I am sitting in the garden shed, the rain is gently tapping on the roof and I am wondering where to begin. Where do I begin to tell you about the therapeutic space that fills the view from my window, the place that has become a sanctuary for me and my family over the past three years, the place I know has saved me during lockdown – our vegetable garden.
It all started way back in 2017, when I was home educating my eldest son, with a baby and a toddler thrown into the mix for good measure. I was new to home educating, but as a parent and a person with an academic and deep rooted knowledge of child development and learning, I knew instinctively that the best thing to do would be to follow my son’s interests.
My son, then aged 8, had been through a pretty rough time in school. He was broken and it broke me to see him so sad, a shadow of his former self. I was looking for a way to restore his love of learning, a way to mend us both and a way that we could heal and learn together.
My son, who would later be diagnosed with ASD and dyslexia, had a deep fascination and love of history. He had been engrossed in learning the military history of WW2 for months. He had visited museums, watched documentaries, read books, made model aeroplanes and learned about the inner workings of every military vehicle you could name. But, what was missing from his learning, was the impact that this dark, dangerous and uncertain time in history had upon the lives of everyday people. The effect that it had on families across the world would have been immeasurable.
One freezing cold January evening, whilst I was in the bath (all good ideas come to me when I am in the bath), inspiration struck.
“Let’s make a Dig for Victory garden,” I yelled to my son from the tub. He agreed instantly.
As with most of my ideas, I had not thought this through, and what I suggested next was, to be frank, foolhardy, but it turned out to be completely life changing.
“Why don’t we spend a week in the summer, living on wartime rations and whatever we can grow in the garden?”
That was it, my son’s imagination was sparked, his interest and enthusiasm were awakened, and we set to work, not knowing just how much this would impact upon us all.
We spent the winter researching rationing, the reasoning behind it, the nutritional benefits, what happened if you were a vegetarian, (you got extra cheese in your rations), and most importantly what to grow and where and when to grow it.
We drew up a plan of our vegetable plot and marked on the compass points, before ordering the seeds and clearing space in the greenhouse.
In the spring we got our hands dirty with the digging over, weeding and planting. The sun on our faces, the mud on our hands and the prospect of growing plants that would feed us, was undoubtedly the therapy we needed. Slowly our garden project was healing us both.
By the summer, the garden was full to bursting with delicious, nutritious food. Tomatoes hung from vines in the greenhouse, lettuces were green and juicy and the potatoes were ready to be unearthed like a pirate’s treasure.
In July we weighed out our rations, drew up a 5 day menu of authentic wartime recipes (adapted for our vegetarian diet), and committed ourselves to a full working week living on only our produce and wartime rations.
What a phenomenal experience that week was. I learned so much in just those five short days, and every lesson has stuck with me ever since. Some days were incredibly difficult and exhausting, but I would not have changed a single moment. We blogged about our experiences every day and my son graded my wartime culinary skills, sometimes quite harshly, I felt!
By the end of the week, we felt happier, healthier and I personally had a feeling of complete contentment. It genuinely felt like we had been on a holiday from the realities of a ‘normal life’ that I did not want to return to. Not once, during that entire week, did I want for anything. I wasn’t interested in social media, in who had what car, house, dress, shoes, sofa or wallpaper, it did not concern me one jot.
As a family we learned to cook more nutritious food, we baked our own bread and the children ate pretty much everything they were given. I will point out here, that this was initially a project for myself and my son, but when everyone else at home saw what we were eating, they wanted in on the action and so our rations were adapted to suit.
We wasted less, appreciated more, had very little packaging and spent more time together as a family unit enjoying a simpler way of life. I believe that this could be the happiness that some may spend a lot of time and money in search of.
We enjoyed our rations week so much that we repeated our project, even after my son had returned to a new school, in 2018 and 2019, by which time other families had also chosen to join in with us.
The therapeutic benefits of gardening and gratitude have been able to meet our ever-changing needs every step of the way. My younger children now also enjoy and make use of the vegetable garden as a learning space, as well as a place to play and experience the natural world first hand. There is always something to see in the garden.
We were planning our 2020 garden, ordering seeds and creating menus, when the chaos of Covid 19 and lockdown struck. As with most families, this has had a huge impact upon us and I must confess that anxiety and fear have sometimes gotten away with me, the stress has been immense. But the garden, alongside the knowledge I have gained over the past three years about resilience and gratitude, have given me the strength and skills to continue, even in the darkest of times.
This year, for me, our garden has truly come into its own as a therapeutic space. It has given me routine and purpose, it has allowed me much needed peace and time in nature. We have nurtured each other and it has held me when I have fallen apart. It feeds my body and soul and I would always suggest any form of gardening as a way to relax and step back from everyday life.
If you are inspired to get outside and start growing your own food, here are my top tips to get you started.
1.Grow the food that you like to eat:
Before you pick up the seed catalogue, think about the food that you and your family actually eat. It’s so easy to order everything that looks interesting, and believe me, I have done that in the past, but think about the essentials first. You need to consider the space you have as well as how much time you are able to put in – the more you grow, the more time it takes.
Things which are good to grow with children are: Potatoes, radishes (they grow quickly), lettuce, herbs, pumpkins, runner beans and flowers like nasturtiums and sunflowers. During WW2 tomatoes were popular, you need to grow them in a greenhouse or similar or buy a variety that can be grown outdoors.
*Note: potatoes and tomatoes are both in the nightshade family and the plants can be potentially harmful if eaten by children or pets. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow them, but maybe consider separating the vegetables off from the rest of the garden.
2. You can grow fruit and veg in pots and containers:
You don’t need a huge garden to grow your own. Use windowsills, balconies, patios, attach pots to walls, make hanging baskets and plant smaller, but equally tasty and nutritious food. Herbs grow well in terracotta pots in full sun and the pollinators love them. If you are growing in pots and containers you will need to water them more often.
3. Compost and soil:
Try to use peat free compost where possible for minimal environmental impact and only buy what you need as there is also the plastic to consider.
If you have a bit of ground or a flowerbed that you will be planting into, dig it over and try to break up any big lumps of soil. Also remove any weeds that could compete with your seedlings as they try to grow.
You can of course make your own compost in a compost bin or on a compost heap. There is a bit of an art to this, but if you have the time to research and learn about it, you can make great compost. I dig mine into the vegetable patch before I start planting.
4. Where is the sunshine?
A question I often ask myself. Think about where the sun is throughout the day and which direction your garden is facing. Lots of plants will love plenty of time in the sunshine, but others will be tolerant to shade. Do a bit of research and a bit of trial and error.
5. Fight the need to weed!
People often like their gardens to be pristine and although I have just suggested weeding the vegetable bed itself, I do not weed the rest of the garden. In my garden you will find daisies, dandelions, brambles and stinging nettles and other ‘weeds’ that I don’t even know the names of. I love them and so do all the bugs and wildlife in my garden. We need them to encourage biodiversity, so sit back and have a cup of tea instead of weeding too much.
6. Water wisely.
Watering the garden is one of the jobs that I really love, it is calming and peaceful and it smells incredible. The best times to water the garden are either very early in the morning, or in the evening when the sun is going down. This enables the water to soak into the soil more easily without evaporating, and it’s also a lovely way to start or end your day. Water using a watering can where possible, and if you can use rainwater from water butts, even better. Water close to the roots and
stand pots and containers in trays and dishes to stop them drying out over long hot summer days.
So, whether you want to plant a few things, work your way towards self-sufficiency, or indeed create a Dig for Victory project, I can highly recommend gardening and all its glorious benefits.