On remembering what I want to be when I grow up

Tank Green/ October 9, 2022/ Gardening

I used to think that there was nothing that I wanted to be when I grow up, hence the lack of meaningful work. However, I have realised that is not quite accurate. It is not that I did not know what I wanted to be when I grow up, it is more that since what I wanted to be seemed unfeasible, I resigned myself to a life of meaningless work. That resignation was so long ago now, that I forgot there was any desire there before it. Well, no more! I have remembered. 😎

My beautiful, shoebox of light came with a fairly large garden (given the size of the flat). It was pretty much derelict when I moved in 1.5 years ago; one of the first things I did was put up a potting shed, because adults with gardens have sheds. Fact. I transplanted a few of the plants I had grown in my old place and half-heartedly tended to them. I had all these grand designs for a wildlife friendly / biodiverse space but somehow, I could never quite muster the enthusiasm to actually do it. In part, it was because the soil is shite: clay, poor quality, and full of rubble and broken glass. I knew it would be a hard task to get things to grow.

The thing about life is that sometimes you need all the threads to weave in before ‘the moment’ of clarity and action finally arrives. You can have desires and aspirations for days, but until all of the directions of interest converge, you never quite get moving. For me, the desire to have a wildlife garden has triggered the recovery of a memory, but to get there, I needed a whole heap of fleeting interests to come together into a happy little tapestry of joy.

Thread one: I have a garden.

Thread two: there is an incredible amount of wildlife here, despite being a grimy, run down, inner London neighbourhood. There is a fairly large colony of starlings which mainly live in the raggedy old hostel across the road but also in my wall, at least one robin, several tits, crows, magpies, wood and rat pigeons, two to three foxes, the occasional gull, swifts in the summer, squirrels, and there used to be a flock of 10-15 goldfinches until the bastard council cut down the two trees they loved. 🤬

Thread three: in my local park, there is a community garden tended to by an older Irish lady. It is absolutely beautiful! She has an excellent eye and very green thumbs, perhaps even a green body. The garden has so much life and motion; I always admire it as I walk by. I love the way she reuses old drawers or tyres as planters, and old chairs to add height. It’s kind of ramshackle and with its meandering chaos, it feels really alive. One day last summer, I decided to ask her for some seeds which she generously provided me with, alongside some seedlings. As we walked around her garden, I was utterly in awe of the quality of her soil. It was so good it almost looked edible. She said the secret was wood chips: she took as much as she was offered and used them as a mulch to improve the soil.

Thread four: a couple of years ago, I read an article about how trees communicate to each other through mycelial networks under the ground. This blew my mind in the most creative of ways and also reminded me of The Secret Life of Plants which I have since re-read. This thread blossomed when in sharp succession: I watched Star Trek: Discovery wherein they travel through space on the mycelial network (OH MY GOD, YES!!! 🤩); and then I read Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets, a person so epic in creative fungi knowledge-through-experimentation, that he has the ultimate honour of having a character in Discovery named after him. In addition, I watched the Fantastic Fungi documentary on Netflix which is also cool as mushery.

Thread five: last year, someone told me about bokashi ‘composting’ (it is really fermentation) which piqued my interest a bit, due to the fact that you can compost all your food waste, not just the uncooked vegetable matter plus garden waste, which is the limit of normal home composting systems. However, given that my council recycles all our food waste, doing bokashi seemed unnecessary at the time.

Thread six: my general interest in microbes!

Thread seven: the serious drought this year showed me how desperately I needed to improve my soil before I could ever have a nice garden. The clay soil had caked and split and the few plants I did have were parched, as I only have one water butt and no other external water source. For microbial reasons, improving my soil seemed eminently more interesting than just growing plants and this spurred me to action.

Thread eight: the council used to sell back high quality mulch made from our food waste for a very reasonable price. Therefore, in late summer of this year, I tried to buy some to put down over the autumn/winter, but they told me they no longer sell it back to residents. 😱

At first, I was absolutely gutted as this meant no affordable way of improving my soil. However, I soon recovered as being told no is pretty much a red flag to this stubborn, Taurean bull: now I had to improve my soil at all costs. In fact, we can thank the council, as their shitty decision to not re-sell our composted food waste was the catalyst which has led to me finally knowing what I want to be when I grow up. 😎 (I can only hope that the goldfinches have had a similarly happy ending.)

I then spent about a month trying to find some wood chips for free off local tree surgeons, but they mainly seem to sell them on for biomass or the timing wasn’t right. (The council also won’t give or sell it to residents as they use it in the parks.) So I bit the bullet and bought 2000L of woodland mulch, because I can’t do maths and I forgot I have a shed taking up a large swathe of the garden. Whatever, now I have enough wood chips for the next decade. 😉 

Then I bought some bokashi composting bins and a garden composter to turn the ferment into actual compost. In the UK, you can get the bins for cheaps off getcomposting, as the council subsidises the purchases.

Next, I bought some mushroom spawn because MICROBIAL LIFE IS LIFE! I have gone with King Stropharia because apparently they are the easiest to grow. The spawn hasn’t arrived yet (hopefully soon!), but the wood chips arrived on Friday and were spread and rolled around on then. The composting bins arrived on Saturday alongside the lyrics and melody for a song about how I am the mother of microbes. Today, I have pleurisy again, likely because I was literally rolling around on the wood chips on Friday because it made me so happy to have them. I’ve probably inhaled some woodland microbial parasite, but whatever, ’tis the price we pay for love and happiness and bountiful soil.

One of my neighbours helped me decant the wood chips (thank god, or else I’d still be at it) and in return, I tidied up his garden a bit yesterday. He also agreed to let me put my old cat house (aka kennel aka catnel) in his garden under the tree to see if the foxes will live in it, as they otherwise sleep under the tree. I’m going to put some straw in the catnel to make it more enticing. As I was sorting out both of our gardens for the winter, the robin came and checked out my handiwork, and a squirrel dragged half a baguette along the fence. Later on, the foxes came and dug up half the lilies I had replanted in my neighbour’s garden and took a dump right in the middle of my wood chips. Thanks, foxies.

As my neighbour and I were talking, I suddenly realised that I do know what I want to be when I grow up! I always have, it just seemed so unachievable that I discounted it. However, I have a renewed aspirational vigour, and total lack of cynicism, so I am now determined to achieve my goals.

Here goes it: I want want to be Dr Doolittle, or, shall we say, Dr Tanklittle, when I grow up. I am already a Dr, so I do have a head start, and as I say, I have a wide variety of wildlife in my house and back garden to start practicing with. If I can’t be Dr Tanklittle, then I also accept being Snow White, not because of princes, but because she also had a very good relationship with little birds and other animals. Failing all of that, I’ll be the version of Elliott who doesn’t punk out and actually leaves with E.T., but that really is a last resort.

So there you have it. In Mycellium Running, I learnt about this type of fungi that infects ants and makes them climb to the tops of trees where they promptly die, and then the fungi fruits from the ant’s body. As it is so high in the canopy, the fungi’s spores can travel much further than if it just fruited on the forest floor. I concede that in my efforts to cultivate microbial diversity in my inner and outer world, I may well have been infected by one which is rendering me absolutely batshit insane. However, I have decided that is a price worth paying, because who doesn’t want to roll around on wood chip mulch and make up songs with the animals?

11th October 2022 update: I have now attracted 4 ring necked parakeets to my window thus verifying that my Dr Tanklittle dream is blossoming its way to coming true. Although, after reading that NHM article, I have also decided that this irritating bug I cannot shake is psittacosis… 😉

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