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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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

Meeting Nature Halfway

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. MICHAEL POLLAN

We’ve achieved a lot in our garden this Spring.

The six new raised beds are doing well. I planted two with first-early potatoes, one with salad and sweetcorn, one with onions/carrots/beetroot, and another with brassicas (sprouts and broccoli). My girl’s have taken over the final one, and planted it with a chaotic mixture of peas, sprouts, poppies and sunflowers – it actually looks very good ! As we now harvest the potatoes, I’m replanting with leeks, late peas and cabbage.

Elsewhere in the garden we’ve a number of other beds – the rhubarb and berries are all doing well, but the peas and beans seem to be struggling a bit.

In my endless fight against the weeds I’ve used grass cuttings from the lawn as a mulch, which seems to be working up to a point. As well as acting as a weed-suppressant, mulching supposedly limits the loss of moisture from the soil, and when dug back in over the winter will return nitrogen. A lot of gardening websites advise against using grass cuttings for various reasons (weeds, soil heating etc) but I’ve not noticed any problems so far.

We’ve recently harvested our first potatoes, which have mostly been fantastic boiled or steamed, but a small number have been extremely bitter. This is caused by the chemical solanine, the same toxin that’s found in deadly nightshade. Potatoes produce solannine in response to infection and predators, and so is an indication of disease or other problems in the plants. Many people assume the green colour potato tubers go when exposed to sunlight is the toxin, but strictly speaking this is not the case. The green colour is chlorofil, but it does usually indicate solanin presence.

My best guess is that the solanine has resulted from water stress, as we have had a very dry spring. I plan to dig and lift all my remaining potatoes as soon as I get chance and will make sure to peel them well when cooking (as the majority of solanine is found just below the skin).

Note to self – water potatoes more !

The other big change in the garden is the chickens. We had four older birds at the start of the year, but unfortunately lost three due to a fox attack around a month ago. Foxy came into our garden over a 3.5ft wire fence and killed the birds on the lawn mid-afternoon (we have them running  free during the day). It wasn’t able to carry the dead birds back over the fence, however, and simply left them at the end of the garden.

We’ve had chickens for three years now, and have lost a couple of birds to the fox previously, but to loose three at one time, and the ‘mess’ that was left was certainly a bit upsetting. An electric fence is now on my shopping list . . . clearly I’m turning into a farmer !

Our remaining bird managed to escape by flying over a dividing fence in the garden, but was clearly badly traumatised. In fact it died overnight a couple of weeks later, which I’m sure was down to the stress of the attack and loosing it’s companions. Chickens are social birds, and don’t thrive when alone.

Last week we brought three new birds (of three different breeds, all aged between 12 and 16 weeks) from a local family supplier, and am looking forward to the respective brown, white and blue eggs. They should start laying when they reach around 20 weeks old . . . hopefully they ARE all female! I’ll write more about the joys of keeping chickens shortly.

I’ve also installed another water butt, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, the dry weather finally nudging me to get on with. We’ve now a total of three, which should be enough to see the garden through all but the most extended period of drought. We only normally water the vegetables, soft fruits and the greenhouse in any event, leaving the lawns and trees to their own devices. Most people’s gardens in the UK shouldn’t really require watering from the tap, so long as there is sufficient rainwater storage available and I recommend all keen gardeners maximise their rainwater storage. Treated tapwater isn’t just subject to seasonal scarcity in its own right, but has both a significant chemical and carbon footprint associated with its abstraction, treatment and supply. Minimising water use means saving energy too.

Overall I’m pleased with progress in the garden so far this year, though the proof will be in the eating, as the saying goes. Every year we seem to do a little better, and produce a little more food and I’m already planning next years changes in my mind . . . but if gardening is teaching me anything it’s that nature has it’s own ideas about things, so if I can continue to ‘meet it halfway’, I’ll be happy.