During lockdown, alongside fumbled, first time forays into sourdough, many of us discovered a newfound appreciation of nature. Perhaps it was listening to the birds in the newly quiet sky, or a sudden, detailed awareness of a tree you’d blindly walked past a thousand times, or maybe your fingers took on a fresh green hue as you planted your inaugural tomato plant.
The latter is something that urban gardener and grower Claire Ratinon can relate to. Living in New York and working as a documentary producer, she stumbled across a rooftop farm. The awe she felt at the juxtaposition of these plants set against the city skyline, alongside her new understanding of the growing process, would cause her career and life to shift gears.
As her new book How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House is published, we chatted with Claire to find out how food growing changed her life, how taking notes can help you pause and reflect, and what you can grow if you have no outdoor space (or even sunlight) at all.
Photo by Andrew Montgomery/Immediate media
I discovered food growing by accident. I was working in New York as a documentary maker when a friend and I were looking for this flea market. It turned out it didn't actually exist but as were looking for it, we happened to spot this handwritten poster which said 'Come see our rooftop farm'. It just seemed like a wonderfully implausible prospect and so we couldn't resist the urge to have a look.
It really was transformational for me. I didn't grow up as a nature lover but up there on that rooftop I suddenly realised how little I understood of what it took to feed us. Not only the actual growing but how important all of the natural systems are: how they uphold us, how much we are a part of them and how much they are a part of us. I was just so compelled by it that I kept going back to volunteer most weekends that summer until the end of the season. By the end of the second season I had made a decision to come back to London to see if I could make food growing a part of my life.
To be a part of that vibrant system is completely integral to what it means to be human. Whether we find going out into nature oppositional or not, we are still beings of nature, connected to every other living thing, and food growing has been the pathway and kind of prism through which I have reestablished an understanding of those connections, and a reverence for those connections, because they are so magnificent. I think that's why I'm so eager to encourage people to participate in it even if it's on the smallest scale in a pot in their little courtyard garden, on a window sill or in a hanging basket.
Photo by Rita Platts / Ida Riveros
“I always say “we take care of the plants, and they take care of us right back.””
Even though I wasn't very nature orientated, I was definitely food orientated. Food is such an important part of my family life, it's the way we communicate our affections and our history. I particularly loved when our parents, who are from Mauritius, cooked us the food of our family. So I think it was understandable that when I came to growing plants, I came to it because I was like “God, this produce is amazing and it's so beautiful and tastes different to any tomato I've ever tasted.”
A lack of nature can set the groundwork for mental health challenges to be even more profound. For me the lack of nature came hand in hand with the more profound mental health challenges in my life. But it shouldn't be considered medicinal, it's not a therapeutic intervention. It should be considered essential before mental health challenges arrive because I think the absence of it is part and parcel of what makes mental health challenges even more challenging. I always say “we take care of the plants, and they take care of us right back” and that's what I really believe. I do think it's essential for human flourishing for us to have a good relationship with nature.
Something that seems to have come from this year is the opportunity to reevaluate how we spend our days. People were captivated by nature in the first few weeks of lockdown. It was like we suddenly heard bird song for the first time. I do think as devastating as this time has been, for some who were very privileged to pause in a way which wasn't stressful, they were able to see nature through this new lens. I hope it doesn't go away.
“It was like we suddenly heard birdsong for the first time.”
Because the process for me was so profoundly moving, engaging and uplifting, my hope is that that would be something that this book would be able to support other people to do. It is very much a beginner's guide – easy enough to use that if you'd really never done it before you’d feel confident enough to try.
Photo by Rita Platts / Ida Riveros
If you don’t have any outside space at all, there are two things I would say to grow. Either microgreens which, although not a fully grown plant, is a really fun and amazing way to still be sowing seeds and cultivate something that actually has a taste. And if you really haven't got any sunlight, you need to grow the one thing that doesn't require any to grow – mushrooms. You can grow those in a cupboard if you really wanted to.
If I could only grow one thing, I would grow tomatoes. Not every home grown tomato is delicious but every delicious tomato is home grown. If you're used to tomatoes from the supermarket, and then you grow one, then even if it's the most humble and unexciting little cherry tomato but it ripened in the sunshine of your little hanging basket space, I'm telling you, that punch of flavour is like nothing else.
I am the most avid notetaker. I have a growing diary for every year I’ve ever grown, even when I really didn't know what I was doing because that is how I organise my life and my brain. I'll write down when I sow a seed, when it germinates, when I harvest it for the first time, what worked, what didn't work, what the weather was like.
Photo by Rita Platts / Ida Riveros
It's not as much as a story to me if I don't know how these things unfolded. In the throes of the growing season every year once it gets busy, you won't remember. And now I also make notes on how many eggs we've got from our chickens, and if I can guess who laid it. Mimi has yet to produce an egg. She's holding out on us.
The notetaking really encourages you to slow down and do the really important work of observing. Then I would argue that you become a better grower or better gardener because you'll notice when something is in need of attention. The note taking process asks me to do the noticing, which sometimes when things are busy it gets really hard to do.
Claire's Papier Picks
How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House by Claire Ratinon is out now. Readers of The Fold can get an exclusive 25% off the book at www.laurenceking.com. Enter the discount code PAPIER25 at checkout to claim your discount and free UK postage. Ts&Cs apply.