The Power of Thinking Little

A guest post by Joanna Dobson, “a writer, a mature student, a child of God and mother of three young adults”, Joanna blogs on the things that fascinate her, like books, food and faith, growing things and trying to tread lightly on the Earth.

Thinking little is not very fashionable these days. We are supposed to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘follow our dreams’ and above all ‘think big’.

Of course it is good to try and make the most of life, but these messages also carry a danger – they make it easy for us to fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing thinking’.

‘All or nothing thinking’ was explained to me at a depression management group a few years ago (and it must have been a good one because I haven’t needed to go back since!). The ‘all or nothing’ syndrome is the one that goes: ‘If I can’t write a work of great literature, I’d better not write at all.’ Or: ‘Since I have shouted at my children this morning, I am clearly a complete failure as a mother.’ It has been genuinely life changing to recognise this kind of thought pattern for the lie that it is.

Recently, I’ve seen how ‘all or nothing thinking’ can be the bane of the environmental movement too. The evidence on environmental degradation is, frankly, scary. What can one person do in the face of melting ice caps, increasing food shortages and peak oil?

Way back in the early 1970s, the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a prescient essay entitled ‘Think Little’. In it he argues that we have got so used to everything being done on a large scale – food production, government, protest movements – that we have lost sight of the fact that ‘there is no public crisis that is not also private’. He writes passionately about the importance of anyone who is concerned about the big problems of the day to start by ‘thinking little’.

A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, Berry is clear: if you’re worried about it, start growing vegetables.

A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

Berry is not saying that our action on the environment should only be about our gardens, but he believes that growing vegetables can lead to a radical shift of mindset – one that is essential if there is to be any long-term change in the way we treat the world. As we reconnect with the way the soil and the weather work to produce food, so we grow in understanding of why our wasteful economy is so wrong. I can’t do him full justice here: if you haven’t already read it, it’s a must.

Berry and my depression management techniques have combined to give me fresh hope about our garden. Much as I love it, it is hardly your ideal piece of veg-producing ground. It’s looking particularly sad at the moment.

It would still be easy to moan about how small it is, how there’s too much paving and about that darned shed that takes up far too much room. But this is to venture into ‘all or nothing’ territory, too – ‘If I can’t have an allotment or better still a smallholding, there’s no point in trying to grow more food.’ What rubbish! And how ungrateful!

Inspired by Berry, I was determined to ‘think little’ about producing more food this year. This means two main things for me: first, not to worry about what we can’t do. It is better to start slowly, with something small, than not to start at all. And second, to look out for all the nooks and crannies, the tiny, hidden places, where an extra plant could be stuffed in.

Like a primrose, somehow surviving in a drystone wall.

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Photos by Joanna Dobson

8 Things to Do in the Garden in January

The garden might be light years from your thoughts at present, but despite being the coldest month of the year, January’s the ideal time to start making plans.

If you don’t have a garden, or fancy a bigger one, you could always borrow someone else’s, or even ‘appropriate’ some empty waste ground. Alternatively just grow things indoors.

1   Think realistically what you want to achieve

Decide how you want to use your available space, and options include fruit trees, wildlife gardens, garden hedges, green walls, chickens and livestock, bee hives and insects and ponds, as well as the more traditional lawns, vegetable beds, greenhouses, decks and patios.

Self-sufficiency in food might sound a great idea, but for most of us it’s not likely to be achievable anytime soon. Estimates vary considerably on how much land is required to achieve domestic self-sufficiency for a family of four, depending on local climate, soil and methods employed – but something in the range of 1 to 3 acres is suggested on by most sources.

One option might be to focus on a range of higher value crops like asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb and salads to maximise the value of what you grow. Another option would be to grow vegetables that can be cultivated successfully in small areas, such as beans and peas. Intercropping is another option, for the slightly more confident gardener. I personally just tend to grow what the family likes to eat.

Remember gardens are long term projects, and it will usually take several years to put in place all the various elements, but a well thought out and flexible underlying structure will make life much easier.

2   Think about how the how the garden will work in practice

Leave space for composting, preferably a couple of containers, perhaps a wormery and as many water butts as you can fit in. You”ll also need to think about paths around the garden, and how light and shade will work, based on the orientation. Annual rotation of vegetables is an important consideration too.

Making the garden work within the wider natural environment is also important – attracting pollinating insects and beneficial and attractive wildlife. Bird nesting boxes, bat boxes, bird feeders, available water, insect shelters etc are all useful, but equally if not more important is simply leaving untidy areas of the garden, with stones, rotting wood and leaves and upturned pots available.

3   Plan for the seasons

It’s tempting to plan the garden solely around late Spring and Summer, when most plants are at their best, but it’s better if your garden has something to offer throughout the year, both because it’ll improve it’s visual appeal, but also because you’ll be more likely to venture out into it.

Successional planting, evergreens, structural plants, features, homemade art, bird attracting berry plants and ornamental grasses are all possibilities.

4   Tidy up a bit

Make the most of any good weather – removing leaves, tidying up borders, fixing fences, removing dead hanging or fallen fruit (to avoid harbouring pests), prune trees and shrubs and carrying out general maintenance. If you’re dead keen (and have too much time on your hands) you could clean, sharpen and prepare your tools.

Remember to leave some rough edges though, especially any areas where animals like hedgehogs might be hibernating.

5   Look after the birds

Populations of garden birds rise and fall over the years, but there appears to be evidence that numbers of some species are falling – the result of several factors, including the weather, predation by cats, fewer native plant species in gardens and reductions in the amount of green spaces in our cities. Putting out food and water over the winter can help birds survive, and also brings them into your garden where you can enjoy them.

Every year the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch project, to record the number of garden birds across the UK. This year it is being run on the 28th or 29th of January – and it only takes one hour of bird watching to take part.

6   Order your seeds

There are no shortage of seed providers, happy to regale you with seed catalogues – with varieties ranging from heirlooms to hybrids, organics to old favourites. I’m not enough of a gardener to make a recommendation, but suppliers I’ve tried myself include Marshalls, Mr Fothergills, Seed to Plate and Suttons. Alternatively if you’ve a good local garden centre, why not give them a try.

It’s a good idea to try to save seeds from plants or varieties you really like, either for planting again the following year, or to give as gifts to like minded gardners (or those you’re trying to convert) – not all seeds all likely to be viable, with trial and error the only reliable test.

7   Document your before and after

If you’re planning a huge transformation in the garden this year why not share the experience of your triumphs and disasters by documenting it. There are numerous gardening blogs and photo blogs you could use, or even simply use Facebook or Twitter – as with many aspects of social media, there’s something about sharing the experience that seems to make it more enjoyable.

Various gardening ‘show and tell’ groups now exist on Flickr and other platforms.

Gardening seems to be one of the new spectator sports, like cooking, that we like to watch other people doing, and imagine doing ourselves, but somehow never seem to get around to. Perhaps we should all take a bit more of an interest – the process of connecting both with nature and with your own food can be tremendously rewarding. The value of gardening on mental health is well recognised (so called eco-therapy), and increasing numbers of organisations now use gardening as part of their wellbeing and social development work.

8   Improve your gardening using the internet

With the possible exception of brain surgery, you can teach yourself pretty much anything using the internet, and gardening is no exception.

Useful resources include the BBC’s Gardening Pages, the Royal Horticultural Society and Garden Organic. Interesting community networks include Grows on You and Real Gardeners.


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Chickens for the Soul

Both myself and my wife grew-up in cities, so when we decided to start keeping chickens four years ago it was something neither of us had any experience of at all. I can’t remember what prompted us to think about it in the first place, but I do remember neither of us were too enthusiastic about the idea at first. We both felt quite apprehensive about the whole thing –  I remember spending an evening on the internet reading about poultry diseases and parasites, how to kill birds humanely, rats, foxes and electric fences, and thinking there was just no way I wanted all that hassle and stress, just for a few eggs.

Needless to say, four years later, we all love keeping chickens !

The first thing to say is you don’t have to turn into a farmer! In many respects keeping a few chickens is very similar to keeping rabbits or hamsters or any other pet – just home them, feed them, look after them and clean-up their mess – but with the added bonus that they pay you back with the ingredients for breakfast !

It’s always good advice before starting something new to talk to someone who actually knows what they’re on about, and fortunately we knew a family that had quite a few birds locally and arranged to spend an afternoon with them learning the basics. I’m pretty sure that no matter where you are in the world there will be someone not too far away you can ‘talk chickens’ with.

So we decided to give it a go and I built a large run out of timber and chicken wire, and used a small lean-to shed as the coop. If you know one end of a saw from another chicken coops are easy enough make, but if you don’t fancy building one yourself, there’s no shortage of different types  to buy – including the highly styled Eglu from Omlet !

Once we had the coop and run, we just had to buy some feed and water dispensers and a bag of food (we tend to use organic layers pellets), and we were ready . . . well after buying some birds of course !

We initially bought four young birds at ‘point of lay‘ at a local agricultural show for around £15 each, but many people rehouse former battery hens. Properly sourced ex-battery hens are healthy and present no problems, but they are likely to be quite unfit and may look a little bedraggled at first. In the UK several organisations, including the British Hen Welfare Trust, can help source ex-battery hens for very little cost.

There is a little welfare involved in keeping chickens, but nothing too difficult. We keep the birds wormed by adding worming compound to their feed every month, and routinely dust both the birds and the coop with powder to discourage red mite and other external parasites. The powder we use is organic, and supposedly not 100% effective, but we’ve never had any problems with mites.

Several of our first batch of birds were quite inclined to roam – flapping over the 3ft fence we have dividing our garden, and helping themselves to our vegetables. As a result I got advice on how to clip their flight feathers on one wing, which makes it difficult for them to fly. While it wasn’t the most pleasant job in the world (similar to clipping a dog’s claws) it only had to be done every six months or so. Our current batch of birds seem far less inclined to escape, however, so I haven’t felt the need to trim their feathers at all.

We have lost birds to foxes which have come into the garden, though fortunately they’ve never broken into the henhouse. Though upsetting, especially for the children, I’m fairly philosophical about this and forgiving of Mr Fox . . . after all they have to feed their family too. I’ve improved the fencing around the garden to make fox raids more difficult, but I’m under no illusions I can keep a determined hungry fox out of my garden. Perhaps it’s enough just to make my chickens more difficult to get at than the other chickens in the area ?

Our current three birds give us on average two eggs a day – which is enough to keep us in cakes, omelets, fried breakfasts and pancakes !

All the chickens have names, and are now just as much our pets as the cat, and seem more than happy to be stroked or picked-up.

I’d recommend keeping chickens to anyone with even a fairly small garden.

Not only do their eggs provide a thoroughly local source of food, without any concerns about standards of animal welfare, but they also help improve the overall sustainability of the garden – consuming kitchen scraps and producing fertilising manure, as well as being quite an efficient form of organic pest control, even eating the odd slug !

Even more importantly, keeping chickens has given my children opportunities to have caring relationships with animals, and helped us all reconnect both with the source of our food, and the natural environment . . . and all without leaving the garden.

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Not Just the Plants that Grow

My wife is very proud of her ‘butterfly flowers’ in our front garden this year (photo above). There are over 50 species of butterfly found in the UK, but unfortunately many are becoming quite rare. There are a wide range of flowers and shrubs you can plant that will help attract butterflies to your garden, including buddleia, lavender and many other flowers. I’ve also discovered that broccoli and cabbages work well, but that’s another story !

When we think about biodiversity, we often automatically think of exotic rainforests or other far off habitats, and we can fall into the trap of not valuing our own surroundings and wildlife the same way. We should all bear in mind the old environmental mantra of ‘thinking global, acting local’, and ensure our local wildlife is also receiving our best attention. Whether you have a large or small garden, or even just a window box, there is much we can do to help our local wildlife.

Attracting more insects into our gardens will usually benefit both larger wildlife, such as birds, bats and hedgehogs, and also improve the pollination of plants. Many insects like hover-flies and ladybirds will also help keep pest insect numbers down.

The photo above is our newly painted insect box – it’s easy to make your own from a few short pieces of bamboo cane – a possible summer project for the kids !

Much as I like butterflies, I’ve netted the brassicas recently in an attempt to keep the caterpillars off. Having to make a small pile of steamed caterpillars on your plate really detracts from the taste of your home-grown broccoli.

Overall all the vegetables and fruits are all doing well this year – we’ve had huge crops of plums, gooseberries, raspberries and onions. The runner and green beans are also picking-up after a slow start.

I’m trying to improve my year-round cultivation, and have recently started planting follow-on crops for harvest in the winter and early spring. A lot of gardeners, me included, sometimes neglect winter harvesting crops, concentrating mainly on spring planting and summer & autumn harvesting, but there’s plenty of veg we can still plant in mid summer for later in the year: beetroot, chicory, winter onions, lettuce, radish, chard and winter maturing potatoes.

The easiest way for most of us to increase the productivity of our vegetable gardens is to improve our rotation and successional planting and keep our gardens productive for more of the year. This is very new territory for me, so I’ll let you know how I get on.

Our three new chickens are settling in well, and the two older birds (a White Leghorn and a Rhode Island Red) have now started laying regularly. Hopefully the younger Cream Legbar won’t be far behind.

I built quite a large coop and henhouse in the garden a few years ago, for our first set of birds, and it’s lasted well. Chicken runs can be pretty much any size though, and keeping a small number of birds in urban settings is becoming increasingly popular. We’ve found keeping chickens very rewarding, enjoying the birds as part of the garden, as well as the eggs they produce. A large range of advice can be found online, if your’e thinking of starting a flock, including excellent advice from the Government.

I initially decided against buying a purpose-built henhouse and simply bought a small wooden lean-to shed instead, which I modified a little. This has proved pretty successful and popular with the birds. We did add a stand-alone wooden henhouse later when we added a second group of birds, so they could roost separately if they wished, but in fact they never did. We keep the birds supplied with clean straw and some sawdust, which serves as bedding in the winter, but also makes ‘mucking-out’ easier throughout the year. We feed them organic layers pellets or maize, as well as most of our non-meat kitchen scraps. In return we should get on average two eggs a day from our three birds throughout most of the year.

And as for the chicken manure – all I’ll say is: great in the compost, not so great on the lawn  :)

“When gardeners garden, it is not just plants that grow, but the gardeners themselves.” – KEN DRUSE

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Water Water Everywhere – GROW Update

Guest post by Janine Woodward – volunteer with Oxfam Bath

Crumbs, what a May and June!

No rain one month, deluges the next. It’s not helped my little plants one bit.

The onions need rain to develop. So even though they are ready to pick, they are still teeny tiny!!

Against my better judgement, I put some tomatoes & beans outside. They didn’t like the cool wet weather after the warmth and protection of the porch. Still, at least we kept some inside – there are beans on our indoor bean plant!

The oddity of the weather and it’s affect on growing was made really clear to me in Zambia. Farmers didn’t know when to plant any more. Sometimes they planted, and the rains came late. So the crops became parched and died. Sometimes they planted and the rains came to early, and too heavy. So the crops got waterlogged and died.

And they don’t have the luxury of a porch for protection. If the weather ‘goes wrong’ – that’s it. Crops & income gone for a year. End of.

GROW highlights that one cause of the broken food system is the changing climate. We must act to help farmers in developing countries cope with this.

And it IS possible for them to adapt – using the resources they already have. It doesn’t take expensive, technical solutions. Crop diversification, green manure, seed banks, methods to improve irrigation – all using local resources to maintain and improve yields.

There are sceptics who challenge the focus on small farmers, claiming it doesn’t aid development, nor will it enable us to feed 9 billion people. They see large industrialised farms as the solution. Big farms = economies of scale = better yields, no?

It’s true – such farms have a role to play. But investing in smallholder agriculture offers greatest potential to increase global agricultural yields in a sustainable way which really supports millions of poor producers and consumers (the world’s hungry population). It will also provide a crucial growth spark to economic development in poor countries – reaping huge long term benefits. You only have to read the wealth of evidence here to see how Oxfam’s experience proves this.

The food system is broken. But working with Oxfam we can fix it, pushing for a focus on & investment in sustainable, resilient agricultural systems for small holding farmers.

If you haven’t already, consider joining the campaign now at :)

Photos by Janine Woodward