GROWING FOOD: A No-nonsense Beginner’s Guide (part three)

GARDEN GROWING

Having grown food in pots and trays, we’re now ready to step outdoors and have a go in the garden. While it may seem a little late in the season to write this belated post, in many ways it’s just the right time, for reasons that will become clear. I’m keeping this post simple because (a) we’re using the same principles we used before (just in the garden this time), (b) it is a subject all too often mired in over-complexity and the occasional nonsense.

 1. MAKE THE DECISION (AGAIN)

Similar to the first part of this series, you first need to decide if you really want to do this. Tending a vegetable patch, even a small one, can and will be difficult at times, not to mention that the further away your patch is from home, such as in an allotment, the harder will it be for you to keep up the routine of looking after it, especially once the initial excitement and novelty of this new hobby has waned. Don’t just imagine your vegetable patch in all its glory, also think of the rain, the snails and slugs, the blackflies, the weeds, and all the less appealing things that fair-weather gardeners conveniently forget about.

 2. CHOOSE YOUR GROUND

If you are determined, then you need to find or make your patch. When deciding, ask yourself the following:

– Is the patch accessible and practical for bringing in tools or even storing them? Is it perhaps even too accessible and prone to litter or vandalism?

– Does it receive adequate daylight and rain? Is it prone to flooding? Is it suitably sheltered from strong winds?

– Is it pest free? Do cats regularly use it as a toilet? Do foxes pass through it?

 Be honest with yourself, this patch needs to be built on common sense and reality, and not on well-meaning hippy ideals.

 3. LAYING YOUR GROUND

While the temptation to turn over the entire garden may be calling, building it up slowly over time is a better option, and one you will be glad you chose further down the line. As with every other part of growing food, start small, safe and neat.

To begin with, build a raised bed. You can either buy some in garden centers, or else build one by nailing three or more wooden planks into whatever shape you want. Keep it small – perhaps one or two square meters – you can always build more later. There are many advantages to using a raised bed filled with fresh compost, for a start you will be isolating the patch from the garden soil which might be contaminated with lead (if living in a city) or cat poo (among others), the bed will also give you a clear delineation for your veg patch, so you know exactly where you are drawing the line as to the space you are using. Building the bed as well as filling it with compost might cost you anything from £10 to £100, depending what resources you have access to, but at this stage a little investment is a good thing, testing your resolve and helping you decide to take the step.

 4. START GROWING

At this stage it is important to still just think of this as a hobby, don’t place too many expectations on your shoulders, just enjoy yourself. As always, keep your equipment simple to begin with, a little trowel and fork for managing the soil, and any fancy things your friends and family might throw at you.

Starting late in the planting season (such as in August) can be an ideal time for beginners, as it would encourage you to plant simple and hardy things you can learn the basics from. Radishes are always a good start, as are chard and lettuce. Use a crop planner from a gardening book or off the internet (see an example here), or look on the back of seed packets to get an idea of what you can plant and when, but do keep it simple to begin with. In the first year you best want to focus on vegetables that grow reasonably fast. Come late autumn you can experiment with over-wintering crops such as onions and garlic. Whichever book or guide you choose to follow, don’t get bogged down in the details, just follow the basics and learn from mistakes.

 5. STAND YOUR GROUND

Even if you find you are loving your new veg patch, proceed with caution, get to know the ins and outs of gardening and wait till a few challenges have tested you (bad weather, garden pests, weeds, etc.) before you decide to expand or upgrade. When gardening goes well you can feel on top of the world, but when things go wrong it can be severely demoralising. Remember, what’s the rush? Think of it as a course you will progress through over a number of years, getting better slowly but surely; let the activity slowly become part of your daily routine, to the point you barely notice it, as opposed to forcing yourself everyday to do more than you are either willing to or have the time for. Be in it for the long run.

This series of posts was created as a response to some of the frankly moronic ways in which food growing is sometimes taught, especially by the clan of organic perma-clowns who put their own agenda before their students’ needs. This series has aimed to keep track of the basics, helping any keen beginners realise that the skills are there to be learnt, simply and reasonably cheaply. You will know you are on the right track when you find that saving eggshells to use as a slug repellent and pollinating flowers to make your own seeds becomes as normal a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. And even if you eventually end up converting your whole garden to growing all sorts of fancy fruit and vegetables, you will all the more be able to think back to your first raised bed and your first precious crop of radishes, with the satisfaction of having learnt something new and mastered a noble skill. Along the way you will make many mistakes, these will both teach and test you; as hard as it can get, take comfort in the fact that you are making mistakes because you are gardening – you are the real deal, in the thick of it, which is more than some people can claim. Mastering the basics, of course, is just the beginning. As you carry on you can gradually start learning about the more advanced principles, such as crop rotation, making your own compost, and so on. Just take it one step at a time, give yourself credit for what you do achieve, and have fun.

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SUMMER OF RAIN, RAIN, RAIN. AND TALK, TALK, TALK…

Rain. Rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain. Sunshine . . . oh no, it’s rain. Rain. Rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain. Rainrainrainrainrainrainrainrainrainrainrainrainrain. Rain…

 …did I mention rain?

Been a while since I wrote a post, having recently graduated things have been a little hectic. But in my absence it’s pretty much just been rain. And more rain. If our Spring was crap, this summer so far has been rubbish! Seems like all the rain we didn’t have over autumn and winter has been falling in the last couple of months, and although the weather has finally warmed up a bit, things in the garden are still growing ever so slowly. Naturally, the hardy crops that are radishes, turnips and beetroots are doing well, impervious to the weather, but the tomato plants, planted out over six weeks ago, are still tiny, apart from those in the greenhouse, and the same goes for the runner beans which are clearly struggling, and the cucumbers and pumpkins which are clearly dying. Meanwhile the pigeons have devoured the kale. The broad beans and peas came to an abrupt end after finally giving a decent crop, and the onions, shallots and garlic are mostly ready to harvest, and we best do so before they rot in the wet soil. Following from my previous post, in spite of the bad weather, we have managed to make the most of it, but it’s still been crap for what’s meant to be summer, even by UK standards.

I never used to check the weather report until I started getting involved with gardening, but five-day forecasts, such those on the BBC website, are about as useful as a chocolate teapot, as the forecast for any given day will change frequently, from sunny to grey, and raining, and back to sunny again, until the day arrives and we find they still got it wrong. Weather forecasts are bound to feature great margins of error (probably more so than any other industry would tolerate), but five-day forecasts are usually so inaccurate and changeable that the weather boffins may as well just say “we don’t know” and save everyone the trouble, although those words are almost taboo in the world of science – many people with PhDs (and many more without) these days would rather talk utter nonsense for an hour than admit they don’t know something.

On the plus side, the hosepipe ban has been lifted (hooray), not that many people knew or cared about it in the first place – my housemates it seems are incapable of turning off a tap properly, let alone deal with water conservation. The ban did, however, motivate me to improve our rainwater recycling system, which now has two large barrels which can be filled in the space of just one or two days of rain.

Also as a bonus the garden is (over)watering itself at the moment, which is handy (when it’s not killing the plants) as I’ve started a new job which requires me to be out of London on some weekends. This is fortunate, as the people who offered to help out over the summer have (unsurprisingly) yet to turn up; seemingly deciding that making a hollow commitment was the same as keeping it. Maybe it’s the rain, in which case I hope these non-helpers have finally had an epiphany and realized that gardening is an outdoor activity, and also that gardens, unlike their laptops and Ipods, do not come with a standby mode. Being mainly student-run, it’s only natural that most of our volunteers go away for the summer, and I don’t hold that against them. What I do mind is someone who says they will help and then don’t – a simple ‘no’ from the start would be much more helpful, letting me know exactly where they stand, as opposed to giving me false assurances.

Sadly, someone in the past few weeks has been accessing the garden with a key and yet been unable to show the mental skill to lock the gate properly behind them. This is both deplorable and depressing, considering that said person is (a) most likely a university student, (b) happy to access the garden but not to help out, (c) putting the whole project at risk through their inherent sloppiness. With projects like community gardens, all it takes is one careless or selfish cretin to ruin it for everyone else, failing to water the garden when they said they would, treating the garden as a free food market (putting aside their high morals just long enough to help themselves), and unable to tell when a gate is locked (here’s a clue: slide the bolt into the adjacent slot before locking the padlock).

I have found over the past year that those who talk the most about organic perma-culture are often the very same who never help in the garden, and yet some still expect to have access to it, wanting the privileges without the responsibilities. They have all the books, attend all the lectures and protests, sign every petition, and give it a lot of lip . . . but they have yet to plant a single seed. All the gear and no idea. And then to add insult to injury, they leave the gate unlocked. They may be a minority, but like I said, all it takes is one cretin to ruin everything.

What I admire about the people who helped out over the past year (and who will run the garden next year), is that most of them did so simply out of interest, coming when they could, making no false promises, and just keen to learn or to enjoy the outdoors, taking a break from their studies. This is much preferable to the sanctimonious “I only buy organic” types who generally only turn up for lunch and when the sun is shinning. It is ironic that it is the former group who will hopefully ensure the garden continues next year and learn much in the process, while the latter will just keep on talking, and talking, and talking, their elephant talk as ceaseless as the rain.

GROWING FOOD: A No-nonsense Beginner’s Guide (part one)

A Common Ground member recently told me she attended a talk about setting up an organic garden (which is more than I’ve ever done), and admitted that after being fed endless information about perma-culture, soil acidity and all sorts of other yadda-yadda, she came out of it more put off than motivated. So top prize to those organic perma-clowns for running that particular talk – yet another monumental failure in education!

I can’t be too critical of gardening experts, me being an ignorant amateur who accidentally ended up running an organic garden. But in my short time experimenting with growing food – with reasonable success – I have stuck with this simple rule: Growing food is about growing food, pure and simple. It’s not about crop rotation, it’s not about sustainability, it’s not about bla bla bla – these are all just additional extras. When you get a child to plant their first radish, chickpea or even cress, you certainly don’t start telling them about soil acidity or the embryonic dormancy phase of seeds (unless you’re aiming to put them off gardening for life). Simply put, a good way to start learning to grow food is to JUST PLANT SOMETHING AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

Still, here is a more specific guide for getting prepared. Apologies to anyone who thinks the next section is too simplistic, but I’ve seen people in London who barely know what a vegetable is, and so this guide is designed to give anyone a chance to have a go, no matter how little experience they have.

Step One: DECIDE YOU WANT TO DO THIS.

This may seem an odd one to start with, but what I mean is ask yourself: Why do you want to grow food? Is it to learn a new skill? To save money? To save the planet? To impress a girl or guy? Or is it just for fun? Those are all good reasons – except the second one. If you want to grow food to save money, then think again. As I mentioned in a recent post, when you tally in the cost and effort, growing food at home rarely comes out cheaper than market prices. If you want to save money, you can probably find a dozen other luxuries you can cut down on (booze, ciggies, magazines, petrol, crappy electronic gadgets with a fruit logo on the back, etc.).

Next, ask yourself: Do you really have the time and dedication to try this, or is it a passing whim that will die down after a week? A good test is to wait a week and see if you still want to do it. I’m not trying to be flippant, I’m just trying to save you time, money and effort. Some people get very excited about the idea of planting something and later eating it, but they are not so keen on the long bit in between which inconveniently constitutes 99% the food growing process, watching that little plant grow oh-so-slowly yet still requiring water, light and associated TLC.

Step Two: START SMALL AND CHEAP.

One of the frustrating things about getting started with growing food is dealing with the initial expenses and preparation. Gardening books generally come with an equipment list as long as the Nile, the total cost of which would bankrupt Rupert Murdoch. Not only can this expense be both daunting and a strain on one’s finances, but it can also make the beginner think twice about starting up; after all, why buy all that equipment if you’re not even sure you’re going to keep this up for more than a few days? There is also the annoying inconvenience that gardening in most cases tends to require a garden, something that not everyone in the UK is blessed with.

Here are a few ways to keep costs down when getting started:

1) Don’t use the garden (yet).

There’s plenty of things you can grow indoors in little pots to begin with. These will serve as a good test both of your resolve and skills, as well as give you a leisurely start to this hobby without already having to stress about things like weeds or the weather.

2) Don’t buy gardening books.

Just tell your friends and relatives you are going to try to grow food and they will probably get you all the books you need for Christmas or your birthday (probably grateful of the fact they know what to get you). In fact, be prepared for at least one of your relatives to keep giving you gardening books for the rest of your life (there’s always one); if you are lucky they might even get you some gardening equipment, which would be a bonus. In the meantime, for information use the internet, support your local library or visit your local community garden.

3) Avoid gardening shops.

Gardening shops are ideal for experienced gardeners who know what they are after, and huge gardening centers do offer a great selection of equipment, plants, seeds, etc., but their prices can be deceptively expensive. As for the small, supposedly specialized gardening shops you sometimes come across in random places (or very middle-class shopping districts), they are often the worst offenders when it comes to ripping people off; I know it’s good to support independent businesses, but some of them do just take the piss. So, without having been paid to say this, go to a shop like Wilkinson’s where you will generally find the gardening basics you need at cheap prices. You can make all your early mistakes with that stuff before deciding to upgrade. There are of course benefits to buying the right equipment, first of all it does test your resolve a little bit, but without driving you out onto the streets; secondly tools and equipment do require some level of quality. This doesn’t mean you should buy a ridiculously over-priced and over-engineered spade that was designed by NASA scientists (I only exaggerate slightly), but neither should you buy a £1.99 excuse for a spade made of a metal so bendy it makes cream cheese look like solid steel. There is a balance to be struck.

4) Recycle rubbish.

I bet your bin is full of small plastic containers that came with the food you bought (instant noodle pots, yoghurt pots, ready salad boxes, etc.), so why buy a set of plant pots when you can reuse those? Poke a few holes at a bottom of an empty Pot Noodle and behold! You now have a plant pot.

5) Save your principles for later.

Controversial one. You will make mistakes at the beginning (such as over-watering or under-watering), that’s a given, so would you rather make mistakes with a cheap packet of seeds and soil and a recycled Pot Noodle (total cost £2), or with an expensive packet of organic-super-plus-luxury seeds and mightier-than-though fair-trade soil and a terracotta pot made by your local artisan (total cost £20+)? IDEALLY, we want to work our way toward growing food organically, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do so gradually. Just do make sure the soil you buy is suitable for food growing (check on the packet).

Step three: GET AN EDIBLE PLANT.

Before trying to grow a plant from seed, it helps to check if you can keep an existing one alive. Buy one or two herb plants, something simple, sturdy and pest free like rosemary or sage. DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT buy it from a supermarket, no matter how cheap it is, as most supermarket herb plants are artificially boosted and designed to die soon after you get it home (shame on them). This is a case where you can afford to visit a garden centre, you should find decent herb plants there for about £3, give or take. Find a good spot for it at home, depending on the plant, either indoors or outdoors. Ask at the shop for advice, or check the net. Keep the plant alive and healthy, use its leaves for your dishes or to make herbal tea, learning not to overuse it. If aphids attack then learn how to deal with them.

That’ll do for now. Enjoy the plant and learn from it. If it dies, it dies; you’ll learn from that too. Next we’ll look at actually planting things.

BOING!!! Spring in the Air!

Been very busy lately with writing my dissertation and exam revisions, but of course like Bruce Wayne’s batphone when the garden calls it cannot be ignored. As a result, what with the nice weather we’ve had lately, I’m possibly one of the few final year university students in the country to have a tan.

We’ve been sowing seeds in trays over the past few weeks, in the hope of transplanting them in late April. BUT that (CENSORED) of a mouse Jerry has been digging into the seed-sowing trays, eating the peas, pumpkin and cucumber seeds. I have recently installed hanging trays in the shed in the hope that Jerry can’t get to them, and laid yet more traps to catch him once and for all. Failing that I am thinking of taking out a contract with a hit-mouse, or perhaps hiring some mousenaries to hunt him down (the jokes just keep getting worse).

To prepare for planting we have been mulching the empty beds using plastic sheets, especially covering last year’s fallow bed after turning the soil over, which will resume service this month, leaving last year’s beetroot bed to lie fallow this year.

In preparation for sowing we also completely rebuilt the old garden hot-box for seedlings, making it sturdier than ever, in the hope of freeing up shelf-space in the shed. To be extra flash we added a frontal window to the box so that it would make the most of the morning sunlight. Foam pipe insulators were added help seal the edges of the perspex lid, but can be removed to provide extra ventilation.

Although it has been getting sunnier lately it the weather remains quite cold. But still, it is good to see the winter come to an end. We did some good work over the winter, especially taking satisfaction in doing some proper manual work with hammer and nails, repairing the compost bins, the shed door and the beds, and rebuilding the hot box. Speaking for myself, these are the kind of jobs that you just feel like staring at once you are done, taking pride in the fact you have built something with your own hands.

But now is Spring and a time for planting! We so far have beetroot, peas and tomato plants growing in pots, ready to transplant in the near future. We have also sown some carrots, cauliflowers and peppers, and resown some more pumpkin and cucumber seeds (hopefully Jerry-proofed). Because we use soil made on-site from compost, we noticed that the resulting soil is not quite suitable for sowing. The large chicken wire sifter we usually use produces soil that is suitable for the garden beds, but still too lumpy for the delicate little seeds we were sowing in tiny trays. Fellow CG member Leonardo tried sifting the soil in a pasta strainer, but it proved too laborious. Inspired by his attempt, we finally resolved the problem by leaving some soil to dry in the shed and then sifting it through a straw hat we had in the shed. It produces a fine powdery soil that is perfect for the sowing trays.

I have to confess that in spite of taking on a second undergraduate degree and agreeing in my final year to run a community garden, I am actually a rather lazy person at heart. Today being Easter Sunday, opening the garden as usual, I was expecting it to be a solo effort, and I was fully prepared to sit by the rocket stove for four hours drinking nettle tea and eating hot-cross buns with jam. Luckily the unexpected arrival of three CG members encouraged me to get off my ass and organize doing some work. And so today we sifted some more soil, drew up a watering rota, did a little weeding, replanted the yarrow and marshmallow plants in the ‘med bed’ and sowed more seeds in trays – leeks, artichoke, and “Japanese huh?” . . . I should explain. Over the past few weeks, workers at a nearby Japanese restaurant have been kindly donating some of their organic vegetable waste for our compost bin (thank you very much – どうもありがとう!). Earlier this week one of them came by with more compost, as well as a small tray of seeds for me. She mentioned the Japanese name of the edible plant the seeds came from, which I repeated to myself three times in order to memorize it and then promptly forgot. And so today I sowed some of these seeds in a tray, and for the time being have decided to call them “Japanese, huh?” until such a time I can identify it.

With that kind of attention to detail, it’s a miracle that anything grows here, but all in all we seem to be doing quite well. Thank God it’s Spring.

Happy Easter!

WATER SHORTAGE: Everybody say hosepipe ban!

Things are starting to bloom in the garden, although planting has yet to start proper. The rhubarb, onions, garlic, broad beans and spring cabbage are growing fast, and it also turns out that with the cabbage last autumn I accidentally planted some calabrese, which has started to give those delicious little trees! All this time I thought it was more cabbage, luckily though, calabrese/broccoli leaves are edible too – though it’s usually best not to find out these things in retrospect. On that note, I’d like to mention that contrary to what many believe, rhubarb stalks are edible raw (and delicious if you don’t find them too tangy), just remember that the leaves are poisonous, both raw and cooked, causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and possibly death . . . best not chew on those then.

I’m having some more trouble with Jerry mouse, but more about that at a later time…

Today several water companies in the UK have imposed a hosepipe ban, due to the severe drought we’re going through. It’s no joke, either. As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been doing a lot of commuting on foot in the past year, and that has in part been made possible by the fact that it has hardly rained at all. Sure, we’ve had the occasional heavy showers, but what we’ve lacked is a prolonged period of rain, long enough to make us Brits properly moan about the weather – an important part of what makes us British.

Ever since Dinwiddy House kindly installed a tap on the garden grounds I’ve been meaning to buy a new connector to attach the hose to it . . . but I won’t bother now, not for a time at least. I have ordered a second water butt to connect to our current water barrel collecting rain running off the shed roof. The ban will not be a huge problem for us, the garden is small enough to water with a watering can, and even if that proves slower and more laborious it only helps remind us that running water is a luxury we don’t half take for granted.

The ban has got lots of people talking and moaning about it, with particular ire directed toward the water companies. It’s with good reason too – some water companies lose up to a quarter of their water through leaking pipes, and yes, the filthy-rich bastards should be doing more (i.e.: spending more) to fix this problem. BUT, it’s just a guess, BUT I am willing to bet that another quarter of our water is easily lost through general misuse and wastage by us common folk (including me). There are people with the annoying habit of flushing the toilet both before and after using it. Then there’s those who use a full cycle on their washing machines to clean just one or two items of clothing. And ban or no ban, I’m sure there will still be some prized a-holes who will resolutely use thousands of litres of water to wash their ugly, over-priced cars, when a bucket and sponge would do just as well. These are extreme examples, if still common, but most of us have little bad habits when it comes to using tap water. We love blaming the people at the top, but the truth is we are all to blame. And then, of course, come the excuses: “Don’t you know how busy I am?!” “I have three kids!” “It’s my right!” etc.

The trouble is water is a finite resource, and when it starts running low Mother Nature doesn’t give a rat’s ass about people’s excuses, reasons or rights. The water just starts running low. That’s when we really start to learn. Yes there is still plenty of water around, but the real problem is treating it fast enough to meet demand. I’ve been in a few forays in the woods in the past year where I have had to drink stream water. To make the water safe to drink I had to boil it first, which takes a surprising amount of effort to make up the 2-3 litres needed on a daily basis. At times like these I learnt to appreciate the value of water and tried not to waste a single drop of anything I had already sterilised.

Fixing pipes and reducing wastage aside, several solutions are being suggested for dealing with growing water shortages: higher bills, water meters, transporting water via pipelines, desalinization plants, etc. All these would probably help, but with the global population continuing to grow, water wastage ever-increasing, and a weakening infrastructure of water distribution based on profit instead of efficiency, water shortages are probably only going to get worse over the next few decades.

So today is a very good day to start learning to do with less.

WALKING: Self-sufficiency on legs

An often (and conveniently) neglected aspect of self-sufficiency is the ability to get to places near and far on one’s own two feet. It is not that often that Londoners find themselves caught short transport-wise – even if the buses and trains don’t run on time, they usually eventually turn up. For this reason, it is probably safe to say that fairly few people in London regularly undertake journeys by foot of more than a mile, if that. You can’t count long shopping trips down Oxford Street either — those are more of a mosey or an amble, repeatedly off-set by little sit-downs in coffee shops, benches and changing rooms; I’m talking about proper walks, crossing extended distances on foot.

I live in zone 3 of London, on the Piccadilly line. Back in April of last year, in an attempt to save money on my tube fare, I started getting off two stops early at Caledonian road in zone 2, walking the remaining 2 miles to university. To do this I gave up using the student Oyster card and reverted to a normal pay-as-you-go type. This saves me about £30 to £40 each month.

My original intentions were mainly economic, but I found great benefits in walking those extra 4 miles per day. I feel healthier and my legs have gained strength. The walk is also a good time-out from my studies, allowing me to reflect on other things in my life. It’s just the kind of opportunity for idleness that one could easily waste by plugging into their Ipod and putting their brain in standby mode (and then get hit by that bus you didn’t hear coming).

Out of interest, from the time I started this new commuting method, I also began clocking the distance I covered as a way of motivating myself, counting any walking journey of one kilometer or more (I am a metric man at heart). In the last ten months, I have walked over 900 miles in this way. I wouldn’t say I’ve been pushing myself, either, and the more I walk the easier and more enjoyable it becomes.

On occasion I walk the whole distance home, just over seven miles. The first time I did so I ended up on the final mile feeling like my legs were about to fall off, but now I do this regularly, sometimes without planning to, just feeling the need to walk a little further. This also helps make up for those days of heavy rain when I take the tube the whole way and pay full fare; I may be odd but I’m not completely stupid.

This little money-saving ploy, of course, wouldn’t suit everyone, but it is always worth getting to know one’s local area and discovering how close certain places are to each other. It seems that many Londoners still don’t realize that Central London is surprisingly small, and walking from King’s Cross to Victoria, for example, is a vigorous but manageable 5km walk. I know people who take the tube to travel just one stop, but once you take into account the bustle of getting to the platform and waiting for the train, it can at times be just as quick to walk there.

The crucial aspect of relying on walking to get around is understanding that even if you are physically fit you will probably still find it arduous to begin with. Walking the equivalent of 5km a day by ambling around the office is not the same as walking the full distance in one go. Similarly, going for a weekly 10km hike in the hills is not the same as consistently walking long distances every day. When you really start using your leg muscles on a daily basis you will initially feel the strain on your thighs, calves, buttocks, back and especially on your feet, as your body begins to demand its regular pit-stops. Of course, it is wise to listen to your body, but also to push it a little further each day. For this reason, like with any good exercise, it is wise to gradually increase the distances you cross, and a day of rest each week is always a good idea. As the American comedian Paul Reiser once said, we tend to neglect our feet as they are so inconveniently placed on the other end of our bodies. But, trust me, once you really start using your feet you tend to start paying attention to their little aches and pains and learn to apply a little more maintenance and TLC. I’d rather get used to this now while I have the choice than be forced to do so when the options have been reduced – I’m not talking worst case scenario either, but something as mundane as breaking down along an empty road, or missing the last bus after a night out.

As for worst case scenario, if you think I’m exaggerating, you might be right, I hope you’re right, but ever-rising petrol prices affect all transport costs, not just cars. Motorized transport in general is all very nice, but it is increasingly expensive and relies on an infrastructure built around reliable oil delivery and road maintenance. Now I know that some of you are already thinking “what about the bicycle?” Cycling is a wonderful way to get around, but not only do bicycles rely on spare parts and regular maintenance, modern bikes also manage to be both ridiculously expensive whilst at the same time being less reliable and less practical . . . and then some scumbag steals it. Whilst exploring issues of self-sufficiency does not necessarily have to incur extreme scenarios of social collapse or natural disasters (it’s just a hobby for some), author and blogger Dmitry Orlov described in his excellent book ‘Reinventing Collapse’ the main drawback of bicycles in times of greater self-sufficiency:

The most successful form of transportation is by far the bicycle. While there is currently a bicycle for almost every person in the US, these bicycles by and large sit still in garages and basements, rusting and gathering dust. About a tenth of them might still be rideable at any given time. If large numbers of people attempt to start using them, the immediate effect will be a shortage of bicycle tires, which deteriorate due to dry rot. Even if this problem finds a solution, it will soon be discovered that the vast majority of the bicycles are in fact toys designed for sport, not for hauling loads or for the rigors of a daily commute, and most of them will fail within a year of hard daily use.

 From ‘Reinventing Collapse’ by Dmitry Orlov, reproduced with kind permission from the author.
For more related information you can look up his blog:
cluborlov.blogspot.com

But let’s take a step back (no pun intended) and stave off the worst-case scenarios and remember the best reasons to take up walking: it’s cheap, healthy and interesting. Places that always seemed out of the way suddenly become accessible, and there are always things to see that you never knew were there. Walking the same path every single day can get a little tedious, but in London that is when you start to explore the dozen or so other paths you can take, exploring new places and finding shortcuts and links you never knew between familiar places. It’s what I like to call going from A to C via Z. There is a great sense of satisfaction to be had from walking down an unfamiliar street and unexpectedly emerging onto a place you know very well. And even if you never actually do walk all the way home, it is always good to have an idea of how to walk it if you had to.

UPDATE 01/03/12: Today I just crossed the thousand mile threshold. That means that in the last eleven months I travelled one thousand miles’ worth of journeys on foot I wouldn’t have normally done had I stuck to public transport all the way, and I’ve saved about £350 in the process. So I’m celebrating that milestone tonight with a well-deserved beer. Cheers y’all!

IN THE SNOW: Building a quinzee (and making more soup, of course)

 

Following my last post about enjoying the winter – and following a promise I made to CG members some months back – the sudden arrival of snow on Saturday night was a good opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. So while the rest of the capital slowed to a standstill, we got to work building a quinzee.

A quinzee is a type of emergency snow shelter, designed to help keep someone out of the wind and cold (should they be caught out in the snowy open), basically involving pilling up snow and then hollowing it out. If that sounds ridiculously simple, it is easier said than done. For a start, you have a shovel a pile of snow at least four feet tall, and the more snow you shovel onto the pile the further you then have to walk to get some more and carry it back. Any person who has done any kind of sustained shoveling or digging work will know that it is one of those jobs from which you can quickly tell the doers from the talkers. Also, you need to pile the snow reasonably lightly, without packing it down which would create layers within the snow that weaken the overall structure. This can be done by literally throwing the snow onto the pile, which takes yet more shoveling action. Instead of piling snow from the ground up, it is useful to find a bulky item like a rucksack or (in our case) some buckets that you bury under the pile, saving you a lot of shoveling and later digging, and giving you a central space to build on.

Once you have built a suitably big pile of snow you need to let it sit for a few hours, allowing the snow to settle and crystalize together (if you bury your rucksack, make sure you take out your essentials first). For us at CG it was a good time to boil some water in the rocket stove and prepare some soup, using the cabbage leaves from the garden and adding some carrots and parsnips that Tim had kindly brought along. The snow had caused all of the netting to collapse onto the crops, so we had to delicately remove the nets without damaging the plants. In the case of the cabbage, however, it was just a case of ripping off the nets before ripping off the leaves for the pot. Having planted these cabbages in October, it was about time we used them. We drank a little blueberry gin to warm us up before eating the delicious and hearty soup. Then, it was finally time to finish the shelter.

Tim tries out the makeshift snow shelter

 

We dug our entrance into the snow pile until reaching the buried buckets, then gently digging around them until they could be removed without collapsing the whole structure. Tim then started digging out the inside space, being careful not to pierce right through the wall. Ideally one needs to plant sticks all over the snow pile, pushing them in by about a foot, allowing the person hollowing it out to know the thickness of the wall, stopping when they reach the end of a stick. With the snow available we had only managed to build a small pile, so we didn’t bother with the sticks, only aiming to create some kind of space to know it works. Call it a test-run for the real thing.

The results, though not perfect, were surprisingly good. The space in the shelter was slightly too small for an adult (good for a child or dog, though), and yet it still offered some shelter, feeling surprisingly warm inside. We then completed the quinzee with makeshift door, made from a disc of ice we took out of the rain barrel. It should be noted that if used in such a way, the quinzee would require a separate air hole added to the top or side opposite the entrance, unless you really want to find out how airtight (and deadly) snow can be.

And then it’s my turn to try it

It may not look like much more than a pile of snow, but we were proud of our quinzee, especially after working in the cold and wet to build it. There is something so real, so great about working in the snow; while so many people take refuge indoors, it felt good to not only work in the cold and snowy outdoors but also to make soup in the middle of it all just to make it look easy.

Adding a see-through door just to be flash

It is easy, too, once you know how. All you need is a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of resilience, and the will to do it. Just because the snow prevents us from gardening doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more to learn in the outdoors. I’ve long wanted to build a decent sized quinzee, and thanks to the space in the garden and the kind help of fellow CG members I’ve finally had my wish. The best reward of all is the knowledge of a day well spent, doing something different and memorable, learning something new and burning energy doing it. I shall sleep well tonight . . . in my bed, that is, not in the quinzee.

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