Monday, July 30, 2007

A good day redux

I got a bit side tracked on my last post, talking bout feelings instead of practical plans so here's the new edition:






I'm also increasingly aware of the liberation offered by permaculture principles. I'm not going down the full path: the zoning of the yard should really be changed, some serious landscaping undertaken, and we'll not be self-sufficient in terms of produce, but the idea of minimising energy expenditure is very appealing. In my understanding this refers to material and physical components of energy (I'm not sure of the right measures; who would guess I did chem. and bio. at school?) but it strikes me these lead directly to emotional energy. Less running around to buy seeds, compost, chemicals, less time tweaking and weeding and preening, less time writing things in calendar squares, can mean less time worrying and stewing about All The Many Things That Need Doing. Perhaps if there's a place for everything - every plant, every bug (though I'm unconvinced about this), every experience - then there's not so much of a need to have everything in its place. I'm making small changes with the medium term aim of permacultural practices and am hopeful that my garden this summer will be a place of bounty and beauty and calm. And lots of fun.

Hmm, still an awful lot about feelings ...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A good day

Yesterday was gorgeous. The mercury climbed all the way up to 15 degrees and I spent the day outside in my new boots. We enriched the front bed and planted out some roses, artichokes and bits and pieces that had multiplied over the summer. I dug in the green manure and spread some manure about deserving plants. I filled up one black copmpost bin and got it ready to stew, and repositioned the other one. I planted out some more local plants in the little patch at the back fence. Best of all, we all marched up the land slip area at the end of the street and collected kindling, and some oak leaves and clover for a new compost pile.

As a tangent: I spent my teenage years convinced my mother planned the embarassments she heaped upon me on a seemingly daily basis. I can't remember what was so dreadful but it can't have been as odd as marching the family up the hill, wearing my 'gardening hat' and wellies, with one baby in the backpack and the other in the wheelbarrow, dog lead by a piece of blue string taken from a hay bale. Marching down again, we pushed the barrow full of pine cones and sticks and carried big bags of organic matter. Norma across the road has long suspected we are not like the others; yesterday's excursion must have convinced her.

Anyway, the point of the list of jobs done is this: it's like nothing was done at all. I sat down at the gardening calendar this morning and filled out squares for the next two months; I wandered outside and saw jobs to fill a dozen more. I love gardening but unlike lots of other hobbies, it's not something to be done only when I wish. It's lead by seasons and cycles that are dictated by forces beyond me and while there is some leeway as to when a task is completed, if I don't get things done I may not have another chance in the year, and plans and produce can fail. We sing the praises of gardening but it can be another rod to my back, a source of guilt and oppression at the end of a long week of rods, guilt and oppression. There's an ambivalence in my love of the veggie patch.

When we talk about gardening organically it's most usually discussed in terms of sustainability, environmental and financial. I think Al and I are a point where we're achieving these positions. But I want to think more about emotional sustainability and how I can achieve this in my life and my garden. A garden's no good to us if it is a series of tasks to tick off and re-list, even if we save thousands on lettuce and reduce our carbon footprint.

I enjoy each garden task in the moment but finding the time to get to them and the overwhelming sense of 'too much to do' can make it difficult to step outside the back door. I need to remember what the garden gives us, and then I think some of the frustration will leach away.

My garden gives me a sense of security and stability and a sense of place - it roots me (pun!) in my home and my community. It offers the opportunity to complete a task, to tick something off a list, and to use my body in a contextualised way. It gives me great joy to feed my family from what we grow, and the food is so much tastier - there are no measures for just how much better it is. The garden offers stillness: on a Sunday afternoon when the jobs are done it seems nothing surrounds me but sunlight and birdsong, and time stops still - a cliched and banal phrase to write and a deeply calming sense to experience. It also allows a stillness in my mind as my body slips into well learned movements and patterns; the garden offers relief from an intellectual and hyper-verbal life.

Finally and most importantly, the garden allows us all to work together with a common purpose, in a shared space and time - experiences that are rare today but so valuable in developing our sense of how we fit together as a family. I come back to yesterday afternoon up the hill in the sun, Lucy, Al and I searching for pine cones and singing 'Daisy, Daisy give me your answer, do" while Nell-Nell warbled along in her backpack and the dog tore around, mad and still puppy-ish beast that he is. In an L.M. Montgomery book, A Tangled Web, a young girl dropped a handful of rose petals into a glass jar to mark each day of perfect happiness. (One night, jilted and heartbroken by her unworthy fiance, she buries the jar in the garden before it is full.) I'm not one for those kind of gestures but if I were, any day marked would have been lived in the garden.

Remembering this makes me think again on how good my life is and feel a little less overwhelmed by next Saturday's list:
* clean chicken coop;
* spray burgandy mixture on peaches;
* get manure;
* mulch fruit trees with manure;
* plant potatoes in back plot;
* be happy.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Daffy down dilly

Our garden store held a sale at the beginning of autumn, offering unlabelled bulbs for 10 cents each. I scooped up big handfuls because I love to garden with a bargain. Lucy and I planted them under our avenue of fruit trees (well, three in a line) and waited to see what would happen. Yellow has happened. Behold the first daffodil in our garden:

To my delight, we've inherited a couple of big clumps of jonquils but no one before us has planted daffs. I'm not overly fond of them myself. Jonquils are sweetly scented and subtle; even the brightest seem understated, politely suggesting we not give up hope, spring will come again. These shafts of bright yellow put me in mind of a slightly overdressed guest at a party, proposing an awkward toast at not quite the right time. I'm partial to a garish flower, but I always feel slightly embarrassed for daffodils, announcing something we'd all suspected for weeks: it can't stay cold forever. They are magnificent in their thousands, a wide sweep under a sharp blue sky, or breaking through the snow, a strong restatement of earlier, more subtle implications that things are happening. But they seem a little out of place popping up by themselves in the back of the veggie garden. I'm appreciative of their efforts, but they don't have the resonance I'd expected having grown up on a steady diet of British children's books, with their accounts of cold, cold winters and the welcome creeping spring.

I look for spring elsewhere, not on the calendar or in the temperature but in subtle shifts of activity and colour in my backyard. I see the beginning of nuptial activity amongst the birds, and this will soon be followed by beaks full of hen house straw and labradoodle wool flitting past our windows. The jasmine is full of elegant pink tips; I catch its scent and my heart stops and then beats a little faster in hope and nostalgia. And most excitingly, the chooks have started laying: five eggs today, the most we've seen in many months.

And here's something bright to put a spring in my step and a smile on my face: my new wellies. They're garish and brash and so very different from the black pairs scattered across the back steps in my childhood.

As children we were told to stamp on the toes of our boots and then shake them upside down to kill any spiders who might crawled in to nest. I've done this religiously over the decades but not now, not with these boots. They're so very funky they could harbour nothing bad at all. I've used them about the place and on trips up to the dog park but they haven't yet been christened with a stretch of hard garden work - just one more reason to look forward to the weekend,

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Babes in the wood

Our town borders a large and beautiful reserve. There are sections of forest, grasslands and glades. Throughout birds call each to each and wallabies and pademelons bound about. We walk three minutes from the roads and there's no sign that the suburbs of a major regional centres lie two minutes drive away. I love this place.

Back before the girls, Al and I would take our dogs Jasper and Pete, and walk for hours. In summer we'd trip down to the river and all four of us would swim in isolation, never seeing another soul. Things are a little different now, and our times in the reserve are curtailed by naps and quiet times, play groups, the cold, the heat, meals around the table and any number of issues we never considered when it was just the two of us. When we do go, as we did yesterday, the times spent and the distance walked may be shorter than they once were but our enjoyment of the place has increased ten-fold. Even on hard days, our kids makes almost everything more fun.

(Air travel excepted.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Take the weather with you

I love to talk about the weather. Before the girls came along Al and I would convene in front of the news each night to discuss the weather report: it didn't seem as hot as that; it was definitely colder than that this morning; negative two tomorrow, that's cold ... Like Paul Simon says, "All the news I need to know is on the weather report".

This week weather talk has been a variation on the theme of 'cold':
Monday, it was 0 degrees when I arrived at work.
Tuesday, gales and downpours soaked me to the skin as I walked with my umbrella.
Wednesday morning I walked to work in the dark, smog and mist all around - bleak and beautiful.
Thursday morning my ungloved fingers stopped working before I had listened to the first song on my ipod.
Friday, well I'm not out of the house yet but Lucy just went out to the garden and then came straight back in again, a certain sign it is COLD, COLD, COLD.

I don't mind the winters down here - coming from Queensland I find the mists and the smoke and the frosts romantic. And hanging above my desk at work is this picture, shooting a bolt of heat into each day:

This was my garden in the first home of my own. It's still my favourite. It was built in a drained in-ground pool, surrounded by mango trees, with a vacant block at the back. At times the area felt almost deserted, despite being filled with high density housing. It was lush: a forest of basil hip high, lemon grass, chillis, eggplants and zuchinnis, a lime tree and other bits and pieces popped in among the marigolds. Even with bold and ravenous possums there was food to spare - I'd gather massive bouquets of herbs and spices for my friends. It was a time and place of plenty.

I remember the morning I took this photo. The bottle is the remnant of the night before, when a friend and I sat at the table talking for hours, drinking and tossing grapes into each other's mouth (now I think: choking hazard!). Such a luxury, all that time, though I took it utterly for granted then.

Some things don't change, no matter what the weather or the era. Looking closely, I see that even then, I had planted four zuchinni plants for my single person household. I also notice that plants are scattered everywhere: there was just one big bed and much of it was self-seeded. I moved away from that approach into the more rigid rotational system I've been working with over the last years, but now I'm coming back to that looseness and faith once again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Be the change ...

Jenny nominated me for a bloggers for positive global change award, which was very kind of her. As part of the process, I'm asked to nominate five other people, to pass the love around. But I'm not sure I can without being redundant. I'm late to the scene, and most of the blogs I visit and find inspiration from are part of everybody's blog roll. Many of the sites I really love have already been nominated others. But here are four people who might be making a difference in some big ways - I don't know - but whose lives, at least as they are told to us, make me appreicate the importance of acting local, particularly when that local is at the level of our own homes and backyards.

Tamsin at Something more comfortable. Tambo is a dear friend and an inspiration to me. We share many of the same ideals, struggles and questions but Tambo lives her life and loves her family with a graciousness and appreciation for beauty that warms me. For me, Tamsin's blog is about living beautifully in ways that sustain us emotionally as well has physically and environmentally.

I don't know how Janet at Muppinstuff would describe herself but when I read her work I gain an appreciation for how social change is lived in personal ways as much as it is pursued through protest and debate.

Em at three times three writes about her life with her family. Through her constant care and advocacy for her child with special needs she must surely be effecting some change for those who will follow her. I think her fight contributes to the development of support systems that are generous and responsive to people's needs.

I'd finally like to mention Nutmeg, from Another Nutter. Her blog is a book blog but Nutmeg is also developing a permaculture garden in what I suspect is the Sydney suburbs. If we all did this in our backyards, we'd be living in some very special places. I believe that our gardens are both a symbol of our engagement with the idea of 'nature' and our most direct and sustained relationship with it. Gardeners (Janet is one two, as is Tamsin) make a difference to our world, aesthetically, environmentally and philosophically.

Plus, all these women are mothers. And perhaps our greatest opportunity for social, political, environmental and global change comes through helping our children see the possibilities of different ways of living.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, ladies. They're much appreciated.

Crunch time

There's lots of research telling us women feel stressed when they combine work and family. These pressures are greater for women with more than one children, women with young children and women who work in the professions. I tick 'all of the above' and while I manage the difficulties as best I can, I am failing to do so, and everyday I feel as though I am failing a little more.

I don't want to complain. I make a good wage and my workplace is better than most. We have no real money troubles and we are healthy. Plus, there's not very much new to say about the time crunch, in my life or as a general proposition. But this morning, talking about insurance issues with Al over breakfast, I was interrupted by Lu who told me not to talk in 'that voice, that grumpy voice'. I hate that my children are picking up the edge to my voice, the one I try so hard and so unsuccessfully to soften.

Never once in my schooling did I recieve 'must try harder' on a report card. And now it runs in my head in a continuous loop. I know, I know, don't be so hard on myself, we can't have it all. I know all these things in theory and I agree. But how do I walk the talk? And is it ever okay to use that phrase, even while typing it with an ironic twist to my smile? And, come to think of it, is that in fact the saying?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mucking about

Three good garden ideas converged today. The first was our new wheelbarrow, the perfect wheelbarrow, exactly the type and size and weight we have been searching for for months, and bought yesterday at a garage sale for $3; we love it the more for its price.

The second was going out to the stables for more manure. I read all the gardening books that advise finding a good source of manure but it seemed such a hassle, and we could always buy it at the garden store. But one day in the Sunday classifieds we saw an ad asking people to take away the stuff and we've been going back ever since. Now we have as much as we could ever wish for - horses defecate a lot and the horsey people spend all day riding and grooming and servicing the beasts; they don't have time for gardening and have no use for the stuff so we're doing them a favour - and Lucy gets to spend time making friendly overtures to the horses. This lot went on the raspberry canes, a fig tree, a grape vine, the asparagus bed, and on top of an imperfectly dug in green manure crop in preparation for asian greens as soon as the weather is a little friendlier. The rest has been piled at the back to settle down before we spread it around the fruit trees which are currently ringed with jonquils and daffs.

The third and best idea was my using the baby backpack around the garden. Nell's a difficult baby to garden with. She wants to be held all the time and she needs to be on the move. So while Lucy and I find it easy to bumble about together, Nell is often left back in the house with Al. I'm aware that she's left out but as Head Gardener have found it difficult to involve her while actually doing some work. Today she loved being up the back, and I found it was easy enough to dig and spread the muck with her riding shotgun. Plus, unlike Lucy who's independent and does her own thing, Nell is a captive audience for my singing and philosophising. We foresee many more hours of garden fun for all the family.

The good feelings have been slightly diluted by Al cutting his hand on the saw; he's now at the hospital getting jabbed and stitched, my poor love. I hope he's back soon with all his fingers still attached - he's no good to me otherwise.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Up in the air

In a comment some time ago Nutmeg mentioned the permaculture appropriate idea of tossing seeds in the air and letting them fall where they will. It's a lovely image of abundance and faith. But to throw those seeds high is a challenge, demanding we give up even the image of control - the straight rows, the segregation, borders and easy categorisation. Of course control is a lie, as I'm reminded any time I step out the back and notice anew just how disinterested bugs, weeds and slugs are in my attempts to subdue the earth.

Lucy has no trouble letting the winds and/or fates take the seeds where they will - a seed isn't sown unless its broadcast with enthusiasm. And so I have been undertaking a post hoc experiment. In one bed I planted my beloved broad beans in straightish rows. Exhibit A:

In another bed, I accepted the Lucy sown beans that have popped up among the lupins and peas of the green manure, next to some failing purple sprouting broccoli that were planted too late in the year and then ravaged by slugs. Exhibit B:

Both lots are doing just fine, thank you. But Beans B are taller, thicker and generally seem a little more robust. Happily for me, the purple sprouting broccoli now stands tall and proud, and I might yet get to it eat with Welsh rarebit (as per the advice of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - author, chef and inhabitant of my perfect life as a Devon smallholder). It's not science, sure, but my suspicion is that letting the seeds fall is a good option for me in my garden. They've done better than those I planted after so much careful planning; they arrived because the conditions were so right; they were not protected or subsidized by me zealous care of any tenderness. And importantly in a plot on poor soil and riddled with unwelcome species, they've helped others, even those I had farewelled.

The logic's not watertight, I know, but the possibilities of letting go are exciting. I'm trying to control my garden so much less, and work with what it is rather than what I expect it to be.

There's another reason for this new approach, and it comes back to the girls (all my gardening comes back to my girls). I choose my battles carefully and avoid saying 'no' unless I'm willing to follow through no matter what the toddler tantrum fallout may be. Saying 'no' in the garden rarely works. I turn my back and duck my head too often to see what Lu is up to, and more importantly, a garden isn't a place where 'no' sounds good to me. I want my daughters to feel confident in their surrounds, to be self-sufficient and free to explore and to act. I want them to feel they are partners, or at least a participants in how we live our lives. Our garden is a place and a process where we can encourage Lu and Nell to do and be those things. But to live this I have to give the place over to their imaginations and plans, rather than imposing my own expectations about where the beans should go and if it's a good idea to plant wheat in with the spinach.
I'm looking forward to seeing what this collaboration brings.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My day in brief


Thank you for listening.

Update: two special Mummy drinks later and I'm starting to accept I have to go back to work tomorrow.

Hubble bubble

I've been making weed tea down the back of the garden. The process is pretty simple: find a big bin, drop in some manure, fill with weeds and water, and stew. Most days Lu wanders down for a bit of a stir, and adds her own ingredients: rose petals, calendula flowers, walnut shells, and I suspect James the Splendid Red Engine might have tumbled into his watery grave as well. I'm hoping this will all break down, and all the goodness in the plants (unspecified goodness, I'm no scientist) can be mixed with some fish emulsion and worm castings and poured on needy plants.

I don't know where I got the idea from but I suspect it was one of the Gardening Australia blokes (have you noticed it's only the men who talk produce on that show - a very traditional division of garden labour) who first introduced me to weed tea. It appeals to my don't waste things mentality. All of those weeds, loitering on corners when they could be doing something useful with their time! As I wander around I'll pull up weeds. If they're seeding they go into the tea; if not I pop them into one of my beloved black compost bins. Either way, weeding becomes addictive as I try fill up my containers with organic goodness - the quicker they're filled the quicker I can re-distribute them on my still poorly soil.

I say I use weeds but that's a tricky term to use, bringing me as it does to the debates over what is a weed. I've always rolled my eyes at the old permaculture chestnut "you don't have a weed problem you've got a perception problem". Such a smug thing to say in the face of the threat to wild areas that escape or are tossed from our gardens. But there is something to the idea that weeds are only weeds when they're not where you want them to be. At the most obvious level, each weed was once an endemic plant in a finely balanced ecosystem. At my own more personal level, organic gardening and permaculture-lite makes me reassess what were once weeds, and are now crops in the garden. I grow the weeds until they are big and green but not seeding so I can use them as high nitrogen green matter when I build a compost heap; those on the turn go in the black bins; when I misjudge my brinkmanship and seeds appear they are drowned in the tea. Thistles are carefully tended to provide greens for the chooks on the days I can't face them running roughshod over the flowers and pooing in the courtyard. Conversely, plants I once welcomed are now pulled out. All my lovely self-seeded foxgloves are a threat to the girls and so I sadly yank them up (one theory has it foxgloves are the source of witch imagery: the digitalis can be used as an ointment, inserted by a stick or broom (!) and you feel as though you are flying; it can also give people a sense of growing feathers or fur, perhaps the source of werewolves and familiars). On the whole, my list of plants I don't want in the garden is shrinking by the day and is pretty much limited to plants who won't leave when asked nicely (e.g. oxalis and onion weed).

One final twist in the tale: who knows what's a weed gardening with a two year old? Lu likes to broadcast seeds in her own idiosyncratic garden beds. Sometimes those seeds are purloined grain from the chook house, sometimes they're donated by me, sometimes Lu grabs a handful of something while my back is turned. In the orgy of green manuring she had easy access to all kinds of seeds and spread them liberally around the garden. But now I'm not sure if the plants are green manure in an unexpected place or some kind of weed that has set up home. Now that I have a use for them all, it doesn't really matter. An unweeded garden is a place of opportunity and no longer the domain of an obvious garden slut.

Monday, July 9, 2007

This is looking expensive

Of course, we all like to support our children's interests but don't we all secretly wish they'll develop a passion for something cheap and quiet, like drawing with crayons on paper or sitting quietly in the corner reading library books which are always, always returned on time? So imagine the equal parts of pride and financial dread in my heart as I watched my two year old efficiently handle a pony.

Am I facing a future of agistment fees and rainy afternoons, sipping cups of soup in a drizabone, shivering and waiting for the gymkhana to finish?

On another note: working full time, parenting and having any time to oneself - how do people do it? Indeed, can it be done?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Writing 8 things about me instead of 8 things about any number of work related issues

The strong and thoughtful Em has tagged me to do this 8 things meme. Really, I should be finishing a report. editing papers, writing presentations, blah, blah, blah but I'm going to give myself a break and do this. I'm at the computer so its practically like work isn't it? This is how it goes:

A. Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves.

B. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed.

C. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

Here goes:

1. I do a lot of writing for my work and I don't enjoy it. I have to fit templates, use institutional language and second guess reviewers and others who say 'yes' or 'no' to what I think and write. People often comment I am overly wordy and meandering, which I consider to be strengths, but apparently are not.

2. My middle name is Agnes, after my paternal grandmother and maternal great grandmother. I was teased mercilessly about this name when I was in primary school - indeed, the teasing was lead by my fourth grade teacher, Mr Groves - and I hated it. Now I'm proud to have such a link with two strong women, and have handed it down to my first daughter as her middle name.

3. I really wish I had never gone out with my high school boyfriend. I adored him at the time, I guess, but it was a very dodgy relationship, very much in the soapie young love mold, and now, as my Grammy says, I wouldn't pee on him if he were on fire.

4. I like to wear matching bra and panties. I feel slightly scrappy if I don't.

5. My favourite garden was built on the balcony of my friend Tambo's house in Elizabeth St in Toowong, in Brisbane. Everything was in pots; it was lush and beautiful and fruitful. I have a much, much, much larger garden but I still strive for that feeling of generosity and elegance Tambo creates wherever she goes.

6. I hate asking people for any kind of a favour: lifts home, babysitting, feeding the chooks, borrowing a pen, anything big or small. I quail a little inside when I have to rely on someone else.

7. None of my very dear friends live in the same town as me. I really miss being part of their daily lives: seeing their children, eating meals together, sitting around drinking and talk, talk, talking.

8. One of my dearest and staunchest friends gave me Candide during a very bad time in my life. In the front he wrote: 'May you find peace in your garden'. I always do, and each time I stand there, feeling happy and blessed, I think of him. It's a really nice way to keep someone in my mind.

I'm working at home on my Mac, which doesn't obviously let me create weblinks in the text, so I'll list the people I want to tag and link into them tomorrow when I'm back at the office PC. So, keeping in mind point 6, I tag six people who always have something interesting to say about life and themselves: Victoriae, Tamsin, Kate, Janet, Nutmeg, Jenny Wren. Not eight, thereby breaking the rules (oh dear) but I really feel a bit uncomfortable asking people to tell me about themselves when I only lurk about their sites (again, point 6!).

Back to the short word, short sentence and the point: blah, blah,blah.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Toil and trouble

Of course, all this symbolism is just talk. In the end, you've got to stick the plants in the ground. So I have. The bed was enriched with kitchen scraps and horse manure and left to sit for a while, and then mixed in with compost from one of our black bins. I dug trenches and spaced the crowns apart in a very responsible manner. I back filled and put some lucerne on top. This breaks my only green manure rule but all the books say lucerne and as a novice I don't have enough confidence to stray from written authority. We've run out of horse manure and so we'll saddle up and collect some more next weekend. I'll put another lot on then, just to make sure the plants feel welcome in their new home.

On less prosaic matters, the crowns look an awful lot like dessicated old witches to me. I could hear them cackling as I put them to bed. Let's hope they're not cursing my hopes for a big harvest in three years time.

The asparagus crowns nicely match the weed tea I'm stewing nearby. It looks poisonous and I feel a bit like a witch myself as I stir it slowly, the 'hubble bubble' bit from Macbeth running through my head in a loop. I'm sure the brew will do the world of good to my struggling spinach, which looks just too tired to see the winter through. All the best health tonics look like they could kill an elephant and as the cabbage isn't quite ready to be picked I'm desperate enough for greens to give this a go.

Of course, there wasn't not much toil or trouble this afternoon, just a lot of faith, hope and sunshine. It's a joy digging in compost I've made myself, unable to see the constituent scrap components - how does that process work? - with some new wagtail birds flitting about, and the chooks gentling puck, puck, pucking in their dirt baths. Nice work if you can get it, and I'm lucky that I can.