Part of the reason I did not read all my 20 Books of Summer – other than laziness – was that a few months ago I took over an allotment garden, and promptly failed to make a decent start at it. I’ve been trying over the summer to reclaim some of the (literal and metaphorical) ground that I lost to inaction. My plot neighbour very kindly offered to scythe the weeds when I first took it over, because it was a jungle – however, because I was so obscenely busy at work in June and July, I completely failed to make good on this by mulching the scythed areas, and by the time I was actually in a position to work on it, it was completely overgrown again. (I feel terrible about her cutting down all those weeds for nothing. For a while it actually looked worse than before I took it over, though I am slowly getting it back under control). In between gradually digging it over, sowing green manure, and filling many black sacks with bindweed to rot away for a couple of years, I’ve been reading books and watching Youtube trying to work out how, exactly, to get the space the way I want it.
One of the Youtube channels I’ve really come to love over the past few years is Byther Farm – hosted by Liz Zorab, who has a smallholding in Wales. She started out in a micro-smallholding of 0.8 acres, but a few months ago she and her husband moved to a much larger area – though still in “smallholding” category. Her first book, Grounded: A gardener’s journey to abundance and self-sufficiency, came out this year, and it’s an account of the early years of her smallholding experience, from buying the property in late 2015 to the first months of the pandemic in 2020. Although I do daydream about somehow finding well-paid part-time work, buying a smallholding, and trying to become as near self-sufficient as possible, I realise that this is either a never-to-be-achieved fantasy, or at least fifteen years away. I’d be too lonely both living by myself in the countryside, especially doing a job with no colleagues and especially given that I can’t drive; I can’t imagine what I would do to pay the bills that would leave me sufficient time to grow; I couldn’t afford a property of that type except, perhaps, in some of the remotest parts of Scotland or northern England, where I would be starting from scratch in terms of understanding growing conditions and climate. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, I love to read accounts from people who have tried it, especially if they’ve actually succeeded.
Grounded isn’t a how-to. It’s something closer to a memoir, though that’s not quite right either. Maybe it’s most like a well-written, informative gardening journal that has been interspersed with personal narrative? It’s a chronological retelling – which makes sense for the content – organised into Years 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each year is given a theme, and then the narrative broadly follows that theme, with subheadings scattered throughout the book rather than traditional chapter format. This meant that there was a little repetition year-to-year, but given that the repetition normally came along with an observation of something the author had learnt, this didn’t bother me (something along the lines of “because this had worked well in the previous year, here’s how I built on it this time” etc). In places, the style was a bit too chatty and informal for me, but I can see that it would work really well for a lot of people, and it certainly didn’t intrude on my enjoyment overall.
The narrative of the book is interspersed with tips and tricks, large photos, and other elements. One particular device I appreciated was the inclusion of a few of Zorab’s old blog posts from the early days of the smallholding – clearly identified and dated (see below) – along with reflections and analysis on these posts with a few more years’ experience. Turning a blog/podcast/Youtube channel into a book can be a challenging endeavour, especially when it comes to providing new information or content. By reflecting on her past blog entries, Zorab makes it really worth reading the book. It’s useful to learn from other people’s experience (and mistakes!). The little inserts about different gardening know-how also worked well for me – it’s the type of thing you would more commonly see in a straightforward instructional book, but it works well interspersed with the narrative here.
On the other hand, I am ready to stop hearing about how people with a lot of outside space, a spouse/housemate/family that they get on with, and a job that easily adapts to home working have had a fabulous pandemic and it’s really made them reflect on What Truly Matters In Life #blessed. I mean, good for you, but also keep it to yourself. There is a bit of that in here. It was less irritating than it is when it’s completely unsolicited – partly because the Byther Farm channel has some of that vibe baked in already, so I was prepared for it, and partly because the book is also honest about difficult and painful experiences. At the time when they took the smallholding over, Zorab was very unwell with a thyroid condition and immunological issues, and the difficulties associated with trying to balance a very physical outdoor job and a condition that meant she often struggled to get out of bed are detailed in the early chapters. Her health improves significantly over the course of the book, and that is a real delight to read about.
How useful did I find it re my allotment? Well, there are innumerable differences between my situation and the one covered by Grounded: I have a small plot that probably could not produce enough food for me even if I treated it like a full-time job; I have immediate neighbours on either side whose land necessarily affects mine (one of my neighbours has a neglected plot that’s overrun with bindweed, so I’ll never get rid of it in my own space); I can’t keep chickens or ducks per the terms of my allotment agreement, and even if I could that’s too much commitment given that I can’t get there every day. And even in terms of climate – Monmouthshire is not that far away from Southampton in practical terms, but it gets a lot more rain than we do. Therefore, not all of the advice in Grounded was practical for my situation – e.g. I simply don’t have enough land to grow sacrificial brassicas, though I am leaving a small patch of stinging nettles at the back of my plot so that butterflies and moths can still lay their eggs. However, it did help me to think about how to reuse things. For example, I have an old bookshelf that isn’t suitable for use in my new flat, but every charity shop I have tried to give it to has turned down because it has a crack in the top corner that makes it less aesthetically pleasing. I’ve held onto it stubbornly, not wanting this perfectly functional piece of furniture to go to landfill, and reading about a wardrobe being repurposed gave me the idea of turning it into a raised bed, which has now gone on my autumn jobs list. Similarly, I’ve been wanting to plant clumps of wildflowers in and around my vegetables – for beauty and for pollinators – and reading about Zorab’s success with this was encouraging.
More than anything else, Grounded has given me the confidence to experiment and I am grateful to it accordingly. The people who are regulars at my allotment site are very experienced gardeners and their plots are beautiful and productive, so it’s a little intimidating when mine is half nettles*. Reading a book that includes mistakes and reflections, as well as a necessarily slow start due to Zorab’s health concerns, is immensely reassuring. I will obviously be reading more gardening books in the coming months, especially over winter when the weather is too grotty to get outside much, but I would really recommend this as a good place to start. It’s a very friendly welcome to the world of vegetable growing.
*There is one very nice woman who obviously wants to help me, but speaks almost no English, so a lot of my allotment time at the moment is spent listening to advice delivered in slow and patient Polish, none of which I understand. We are managing okay with a lot of Google Translate and some vigorous pantomime, though.