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Fiona Barrows and the joy of the allotment

Fiona Barrows explains how she left the daily grind of London for tranquil Frome, and the joy she has found in tending to her own allotments.

What is it you do as your ‘day job’?

I work for myself as a brand strategist and creative business mentor. It’s a business I’ve built literally entirely around my desire to get outside for a long walk or to my allotment everyday. And one that will let me make the most of beautifully sunny days as well! I used to work in book publishing in London but left five years ago, initially to travel around Asia by myself, and then to live and work in Bali and then Italy. During this time abroad I thought a lot about the kind of lifestyle I wanted when I returned to the UK, and freedom was very much top of the list. I also didn’t want to go back to London, or any big city really, and wanted a simpler, slower life where I could really appreciate and find joy in the everyday.

Where are you based?

I’m based in Frome, in Somerset. I moved to Frome knowing literally no-one, and solely on its reputation as being a small but very vibrant and creative town. I wanted to live in the country, but being single and still fairly young I was wary of living too far out in the sticks and isolating myself. Frome seemed like the perfect compromise. And it hasn’t disappointed! I adore it here, and have met so many lovely people. I love that there is always something going on, and it’s really close to Bristol and Bath, but I’m also only a 10-minute walk away from beautiful woodland and extensive farmland. It’s a really special place.

What are your early memories of gardening?

I grew up in Kent, and it’s only recently that I’ve realised just how amazing our garden was! My dad had his own vegetable garden, four beds on rotation, and I remember chasing after him in the summer evening sunshine to pick and eat peas straight from their pods! We were pretty much self-sufficient in potatoes, and possibly apples as well, but I don’t think I really appreciated how unique that was. I used to help him a little, but I don’t remember doing that much - I think I was just happy to eat his hard work!

We also had a greenhouse, and that warm, musty, tomatoey smell always takes me right back to my childhood. My mum also had beautiful herbaceous borders and as a family we would be outside most of the weekend. I have odd senses of deja-vu sometimes on my allotment when I find myself doing a job in the same way as my parents.

Is your allotment your first garden?

It’s my first garden that is fully my own, yes. I spent a year living on a sustainable farm in Italy and got involved in planting and harvesting there, but obviously it was a communal effort and I didn’t really see much through from beginning to end which meant I felt far less ownership over it.

Why did you decide to apply for an allotment?

I applied for an allotment before I’d even found somewhere to live in Frome! I knew I wouldn’t find anywhere with space to grow my own, and after Italy I was really keen to. The waiting list was quite long so I have to admit to knowing I wouldn’t get one for a while, so it was perhaps a case of putting my name down without really thinking through the reality.

But then early last year I just became sort of obsessed with the idea, and desperate for one. I’d started to follow a few gardeners and allotment-owners on Instagram I think. I called to check where I was on the list and was told that space would probably come up on a certain group of plots on the outskirts of town. So I went on a recce to see it and just loved it out there. The space looks out over Cley Hill and Longleat, and there is a stream running along the bottom. It’s beautiful and just being there is calming.

There is something really special about allotments I think. I love the community aspect of them, and I think even if I were to get a garden in the next few years with space to grow vegetables I’d keep mine on. I genuinely believe that everyone who wants one should be entitled to an allotment - they are so great for so many reasons: mental health, fitness, community and reducing the environmental impact of the food we eat.

Do you grow elsewhere - do you have any growing space at home?

No, I live in a top floor flat. I have access to a communal garden but it is all taken care of. I dream of one day being able to open french doors from a little kitchen onto a terrace laden with pots of lavender and rosemary, and sit down at a wrought iron table to drink my coffee. I’d also love a greenhouse, and to be able to grow more tomatoes as well as cucumbers and perhaps aubergines, but they are not really practical on an allotment as you need to open and close them, and water them, so often in the summer. One day!

What state was the allotment in?

It was a mess! I think the previous owners hadn’t done much the year before, and had generally been quite haphazard with it. And then it had just been left all winter as well. It was covered in thick weeds, and this horrible black matting that was meant to suppress them but had actually done no such thing, and they had just grown through and anchored it to the ground! It was a nightmare to pull up! It had a few old wooden structures on it that I needed to take down before they fell down, and for the first few months I kept finding nails and bits of plastic in the ground. The soil was really inconsistent in nourishment as well: some parts were fine, others were completely compacted and felt very thin. So it was a lot of work getting it sorted!

Who did you turn to for advice?

I turned to my parents for advice mainly, but I was also determined to do most of the hard graft myself and I got so much satisfaction out of those first few weeks when every time I went I could really see my progress. I also bought a couple of books but I found that they didn’t really make much sense as it was all so theoretical at the time. So I just decided to treat the whole year as an experiment, and to see anything I managed to grow as a bonus. I think taking the pressure off really helped as I just let myself make it all up as I went. I think I read somewhere that plants want to grow, you just have to help them, so it is not as complicated as you think it is or is sometimes made out to be. Other than my parents’ help for a couple of weekends (mainly clearing and digging, and my dad made me a compost heap) I’ve done everything else on my own, and I’m really proud of that.

How did you choose what to grow?

Using my books I came up with a whole plan about what I was going to grow and where everything was going to go, and it just went totally out of the window! As I didn’t get my plot until April and had so much clearing to do, I planted as I cleared which meant everything ended up in odd locations!

I’d literally clear a space and then go to Homebase to see what seedlings or seeds they had. I felt on the back foot all year and always felt like I was behind getting stuff in the ground. There was no forward planning and this is definitely the biggest thing I want to rectify this year (I’ve already ordered all my seeds!). The only thing I made sure of was that I didn’t grow anything I didn’t love to eat (so no parsnips!). I also had no idea what would do well in my soil so it was just a game of potluck really!

What have been the successes?

I had really good crops of peas and beans which I was really happy with. I was given some pre-chitted new potatoes by a fellow plot owner and they tasted delicious! I’ve also had a constant supply of chard since I started, and really good crops of spinach and lettuce. My beetroot was amazing as well, and I’ve recently grown swede which tasted amazing! I also loved my sweet peas…

What have been the failures?

Fennel is the one I’m most upset about as it is my favourite vegetable and I would love to grow it successfully. I think I put it in too early (a victim of my buy and seed straight away approach). I also lost runner beans in the first few weeks as they went in too early too. I had a good crop of tomatoes from just one plant (another gift) but they took forever to turn red and I picked most of them green and made chutney.

I also lost 70% of my carrot crop overnight to rabbits (I took the net up thinking they were strong enough… and carnage. An absolute massacre). I’ve also tried to grow pak choi twice, once from seed, once from seedling and both times it has failed. I don’t think I’ll try again!

Is there a community at the allotment?

There is, but in the winter I’m often there on my own! My plot is at the top of the space and surrounded by people who have had their plots for a really long time so know what they are doing and I often turn to them for advice. I was so excited when I found my first broad bean that I was running around telling everyone and I think they thought I was slightly strange! I was also given a few gifts of chard and asparagus in the first few weeks, as I think they felt bad I was working so hard but not taking anything home with me!

What is the biggest benefit about having an allotment? Do you think growing things is a ‘good’ thing in itself or is it about taste or the environment or exercise?

I don’t even know where to start with this question! There are so many benefits, and I definitely agree that growing anything is a good thing in and of itself. Even if I couldn’t take home what I grew I still think I would because I love the process so much. I think of being at my allotment as just being really nourishing, both physically and mentally, and then again when you actually eat what you’ve grown! I adore spending time outdoors, but there is something specifically wonderful about gardening. About taking care of plants and paying attention, and seeing what it is they need. It’s also very mindful and focusing. I rarely think about anything else when I’m there and I’m definitely not on my phone.

And then there’s the environmental impact… the food I grow myself is undoubtedly the best in terms of carbon footprint, and I think if more of us did the same then we could make a real difference. It’s also made me even more aware of the other food I buy, and keeping everything as seasonal and local as I can.

You share photos of your allotment on Instagram - what has the response been?

A bit ridiculous! It’s all anyone wants to talk to me about! I get a lot of messages from people saying they are living vicariously through me, and a few really sweet messages from people who are struggling with their mental health saying they have been inspired to start growing their own, and that it’s helping them which is just amazing. It’s been really positive essentially, and definitely something that I’m going to do more of this year!

You can read Fiona’s allotment diaries and find out more about her creative business mentoring here. Her Instagram accounts are @allotmentfourteen and @fbarrow.

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I am a bit of a womble.  My Studio is a layering of things that have been found, things that have been saved, things that have been given to me - I like to be surrounded by a bit of history. ⁠⠀
I am known as an avid skip diver so people kindly keep me things.  This weekend I am off to pick up 13 sash windows rescued from a skip.⁠⠀
This is my dye cupboard - the mordants and other powders, the piles of fabrics and yarns, my newly started record book and the glue to paste the swatches in.⁠⠀
It has had a hard life - the back is patched with hinges as plates, there are many, many layers of paint and a door has gone missing along the way.  It is perfect.⁠⠀
Back when I grew flowers commercially the area that is now ‘the orchardy bit’ was rows and rows of spring bulbs.⁠ In the years where the deer didn’t eat the tulips they looked magnificent, stripe upon stripe of pure pigment. ⠀
When I turned my back on growing for money, we simply took out the beds and levelled it, turning it back to grass.⁠⠀
The tulips quickly gave up - never brilliantly perennial here anyway, they took the opportunity to fade out fast.⁠ Well if you don’t want us . . . ⠀
The narcissi loved it though and every year appeared back in their serried rows through the grass. ⁠There was something disturbingly grave like about them.
My planting  ever since has all been an attempt to disguise that - feathering the edges, making little islands, trying to make it all look haphazard.⁠⠀
Gradually it is working - this is the edge of what would have been a bed of Narcissi geranium (best vase life, along with best scent) - now happily interspersed with a pheasants eye and a little lemon coloured one I have lost the name of.
And the hedges beginning to vibrate with that gloriously specific spring green.
This week has been about experimenting.⁠⠀
Experimenting with all the ways to dye with daffodils, experimenting with the new e-course part of my website, experimenting with shooting and editing videos on my phone.⁠⠀
My business hero is @sethgodin and his mantra is 'ship it' - a way of saying that the best way to learn is to make things and get them out in front of people before they are polished and 'perfect'.⁠⠀
So I took his advice and combined all three experiments. Today's newsletters will have links to a free e-course all about dyeing wool with daffodils.⁠⠀
I have been absolutely amazed by the colour you get from faded daffodil flowers (see the second photo). It is a bright, yet somehow soft, golden yellow which is now adding an amazing zing to my pile of plant dyed fabrics.⁠⠀
I am prone to obsessions.  My brain hones in on topics and rabbit holes away, a constant background chatter to my life.⁠⠀
It annoys the people I live with as my world shrinks to one topic. ⠀
My camera roll shows me it is three years ago this week that I returned to natural dyeing with plants, concentrating on using only the plants growing within a couple of miles.⁠⠀
Three years of experimenting with plant after plant, three years of googling and reading obscure articles and piling up samples. ⁠three years of conversation about mordants and modifiers. ⠀
Three years is a short time in such a slow craft. A blink of an eye. ⁠⠀
But already I can see a difference in my skill.⁠⠀
This is a corner of the cupboard where I stash my fabrics and yarns building up enough for a project.  These have all been dyed this year - with barks and cones. ⁠⠀
This week I am dyeing with bright deadheaded daffodils and the golden yellows will join these soft terracottas and pinks while I dream up something to make.
I grow very few white flowers. ⁠⠀
White summer flowers tend to mark in the rain - white roses look like discarded tissues, white dahlias spot brown.  Even cosmos purity - which I do grow - goes droopy and grey in a way that the coloured versions don't.⁠⠀
The petals of spring bulbs however seem rain resistant - so I can indulge my love of white flowers and enjoy them backlit by the morning sun on the Studio window shelf.
Bright and light and pretty.
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Many of the seedlings are for the community gardens - being planted out gradually under fleece. We are biding time, taking the cautious route so that we minimise the risk of everything being wiped out by a very cold night.⁠⠀
We still have a full month of frosts to go here - little ones of -2 or 3 are manageable, an extra covering of fleece, some bricks to act like a storage heater.  Most hardy seedlings will recover from getting their tips nipped a bit.⁠⠀
Last year though we had a really cold night in mid May, when growth was going well and sappily. It blasted the blossom and killed many of my hardy veg too. Slightly too late to resow.⁠⠀
Speak to the older generation of gardeners and they all sowed and planted out much later than is the fashion today.  They perhaps had a point.
I wrote in my Friday letter this week about the sudden lifting of the uncertainty and inertia that had been dogging me for a few months.⁠⠀
It's always easier to write about these things once they are resolved - do you find that?  Once I am unstuck and lolloping along happily again, I can look at it all and not get sucked down.⁠⠀
Of course all this talk of getting going again, of new plans and exciting things . . . . it all actually means hard work. ⁠⠀
Head down, working through an actual written plan kind of hard work.  Not always my natural strength.⁠⠀
So yesterday I rearranged the studio window shelves and cleared the working table, ready for an uninterrupted start today. ⁠⠀
An attempt to keep momentum.

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