Feast and famine – can either be avoided?

When I mentioned in yesterday’s post that we’d had to go looking to buy one or two vegetables before we could steam ahead on the pickles and chutneys; carolee, who has been a longtime and much appreciated reader, commented, asking what vegetables we’d had to buy; i.e. which we hadn’t grown. I answered her question briefly, but later today our son asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to plan more carefully to avoid the surpluses and shortages. Both questions were capable of being answered more fully than I managed in either case because the issue raised is really important.

Those of us who grow vegetables for pleasure are the lucky ones. If our crops fail, most of us – if we live in the wealthy west – can top up from supermarkets or elsewhere without too much difficulty. True subsistence farming is a very much more demanding institution, and for some is literally a matter of life and death. So my answer must accept that it applies to the fortunate ones with (however fragile) safety nets. We garden for fun and of course we eat our produce joyfully and with a greater understanding of nature than might otherwise be the case.

But if the allotment teaches us anything at all it’s that growing is a risky business. Farmers know this already but we mostly have to learn it the hard way. So gardening effectively is always a bit of a gamble. We tend to lay off some of the risk by growing rather more than we need, and if things go well we’ll have a glut to deal with. There are other ways. We can grow only expensive to buy crops like asparagus or – like one of our neighbours – devote a whole plot to grapes; or another to blueberries; which raises the tricky question as to what constitutes profit and loss on an allotment. Anything approaching monoculture is particularly risky because if the crop fails there’s nothing – and the temptation to try to dominate nature with chemical weapons rears its ugly head.

Learning to fail gracefully, and as few times as possible, must be by far the biggest contributor to the mythical gift of green fingers. This year our crop of strawberries was miniscule because the plants failed to arrive and we could only grow half a dozen we got as a free gift from a seed supplier. Next year we’ll have 24 plants, propagated from the initial six – because we knew how to do it. Our broccoli was badly affected by the random weather and flowered too early and most of the overwintered crops got sick and died in a prolonged spell of bitterly cold east winds. But we re-sowed the broad beans in the spring and got a decent, but later crop.

Pests and diseases come in waves and sometimes not at all. Our decision to dedicate about 15% of the plot to a pond and greatly increased wildflower/pollinator plants has paid off in sheer interest. There’s never a dull wildlife moment; but our miniscule contribution to a wildlife corridor along the river also helps farmers and other growers along the way. In a very early season, for instance, the honeybees aren’t plentiful enough to pollinate the early crops, but mercifully there are plenty of other insects to do the job. We gardeners depend absolutely on a truly awe inspiring network of ecological relationships and the good news is the more we enable those relationships to thrive the better our crops will do.

We garden in a connected world. That’s a joy and a challenge because we’ve become dependent on technological fixes for every problem. So as well as learning to fail gracefully we have to learn to garden modestly. When gluts come along they can be a blessing because sharing builds communities like nothing else. The biggest danger is to waste what the land has given. That’s an ethical failure. When we lose a crop there’s usually something else we can eat; and if we have to buy we can exercise our choice as carefully as we plan our crops.

The yearly plan is something like a rule of life. It demands that we sit down – usually in the autumn – and talk about priorities; strengths and weaknesses, issues for action and habits that need contesting; and just as a good rule of life never yet led to a perfect human being, then even a good yearly plan will never make a perfect garden year. Weather, bugs, diseases and downright incompetence will always intrude. This year, for instance, whilst side shooting the tomatoes in the tunnel I inadvertently pinched out the growing point of one of the plants. Wherever possible we need to take the Jungian line that the injury, even if it’s only a punctured ego – is the point of growth.

We have been fortunate to live a long time and so we need to share whatever experience we’ve gathered with those who are willing to listen. I often think of the Chinese proverb that says – to teach someone who is not ready is a waste of breath, but not to teach someone who is ready is a waste of that person.

I hope that goes some way to answer an interesting question. As I’ve often heard of astrology, the stars incline but do not compel. I suspect the best gardeners are the ones who listen to what the earth is saying through the languages of plants and pests, thriving and shriving, and see themselves not as masters but servants of whatever it may be – the Tao, let’s say, but I’m not one for theological orthodoxies.

So thanks again for the question. The answer which has emerged is as much of a surprise to me as it may be to you – but then I’m not entirely sure where it came from.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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