,way back before I signed up to a veg box. Now, this is interesting ( I promise!) for at least two reasons : firstly because, have you noticed that whenever anyone recommends that you eat healthily, green leafy veg is always the top of the list, and secondly, if you have ever looked at a nutritional analysis of where to find all the vitamins and minerals that you need, green leafy veg has got half the alphabet ( A, C, E, B, K) and thirdly ( a bonus!) they are low in calories, and high in fibre so who cares if you wade through kilos of the stuff?

Having been a Riverford customer for almost ten years, I am currently conducting a review of the local market of North London / Stoke Newington Borders. I have available a plethora of providers :

Abel & Cole

Riverford

Farmaround

Farmdirect

Growing Communities

Organic Delivery Company

CyclingVeg

and this may not be all : so far I have tried Farmaround, Farm Direct & Abel & Cole, as well as Riverford. I have two local schemes, Growing Communities and Organiclea, both of which run Saturday morning markets, and veg box schemes for pick up, but don’t deliver. As the main advantage of the veg box for me is not having to lug round kilos of veg, this is a deal breaker, so I am not including these two in my survey : especially as not delivering allows them to sidestep the carbon footprint issue that comes along with bringing the veg.

I will evaluate them on value for money, quality of produce, customer service ( i.e getting the order right), food interest, packaging and extras such as dairy, meat etc. and at the end, I will be able to let you know which is the ultimate provider.

 

 

Wreck it Ralph!


One of my favourite films of last year ( I laughed! I cried!) I read Wreck it Ralph as a lesson in family dynamics :  an explanation for children of why so many weddings, funerals and celebrations end in fights, that isn’t just alcohol.

The film is set in a video game arcade, in which all the characters from the games have self determining lives outside the confines of their games : the premise of Ralph’s game is that he climbs up a building breaking it, while Fix-it Felix, the player’s avatar, follows after him repairing the damage with a magic hammer, and avoids destruction by birds or falling debris. If ‘you’ win, the people in the block run to the top and throw a party for Felix, and give him a medal, and they throw Ralph off the building, where he goes to live in his dump of broken bricks.

The ‘arc’ of Ralph in the film is that he has to leave his game/family in search of the acceptance /medal that his role in the game excludes him from. In freudian terms, this is the necessary trajectory of the child growing up : the point at which the complexity of your needs outweighs the comforts of home is the point where you leave to find your own rewards, and create a new family structure that meets the emotional needs of the adult you become through that process.

The happy ending for Ralph is achieved  through his development of a parental relationship with a child character from a racing game, and the help he gives her in her own search for acceptance in her peer group, which mirrors his own desire for social acceptance from the somewhat two dimensional inhabitants of the flats his job is to destroy. When Vanelope Von Schweetz ultimately wins the race, and her game ( for which read ‘life’) becomes a constitutional democracy with herself as president, it is a metaphor for successful parenting : he proudly watches her win her races from his own altered reality, which now includes decent housing for all, and the inclusion of refugees from outdated games. At the end of the film, he has successfully managed to pull his family/ game out of their fixed view of him as ‘bad’, through becoming a father, and obviously, therefore adult. His last words : “Turns out I don’t need a medal to make me feel good, ‘cos if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” is a touching reminder to parents of how much our own little ones mean to us. I did say I cried!

But that is, of course, Hollywood : and it hardly needs saying that the enduring success of an industry based on our desire for redemption, would hardly be so enduring, were the happy endings as reliable in real life as on-screen. Family life is the best thing we have so far evolved to get children safely through to continuing the species themselves, by which time, we need it to be as unbearable as possible to give us the motivation to get the hell out.

Ralph returns to his game/family, and is able to make changes there so that it meets his needs : they happily accept his changes as part of the joy of  having him in their lives. I am sure families like this exist, but perhaps, to reference Tolstoy’s view of happy families, the spectacle of a group of people lovingly nurturing each other through all of lives changes, without struggle or resistance, is so common and mundane that there is no need for it to appear  in dramatic form.

In real life, brothers Felix and Ralph, would have learnt in childhood to understand themselves and the world through their opposing roles : sometimes it seems like nature just loves the drama of matching a ‘fixit’ shy intellectual child with a ‘wreck it’ boisterous sports nut for a sibling, just for the hell of it. The answer is of course, nurture, not by the parents, but in the child’s evolution of its self, is the counterpoint of the ‘not-self’, which in the best case scenario, of a nurturing family, is helped by siblings, but in the worst case of a stressed, neglectful or abusive family becomes set in such unbreakable stone that conflict is the inevitable result of any attempt at progression by any family member.

If the sports nut grows up, and decides to become a university professor, in a nurturing family, the intellectual sibling should welcome the closeness of new areas of shared interest. Lack of nurturing in childhood is a threat to survival, and as such, activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emergency responses, and children who are brought up with this, will need to work very hard indeed to allow their cerebral cortex, which deals with reason, to override their emergency responses. Children whose ideas of themselves and their siblings have evolved in brains bathed in stress hormones are unable to develop into adults, and change these ideas without a huge amount of work and commitment from their analytical brain. Any suggested change in those ideas will be experienced as threatening to their sense of themselves, and will be fought straight from the amygdala : “Stop trying to be clever, you’re the pretty one, it’s not fair” was something I saw my own mother throw at her sister, when both were in their fifties.

Mostly, like Wreck it Ralph, people sensibly go off in search of a medal in a different game, and keep exposure to siblings stuck in childhood to a minimum : Weddings, Christmas, Ancestors day, Thanksgiving…..