I retired early and now I'm enjoying life travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning and writing about my experiences on this blog as I go along. See also @steveisreading @steveiswriting and @steverichards on twitter
In this post I cover an oft-requested topic. How my allotment centred life has helped me manage Adult Onset Still’s Disease (AOSD) and Fibromyalgia. AOSD is a very rare auto-inflamatory disease, as a result the information on the web is drawn from a small sample of patients and isn’t very accurate, but this site is a reasonable place to start http://stillswebsite.tripod.com/still%27s_disease_info.htm.
My video doesn’t focus too much on the disease and how it’s treated. Instead it delves into the impact that a range of lifestyle factors can have on managing the disease. This approach seemed to have worked for me, it might not work for you, in fact it might not have worked for me either – conincidences happen.
In the video I go through the diagram above in some detail. If you are interested in reading more about my experiences you can check out my blog. Follow this link for information on the disease and how I dealt with it:
In this video I explain why I started an Allotment, what it means to me and how the three plots work together as a little Allotment empire.
In brief, I retired a couple of years ago due to ill health and I got an allotment to fill the time that I’d previously spent working in the last few years, 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Not only did the allotment fill the time wonderfully, but it pretty much cured me, or at least kicked the auto-immune condition I suffered with into remission. I put it down to working in the soil, being in the fresh air and huge amounts of fruit and veg!
Over the last two years we’ve acquired three plots, I got mine first, then Debbie (my wife) and recently Jennie, one of my daughters got hers. We manage all three as a family and as one big plot. They feed us and lots of friends and family.
My plot provides the leafy greens and most of the root crops (except potatoes). Jennie’s plot provides the beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, squash and brassicas. Debbie’s is an ornamental kitchen garden, with a little of everything as well as lots of flowers and an orchard and berry garden.
We also have a kitchen garden at home, that provides the herbs, lots of soft fruit and convenience foods, like carrots, beets, chard, and a few lettuce.
Although New year’s resolutions seem to be going out of fashion I still like them. I print them out and stick them on my desk wall but I also have them on my phone in Google Keep, each one decorated with a nice photo as a visual reminder. I think they provide a good way for me to reassess my life and do a bit of periodic re-design. Here’s my belated progress report on last years resolutions:
Integrate exercise into my day – achieved This has been a great breakthrough for me. I’ve done much more exercise this year, but almost all of it has been outside of the gym and integrated into my normal day’s activities. Getting an allotment has helped, because that involves a lot of lifting, carrying, squatting, stretching etc, but I’ve also cycled around town more, carried all of the shopping, gone off trail and up more challenging paths while hiking and generally sought out opportunities to move. I’ve finally cancelled my gym membership because I never felt the need to go there and because I find I feel much better spreading my exercise out rather than squeezing it into intense bursts, that increase my risk of injury. So it’s ironic to write this sitting here ‘enjoying’ an enforced rest period because of a sports hernia, caused by lifting a very heavy and unwieldy door that had been left on my allotment!
Read a book a week – partially achieved I’d assumed that I would read more now that I’ve retired, but that’s proved not to be the case, I just prefer to be outside and moving rather than sitting and reading. I’d also thought I would have more time for audio books, but I’ve found that I’m enjoying the shorter and livelier podcast format more. As a result I only managed to read 35 books this year, but I’m not worried – I’ve still learnt a lot, enjoyed myself and read plenty.
Improve my home environment – achieved Retirement has meant more time at home and more time to improve the home environment and this year all of the kids also flew the nest, giving Debbie and I more opportunity to spread out. I’m very pleased with the results. Debbie now has her own home office. We’ve created a very relaxing winter living room, that’s part library, part cafe, part TV room, but equally important it’s cosy and warm. Having this library/cafe has meant that I go to real cafes a lot less and as a result I’ve saved the money that I needed to create the room and eaten fewer cakes. We also redesigned the back garden, created an ornamental kitchen garden, a fruit garden and a large patio that gets the afternoon and evening sun, this was very heavily used for afternoon relaxation and entertaining. Jon and I also did a fair amount of decorating both inside and out and I redesigned my home audio/visual environment making it much more integrated, flexible and resilient.
Enrich my life with Debbie – not achieved Although we managed to get away for a few holidays, Debbie’s life is overwhelmingly dominated by her job as a teacher, which most of the time leaves me to pick up all other responsibilities. The end result is that we were both too tired and busy to do many of the things we planned to do together this year. It’s not all bad news though because we still greatly enjoyed the time we did get, we just want more of it and we have a plan for the future! The highlights for me were two walking holidays in Edinburgh, cycling the lights, hiking in The Lakes, working on the allotment together and regularly eating out at our favourite cafes and Carvery.
Quality time with my children – partially achieved As the kids have now all left home, it is very important to me that I continued to keep in close contact with them and spend quality time with them. I’m fairly pleased with how that’s worked out: I get to spend a lot of time with Jennie, Jon and especially Robin; I’ve been on holiday to Paris with Steph and we’ve also spent a few days hiking and I’ve stayed with her and Graham; I’ve stayed for a week with Anna and Thom down in London and Anna is wonderful at keeping in touch on a weekly basis; Tess and I need to work on spending more time together though, we’ve only managed a few walks, breakfasts and car journeys, but no real quality time with her and Ollie. We’ve also managed a few big family get togethers and we were all here for Christmas.
Travelling with my bike – partially achieved I’ve done a lot less travelling this year, because I’ve been busy at home, enjoying the allotment and the local area too much, but whenever it’s been possible I’ve taken the bike out with me on day trips, to create hiking/biking experiences.
Create systems – achieved To complement these resolutions I also wanted to create systems that encouraged me to live a full/good life on a daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Systems are basically sets of habits that nudge me in the right direction. Rather than set specific goals, the systems, when working well, naturally move me in the direction of my goals. Examples of systems that worked well are taking sunrise and sunset walks, growing my own food, making up healthy meals in advance, cycling or walking around the local area rather than using the car.
It’s worth mentioning that although it wasn’t a specific resolution I’ve also been working hard on improving my health and I’m pleased to say that for the first time in many years I’ve not had a major flare and that my day to day health has also been much improved. I still have a few ups and downs and some injuries to work on this year though.
I’ve come to the end of my first calendar year as an allotmenteer and it’s been life changing, I expected to enjoy growing my own food, but it turned out that there were lots of benefits that I really didn’t expect to get from the allotment: the wonderful sense of community, the opportunity for continuous experimentation and learning, the amazing satisfaction from visible daily progress, the joy of sharing surpluses with others, the anticipation from planning next years crops, the taste of freshly picked food, the seemingly endless opportunity for little DIY projects and most importantly the rich sense of purpose it provides.
Here’s a summary of my year. After a 6 month wait I was delighted to be allocated a plot on Shepherd Road Allotments in March and with the growing season not far away I didn’t waste much time sorting it out. I was fairly lucky to inherit a blank canvas plot that had been well worked for many years, only slightly neglected and with just a few challenges.
The ground was infested with bind weed, mares tail and nettles with plenty of other weeds thrown in, as well as dozens of barrow loads of rocks, broken glass, rotting wood, rotten apples and potatoes. The first week was spent building compost bins and clearing the ground and with help from Jon this was back breaking but fun. We were encouraged by Jennie, fuelled by hot chicken and beef sandwiches from the nearby Booths cafe and buoyed on by sunny days throughout March. Once the ground was cleared we moved all of the existing fruit bushes to the perimeter of the site, repaired the shed and then the work really started.
I had a few objectives for this first year, I wanted to:
level the site, as it was initially on a slope and that meant it was flooding the plot next door and also losing it’s own precious water. I was also planning to install raised beds and these needed to be level, so we shifted tons of soil from one side of the plot to the other and also used the surplus to fill the raised beds.
create a low maintenance site, which meant raised beds, with bark paths and weed suppressing membrane underneath
get the bind weed and mares tail under control, which meant lots of deep digging, weed suppressing membrane around the fruit bushes and a few careful applications of weed killer
create a plot that would be easy to work during arthritis flare ups, so I needed wide paths for easy wheelbarrow access as well as wide kneeling spaces between the raised beds
grow year round, and organic, so that meant mini poly tunnels and cold frames for winter and mesh protection in the summer. To make these easy to work with I designed them to be hinged and easy to prop open for ventilation, planting, weeding and cropping
be financially self sufficient, by that I mean that the plot had to save me more money than I was spending on it on a year by year basis
get fit through natural movement, working outside and as part of a community, rather than go to a gym
I will come back to how well I achieved these objectives at the end of this post, but I started well. I got into the habit of cycling to the plot most days and one of the first tasks was to build my four compost bins, which rapidly filled up with a mix of weeds, rotten potatoes and apples from the plot, mixed with horse manure from the site bins. Even with three bins hot composting continuously I’ve still not been self sufficient in compost, but next year I should be.
I decided against any large investments in sheds, greenhouses or poly-tunnels for a year or two, until I’d ‘earned’ enough money off the plot to afford them and learned more about my needs. So we went for a simple grid design of raised beds, all of the same size and we moved a little greenhouse from the back garden.
We quickly laid out the design, put down the paths and built the raised beds. We filled the beds with a mix of existing soil, mushroom compost and well rotted horse manure with a sprinkling of well rotted chicken manure for good measure and we ordered 3 cubic meters of bark chips. Everything arrived in bulk and it was quick and cost effective to lay down.
One of the first things I did after assembling the beds was to build these mini poly-tunnels, using water pipe and builders polythene (now replaced with UV stable poly-tunnel grade polythene). These were planted in March with a wide range of lettuces, oriental greens and spinach and by April we were self-sufficient in salads and feeding lots of friends and neighbours.
The next job was to build the netted frames to protect the strawberries and brassicas. All of the frames are the same size, so it’s only a few minutes work to move a poly-tunnel or netted frame from one bed to another.
Jon had been helping me all this time, so progress was fast, but he and my daughter had their first (premature) baby at the end of March, so our priorities changed a bit, especially for Jon who swapped the allotment for the hospital for a few weeks.
Fortunately everything worked out well and baby Robin is thriving and has visited the allotment many times, with his Mum and Dad, to watch the progress, which was now moving along at quite a pace as we started cropping in April. One of my projects for 2017 is to build him a play area, which is essential as I look after him three days a week!
There’s no mains water on the allotment during late Autumn and Winter and with all of the frames and poly-tunnels I need a lot of water, so one of the top priorities was to get some serious water buts installed and eventually connected up to the shed’s new guttering. I now have three buts and they overflow into each other, they can be filled from rain water on the shed, or from the nearby tap.
Back at home we were also working hard on the patio and fruit garden, which had been designed for convenience, with just enough food for snacks and for those emergencies when we didn’t make it to the allotment for a cropping day. The back garden was optimised for low maintenance as I didn’t want to have to come home from the allotment only to have another hour or more’s work to do here. I just wanted to enjoy a good book and the view from the patio, with a bowl full of garden fresh berries to eat.
By May we were cropping half a dozen large salad bags every day and really rocking allotment life!
In May I also repurposed a tired old bed of raspberries to create a temporary area for peas and beans and this proved to be a revelation, I’d never eaten fresh beans and peas before, but I loved them.
The mini poly-tunnels had been a great success, although I have now designed a new system that allows me to keep them fully vented in summer, this saves me the hassle of taking off the polythene and storing it.
By June we were sometimes cropping a dozen bags a day and I had a second huge bike bag fitted, so I could carry everything home!
Mat, Jon and I also finished a pallet fence, that provided a nice boundary to the plot and created an extra decorative planting area.
I finally cleared the area under the trees and created a set of new beds, planting directly into the original soil. This proved to be a disaster as nothing thrived and most of the veg ended up rotting or diseased. So this area has all new beds now and the apple trees have been heavily pruned so eliminate the shade.
I also mastered the art of hot composting, which I found endlessly fascinating, it suits my impatient nature and the plot’s insatiable need for compost. I’m using the no-dig method which entails applying a couple of inches of new compost on top of the soil each year and that means about 4 cubic meters of compost. Hot composting is more efficient, more fun and better for the planet (less methane) and it’s great for heating water and warming up cold hands.
By July our little kitchen and fruit garden at home was maturing nicely and I was also getting plenty of patio time, my daily routine had become: a cycle ride to Lytham in the morning to read at Caffe Nero, breakfast at another cafe with friends and then on to the allotment until 2pm, arriving home for an allotment grown salad lunch with berries on the patio, reading until 4pm and then making an allotment supplied dinner for the family – bliss.
August was a predictably prolific time and by now we had so much more than salads and I was learning a lot about vegetables I’d never even eaten before, let alone grown, beans, peas and beetroot were the highlight for me, but Debbie loved these mini Butternut Squash and artistic veg photos!
By the end of August I started to prepare for the Autumn and Winter, designing and building two hot bed frames and two cold frames.
These frames were the same size as all the others on the plot, so it’s very easy to move the cold frame tops, poly-tunnel tops and mesh tops to any of the base frames. I particularly like the cold frames though because they are easier to manage on windy days and the tops unscrew for easy storage. The hot and cold frames are essentially the same design, but the hot beds are dug six inches into the soil and have an extra frame on top of the soil too, providing a lot of extra depth for the manure.
It’s September now and these cold frames have proved to be incredibly prolific and as I write this on January 1st are still providing all of our salad leaves and look likely to keep going until the hot beds take over in late Feb/early March.
The next job was to build two large strawberry beds, to provide allotment snacks, these were planted up with runners from the much larger beds at home. I decided to grow most of my berries at home because they don’t transport that well.
It’s October now and the focus is on preparing for next year so I’ve created a few narrow beds for beans, peas and winter brassicas, squeezed in by the side of the paths and two huge beds like the one below, this one is now planted with three different types of raspberry, designed to keep me stocked up with snacks for a full six months, the other bed of is for broccoli and sprouts next year, although it’s currently growing corn salad and broad beans.
Even in December we are still cropping very heavily, although we are only meeting our own needs, the time of surplus is over.
Apart from cropping my main focus in December has been growing seedlings for the cold frames and hot beds. I’ve started these under lights in the shed at home, but they end up in the little greenhouse, where I’ve invested in a small heater for those few frosty nights.
I’ve only had to use the heater a couple of times as the seedlings are in a mini-plastic greenhouse, within the main greenhouse, and I use fleece on them too, but they are doing splendidly so far, mostly dormant waiting to be planted in January in the hot bed.
I’ve also now filled all four wooden compost bins and my two overflow plastic bins and bagged up a few leaves, all of the beds are topped with compost, so this stuff will be nicely rotted ready for 2018.
Finally as the year comes to an end I’ve bagged up the ingredients for my hot beds, horse manure, shredded leaves, rock dust and seaweed, all ready to go mid-January. I’ve bags of soil and compost as well to create the growing medium, but they are out of shot.
The Christmas Day crop was nothing special, we’ve been cropping like this every few days for months, but we are slowly running out of a few things now, I will do a better job next year, but I’m happy with my first Allotment year. We’ve grown most of what we’ve eaten, including dozens of types of salad leaves, kale, broccoli, sprouts, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, radish, tomatoes, leeks, spring onions, onions, chicory, beetroots, chard, spinach, turnips, runner beans, French beans, sugar snap peas, peas, broad beans, courgettes, cucumbers, butternut squash, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, pears, cooking apples, eating apples, gooseberries, red and black currants, blackberries and lots of herbs. Most of what we’ve eaten has been fresh, although we’ve stored beets and potatoes, and frozen a few beans, next year we will grow, store and trade much more and also plant flowers.
Looking back at my original objectives, how did we do?
Levelling the site: we shifted tons of soil from one side of the plot to the other and also used the surplus to fill the raised beds, it’s been a great success, the level plot is more aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly it’s retained more of it’s own water and reduced flooding.
Low maintenance: this has worked moderately well, weeding was still a bit of a chore in the first year, but all of the weeds are greatly weakened. We do still have areas where the bindweed and mares tail pushes through the fabric, or into the raised beds, but I feel in control of the situation and with continued effort I think we will win, the thick top dressing of compost should help too
Ease of working during a flare: the raised beds and wide paths have been great, although I sacrificed some growing space, the ease of working has been worth it
Grow year round, and organic: I’ve not had to use any inorganic fertilizer or weed killer on any growing area, except a little around the backs of the fruit bushes where the bindweed was at it’s worst. So far, as I write this in January, we’ve been growing all year and meeting most of our veg and some of our fruit needs from the plot and we eat a lot of veg! Next year I’m hoping to meet more of our fruit needs and time some of my veg planting better, so I have fewer gluts and more winter veg, picked and stored by winter. The raised beds and bark paths have been easy to work no matter what the weather and I’ve never even needed to wear wellies!
Financially self sufficient: even though I’ve invested heavily in the plot this first year, I’m just about self sufficient, I’ve estimated that I’ve cropped at least 1,500 meals from the allotment, fruit for breakfast, big salads for lunch, steamed and roast veg for evening meals, berry salads for supper and lots of snacks, gifts to friends, family, neighbours and other allotmenteers. Assuming a conservative £1 per (organic) meal I’ve easily covered my costs. Next year I’m planning to spend much less as I save up for a shed and poly-tunnel.
Get fit through natural movement: this has worked out great, cycling and walking to the allotment, working for a few hours with lots of lifting, carrying and stretching, walking around the site and lots of building projects have been great for my health, I’ve cancelled my gym membership!
Ever since I was a teenager I’ve dreamt of living a simpler self sufficient life, as I grew older I learned to love modern conveniences and small town living too. I’ve grown used to an easy modern life and my health constraints mean that I’m unlikely to be able to run a small holding in the country. Living in a small town, close to the beach in one direction and the allotment in the other and cafes to either side has proved to be an ideal compromise. I get to live the good life, without having to turn my back on civilisation and convenience and without putting my health at risk by taking on too much – it’s perfect!
I was at the peak of my physical fitness and at my most optimal weight back when I was 25. Now I’m 52 and retired I decided that I would try and return myself to that same position, when I was able to commute 25 miles to work on my bike each day, do a decent strength workout, hike for 6 hours easily and weigh in at about 10 stone 7, or a BMI of 22, which is right in the middle of the healthy range. I don’t want to be any lower than this as I think it’s important to carry a little spare fat as an insurance policy against illness, I’ve often lost half a stone during a bad flare for example.
Achieving these objectives has been surprisingly difficult, because of my auto-immune condition and regular flare-ups I’m not able to do high intensity exercise, and I need frequent breaks and sometimes flares enforce breaks for a week or more. My body bas clung on to that last 10 lbs. of fat with incredible tenacity, regaining anything I loose incredibly quickly as soon as I return to eating normally. But I’ve finally done it.
The breakthrough came when I switched from general calorie reduction to a combination of alternate day fasting and low intensity, long duration exercise. I lost all the weight quickly and easily, I built up my strength and endurance and,so far as I can tell, I lost almost no muscle, in fact I may have put muscle on.
Here’s the results in pictures:
As you can see the weight really fell off a cliff (I started at the red arrow), in a way that I’ve never been able to achieve before, and I rarely felt hungry, knowing that tomorrow I would be eating normally always gave me enough willpower today.
I stuck pretty well to the alternate day fast schedule (started at the red arrow), my net calories were very low on fasting days because I did a lot of exercise, but I didn’t go crazy on non-fasting days, although I still ate well because I exercised on those days too. Some days my net calories were low for a few days, because I did so much exercise, working on my allotment.
Taking a look at gross calories you can see that I definitely wasn’t starving myself, particularly in the second half (green arrow) of the fast where I was making sure that I didn’t loose muscle and kept my energy levels high and made sure I was eating a very nutritious diet.
I was very concerned about losing muscle, so I made sure to eat plenty of protein, and do a mix of strength and endurance exercises. I didn’t go to the gym, but did plenty of walking, cycling and heavy work on the allotment. As you can see I lost mostly fat.
Although I increased my exercise a little (from the red arrow onwards) It wasn’t too big a change for my body from my usual pattern. This means when I reduce it again going forward I shouldn’t put the weight back on.
I ended up where I wanted to be, right in the middle of the BMI chart, healthy, but not under weight and carrying a little spare for emergencies.
I still have an inch or two to drop on my waist size though, but that will be a gradual process over the next few months. Right now I’m eating normally 5 days a week, with two fasting days, which will be combined with high exercise days. Once I reach my target waist size I will switch to two fasting days a month.
Finally it’s worth noting that I’ve never felt better, I’ve been eating plenty of high quality food and doing exercise out in the wild, which I enjoy so much more than the gym.