DO Something New #2: Grow Your Own Veg

In the second instalment of our DO Something New series – a collection of journal posts inspired by the zest for home crafts cultivated in our community during the Covid-19 lockdown – we spoke to the grower and DO/Grow author Alice Holden. Starting with 10 simple vegetable varieties, the book introduces you to all of the practicalities, while simultaneously offering tips, guidance and recipes for you to unveil one of life’s simplest pleasures – eating your own food grown from seed.

Alice Holden, Do Grow
Alice Holden via the Soil Association

Alice is someone who’s spent her year’s since university embarking on a different kind of learning experience: one which involves hard work, good food and good company. Although it has proved challenging, and at times invited unwelcome assumptions about her choice of career, her current occupation as Head Grower of award-winning social enterprise Growing Communities in Hackney, London allows her to share in the great joy of growing. For those of us lucky enough to have outside space or a sunny window, we asked Alice about her approach to sustenance in order to gain some top growing tips and encourage you to experiment with some green-fingered projects of your own.

Module salad plant, Do Grow
Module salad plant, Nick Hand, Jon Heslop and Alice Holden

What led you to write a guide about growing vegetables?

I was renting a room in Claire and David Hieatt’s house, founders of the Do Lectures. It was David who suggested I write a Do Growing guide book before any others had been written. Just having someone believe I could do it was very helpful. At the time I was living in west Wales growing food and doing markets for much of the year, but the winters were quieter: a perfect space to contemplate the season and write.

Alice, you’re a grower and a farmer, who believes ‘focusing on fewer things’ offers a higher yield. How have you focused your energy during this time?

When the virus happened, as for many, it was a stressful time that posed lots of challenges on the farm. Overnight, most of our volunteers had to stop coming, some of our staff were vulnerable and the restaurants all stopped ordering. Combined with childcare issues; there has been even more work and less labour. However, trying to create a resilient model is built into organic principles which guide the way we farm. Resilience is also a key principle for the organisation I work for in terms of the trade model it has designed, thus the farm was in a relatively fortunate position, in that we could adapt to the challenge.

The extra work has meant that more than ever, I have to prioritise and focus on the key things on the farm. I do the jobs which are essential first and are the easiest to get a return from. I have to try and not let all the things that I haven’t done get me down. That is all part of growing – you have to learn to let some things go.

Alice Holden gardening, Do Grow
Alice Holden, Nick Hand, Jon Heslop

What are your top three tips for beginner vegetable gardening?

Don’t spread your resources too thin. In the case of growing, your most important resource is good soil. I would improve depth of good soil with compost in a small area, rather than spreading it out. Prioritise depth, not surface – it is easier to tend and water a small area.

If you have space and don’t already do it start a compost bin or heap. For a veg grower, something which previously may have been considered as waste and possibly even put to landfill where it becomes a pollutant is suddenly reframed as something which is extremely useful. Compost sequesters carbon back into the ground, feeds the soil and ourselves and connects us to wider natural cycles. For something so humble-looking, it really is miraculous.

So much of success is about the timing of when you sow your seeds. Charles Dowding’s seed sowing timeline and the DO/Grow book offer advice on when to sow different seeds.

Sowing seeds, Alice Holden, Do Grow
Sowing seeds, Nick Hand, Jon Heslop and Alice Holden

If you had to choose one, what would be the vegetable first-time growers should try from DO/Grow, if they’re limited to pots and containers?

Chard. It may not be deemed the most exciting vegetable but I think it should be. It comes in beautiful colours, will grow year-round, is very nutritious and most importantly it is delicious. Small leaves are delicious eaten raw in a salad. Cook larger leaves/ stalks in a little water till tender – lovely with oil, butter, salt, pepper, lemon.

During the lockdown, we’ve found reassurance in the ancient rituals of gardening, foraging, baking and cooking. Why do you believe a garden can ‘change your view’?

I have been trying to work out exactly why growing plants can be so healing. I think there are multiple things – some physical and some more esoteric – about our place in the world and our connection to nature around us. For me, gardening helps my physical and mental state. Whilst it is creative it also imbues an acceptance of a bigger picture which we can’t completely control. I find something reassuring in this.  You are working with something outside of yourself. It’s like a dance.

Vegetable boxes, Do Grow
Vegetable boxes, Nick Hand, Jon Heslop and Alice Holden

You say ‘sustenance is about the whole experience’. What can we learn about our food from growing our own vegetables?

Health is something joined up. The health of your food is connected to the health of what it is grown in – soil. The health of your body and mind is connected to what you eat and the environment you are in. Growing food connects us to part of this picture.

With the risk tempered, the temptation to dive headfirst back into frantic schedules is all too real. How can growing our own vegetables encourage us to slow down?

Working with your hands doing something creative affects our minds. It’s meditative and creates a space away from the constant stimulation and stress of modern life.

Gardening, Alice Holden, Do Grow
Nick Hand, Jon Heslop and Alice Holden

It’s not too late to plant a few vegetable seeds or to start preparing a space ready to plant a plot in 2021. DO/Grow is your pocket guide to growing your own, and it’s available alongside other titles designed to inspire action at The DO Book Co. You can relish 10% off your selection with our exclusive code – just enter GATHER10 at the checkout.

In our forced isolation, our social and professional obligations were replaced with new rituals of cooking, foraging, preserving, gardening, designing, creating and making. These centuries-old practices offered us a sense of purpose, and even defiance, in quarantine. As we’ve inched out of lockdown, we’ve been indulging in Q&A’s with four DO Book authors, in order to do something new, and benefit from this time investment in our personal wellbeing.