I’m sat at my table, glass half full of Dartmoor Brewery, the day drawing to a close.
Yellow, astringently scented flowers taken from pak-choi that had bolted in the (modest) vegetable garden moult onto table as loose petals dusted with pollen. I’m surrounded by house plants, packets of seeds, loose seeds and drawn plans for vegetable beds. Beer is derived from plants and I even ate plants for my dinner. This blog is an update but otherwise about plants – quite different from my usual interests, and quite a time after my previous submission to this website, but better late than never.
As for many others, plants had been a pretty feature of my life as a millennial, resembling a token Ficus benjamina or succulent from IKEA, or the hipster cafe-ready rubber plant, Ficus elastica robusta. Plants themselves didn’t mean much other than as ornaments to make rooms less grey, with the main motivations to water them and to Google their ailments the avoidance of embarrassment or the loss of the already sunk money and time costs that those who hold student loans know well.
I think that Lockdown changed this attitude. Working in a blue lit ICU in the days and nights or working from a dark home office on the days off, with only bursts of escape onto my bike or on runs, growing green fingers became a way to touch the bright outside more easily. It made me miss the time we could easily spend outside in nature.
We lived in a house with sterile green plastic grass layered on a shade-free deck, wholly unnaturally luminescent in the winter and rising to inhospitable temperatures in the summer sun. Plants, bedded into holes ripped into a compost bag, were an attempt at re-naturalising an environment of human convenience without upsetting the landlord too much. As with most things, I packed the compost bag excessively full. Three sunflowers, a row of assorted wildflowers, chives, basil and three courgette plants erupted from a surely augmented Lidl compost. If anything gets me hooked, it is the feeling of low-investment productivity.
At the same time, Carlos gifted us a grape vine. Cut from his family’s vine in South London, the vine had originated from the oldest grape vine in the world, grown at Hampton Court. Suddenly, growing green things developed a sense of both near and far perspectives; the fertile growth of flowers and fruits in comparison to the age-old annual cycle of the vine’s green shoots hardening into stocky barked stems. In contrast to the ultimately disposability of a plastic compost bag, the vine was a miniature reminder of a larger whole somewhere else, its innate longevity helped by the investment of human hands. Each winter the leaves fall off and the stems darken and appear to die. Around December time I am convinced that no life could possibly reappear, yet, buds swell and leaves emerge as the fresh stems sprint away from their woody bases in the springtime at a rate that asks you to check daily, or twice daily, their progress.
I continued my gradual slip towards the South West and moved to Devon. I’ve literally heard a local say that it would be possible to ‘plant your thumb in the ground and it would grow’. I wouldn’t do that, but I know what he meant; Surrounded by the sea, rained on daily and without winter frosts, parts of Devon and Cornwall form a ‘Celtic-’, or ‘Atlantic temperate rainforest’ and green things grow at competition pace. Walking through water cut valleys of Dartmoor in Spring is akin to being transported to a (cool) jungle, soft mulchy humus-rich soil underfoot, surrounded by seas of bluebells, wild-garlic, stood over by lichen, fungi and moss covered branches of oak trees. Add water ways, waterfalls, prehistoric rocks and settlements, wildflower meadows and wild ruminants and there are no more reasons to go on boring concrete walks or runs in lieu of the sensory feast of outdoor adventuring.
I have been working in Emergency Medicine at the nearby big hospital that provides basic and specialised healthcare services to the majority of Devon and a large part of Cornwall. The department is always busy with people who, in some way, need emergency medical care, medical care, or just care and someone to talk to.
The job is unsociable and largely nocturnal. I used to joke that the 1700-0200 shifts are the ‘night-club’ shift, but they seem to make the majority of my working hours and so nightlife isn’t fun anymore. I’m a poor adjuster to circadian upset and I admire those who adjust more effortlessly, are less irritable than I am, and who choose to pursue a career involving long-term sleep disruption; I’ve spent my time on this job in a mist of daytime somnolence, alarming forgetfulness and dangerous grouchiness. Despite this, my mood and energies rebound and I usually resemble a bright and cheerful human in time for the next shift, in a weird allocation of resources to favour work and the people I’ll likely never meet again instead life in the real world with the people I live with.
Plants, unlike my hours, are regular. They sit in the same place, day after night, and are still there when I trudge home in the morning. They are slow-moving, providing a contrasting respite against some of the faster moving medical problems that enter the Department. Plants are pretty stoic, only needing water, sun and occasional fertiliser. Unlike patients, plants do not shout, swear, insult, nor have I ever met a racist plant. In fact, I would like my plants to say more, because they tend to go wrong without me knowing why. On the other hand, I often find that patients tend to say something is severely wrong when nothing is awry, and then they complain when I offer them water, sunlight and food in place of medical intervention.
Winter Grey Estates
My rented house is a new-build that already looks shabby, built for brochures but fades quicker than the paper it was advertised on. In line with modern priorities, there’s fast internet, heating, silence from neighbours and space for 2 cars, with a small garden that is a mixture of paving stones, gravel and decking. It’s painted grey inside, white outside, the paving stones are grey, the gravel is white, grey and brown, and the decking is brown. The windows are closed because the neighbour chain smokes when stressed.
Winter came. The combination of working in the Emergency Department overnight, sleeping badly until reluctantly waking to a grey house in grey country in the day time was depressing. Rain and wind. The house is on an estate of similar houses, a collection of white walls and unknown faces, short days, a once-lush field and forest now concreted over to make a gathering of insular people numb to a sense of community. I hated the sterility and unnaturalness of it all. I hated the priority of shiny cars and roundabouts over green belts and parks. I missed the cafes and student thrift of Bristol. I even missed dirty great London, which at least manages to make functional cycle lanes and public transport. I felt insidiously more tired and uninspired.
Plants made a comeback. I became preoccupied with planting bulbs and seeds in the winter in a promise to both of us that things would look soon look brighter with the advent of sunnier days. I bought packets of wildflowers, planting them in compostable coffee cups filled with soil, in the hope that when they started to grow, I could transplant them into the estate in an attempt to re-naturalise the oppressive white walls with some guerrilla-gardening. On a more fundamental level, planting stuff provided a basic reason to go outside in the face of inclement weather and the thought of another night shift.
Looking to the future, I bought young trees. First, a small stellate magnolia, an investment into many years of growth and a future of early spring pink flowers. Secondly, an apple tree, appealing not only because of the fruit it will produce and my addiction to apples, but because of the slow-burn excitement of waiting for fruit after the many required years of maturation – apple trees may take 4 years of growth to bear fruit. I went to medical school for 6 years and I’m likely still less productive than an apple tree in its autumn fruit-laden glory. Aside from aesthetics and fruit, trees provide a wide canopy of benefits, from improving the stability and health of soil, to sequestering carbon, to providing habitats for other animals and to provide me with shade.
I became interested in flowers, for their aesthetic but also because of the wider dividends of promoting pollinators. I couldn’t even imagine the wintery sterile estate I lived on harbouring a single buzzing insect, so I planted alliums, peonies, cannas, sweet peas. Now chugging away in their little pots, these bulbs and tubers lay dormant for months (like the vine, I feared that they were drowned by all the rain) before the first hints of green shoots.
I planted tomatoes indoors, now flourishing outdoors. I staked the tomatoes, built trellises for the sweetpeas, and will likely have to start creating a structure for the vine to grow against. I imagine what the neighbourhood would look like if I guerrilla-planted some wisterias or clematis but I can resist for now.
I busted pallets to make raised beds for flowers and vegetables, picking out nails and annoying my neighbours with hammering. In went compost and soil, with pak choi, chard, herbs and courgettes. Slugs snuck in. Out came hole-ridden leaves and learning experiences – while the chard is growing slowly, the initial bloom of pak choi leaves was quickly followed by rapid growth of woody stems, smaller leaves and bright yellow, mustardy smelling flowers – a behaviour called ‘bolting’ elicited when the plant feels stressed. My learning points; no more pak choi, fewer stir frys, grow more chard. When stressed, talk to someone. Don’t bolt or become woody.
As my Emergency Medicine work continues, so do my plans in the garden. Spring brought more sun and energy, and as the seeds I sowed start to show signs of life, positive feedback kicks in and my interest in hospital work and plants is renewed. I’ve read about ‘companion planting’, whereby planting certain plants together can lead to a mutualistic relationship that benefits both plants. One interesting example is of herbs and other plants, where the pungent herbs repel insects or pests to allow the other desirable plants to grow. The vegetable beds are now peppered with coriander and basil seeds.
Another interesting example rooted in indigenous Iroquois culture is of planting corn, beans and pumpkins together. The corn shoots upward with long stems. Beans planted at the base of the corn use the corn’s stems as a natural supporting trellis, while the bean roots benefit both plants by enriching the soil through nitrogen fixation. Finally, the low spread of bushy foliage from the pumpkins shade the soil, keeping moisture close to the ground and preventing weed growth, to foster better growth of all three plants.
This combination of symbiotic benefit is appealing to me, improving productivity with little or absent exploitation of the three parties, and little work done by me.
I hated gardening as a kid because I thought it meant cutting hedges, weeding or mowing the lawn. When you haven’t really got any hedges, no lawn and you don’t believe in weeds, gardening becomes more about growing new plants, improving the health of the environment around you, spending time outside and learning about the natural biology of plants and their complex interactions with other plant and animal species and the seasons. These are all undeniably positive things.
I wouldn’t have thought I would ever become ‘a gardener’, with fear of hairy palms and soles and mandatory tweed, but I quite like the idea now. I like that growing plants requires traditional skills that are easily put by the wayside in modern times, in some respects similar to slow food, sourdough bread, selvedge denim and other hardy things. There’s something about appreciating ‘the process’ and diligent attention to detail that I like, and that I also find in deep work and intensive care medicine. Similarly, plants take hard work, persistence and time, much like my interest in accumulating small improvements in physical endurance and strength (broken hips aside).
Caring for plants is not as fast paced as Emergency Medicine or real life, but in that is its antidote and balm. Getting your hands into soil connects you to the real world in a way that cars, concrete and night shifts do not. The ED Matron would scream if she saw how much dirt got beneath my fingernails in the garden but I don’t really mind.
If you want to start planting, I would recommend cheap, peat-free compost from supermarkets and DIY stores, scattering wildflowers or ‘seed bombs’, and planting in any vessel to hand (Aldi’s 1kg peanut butter pots are my go-to). Courgettes have proven easy to grow. Lidl sell both vegetable and flower seeds and compost bags seemingly laced with anabolic steroids. If you want to replicate my experiment, tear or cut large holes in the top of the bag, pierce only a few holes in the base for drainage, and plant your seeds. Await rain, sun and occasional fertiliser.