Discomfort Zone

Is getting us to leave our ‘comfort zones’ for a hug-in really the best way to cultivate self-reliance and cut carbon emissions?

By John Walker. Published in Kitchen Garden, October 2009.

My last garden was a thin, narrow strip, typical of the kind found behind older terraced houses. Much to my chagrin, the prospect of gardening there (I wanted to do more than cut grass and sit on dull and cheerless plastic chairs) came to fill me with dread. It was more buttock than cheek by jowl – and that was just with the neighbours’ dog.

I was compelled, usually when I was trying to get on, to make neighbourly small talk, frequently through gritted teeth. Net curtains twitched and I felt the ever-present, burning inquisitiveness of curious eyes. Despite sustained attempts to convince myself that I could create an edible haven there, I grew to hate my new garden and its horrible nakedness, so I never did discover how stuff fared.

So I got myself an allotment, just across the road. The most perfect and blissful thing about it was being there when everyone else had packed up and gone home, usually on fine summer evenings.

Gardening writer and author john walker working in his earth-friendly food garden.

Growing solo. My evolving earth-friendly food garden is a sanctuary from a mad, mad world where I get plenty done working on my own.

By now you might have guessed that I’m a bit of a solitary soul when it comes to gardening. My current patch is at the end of a rickety track, the nearest neighbours are several hundred metres away (in summer they’re completely blotted out by greenery), and I don’t have to crave summer evenings any more. My garden starts a few metres from my front door and I can nip out into it any time, with the risk of no more than a cheery ‘hello’ from a rare passer-by on the footpath. Most days I eyeball more buzzards, ravens and dragonflies than I do Homo sapiens. Bliss.

I find it challenging to be the model ‘neighbourly’ sort. I wouldn’t dream of poking my nose into my neighbours’ business, unless I thought they needed help – or they asked for it. Worse still, I’m simply lousy at being, or even feeling, part of a – here comes the word that’s guaranteed to bring me out in a cold sweat, even inside my wellies – ‘community’.

Just as I’m not the neighbourly sort, nor am I the community sort. Maybe it’s the way I was raised, but I just don’t feel at ease doing the touchy-feely, huggy, let’s-work-together, dreadlocks, groupy – add to the list as you wish – community ‘thing’. I’ve tried, and felt like a fish taking its final gasp. I might be painting something of a caricature, but it’s a painfully accurate one, and I find the notion of ‘community’ all the more unappealing when, however well-intentioned, its blueprint is overlaid on to gardening.

“I find the notion of ‘community’ all the more unappealing when, however well-intentioned, its blueprint is overlaid on to gardening”

I know from studying permaculture, where hugs are mandatory, that pushing out our personal ‘comfort zone’ is designed to be liberating and empowering; in my garden all I want to push is my wheelbarrow. At the risk of sounding politically as well as increasingly horticulturally incorrect, I’m going to stick my head up from behind the compost bin and say that the very idea of ‘community gardening’ sends a cold shiver down my spine. It can’t just be me; how are your vertebrae doing?

But it’s de rigueur that we should now all be gardening together, growing side by side in togetherness as part of a joyful, green-fingered community. Even the nation’s ‘head gardener’, Toby Buckland, declared at the start of the current series of BBC TV’s Gardeners’ World that we are “in this together”. Yuk.

Cornwall’s media-savvy Eden Project got out its own touchy-feelies recently with its ‘The Big Lunch’ campaign, which set aside a Sunday in July as a ‘day to break bread with our neighbours, to put a smile on Britain’s face. The food, entertainment and decorations we will have either grown, cooked, or created ourselves.’ Thank goodness nothing popped up when I typed in my postcode; I’ve seen some alarming pictures. One ‘big lunch’ seemed to consist of beer, burnt burgers, bread rolls and, more positively, a few home-grown salads.

This month sees the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) event ‘Dig together day: unearthing the nation’s gardening knowledge’, which is billed as ‘a nationwide celebration and awareness-raising day for gardening clubs and horticultural societies … an opportunity for clubs, groups and societies across the UK to open their doors and invite members of their community to come along, find out more about what they do and perhaps even learn some new gardening skills … the whole idea is to work together to create a great community gardening event.’ My vertebrae are all a-tingle.

Community organic allotments at Moelyci Environmental Centre, Tregarth, Gwynedd, North Wales.

This is my kind of allotment site – peaceful and human-free on a warm summer evening.

I think one of the reasons I get so much out of gardening, especially growing food, is that my gardens and allotments have always been sanctuaries from a society that, no matter how well intentioned, still mostly only manages to talk the talk on community. It’s a lovely soft-focus notion that we’re all somehow ‘pulling together’ as a human family, but reality tends to tell a different tale; decades of social fragmentation coupled with rampant materialism are, like a knotted ball of garden twine, gonna take some unpicking.

So rather than dabbling in a bit of well-meant social re-engineering, whose premise is that we’ll all be enriched if we get to know each other better and reboot ‘community’ spirit, why not encourage folk, whatever size their comfort zone, to just get on with it? Let them work quietly, discreetly, on their own; I know that I get my most useful gardening done working solo. Don’t let’s get distracted from the fact that it’s the gardening that’s important; kitchen gardening, especially, brings significant environmental benefits.

I constantly need to check on stuff like sowing times, and I like to keep abreast of new plants and gardening techniques, and of wider environmental thinking and debate. All of this helps me to constantly reassess whether what I’m doing in my garden is as earth-friendly as it can be, but it’s not group work. I learnt my basic gardening skills many moons back, but today, with copious gardening information available from either a paper or a virtual page, or from TV and the internet, I doubt that I’d actually need those college days over again. Even if I was starting from scratch, I just don’t think I’d get what I need from being part of a ‘community’.

Pumpkins and winter squash from the allotment.

Growing our own food organically comes with a whole barrow load of indisputable environmental benefits.

If we look at kitchen gardening through an environmental lens, it’s blindingly obvious that it’s imperative to get as many people as possible growing as much of their own food as they can. Growing our own organically cuts food miles, shrinks water footprints, slashes packaging, improves health, negates the need for resource-hungry garden chemicals and fertilisers, boosts biodiversity and, as Garden Organic’s research has shown, substantially trims our carbon footprints. Less carbon dioxide going into our atmosphere means we might just spare future generations the full wrath of climate chaos.

If those outfits currently flogging their community gardening credentials put as much energy into promoting home food-growing as a serious, can-do way of enhancing self-reliance, as they are into getting us all dancing in the streets, we’d be flying the low-carbon flag at full mast.

We need to decide where our priorities lie. Does it really make sense, with our biosphere in crisis, to be pouring so much effort into rebuilding how we relate to each other, when we have climate change threatening to rip apart the planetary community that is life itself?

Blimey, I think I need a hug.

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