Down to earth: the sustainability diaries

Today is the start of a new spectator sport for Pundit readers – watching me fall flat on my face in the dirt, in pursuit of sustainability

I have a perennial problem. It’s called July. I ride the train in the dark, and watch myself disappear. I count the days until August. They are too short, and too long. I want to blanket myself in earth and leaves, and hibernate for a month or two. My garden lies fallow. There’s little to look at, and nothing to eat. It rains and rains and rains.

July is the hour before dawn. It’s time for fixing mistakes smudged over by summer profusion, planting the last tree – a black mulberry for the birds – and the egotistical flourish of a signature rose.

If you’ve mused on the possibilities of a vegetable garden, with a fruit tree or two, July is the time to start – to lose yourself amongst the rows of heirloom fruit trees at the nursery, and be transported by Kings' seeds catalogue.

The vege-plot digging, fruit-tree planting enterprise has its sceptics. There’s no less truth in the scepticism than the effusions of some others. It is hard work to grow food. It may indeed turn out to be a “Felicity Kendal pipe dream. I don’t mind admitting that, to date, I have been barely able to feed myself through half of the year. Yet there is nothing in the world that I would rather do, or try to do.

The “sceptic”, Manny Howard, tries to do everything, all at once, on a Brooklyn pocket-handkerchief. That’s one way of testing many people’s reality. What he mainly (unintentionally?) demonstrates is a mindset: the instant-gratification garden-makeover mentality. Trying to bend nature to meet industrially-shaped modern-day expectations is an argument he’s bound to lose. It’s exactly the same argument we’re all in the middle of losing.

He misses the joy of taking a battered piece of land and restoring it to lush life – of finding a bright blue ladybird snug in its winter house, or a handful of random seed potatoes sprouting in the garden. I saw four goldfinches de-seeding grass in the icy dawn. “It was,” to quote Monty Don, “a heart-lurch of pleasure” – in July. They didn’t regret my weedy shortcomings, and suddenly, neither did I.

Maybe, one of these years, July in this garden will be worth waking up for.

I keep saying “garden”, but I’m trying something a bit different, following Robert Hart’s trail into the food forest. It sounds a whimsical notion. Robert Hart might have been a visionary, or a bit of a crackpot; he was a vegan follower of Ghandi, who ate a 90 percent raw food diet. At that part of the trail, my journey ends, but the rest of the theory is logical enough.

I’m wary, too, of a phenomenon I’ve noticed about vege gardeners and their progeny: everyone can see attributes in their own that bore the pants off the rest of us.

But there seems some slight public interest in finding out whether the average person and their family could eat greedily and deliciously and “normally” from a home garden, if they wanted - or, alternatively, that in fact they probably can’t. The goal this summer, then, is to see how much food my own 500m2 organic garden can produce. To prove, in short, that it is “sustain-able”.

Every so often – when I am tired of discoursing worthily about emissions and biofuel, and irrelevantly about the colour of Nick Smith’s tie – I’ll try to paint a picture of life in the forest. You can call it self-indulgence, if you like, or escapism masquerading as fact. I just call it a diary: “The sustainability diaries”.