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  • Kirsty Heron

Growing Conversations

Rae Story (RS): Early spring is the start of the growing/planting season, I wanted to share a conversation with someone who, this time last year decided to use lockdown as an opportunity to try and grow her own food for a year! At the time I was thrilled to hear of such a positive and appropriate response to the situation.

Kirsty Heron used to live in Manchester and was instrumental in setting up various green spaces in the city that are still thriving and that we have visited and documented as part of MMQS including The Growing Together Project (formerly HEAP) and Birchfield's Park Forest Garden.

Here I catch up with Kirsty Heron, in conversation, to find out how it went...

RS: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me how you ended up in Yorkshire at the start of the UK epidemic and a short description of what you have been doing in Spain for all these years (as a bit of context...)

Kirsty Heron (KH): I came back to the UK just over a year ago after nearly ten years adventuring in Spain. I went out there to work in the organic gardens of an environmental education project and because I made such good friends and enjoyed being in such a different climate and culture so much I stayed and got involved with different networks across the country and visited many beautiful places where people were growing their own food.

Last winter I was quite nomadic, living in my van whilst working pruning hundreds of apple trees and volunteering at my sister's market garden.

RS: Then I wanted to ask you - when the pandemic struck what were your options and how did you decide on your response?---

KH: As the pandemic became a global concern and the lockdown in the UK was announced my Mum kindly offered my partner Jef and I a place to stay at her home in North Yorkshire and to be honest I wanted to be there for company for her. All the uncertainty and strangeness would be better faced together. Jef and i were able to let go of our plans for the year and adapt to where we found ourselves by seeing the limitations as an advantage. The question I asked myself was, within this narrower set of choices what can I do here and now that is useful and active. When we saw an ad in the local paper about renting a couple of acres of land we jumped at it, seeing a clear opportunity to realise a dream of producing more of our own food and growing enough to be able to sell and share the abundance.

The shockwaves of the pandemic may affect global food supplies and the effects of climate change in the coming years certainly will. Local production of food and other goods will become essential and I decided that this could be an opportunity to build my skills.

RS: Thanks Kirsty, it is lovely to see how the situation you created was mutually beneficial for yourselves and for your mum too. I am sure it was nice for her to have the extra company (and vegetables) during this last year and great for you both to have a place to live and work during this uncertain time.

Can I ask you, looking back over this adventure, were there any surprises? I know you are both seasoned growers but coming from the Mediterranean I imagine things were a little different in Yorkshire? Please tell us how things were different and what you learned.

KH: The Spring months on the land were particularly dry so there were challenges similar to what we knew in the Mediterranean with ensuring the newly planted seeds and seedlings had enough water to drink. To maintain moisture levels in the soil we mulched around the new plants. We also kept many seedlings in pots in the greenhouse until they were large with well developed root systems before planting them out in the field where it is more laborious to tend to each one.

From mid-June onward the rains returned and we could sometimes leave the land for 2 weeks at a time for work elsewhere safe in the knowledge that Nature was doing the watering for us. I was surprised by how quickly everything grew without having to do much to help. Some of the early green manures we sewed were flowering in colourful borders by June and this brought with it a wealth of insects which amazed me by their sheer numbers, their vibrant hum and flashes of colour.

I could be there 'alone' for hours yet feel accompanied by the wildlife that had been drawn to a patch of land that was more biodiverse than in previous years. Not only were we growing food for ourselves but also for the bees, the butterflies and the ladybirds.

I tell you something else that surprised me is that the chicory seeds you gave me that i grew into tasty plants are only just beginning to form tight dark red heads. I've been eating the green-purple leaves since September but I just noticed that they are beginning to look more like what chicory-from-the-shop looks like. They are really tender and tasty too! Is there anything that still surprises you after many years of growing in one place, your garden or the allotment?

RS: This year I have been harvesting the Wood Ear Fungus on the cut logs of Elder and have really loved making a kind of hot and sour soup with it - and despite everyone telling me they are rubbery and tasteless, I found them delightful. I boiled them first for a while to tenderise them and then added them to my soup and was really surprised how delicious the whole thing was. I think I am always surprised by the garden, the things that make it, the things that don't. A couple of years ago, maybe 2019 I noticed for what I think was the first time my Japanese Acer had beautiful little seeds all over it, really iconic little maple seeds hanging with all the new leaf growth. And as I was out and about I noticed that all of the same acer trees also all had those seeds that year. Somehow, the conditions were right and they all knew to produce seeds that year. So curious.

Also, whenever I stop to draw a plant in the garden, I am always surprised by something. For instance, I was drawing irises a few years ago and I realised for the first time that (purple) irises have three sets of three petals. I never knew that! And I have asked many people - how many petals does an Iris have? And no-one knows! We just don't look that closely in our normal way of being in the world. We all know what an Iris looks like, but we don't really see it. Personally I find drawing a great way to help myself see more clearly and to spend time getting to know plants better.

RS: Thanks so much for sharing your year of growing in a pandemic Kirsty. Here are my final questions: Did you manage to be self-sufficient with your patch of land? Did you have enough for yourselves and were you able to share/sell your abundance? Is this is a sustainable life option for people? And finally, after your growing year what are your plans moving forward?

After starting to harvest from the land in June-July I've not bought any vegetables except onions- i didn't plant enough! We are still eating the squash -just 3 left! - and the potatoes and parsnips from sacks in the shed, picking kale and chicory leaves, and making stews and dips with the dried beans.

Yes we did give a lot away too, to a local care in the community organisation and we also sold some through a roadside stall in a collaboration with someone who bakes and sells sourdough bread. It could be a sustainable life option; working part-time while we also cultivated the land gave me a feeling of being in balance. What I receive from being involved with an ecosystem in this way is way more than just food; i have the sensual pleasure of the sights, sounds and smells of the land, i enjoy the physical movement of gardening, and I sleep so well!

The plan now is to take the skills and the confidence we've gained and find land that we can give back to, regenerate with loving care, think long-term and plant fruit and nut trees amongst the vegetables.

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on the growing year.

RS: Thank you for sharing this inspiring journey

If you have been inspired by Kirsty's growing year, here are some suggestions that could get you started growing:

  • Find out about local growing projects in your area (check internet, local papers, local allotments, housing associations, community centres, notice boards etc)

  • Offer to help out a neighbour or friend in their garden (when restrictions allow)

  • Turn over a bit of your garden, yard, windowsills to growing some produce - you can start with herbs and salad leaves - always a delight to have to hand in the kitchen

  • See if your local allotment offer any opportunities for volunteering, helping out on a plot, joining a community allotment - you can search for contact details on the MCC website or just turn up and ask someone.

  • Go onto Eventbrite a search for free ecological gardening/growing courses - here is a link to get you started

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