It’s not been the easiest time in my life, but the past 5 years have been the making of me – mentally and physically. I’ve been a full-time mum for 7 years, having left the teaching profession to focus on being with the kids in their formative years. I’ve loved being at home, but have also had to deal with illness, culminating in a diagnosis of coeliac disease. Compared to what many people have to cope with it hasn’t been too bad, but it has still required a change of mindset and re-education where food and cooking is concerned.
During this time gardening has been a really positive force in my life and has inspired me to follow a new direction – training as a garden designer and setting up as a gardening blogger and writer. I’ve also become involved in several community garden projects including The Wynd Garden, The ‘In Bloom’ Garden and The International Garden Cities Garden in Letchworth, and the Triangle Community Garden in Hitchin. Through my volunteering I’ve seen how gardening can help people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to develop confidence, overcome problems and enjoy a meaningful relationship with the natural world.
I’ve recently had an article published in Free-From Heaven (a great magazine with endless lovely healthy recipes and stories) and hope it might help others to grow their way to happiness. I’m not sure I’m a prolific gardener and I don’t spend much time crimping pasties, but apart from that it’s all true!
The full text is reproduced below the image – do leave me a comment below with feedback and let me know how gardening/cooking has influenced your life. Thanks.
My Free-From Life…
Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be up at dawn, exploring the natural world at its most active, listening to the dawn chorus and engaging with the day in its infancy. In reality most mornings I struggled to rise for work, or in the early days of motherhood, to soothe night-time toddler traumas. And much as I loved interacting with my kids, games, for me, were generally conducted from the sofa rather than the floor.
Then five years ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, like my father five years previously and slowly I began to understand the reasons why my expectations so far exceeded my abilities. I was tested because of my family history and registered positive in both the blood test and a biopsy. Initially we thought I was asymptomatic, but after a year on a gluten-free diet I realised other people didn’t try harder than me to get out of bed in the morning – they just had more energy than I did. My general health and energy levels, which I’d never thought of questioning, improved rapidly.
Over the past five years I’ve rearranged my life around new rules. I generally choose not to eat out as I’m extremely sensitive to gluten and have had a couple of bad experiences in the past, so as a full-time mum I turned to my house and garden, to growing, harvesting and cooking my own food as a way of regaining control of my life. Using my gradually developing energies, I learned to create the kind of food I feared I’d be missing now eating out was off the menu.
Initially I used the garden to provide ingredients for my cooking, but it quickly became something greater, an inspiration, an education and a growing passion. My garden became a haven, somewhere I felt comfortable, but also somewhere I was finally able to develop my relationship with the natural world. I started laying the first border into the grass at a stage where I could only manage an hour’s digging before retreating to bed, then laid paths, developed flower borders, nature areas and set up a productive, although small, fruit cage and three vegetable beds. As a family space, the garden gives us a base for finding essential oddments for craft activities, gardening with the children (as I write, they have a thriving bed filled with carrots, oca and enthusiastic nasturtiums) and a willow den, which my father and I built using willow whips, and which now can entirely absorb passing small children into its frondy interior in summer games of hide-and-seek.
Produce from the garden has been an inspiration in my cooking. As I’ve begun to master gluten-free cakes, biscuits and a variety of different pastries, the garden has provided. It has offered vegetables for Cornish pasties, raspberries and alpine strawberries for adding magic to cupcakes with the kids and baskets of fruit which my husband carefully transforms into jellies, jams and chutneys to see us through the winter. As my confidence in gluten-free cooking has grown, I have begun to create more ambitious foods. Birthdays now always mean a big gluten-free cake – anything from rainbow cakes to flower garden cakes and even an entirely gluten-free gingerbread house! Most normal recipes need a little alteration, but we think my cakes and biscuits are generally pretty similar to gluten alternatives.
Bread is the latest challenge – one of our New Year’s resolutions for 2016. Soda bread has been very successful, especially when eaten on the day it’s made – with a homemade soup based on seasonal vegetables from the garden. My first focaccia attempt would have been extremely useful as a building material, but had little culinary merit. Since then I’ve experimented with different flours, psyllium husks and flax seeds. The results are slowly improving and I’m hopeful that a soft, tasty loaf with plenty of added fibre is just around the corner. Perfect to spread with home-grown jam or to make into a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich, with salad freshly picked from the garden.
I no longer feel the need to rise at dawn because I now engage with the world in a more immediate way. I’m out there, doing what I love, greeting the days with renewed energy, grateful for my new life and my good health.
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If you’d like to get involved with volunteering in your local area there are many community gardens throughout the UK. The BBC has a list of local gardening projects, the RHS runs the Britain in Bloom and It’s your Neighbourhood projects which offer local volunteering opportunities and the social and therapeutic gardening charity Thrive also has four community gardens around the country supported by local volunteers.
With thanks to my friends and family for their support and to all the garden volunteers who give so much and make so much of a difference.