[Image description: a collage of four photographs, depicting freshly harvested produce from a small personal garden. Clockwise from top left: a hand holding five ripe red strawberries; a lime green plastic bucket, about a quarter full of new potatoes, still with soil on them; a metal colander containing an assortment of fresh salad leaves and one red nasturtium flower: a plastic containing more salad leaves (rocket, cress and edible flowers (nasturtiums and rocket flowers).]
Those who know me, either “in real life” or purely through social media interactions, may have noticed I’ve been finding things all a bit much recently.
The build-up to my country’s recent general election, worrying political events taking place across the Atlantic and elsewhere (I have a lot of connections in the States), and whole host of horrific, life-changing (or life-destroying) incidents and accidents filling up the news have conspired to overpower me. This all came on top of the annual busiest time at work. I’ve been tired, stressed, and on the cusp of burnout for a fair old while.
This happens every year, at this time of year. I’ve recently celebrated my one year blogging anniversary, and it’s no accident that I felt the urge to start blogging at the same time last year, in a desperate attempt to let the blood of burnout and overwhelm, to trepan my pressured head of worries, anxieties, and mental noise.
(Side note: why does my country’s political leaders always insist on having the build-up to important voting events at the same time of year as I’m contending with my largest volumes of coursework marking and moderation, and the peak period for conference paper submission deadlines? And why does this always follow on straight from Autism Bewareness Month? But I digress.)
I recently uninstalled the Facebook app from my phone and iPad, in a bid to reduce my compulsion to check and be confronted with so much awfulness. I’ve been keeping personal Twitter use to a minimum and focusing more on using my professional account – this time of year, there are a lot of professional events and conferences, so plenty of interesting work-related stuff to tweet about.
Truth be told, I’m missing a lot of people, but I’m not missing my newsfeeds. Hyper-empathy and information overload mean I need to protect myself, and I have a drastically reduced tolerance for what others can happily cope with seeing online, day after day. It won’t be forever, but right now, it’s necessary.
The other thing I’ve been trying to do is spend more time outdoors in green spaces. I’ve written many times already about how much nature soothes and revitalises me. So much positive, mindful stim potential. The natural world, and the colour green, are as vital to me as air.
I’ve extended my walks to and from work by five minutes each way, so I can pass through two of my local parks. I watch the ducks, coots, moorhens and pigeons going about their daily lives on and around the lakes. I sniff at open roses. I run my fingers over foliage and examine the undersides of leaves up-close. I gaze up at the lush green canopies of mature trees, and occasionally (when no-one’s looking), swing from one of the thick branches, leaning backwards and enjoying the voluntary upside-down-ness for a short while.
Not far from the building where I work, my university has recently invested in an extensive landscaping and planting initiative along some newly-pedestrianised thoroughfares: with small trees with shimmering, rustling leaves; fragrant herbs and flowers; swishing, textured grasses; wild strawberries; berry bushes; and plenty of places to sit. It’ll be a while until it’ll all be properly grown up, but it’s a welcome addition and an enormous source of readily-available sensory boosts for this particular autistic so close to her office.
And now the weather’s warmer, and both my children are older and more mobile than at this time last year, we’re out in our own back garden a lot more.
Our family garden, like our house, is on the small side. It’s south facing, and has great soil. But still, it’s small; plus, we’re in a middle terrace, with a path running between our kitchen and the garden that’s used by one set of next door neighbours. Our patch is heavily overlooked by the houses on the next road along from ours.
In sum, it’s not exactly the kind of place you go to sit and chill.
But then, that’s not something I’ve ever been any good at anyway. So it’s always seemed far more sensible to give the space over to fruit and vegetables. To growing things we can make use of.
When we first bought our scruffy, ex-student-let house over a decade ago, the back “lawn” resembled a hermit who has lived alone, cut off from civilisation for years; never cutting their hair or nails, or attending in any way either to appearance or to personal hygiene. We wanted to do something with it, and given that the husband prefers staying indoors and I can’t get enough fresh air, I was the one who took it upon myself to spend the first full summer sorting it out: clearing undergrowth; hacking at unruly, thick vegetation; meticulously picking out rubble; and digging out monstrous weeds that reached waist-height, with roots several feet deep. We’ve never put chemicals on the soil; I’ve always enjoyed the satisfaction of physical toil.
Since then, we’ve grown salads, potatoes, beans, peas, courgettes (zucchini, for my US friends), herbs, and much more. We have an untidy jungle of autumn raspberry plants at the back of the plot, providing us with enormous, juicy sweet fruit from late summer until November.
Some things haven’t worked so well. Brassicae, onions, tomatoes (we don’t have room for a greenhouse), and beetroot, are all crops we’ve never had much luck with. We have some dwarf apple and pear trees, but I’ve never quite got to grips with looking after them well enough to get much of a harvest from them. Mint – supposedly one of the easiest and most invasive of herbs – has never liked spending time at our address. And some years, the weather means that even stuff that normally does do well is an utter write-off.
But it’s our little patch of green, and I love spending time in it.
My daughter makes mud pies, cakes and soup, and other “monster foods”. She inspects the many mini-beasts that frequent the space. She’s helped us plant potatoes, sow seeds, and water the growing plants. And when she’s outside, it’s the only time my fruit-and-vegetable-averse, texture-sensitive, “fussy eater” of a child will actually help herself to what’s growing, chowing down on fresh sorrel leaves, cress and, very occasionally, those delicious raspberries.
For a time last year, we wondered whether to replace some of our raised vegetable beds with grass, and room for play. Our son was a baby, and we struggled to manage what was growing there. The neglected state of our garden was beginning to depress me. But now he’s a toddler, he’s as happy as his sister to spend time out there, pottering about, “helping” with the watering, weeding and planting. We’re even out there often enough to get to our meagre strawberry yield before the slugs and snails steal them all. And so I’d like it to stay as it is for now.
I’m no Autistic Gardener. You couldn’t ever argue that our space has been “designed”. A lot of the time, I just let stuff happen.
Nasturtiums re-seed themselves all over the place, as do an assortment of wild flowers I only actually sowed intentionally on one occasion. Oregano is like a weed – from one original plant grown from seed, it now flowers, seeds, and grows everywhere. But the butterflies and bees love its clusters of small, fragrant, mauve flowers, so I’m happy to allow it some liberties. This year, we’ve been invaded by brambles. But whilst I’ll make the effort to clear them eventually, so they don’t overpower the rest of the plot, this year I’m content to enjoy the unexpected bonus blackberries.
I dream of one day owning a home with a far larger garden, with a place for quantities of edibles, and space to relax or spend time outdoors with family and friends, and room for the kids to play.
But our little patch of green still makes me happy. As I tend to what’s growing, I say hello to the friendly blackbird who nests with his mate in the bushes next door, watch the swifts swooping and wheeling in the evening sky, and listen to hum of bees, industriously searching for and gathering flower treasure.
There’s always something to do, and always something new to look at; to touch, to smell, to harvest, and to taste. And just recently, I’ve valued our little patch of green more than ever.