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We won! A silver medal for Britain’s homeless

14 Jun

Last Monday felt like what it must be like to be famous.

I spent the day at the Chelsea Flower Show talking live on BBC Radio 4, doing interviews and photo shoots with the Guardian, Telegraph and Reuters. I guided them around the garden that my gardening group ‘Grounded and Scruffy’ had built within the largest show garden ever made at Chelsea.

The garden has been designed, built and the plants grown by 500 ex-homeless people and prisoners from around the country. They are all members of various gardening groups, with the common theme that gardening has given us a life, and the chance to show the world that we ex-homeless, having suffered drug, alcohol and mental health problems, myself included, are stars.

And I hope that everyone involved in this project are flying as high as I am, naturally, as we won a silver medal. What a buzz – not drugs or alcohol but the euphoria of a natural high – the best drug in the world.

Thanks from all of us to the Eden project, and all of their gardeners that helped to make this happen, especially Paul Stone the boss of the project.

Now that chapter in our lives is over, it’s back to tilling the earth and growing herbs and veg.

The coldest spring in years is over, summer is here, the earth is warm, and the ever increasing sunny days mean it’s the perfect time of the year to decide what you want to grow and eat.

Whether you have a garden or pots on a balcony, window ledge, or borrow someone’s garden that doesn’t have the passion that you have, get sowing.

Beetroot, onions, lettuce, salad leaves, rocket, carrots, you have plenty of time. Try planting your pumpkins, squashes, courgettes, next to blocks of sweetcorn, and runner beans in the middle. They will grow up the sweetcorn, their roots putting nitrogen into the soil, to feed the pumpkins and corn. The large leaves of the pumpkins or squashes will shade the ground from weeds and help to conserve moisture.

Good luck.

Published in The Big Issue, June 2010


Wolf Peach…

28 Apr

Something that all of us love to eat was once known as ‘Wolf Peach’. ‘Peach’ because it was round and luscious and ‘Wolf’, because it was considered poisonous.

It originates from South America and was originally cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas. It’s assumed that the Spanish brought them to Europe from Mexico, and they arrived in Britain during the late 1500s.

Up until the 18th century physicians warned against eating them, fearing they caused not only appendicitis but also stomach cancer. And the plant itself, resembling the Deadly Nightshade, deterred people even more from eating its deadly fruit. Our humble tomato.

It’s now time to sow these seeds. If you’ve not grown them before why not try? Always choose a sunny spot – in your garden, in grow bags or containers on your balcony, or if you have neither, then on your windowsill, which acts as a greenhouse. There are loads of types to choose from, from cherrys to beefsteaks.

Following the instructions on seed packet, sow in pots or containers, water and cover with cling film, which prevents water loss and creates a mini greenhouse. Put on a sunny windowsill.

As soon as four leaves appear, they need to be ‘pricked out’. Fill 9cm pots with fresh compost, tap to settle and water. Remove seedlings gently by holding the smooth edged leaves between thumb and forefinger, and lifting seedling with the end of a pencil. Dib hole in prepared pots, and insert and firm softly. Water regularly and watch them grow on your windowsill.

At the end of May, after the danger of frost has passed you must ‘harden’ off the plants. On warm days leave them outside, then bring in at night. Do this for a week, and a few days before planting leave them out overnight, then plant.

Water daily, pinch out shoots that grow in leaf joints, and also pinch off the growing tip when it has produced four sets of growing trusses. Feed with tomato fertiliser when fruits have formed, once a week. Marvel as they grow. Eat, and enjoy.

Paul Pulford and Scruffy

Published in The Big Issue, April 2010

Spring is Creeping In to the Garden

8 Apr

It’s the third week of January, and we’re all fed up of the cold. It seems that this harsh weather is never going to end, but cheer up, things are slowly starting to change.

Each evening, dusk hesitates a little longer, each morning the pale light of dawn steals in a little earlier from behind the bedroom curtains. It may still be very cold, and the ground may still be hard with snow or frost, but there is proof that spring is on its way if you look closely.

Flowers are literally non-existent, but there are lots of green shoots piercing through the soil. Very soon, you will see the first innocent snowdrops peeping out of the earth to tell us that spring is on its way. Keep your eyes peeled for this first sign.

This is also a good time to start planning your garden, for this year’s new vegetable plots and flower borders. Send off for seed catalogues if you’ve not already done so, and start to buy this year’s seeds. Phone your gardening friends and swap seeds. Get your photos out, and marvel at last year’s gardening successes.

As soon as the weather is mild, spend as much time as possible digging over your plot. The cold weather has actually been a gardeners ally, because the frost is a very good soil conditioner, particularly of clay, as it breaks down the lumps. When the thaw comes, they break down into smaller crumbs which are then easily raked to a fine surface tilth for sowing or planting, and digging helps to aerate and drain the soil.

Also, don’t forget to add garden compost or manure. You can also start sowing – turn a warm room in your house into your green house, I have. Start with cauliflowers, cabbage, lettuce and onions in pots or trays. Keep them moist by the window, and the warmth will do the rest.

Hope to have encouraged you, spring is just around the corner.

Paul and Scruffy.

Published in The Big Issue, January 2010

We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden

12 Mar

Spring is finally here, the clocks have gone forward, and the weather is warming.

I’m sure most of you are becoming happier now, as your body clocks are adjusting to the lighter nights. My dog Scruffy and I are loving it, more hours of daylight to work and enjoy our passion for gardening. A simple hobby that keeps us fit and healthy, and with a warm feeling of inner peace.

I want you to stop those nights of sitting in front of the telly or computer. If you’re tired from work, you’ll be amazed at how an hour or two in these light evenings, digging your garden or pottering around on your balcony growing plants and veg will energize you and send you blissfully asleep. A secret all us gardeners know.

To inspire you, please enjoy some ancient words of wisdom and old Chinese proverbs that have amused and inspired me. I hope they will plant a seed in your mind, sending roots down your body and grounding you to the earth, producing a beautiful flower of inspiration that will flourish from your head. Get digging in the spring air, and when you have prepared your soil, remember an old English saying.

‘Four seeds have to grow, one for the pheasant, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.’

When your plants start to grow, a royal old man you all know, says to get results you must talk to your vegetables. Wise words? I’ll let you decide. And our very survival is summed up in this quote.

‘We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden.’

And finally, an old Chinese proverb.

‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk. For a week, kill a pig. For a month, get married. For a life, be a gardener.’

Well I’m sure you have a smile on your face. Keep that smile, get outside, enjoy the spring air, and dig.

Paul and Scruffy

Published in The Big Issue, April 2009

Birds a Roostin’

12 Mar

If you look to the trees now, they all have buds turning into beautiful blossoms, different shades of white to pink.

Not all at the same time though, because nature staggers them to ensure plenty of nectar and pollen for the ravenous spring insects now awoken and alive. These in turn are providing nourishing  food for the first baby birds emerging from their eggs, their survival dependent on the fight that their parents are about to begin.

Blackbirds, thrushes, rooks and robins, are all nesting now, their names sounding like the tags of 1920’s New York street gangs, but these are tougher and more resilient than any would be gangster of the time.

The parents will now have to fight with rival birds over trees and territory to ensure that they can find enough food to feed their hungry young. Just like the gangs of crack dealers and unfettered youths who fight over the control of our council estates, tower blocks replacing trees. Not to provide for their young, but to fuel their cowardly dreams of being gangsters, feeding only the lost souls that flock to them for drugs.

Most people think of nature as savage, but how dare we think this? All animals and birds spend their entire lives in a perpetual motion of breeding at spring time, looking after their young with unselfish devotion and love. These creatures will never fail their offspring, offering food, shelter, warmth and teaching skills for them to survive.

Only if there are tremendous odds against survival, the parents may fail. When you have children, as most of you will or already have, what kind of nest will you provide? If you look now into the trees, or parks and gardens for the next two months, you will undoubtedly see baby birds that have left the nest, but their parents will not leave them until they are fit, strong, and have the skills to fly and acquire food. Are you such a wonderful parent?

Paul and Scruffy

Published in The Big Issue, March 2009

Open Your Eyes – Spring is Here

12 Mar

Spring is here, are you aware? Have you noticed it? Probably not, but it has arrived. If you are living in towns or cities, catching the bus or bleak underground in a furious hurry to and from work, I really feel for you, as you could miss a special time of the year.

When I used to sell the Issue outside a north London tube station, I would observe humans like termites to a mound, streaming past me in their hundreds of thousands. Day by day, week by week, year by year, I watched and I would cry relentlessly for people to buy my Issue.

 Nearly everyone would ignore me, but beautiful souls like yourselves, stopped and talked if you had the time, and bought a mag making me feel human and alive, and putting pennies in my pocket. A sad life many of you may think, but I was a lucky man. Being outside all day everyday I would see spring unfold. I would watch the buds on the trees turn to beautiful blossoms, the daffodils and crocuses – nature’s miniature cathedrals and spires – piercing their way through the soil.

Looking into the trees I would see blue tits and great tits, blue and yellow clown like birds, acrobats hanging from the branches, the males showing off to find a mate. No different than men in a bar on a Friday night. I would watch the large black and white magpies, always in pairs, shrieking at the squirrels, mean and menacing like the doormen at the bars mentioned above.

Between selling, I had time to wander along the canal path, watch hungry bumble bees awake from their winter sleep, fuelling themselves on the abundance of pollen and early spring flowers. Ducks, geese, swans, frolicking in the water, pairing off again for the year. 

Poetic, romantic twaddle, you may think. But rebirth and sex is in the air. Take fifteen minutes before or after work, walk through a park, cemetery or along a canal, look to the trees, look to the ground. Feast your eyes, ears and senses on what’s around you, and feel the sap rising to your loins and you will feel good.

Paul and Scruffy

Published in The Big Issue March 2009

Planting your wildflower seeds

12 Mar

Hello it’s Paul and Scruffy (my dog), thanks for listening to me again. I’m hoping my last column stirred your primeval instincts for food, medicines and living in harmony on this planet and you went and had a great time seed hunting. Now I’ll tell you where you can plant these babies.

I must inform you that the seeds you collected are in fact medicines and sources of food that your ancestors, wherever you are from on the planet, gathered to feed and heal the tribe.

The little seeds you will plant have been sustaining our very existence from the beginning of time.


No! That is actually the most real thing you have ever read.

Me and Scruffy went out gathering last week in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, a wonderful meadow in the heart of the east end. I collected seeds in a paper bag, and Scruff collected fox’s poo, which she then preceded to rub all over my bed that night whilst I was sorting out my harvest.

Now – how and where to plant your seeds. The most beautiful thing about native wild flowers is that they need no special soil. In fact they like the crappest soil you can gather from any old wasteground. Wildflowers can grow anywhere and in anything.

Flower pots, mop buckets and watering cans can all be found for free in skips. Using your imagination and by getting off your arse, you can build the most magnificent planters, all of which will look brilliant next year on your balconies or tower block runways.

If you only have a window sill, fill it with pots and make sure you secure them with some wire and nails. Your garden or even any neglected patches of earth you pass on your way to work, all are prime to seed and beautify.

It’s very simple, fill your vessels, or weed the ground. Loosen the soil, scatter the seeds, press them down gently into the earth with hands or underfoot, do not cover. Job done, you’re learning. Wicked. See you soon hippies.

Published in The Big Issue, 17 October 2008