Self help?

I was in WH Smiths at Stansted Airport, (for my sins, budget travelling affords me the ability to fly back to work) I couldn’t use my national book token which left me gutted. But there was a plethora of titles in the non-fiction section that focussed in a similar vein of ‘Not giving a f***/ insert appropriate swear-word to be seen as poignantly angry yet with a little nonchalant dash of carefree’. But don’t be fooled. These advice guru’s are setting out their stall as being passionately different from you drones over there; standing in a line at an airport on a budget flight, steamrolling on through life with your hard-working ethos and pay/reward equation.

Do we give too much of a f***? . Yes, I think I do.

And it felt really raw and honest to write that. It is only easy to not give any f***s at all, if you don’t need money or a job, or can rest on the laurels of fame or success or family fortune and connections that can tide you over. The rest of us do have to juggle all these responsibility shaped f**s. Whether it’s to our employers  or partners, elderly parents or kids, our work clients, or boss, and even to ourselves. Like Bob Dylan sings “you gotta serve somebody

I can admit I had a hectic 10 days back in London and by the time I stood bewildered at the airport, blinking through hazy sleep deprived vision I had another 12 hours before I would reach my bed. I had been working at a pace that feels like a shot of adrenaline compared to life outside of work. I do love the exciting bits of my job – the days that the rewards come thick and fast; outcomes sometimes all tie together and goes off with a bang. But yes, admittedly a lot of the time it really is not like the past week at all. I could gloss over this and put a PR-shine on it. All THE CHAMPERS ALL OF THE TIME. But really it’s all planning, slow ideas forming and shaping, noting debates and discussions, and wading through mysterious treacle.

Maybe there is a balance to be found here –  not stopping caring completely, but just focussing on the big stuff. Like not worrying if I have given every single person every piece of relevant information that they may need, or worrying if I’ll fall over in front of a head of state, or forgetting to address them correctly. Really what is the worst that could happen is none of these things, it is probably opening my mouth and everyone realising what an idiot I am – #impostersyndrome in action. The magic art of not giving a f*** is exactly the reverse of imposter worry: it is worrying less, reflecting more and being thankful for the opportunities I have. Not giving credence to the doubting voices – I might not live up to everything expected but I’m living up to my own expectations at least. A little mantra of “I am worthy of this and worked hard to be here, and importantly played my part well”. I can spare you the need to read the books with that gem of wisdom!

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Obviously a big part of my job last week was to spend time admiring the best gardens in the world at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. There were show gardens that delight, amaze and most of all remind us how important the act of growing is. For me, I don’t need glitz or glamour, but seek the simple reasons why gardening is vital, no matter where in world the garden is. That’s why I really loved seeing the attention the Lemon Tree Trust’s Garden gave to the refugee situation in Iraq. Tom Massey designed the garden after visiting Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq – it is home to over 40,000 displaced people fleeing war in Syria. The Lemon Tree Trust have worked to set up everything from gardening plots, agricultural skills and even growing competitions. Many people finding themselves in the camps were already gardeners and skilled growers, by helping facilitate plots and spaces to grow, providing tools and seeds, the Trust have given refugee gardeners and growers, not just space to use skills or learn new ones, but a place they have control over, to be creative and be altogether more human. Unfortunately camps are changing from temporary shelters to semi-permanent homes. It is that connection to gardening that often resonates with the idea of home and sustenance. The show garden was wonderful, using native Mediterranean plants and middle eastern designs; fig trees, lavender, damask roses and spectacular pomegranate trees (a first for Chelsea?) After speaking to designer Tom and others from the Trust, it so wonderful to hear the passion they display and the story they managed to tell the world. I wish them every success at rolling out more gardening programmes for refugees.

After a week of inspiration at the show, I was itching to return to my own plants, pots and plots. I was just in time to feast on the first cucumber harvest and tie up the ever-growing tomatoes. G had done a stellar job of keeping things alive (with a lot of help!). All the calendula seeds have grown well, even the marigolds and cosmos from seed are now flowering. It might not be Chelsea Gold, but I love the gardens here in Greece, not just for what they show but the joy they bring. There is a lady a few houses down from us that tends to her 30+ pots of geraniums each evening with such pride – all resplendent pink and red colours bobbing in the sunshine.

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While G cooked dinner (amazing pan-fried chicken, courgettes and roast potatoes, should you ask) Johannes and I went to his fields to collect capers (caperi) at sunset; 2 hours later we were laden down with 2 buckets full of the tasty berries and I had a sore green thumb. The picking technique is to use your thumb nail to cut the caper at the stem – giving real meaning to being green fingered! I didn’t realise that he meant I could keep what I collected. This was incredibly kind and now we will have enough capers to last at least a year (or two)! After giving us a rundown in how to salt and dry them, G and I spent an hour before dinner sat on the terrace sorting them into large sizes for drying and small sizes for salting and pickling. Although we swatted away mosquitoes and listened to the wild wind rustle through the trees – it was still blissful. Just talking, sorting and salting, close to the earth and not a worry crossed our minds.

I think often that the world doesn’t need any more stars, after all we can’t all be the best in show. But the world certainly does need a lot more light in it.  Help comes in many guises and for me it is the small simple joys of gardening wherever I can find it. 

Growing, growing…gone

I am a gardener, a grower, an experimenter and in all of this I need that most resolute of skills – patience. It is the hardest thing to learn to wait.

But now as I write this after a day of work (and a lunchtime swim), the seeds have been sown. I wait patiently, twiddling my thumbs juggling words and waiting for Spring. I read the news online and see that the UK has been dragged out from the fog of cold. Months of unseasonable temperatures that have stunted plant growth, pushing back the harvest dates, slow sales at garden centres and Easter retail forecast in the doldrums. But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine. How suddenly nature can change the mood!

But here in Greece, following the later Easter weekend, Spring is trying its hardest to level out the temperatures. We have had hot days, like last Saturday when we, perhaps foolishly, walked to Ermoupoli in the hot 11am sunshine. But we have also had cold nights. Really COLD nights – wearing a fleece, jogging bottoms and socks, and under two duvets! Then yesterday we swam in the sea for a lunch hour dip, the sea is now warming up (or am I acclimatizing to its chill?) – but in 20 mins I had the outlines of my bathing suit beginning to imprint itself on my skin in red lines. These are such rookie mistakes. Yet, we keep on making them. Like spending close to two hours looking at ferry schedules to factor in some trips to nearby islands – a complex mathmatical puzzle that I didn’t have all the clues to or the patience for. Planning is like a guessing game. I had to give up in the end. It’s also feeling rookie the way I am forgetting my Greek. Manolis said to me this morning in the cafe that language is like a tool that rusts up over the winter and needs to be oiled by being practised again. I think was trying to make me feel better about my poor Greek skills by saying he forgets his English when there’s no tourists around to speak to. His English is way better than my Greek will ever be!  

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Practice, practice, patience. These are the lessons of the day. I certainly don’t want to give up on is seeds. I have potted tomatoes, hot peppers, chives, sage, thyme, marigolds and cosmos. Some have popped up in the past 2 weeks, others I am giving the  benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I just leave them alone with damp compost they will start to find their own little way in the cold frame. Yes! I have access to a cold frame that is the perfect seed incubator. It is bliss to be able to have a place for them to just settle. I have been to the garden centre – oh what an experience, you know there are some women (and men) whose idea of heaven is a shoe shop or perusing expensive homewares. Mine is just a simple garden centre, let me loose amongst the pots and plants, lost in the herb section, going dizzy with the array of seeds. I’d like to say a Greek garden centre is really different, but not really. This one is compact but has a vast array of bedding plants and perennials, typically Mediterranean plants, everything from olives to  fruit trees – as well all the usual storage containers, hoses, and compost. I was with a friend with a car – so naturally got a few items!

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I’m focussing on a small area for growing tomatoes and herbs, potted flowers for the terrace and lots of lavender for the bees. I bought two courgette plans and a chilli pepper as plugs – so hopeful I can either grow them in big pots or find space around us for them to flourish.

One of the things among many that has always fascinated me about Syros is the way the land is still used so productively. It’s fairly similar to most other Cycladic islands large flat terraces exist on nearly every corner of the island, many are so old that it must have been centuries since they were used. In villages the land is still used for small scale farming and domestic agriculture – goat grazing, sheep and cattle, chickens, fields of olives and grapes are most common, but also lots of vegetables in tidy rows. Right now the plots are full of green leaved potato crops grown over the winter and onions waving gently in the breeze ready to be harvested. It’s been a real privilege to be shown around in the village and have a nosy at what people grow, to be given explanations of what is being grown and grafted, when it’s harvested, the types and varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables. People are rightly proud of their love of gardening, you see it in every window box and on wide swathes of land that’s been worked on by generations of the same family and the sheer toil it takes. It is impossible to walk around without wonder and amazement, given the dry sandy soil and conditions needed to grow require so much water. 

These trees are often grafted as family trees with different varieties of lemons and citrus fruits. A hug array in view like pomegranate, pear, plum, lemon, orange, mandarin, almond and figs..so many fig trees. The olives and vines are probably the most productive – pressing for oil and preserving olives, and making all that deliciously syrupy krasi.

There lies an interesting story about climate change experienced on Syros – I have heard a few versions, so apologies for my ad-hoc interpretation and retelling in advance. During the Second World War’s occupation the islanders experienced a devastating famine – by the 1950s the Dutch horticulturists came with advanced growing techniques promising to increase yields and grow a wider variety of produce. Naturally many were enticed by the promise of growing more produce than just enough to feed their family. As Greece’s post war economy was recovering in the aftermath of war and political upheaval commercial opportunities focussed on domestic markets and shipping fresh produce across the Aegean. As a result, farmers all across the island invested in greenhouses and growing new seeds with wider varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse vegetables. I also heard a story about olives and the loss of a native grown olive from the village in the same period – but I need to save that until I know more. It sounds wistful ‘The last olive tree’ – but I need more time to unearth the tale. In some ways there was probably a short period when Syros became the centre of the horticultural industry in Greece. I have been told, that as far as the eye could see across the bay of Kini there were greenhouses in every plot. This may have lasted 10-20 years – but what happens when land is over-farmed? Not just the effect on soil, as its nutrients reduce, but when commercial scale production starts the sheer volume of water needed is vast. What happened here sounds like a result of not just a changing climate but also some bad luck thrown in too. Apparently by the mid-60s there was less rainfall every year, meaning that the reservoirs and irrigation sternas didn’t fill up. Water is a scarce resource on an island like Syros and especially so as drinking water was still being  brought to the island by boat until 1969 when it was the first Greek island to invest in a desalination plant. But the reducing rainfall problem was only compounded when the wells started to become salinated from sea water seeping into the groundwater course. All spelled disaster for the enterprising growers.

Not much remains of the once booming horticultural enterprise but there are still a few farmers with greenhouses, but most have been abandoned, removed and the earth returned to more small scale farming.

A short-lived but intensive intervention has probably changed the land and fortunes of local life forever. But these long days of patience and productivity remain a beautiful sight on the hillsides where rows of olive trees sit neatly, while the hours of golden sun work to ripen fruit and vegetables.

I tell myself to be patient as I walk around these cultivated corners of paradise, one day…just one day.

Gardening in a new climate

With the six tomato plants from the landlord and a whole lot of seeds brought over in my bag (perfectly legal while we are in the EU, Officer) – I have started the real ‘Greek Garden’. This is actually really exiting – just to see how plants respond and thrive (I hope!) in a totally different climate. Now in our second week in the house, the first set of cosmos seeds I planted on day 1 have actually germinated which cheered me up no end while the weather took a grey dive and we shivered in bed! Now the weather seems to have decided it is summer so it’s a steady 21c in the day and 15c at night.

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In the past 10 days I have potted up: some Tomato Radana seeds, aubergine (from a Greek packet purchased in Patmos last year), courgette, cucumber and broad beans. Having seen some local gardens on my walks around, I know their broad beans and courgettes are weeks ahead, but I will persevere regardless. I think most of the veg will be done in containers – I’m keeping my eyes peeled for any discarded feta/ olive oil cans. This is in fact the most recycling/resourceful gardening attempt I’ve made. I am also researching into reusing grey water from washing up, to help ease our usage when the drier weather starts.

Yet, I only recently purchased an implement almost like a trowel for 2 euros after a comedic expressive conversation with a man in hardware shop in my limited Greek ‘kipourikí’ (gardening)  – fyto (plants) while miming the act of trowelling soil! That is likely to be my most technical purchase. I have a bag of compost (found at the Euroshop) and loads of old plant pots thanks to the landlord’s generosity. All the germination pods are made from either yogurt pots or plastic trays with cling film as a lid or smaller pots with a water bottle cut in half acting as mini greenhouses. Nothing goes to waste here!

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In terms of flowers I have the fore-mentioned cosmos which are collected from the white and pink ones from my uk garden last year, french marigolds, sunflowers of dwarf and tall variety. I also picked up packets of cottage garden mix and nasturtiums from a supermarket trip. All are potted and some are starting to pop up… I also threw a handful on the soil of the bed next to the steps – some have started to shoot. So perhaps the soil isn’t all bad.

Given that we are cooking at home most nights I wanted to make sure I had access to fresh herbs so am attempting to grow coriander, chives, parsley, dill and oregano, both staples of the Greek kitchen, from seed as well. I have cheated with the pot of mint given to us and the Greek basil plant bought in town. By the way the tiny fragrant basil leaves of the Greek variety are amazing, sprinkled on salads and in pasts – knocks the socks of the huge leafed monsters in pots you find back in the UK.  In an attempt to turn the gardening into an educational exercise I wrote my plant labels in Greek too – you know for chats with any local gardeners!

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When in the big town last week I couldn’t resist buying a couple of petunias as well. They are dazzling pinks and purple, alongside the existing red geranium, which I have taken cuttings from too. I am already envisioning a riot of colour! There is also a flowering aloe plant which looked hastily replanted and isn’t faring to well. I will need to keep an eye on that.

Graeme has pitched in as the architect and has built a veg bed, cordoned off with stones collected from the beach, which hopefully with some compost can be a good place for salad leaves and spinach too. This won’t be a Chelsea showgarden but it will be pots everywhere and clashing colour, with bits of flotsam and jetsom to decorate. Could this be next year’s big gardening trend?

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In terms of the old pests, I have noticed snails here and am prepared to do battle organically with beer traps. It hasn’t rained for over a week now and might only see a few minor showers now we are into May. Water will be the big challenge.

Noting the proliferation of cats in the neighbourhood, many people seem to put bamboo kebab sticks in their plant pots as a barrier to cats digging in them I imagine. As if I needed another reason to eat more souvlaki!

With big plans ahead and the weather warming up it all feels like this is the right place to spend the summer watching things grow and creating a garden.

Back to the front garden

Front gardens are undoubtedly a collective eyesore on many streets in London. They are have been downgraded to become unloved and functional places people park a car, store bikes and utilise precious (expensive) space for the much-needed multiplicity of recycling containers. That’s why it’s such a sad state this so-called ‘nation of gardeners’ have let their front gardens get into. Nearly  1 in 4 gardens are paved over to have more utilitarian uses. I understand this completely given high population density spaces we find ourselves in. All space is at a premium. However there are ways of having parking and plants – horticulture that brings us not just an aesthetic cheer, but also supports wildlife and pollinating species. That’s why the RHS Greening Grey Britain campaign really gets to the heart of the problem and gives inspiration to help us all green up our streets. 

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My own front garden was no exception – when we moved in it was an unloved 3 x 2 meter plot of ripped plastic lining and old stones, weeds and paving slabs.  2 years later, the house redecorated and back garden restored, but the front garden had only been stripped back as far as removing the stones to a bare patch of earth – albeit with its own permanent population of dandelions. Hardly the nature reserve we wanted!

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But with a bit of planning and graft we’ve transformed the space – all for less than £400 on materials and plants.  We started with a few basic ‘back of a fag-packet’ plans and wish lists for the look and plant types – the challenge will always be the outlook as its north east facing – gets 3+ hours of early morning sun from May onwards but will be in total shade in the winter months. Finally deciding on one large planted section, and pots that can change with seasonal interest.

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The main investments were the weed lining, shingle and path edging – as well as hardy plants such as an acer palmatum, cotoneaster ‘Coral Beauty’, as well as a  couple of low growing evergreens and a sambucus nigra. All of these will be maintained and kept neat (hopefully). I’ve planted in cosmos and red new guinea impatiens for colour. By a stroke of bad luck (or labelling mishap) the red cosmos all turned out to be deep pink – so we have a kind of brave colour scheme in the front – but hey it’s bright and bold, without any concrete grey in sight!

The pots were all painted blue with spray paint for that overall Grecian appeal. I also arranged a hanging basket with bright blue and purple lobelia, intermingled with highly scented petunias. There are three terracotta wall pots with a mix of the impatiens, lobelia and orange trailing begonias too.

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Now in early August it is really coming into its own and filling out the space with flowers attracting playful bees and butterflies.

The perfect thing has been that the front seems to have escaped the overwhelming invasion of slugs and snails currently wreaking havoc across the veg beds out back. But with time I’m sure they’ll discover it soon. It really has made a positive impact on how we see the house, as well as providing a little cheer for the street. I met at least three neighbours on the weekend we planted it – faces I’d seen but never spoken to in the years we’ve lived here. It’s true – plant something colourful and it’s not just for your benefit, the world wants to say hello and enjoy it too.

If you ever needed an excuse to get outside and bring some cheer to your street, join in, read this for inspiration and get Greening Grey Britain! 

Setting off the seeds

In an effort to give the garden a chance to come into its own this summer, without having to rely on buying in too many annuals, I am starting off some flowers from seed earlier this year. I also like to complement the flowers with the challenge of growing herbs and veg from seed too. I’m learning lessons along the way – but here is an update on my first seedlings of the year:

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Herbs
The first action I took in January was to sow sage, rosemary and oregano for the windowsill – last years oregano and parsley has just finished. So it’s a good investment to start them off now and have plentiful fresh herbs to enjoy throughout the year. Supermarket pots of herbs are disastrous – they are overfilled seedlings in tiny pots which the only way to make them last longer than a week or is to separate them out into 5 or 6 pots and give them extra soil and space. Once I realised how rewarding it was to grow my own herbs I promised never to buy supermarket herbs again…(I’ve relinquished on this on occasion when a whole batch of coriander was needed for a recipe, but as a rule..)  I will start off basil, coriander, parsley and thyme in the coming few weeks. But space is a premium in the propagation station (aka kitchen windowsill) this all needs a careful rotation plan. 

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Sweetpea – from seedling…..
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to 12cm tall in 14 days

Flowers
The first seed (and my favourite) flowers to get sowing in the 3rd week in January were the heady scented Lathyrus odoratus (sweet peas!). This year I’m trialling a couple of varieties; ‘singing the blues’ ‘skylark’ and ‘cupani’ which is one of the oldest heritage varieties found in the wild Italian hedgerows apparently. All will liven up the fence space and walls from May onwards. But I also plan to sow perennial ‘everlasting’ varieties later in the year which should flower next year.

The first week in February I started with some more traditional sowings of summer annuals that are new to me. Sweet Williams should work well as gap fillers in baskets and borders, (to add to my self seeding ones springing up over the winter), likewise the fluffy flowers of ageratum will work well for cutting in borders and I’m trying out Aster duchess for late season colour and height. To add some structure I’m adding some verbena bonariensis for added purple colour and spiky height which should be hardy enough to stay through to autumn. Im also trying out some heliotrope dwarf marine, which is a half hardy perennial and given its nickname as ‘cherry pie’ it’s a scented attractor for bees. Most have set off quite well the ageratum seems to be struggling in the propagators so I’ve given its tray the special treatment (a sealed sandwich bag!)

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Broad beans – reliable germinators

Veg
The broad beans went in pairs into each pot without a cover and all 8 sprouted within a week. In my experience (from last year!) they are the easy wins of the veg plot. I’ve started off a couple of pots of heirloom tomatoes ‘tigerella’ and ‘red pear’ – less is more this year and will concentrate my efforts on quality tomatoes rather than an over abundance! I’ve also started aubergines from seed. It’s a new one for me so I’m looking forward to see how challenging and fruitful they are in containers. In the next few weeks I will start to plan out the veg beds in detail – looking at best places for carrots and parsnips, runner beans and sweetcorn.

Until the weather improves I am only admiring the garden from afar but the daffodils are cheering everything up. It seems like the 2016 season starting off rather well. Long may it continue.