Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Standing Up

This post has been a long time coming and won't be that garden focussed but for those of you who ask why I always feel the need to stand up to the bullies here goes...........
Gardens, plants and growing have been my life for as long as I can remember. A yearning to be outside, growing beautiful plants and creating wonderful spaces is my reason for being and I consider myself the most fortunate person alive to be in the position I am, not just doing this myself, but also supporting other people to join in, have a go and celebrate their success. It gives me untold joy to support people and organisations to improve their environments with gardens, be they productive or ornamental, large or small. And the way these spaces change communities, getting them up and active, engaged and excited, is the most humbling and amazing thing. I am, to use a social media phrase, blessed.
But throughout this career have been some very dark periods, all of which have been created in the first instance, by bullies.
Workplace bullying is difficult. It is often wrapped up in conversations along the line of conflicting personalities and comments around ability and the bully knows exactly what they are doing, and how careful the line must be that they tread whilst constantly dripping negativity about the person into the ears of everyone around them. For months I dreaded opening my emails, and regularly received emails telling me I was wrong and he was right. On one occasion these led to a a huge dispute between directors who at that point were seemingly taking sides, and a huge argument in my office, with me there, about how the issue was being dealt with. I dreaded going to work, despite being totally in love with the beautiful walled garden nursery I was managing, because here was someone I had to liase with daily who was trying to get rid of me. To drive me out.
Fortunately at the same time I joined Twitter and looked for other gardeners, and the relief was palpable when I was able to join in conversations, support others to garden and slowly, very slowly, although work was beyond distressing, I began to believe in myself a bit more. I started to run workshops, to have a horticultural life away from the workplace and things felt like they might be ok.
But as with everything, there are highs and lows and a year before I left this workplace I had a serious breakdown. It followed an event where the bully had openly been slating me for being "lazy and useless" when a good pal was in the room, and unbeknownst to me, she made a formal complaint and it was taken to HR, who were so concerned they suggested that the gross misconduct line had been crossed and he should leave. But that didn't happen and  instead he upped the pressure, finding my Twitter account and recounting it to the owners of the business. At this point they knew nothing of the workshops and courses because I had done them in my own time, either at weekends or taking annual leave, but they insisted they stop if I wanted to continue to work there. Very quickly Twitter went from being my safe space to one where I could say very little, despite having closed my account down so tightly that for several months I didn't even allow new followers.
And then I received a call. A call that I thought would change my life. A call to be interviewed for a job where the owner of a nursery had asked to meet me. Someone who at that time I admired was headhunting me! So off I went to the interview, and got the job. And jumped straight from the bullying pan into the bullying fire. Constantly being told you know nothing, being made to feel like you have no voice, that you are useless, that you aren't interested in plants, or gardens, that you are slow, that anyone could do better, that you aren't trusted to water the plants..............
But at this point I knew what was happening. I had seen the bully for what they were. Just that. A bully. I had tried to have conversations, to work harder, to prove myself but after the first few weeks I knew I needed to be brave and leave. The final decision came when I was told that there were concerns about my "severe" depression, which was frankly not correct but more worryingly I knew the information had yet again been gleaned through social media and at that point I took control. They let me go stating non transferrable skills which made me hoot as the skill that I didn't have was driving.  It had been assumed I would drive the owner around in the evenings to talks and events, which had never been mentioned at the interview and which I would never have agreed to. I left with my head held high and at that moment promised myself that I would never be afraid of a bully again.
Why are you telling us this tale now I hear you asking.
What is your point Sara?

Well without going into the minutae, bullying happens on many scales and I have promised to stand up, with a lot of other people, to a particular bully in the city. And I am scared. I want to run away. I am close to tears and I feel alone. My voice feels broken, silenced in fear. I woke up this morning and for the first time in 5 years didn't have an immediate tweet, was afraid to speak my truth.
Name drop alert here, but last year I sat in a garden with Dave Myers and spoke openly about all this. Sadly it didn't make the cut, but he and the entire team were moved beyond words by the strength it sometimes takes to stand up and ignore the negative voices. Horrified that an industry that seems to be all about the environment, making beautiful spaces and being kind to our planet, can be so cruel and harsh. After leaving the last job it appeared it was a well known fact that the person was like this and it soon transpired there was a whole line of people before me that had been through the same. But no one will speak, even years after, in the belief that they signed a confidentiality clause in their contract and they would be honed down on by solicitors and the law. I never signed that clause, but equally I am never going to name names. That would make me the bully and that is something I am super conscious of, but it never fails to amaze me how years later the effects can still be seen in people. It never leaves you. The fear is what remains.
Why am I telling you this now? Because it is my truth and it explains a lot about how important i feel compassion and kindness is. Because I feel like bullies can create huge and unpleasant schisms and that isn't fair on all the people it affects. Because bullying leads to poor mental and physical health that over the years it becomes harder and harder to bounce back from. Because I hate to think that anyone might have been so abjectly affected by it that at times they may too have felt, or feel like their voice is squashed and they are silenced.
Today its Valentines Day and as it draws to an end I have just seen a post from a friend on Facebook asking whether Valentines could be repurposed into a day where we promise to treat people with care and respect in the year to come. So here I am committing to do just that. To lead with kindness from my core in everything I do, because that is the only way we are going to find a kinder world.
And finally, if this resonates with you don't be afraid to get in touch, but also to look at the link below. You still have your voice however much you feel like you can't use it, and someone will help you to speak your truth............xx

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

#britishflowers 2018

Those of you who regularly read this blog will not be one bit shocked that I am about to talk about British Flowers. It is a regular post in my year of posting and every year I promise to do more to support the British Flower growers with whom I talk across many social media platforms.
Small production has a special place in my heart, not just of flowers but generally. Farmers, makers, flower growers are all amazing people, fighting for their industries and supporting the local economies of small towns and villages across the country. I have long yearned for my own patch to grow, and whilst my own career has seen me walk a different path, this dream is one I hold dear and hope to make reality at some point.
All these photos were taken at Common Farm Flowers in Somerset by my dear pal  Andrew Jones

However, it is at this time of year that is becomes particularly poignant as we see the florists on every high street and online gearing up to send out a million roses, all brought in from flower farms across the world in places as far away as Africa and South America. Covered in chemicals, they barely even look like the garden rose we know and love but instead always remind me of a cartoon rose. Sometimes they even look as if they are a little dog eared around the edges, with their long, straight stems and inability to open properly. Last year there were some studded with fake diamonds. They will last fleetingly, and briefly be a reminder that the special person in our lives has gone to the effort of buying a gift, but do these chemical ridden roses with their huge carbon foot print really say I love you?
Stunning, jewel like Anemones

They are a part of our consumer habit. Just like the food we throw into our trollies in the super market, we know deep down that the claims made about them are untrue. In the same way as we know that a certain chains so called farms are just a marketing ploy to make you feel as if you are making ethical decisions, so the flowers we buy are the same. The idea that they are expensive at this time of year means they must be ok? And yet year on year we hear dreadful stories in the press about the reality of these equatorial flower farms, where mainly women work long hours in hot and enormous polytunnels, where mists of chemicals are often sprayed whilst they are in the houses and with little or no personal protection. Always there is an outcry and yet still the high street and online florists struggle to buy enough to get through the day. It's as if we know, but feel compelled but he greater force, the force that is consumerism.
In Africa Lake Victoria, bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya and once supporting the livelihoods of 30 million people in those countries, is dying. Choked by algal blooms it is widely believed that some of the reason for this is the huge flower farms surrounding it, as they allow run off from chemical and fertiliser applications in to the lake. But the demand from the west is so huge it continues whilst keeping the workforce in those countries in poverty and ill health.
Soon to open double tulips that are scented!

And it is because we are consumers and we can do nothing to counteract that. Or can we? Can we fight for a world where we are at least ethical consumers? Where we know that when we give a farmer or a maker our hard earn money rather than it disappearing into an off shore account to be given to a shareholder, that that money supports a family and a community.
And the answer is yes we can. By supporting local veg box schemes, community supported agriculture, local farm shops and farmers markets, we can of course make more ethical choices. By buying through online markets such as Fresh Range and Farm Drop we can avoid the supermarkets and ensure we support great local producers. And although it might appear to be more expensive, by committing to great produce, from great producers who care about the food they are growing, whatever it may be, we will commit to less waste and ensure we get the most from the food we buy. Ask yourself how much you throw away from your supermarket shop each week? A simple menu plan and shopping list will stop this. Trust me. I know. It's how I shop and our bill is always more if we end up in a panic shop in the supermarket.
Stunning Ranunculus

But back to flowers!. There are no flowers in season I hear you cry. But there are I cry back at you. Narcissi, tulips, ranunculus, anemones and more are all flowering like crazy and available right now. it may not be an easy thing but ask your local florist what is UK grown and refuse to buy from the Dutch markets, which are the bottle neck between the large foreign growers and our high street and online stores. Or look at the British Flower Collective, Flowers From The Farm, both of whom can find you your nearest florist that supports our UK growers or your nearest flower grower so you can buy direct. And if that's not enough you could look on websites such as Common Farm Flowers and buy beautifully grown British Flowers direct by mail order, to be delivered to your love wherever in the UK he or she is.
In the UK we spend £2 billion per year on flowers and at least 90% of that is for flowers that are flown in from abroad. Our British growers are mainly running their farms to agro ecological standards, just as small food growers do. Not only are they supporting themselves and the communities they are surrounded by, but they are also supporting our world, our environment and all the other creatures that we share the earth with. There are no algal blooms at Common Farm but there are earthworms, slow worms and the bird song is orchestral. Flower farms across the country are doing the same, creating a better world for all.
Wonderful spring blooms

Recently I have found my voice wavering. On social media I have been told I am wearing rose tinted glasses, looking back to a time through romantic eyes. That I have no idea of the pressures of family budgets. That I should be quiet. Sit down and say no more. For a while I felt silenced by the haters. But in the last few days I have remembered the voice I have and why I need to use it, and I will support small business for as long as there is breath in my lungs. We must begin to celebrate those who work on the land, or with their hands, creating beauty all around us. We must support them to move forwards, as a movement and in doing so lead lives where the really important things, family, community, eating together, kindness and love are what are seen as the important things in life, rather than the newest gadget. So why not start by saying I love you this year with a bouquet grown with love, kindness and hope?

Monday, 8 January 2018

Curated Nature......

It might be cold and grey but the gardening continues.....

Not in a seed sowing or even planting kind of a way, but in a planning and how will this garden work for me way which is important when you garden like I do. I garden predominantly for me, but not just in a making it look the way I like kind of way, although of course that is important but I feel it's important to go deeper than that and look at ethics in the garden.

Tithonias-rarely seen without a bee!!

I am loathe to use the word organic, because for me that isn't quite enough. Organic for me is a tool for certification; a means to an end for recognition rather than an ethic. That is not to say I don't appreciate the effort it takes to get organic certification because I am more than aware of the skill and shear hard work that this takes, but unless I was going to open my garden, what would be the point? I'm not interested in opening my garden but I am interested in creating a space that is healthy, clean if you like, and that will support more than a nice place to sit. I want to support nature and there is definitely a challenge in that in a space this small. By supporting nature I mean I want to create a natural space that feels like home to wildlife, the flora and fauna all around us but that aren't there. Or at least aren't there yet.

Now this is not new to me. Turning 40 acres of nursery from conventional to organic horticulture taught me a whole lot of things that had I not have had that opportunity, I may never have considered. There is truth in the saying, "make it and they will come", but patience is an important part of this process, as is living by the seasons and accepting that it will happen if you give it time.

But back to the garden. It's a teeny, tiny space, maybe 5m by 5m. I'll measure it at some point but that measurement isn't all that important. What's important is that it will be jam packed to the rafters with beauty that will support nature in a somewhat curated way. All the plants will be good for insects and bees, and there will be spaces for invertebrates to hide. It may not be spotless, or look like a main avenue garden at RHS Chelsea, but it will be a haven for wildlife as well as for those invited into it.

Doesn't have to be ornate! In previous gardens this type of feeder has brought in birds a plenty.

What I have never had to factor into a garden previously is that into this already busy space I have to put food growing. At the moment I have no allotment, although 42 edible spaces across the city should stop me feeling bereft from that, but I do want to include both fruit and vegetables in my plan. This is going to lead to an interesting use of vertical space that will include products that will support using the walls as well as clever, I hope, use of archways and climbing plants. We will have to wait and see if this works, but I am entering into the nothing ventured, nothing gained ethos here, and if it doesn't work I can reassess and possibly look at an allotment.

So what are you doing to start this process back to nature Sara, I hear you say? Well birds are the answer and as I sat in the garden drinking tea on Sunday morning I listened to the amazing chorus that is out there every morning and decided Sunday was the day to begin the process, if that is what you can call it, of bringing them in. I thought about a bird table but there were concerns over cats and also how much of the garden it would appear to be taking up, so instead we pootled off to Wilkinsons and bought a stand for bird feeders along with some new feeders, and filled them with peanuts, fat balls, nyger seed and a seed mix. And now we will wait and wonder who will be first to use it as they fly across the gardens that up until now they have ignored. I hope they hurry because I am spending an unearthly amount of time watching from the kitchen window.

Zinnias-the darling of the cut flower grower but still great for pollinators.

I'll keep you up to date!!

And just in case you weren't aware you can find me on both Twitter and Instagram where I am @saralimback!!

Friday, 22 December 2017

A Visit To.......The Living Rainforest

I woke up on Sunday with an urge for a botanical type visit to somewhere new, so we did a bit of Googling and decided to pootle off to The Living Rainforest, just off the M4 near Newbury.
I am super interested at the moment in the way people are embracing houseplants and keen to remind folk that houseplants are garden and forest plants in other climes and I am trying to work out how we link the two things so that indoor gardeners realise that they are a part of the gardening community, even if they are just getting planty indoors. Anyway that's for another day!!

The Living Rainforest is on the site of what was Wyld Court Orchids in Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire, and is run by the Trust for Sustainable Living. The greenhouses now house three separate rainforest zones, with appropriate planting, and some wildlife, from each in the separate zones. Sadly when we were there the sloth was hiding, but we did see his back. What amazed me the most is that the centre supports 23,000 school children per year to learn about the rainforest and it's importance for the planet, which for me makes it a space I will always want to support. If we are to change the way we perceive the world we have to turn children and young people into passionate environmentalists who will use future votes to make sure we protect what effectively protects us.

I am not going to bore you with lots of words here because the photos really do speak for themselves, but what I will say is that this is a great place to visit with or without children, and if you are at all interested in what we today see as houseplants in their natural environments or just with each other as they would be in rainforests across the world, this is a great place to visit. Plus, go once, and you have a ticket for a year!!

Jade Vine (Strongyloden macrobotrys) from the Philippines.
Monstera deliciosa and water lettuce in one of the ponds. 
Anthurium veitchii. The leaf was as tall as me!
Madagascan Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
More ponds and more Monstera!

For further info and visiting details go to the website at

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The New Garden.........

I have had several social media requests for an update on the new garden so I thought a little something would be a good idea in the run up to Christmas festivities. As many of you will know we don't celebrate Christmas here at Venn Towers, preferring to celebrate the solstice and just take time out of our busy lives to rest and recuperate over the festive period. And with that usually comes a whole lot of preparation for the garden, ensuring that we are ready for the months ahead when life with my own space and supporting 41 others usually gets a tad manic. There is also a very new and exciting incredible edible Bristol project I need to tell you about soon, so watch this space for that!!
The aquaponics unit, surrounded by pots of bulbs

Thus far I have really done very little. The garden is completely gravel so there has been a lot of weeding to do and that will need keeping up with as the blighters continue to germinate despite the cold. The aquaponics unit is in place and the fish survived the move, and we are working to make the system more sustainable next year with a solar pump and aeration but I will return to that once we get the equipment. My pots have been weeded and a fair few filled with bulbs so there will be some colour in late spring, and I have bought a bit of bedding to alleviate the grey.

But what has been most exciting is a conversation I had with Burgon and Ball who have kindly agreed to gift me some products to really support the use of the whole space, whilst turning the garden into a really sociable as well as productive and beautiful space. At the weekend we put up the first of these which is a great peg board on which tools can be kept, as well as other bits and pieces which in my life usually end up being flung somewhere only to be found several weeks later, usually a bit the worse for wear!! I also have some of their amazing Flora Brite tools in pink, which should ensure my habit of going through lots of tools is abated because in a tiny space there is no way I can lose those tools. Or at least I hope that is the case! What I am most excited about with this type of product is that it, as well as the rest of the range it belongs to,  the Garden Supplies range, can be used inside or outside, or anywhere in between, so people with balconies or just window boxes, could still use this range. For example I have the herb planters on my kitchen windowsill, bringing the garden into the kitchen.

So that is where we are so far. There will be lots more to come over the following weeks so do keep an eye open for updates and let me know in the comments if there is anything in particular you'd like to know more about.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A Date with Mr Don....

I mentioned in my last post that I was writing on a train to a book launch in London, so now some more about that.
I was somewhat surprised to be invited to the launch of Monty Don's new book, titled Down to Earth, but was at the same time thrilled. Monty and I may have an interesting relationship what with #shoutyhalfhour but having worked together with Ross on Big Dreams, Small Spaces last year, in reality we actually have quite a lot in common. I have always been an enormous fan of his writing, which touches my soul in a really deep and emotional way. In fact The Jewel Garden:A Story of Despair and Redemption is one of the books I return to over and over and has pulled me out of moments of real crisis. What thrills me about Down to Earth is that it is a book about why we garden. For most of us, whether we garden for pleasure or for a living, or of course as with so many of us for both, we recognise that why we garden is as important as how we garden and those two things feed each other. I have been thinking about why I garden quite a lot lately and this book and the few words Monty said at the launch about why he wrote it, have really supported me to have that internal conversation. I will come back to that. It will not be an easy thing to write but I will get there.

The seating areas at Ham Yard Hotel were surrounded by beds filled with Cosmos and Mexican Fleabane, cool and calming colours in such an urban space.

Now back to the book. I haven't read it all yet. It's in the pile to read in the dark of December and January. But I have read the introduction several times and on first read I can't deny that the tears fell. There are two quotes that really made me think.
The first is "....good gardens are as much about the people that make them as the plants growing in them. You are an integral part of your garden. Without you it will not exist."
The second "Life is short and absurd and run through with pain and sorrow. But in the face of real suffering, gardening can make our days shine with joy."

I could spend my time discussing those quotes but needless to say my feelings about them are wrapped up in the role I play now, supporting others to garden, and in the deep connection that my mother had with her garden and with me through that space. Gardens have supported me through more loss than I can even describe, including the loss of mum, but through many a crisis, both mental and physical. For me, and for others I am sure, to find someone willing and able to annunciate those words is a joy. The writing is empathetic and deeply touching. And kind. And that is what I really think Monty is. It was lovely to be greeted with a warm welcome from him, the comment that it was lovely to be welcomed by a friendly face, and the feeling that the words were sincere. Our conversations went from how Ross was doing to Big Dreams and led onto a short but meaningful conversation about Gardeners World, initiated by Monty. And no, I am not going to tell you what was said dear reader, but the words were kind, considered and understanding. My critique of the programme has never been about Monty, and always about the programme which, and I am saying this now in public, has I believe begun to really improve now it is an hour long and taking on board a lot of the criticism and shortcomings that have been mentioned over the years.

The beautiful bug hotel on the edge of the veg patch. there are also two bee hives on the roof which will explain the amazing crops up there!

And all of this happened in a garden. A garden in the top of the roof of the Ham Yard Hotel in central London. With the bustling life of Soho below us, we wandered around this extraordinary space, with it's seating areas, flowers and beautiful vegetable garden, delighting in the garden and in the use of the space. I deeply believe that green roofs and gardens have a vital role to play in cities and to see such a wonderful space and be within it, whilst being surrounded by the roof tops and spires of Soho was entrancing and joyous. Even better was that I got to share it with other garden blogger pals, whose blogs and vlogs about the event I will post links to below.

I do just have to comment though on the sad folks who thought that it was ok to troll me on social media after the event. I didn't post a photo of me with Monty on Twitter because I knew what it might lead to, but someone did, and the trolls came out in force. Of course they are completely ignored but it's a sadness that people think that the point of #shoutyhalfhour is to personally ridicule someone. It never was, and it never will be. And in fact some folk will tell you that I have spoken to them personally if it has ever looked as if the criticism was becoming personal.

So in essence I think what I am saying is go out and buy this book. After the intro there are sections on a whole host of things, including urban gardens, small gardens, wildlife gardening and all have the usual down to earth, practical advice you would need to create a garden in the way you might want or need to. The book is peppered with photos that are stunning and my feeling is that not only is it a fabulous edition to your gardening library, but that it would also make a fabulous gift for someone who either is becoming interested in gardening, or who is just starting out in a garden, how ever small. But I also think it's the perfect book to inspire people to understand that horticulture, gardening or whatever you want to call it, is therapeutic. It's a thing we do as much for our souls as for the aesthetic and the power of those two creative elements joining can lead to the creation of some incredibly powerful spaces. Not all those spaces will appeal to everyone of course, but as long as you, the creator, loves it and it makes you happy, anyone else's reactions are by the bye.....

Other blogs about the day........

Saturday, 30 September 2017

I'm back........

It's been a while. And I was going to start by apologising for that until I realised I've done that twice before and so I'm in a cycle and that cycle needs breaking.
I have nothing to apologise for, but I do want to share a few things to support some continuity. And the first of those things is that I haven't been very well. I don't think until yesterday even I realised how unwell, but the depression and anxiety have been back pretty much all summer. The result of this is a little voice in my head telling me not to do anything that the positive side wants to do, making the spiral into the black hole even more acute. Going out into the garden, working the allotment, writing here are all things that demon stops me from doing, telling me that even if I do, it won't be good enough, and generally bullying me into inactivity. It's a hideous, sad and lonely space to be and the pressure it creates is beyond frightening. 
But why? There's a question occasionally it's important to ask of yourself and deal with the answer properly. And one of the answers is that I have been beyond unhappy living where we are. We moved into our house 2 years ago, when my daughter and her partner were still with us, Des our little dog was still with us, and we were excited, or so I kidded myself, that we had a garden after just a courtyard in our city centre flat. But the reality has been much different. Our ward in Bristol was one of only a couple that voted to leave the EU, the provision for fresh food is dire, and its right up there in the most deprived areas of the city, and I had hoped to be able to work to support Incredible Edible Bristol into the area. But all I've heard is 'you don't come from round here' in various guises. Never have I felt so out of place. 
So yesterday we visited what will be our new home. It's perfect. Views across the city from upstairs, and a tiny garden that is a  completely blank canvas. Excited doesn't cover it. Reinvigorated, I have plans a plenty to really turn this into our home.
But there is something else I've battled with. An off the cuff remark by someone suggesting that, when I asked an online forum if others struggled to write at times, that my blog wasn't worth the effort if it didn't earn me any money, and nor was Incredible Edible Bristol. And that has brought about an internal, difficult conversation about worth. 
A lot, if not most, of what I do is voluntary. I don't hide that and I'm not trying to be some sort of saint. It's just the way it is. Incredible Edible Bristol is a voluntary organisation and as such supports expenses but funding for core costs is nigh on impossible. I really feel like I'm putting my head on the block writing this, but my thing is and always has been that If something needs doing let's do it. Waiting for funds often means things don't happen so we just get on with it! I think supporting 40 public realm gardens to begin and prosper over 4 years sets the precedent that just getting on with it, involving as many organisations as you can, and creating a buzz across the city, is the way to go to make real grassroots change. Yes it's meant sacrifices but its never occurred to me to prioritise my earning potential over getting on with it. My bag. My decision. 
Equally I write this blog, and my social media stuff for me. It's not my job. I'm aware of course that bloggers can and do earn a good living from blogging but although I'm not suggesting I never would, I never have. 
So that throw away comment really, really bothered me. Is everything we do supposed to be about financial worth? And if it is how do I change this so people take what I do seriously? I still don't have the answers to this but if anyone does, please share.....
So here I am, today, feeling much better, reinvigorated if not slightly nervous that firstly we have to move house which is my least favourite thing in the world to do ever, and that yet again I am wearing my heart on my sleeve. But there it is. Out there. 
Right now I'm on a train, off to a book launch in London and acutely aware I have books I've been sent to review, a garden and house to plan, and a very large project with Incredible Edible Bristol to plan. But today is a new day, those things will happen and the future is looking brighter.......