From hand to mouth: thoughts on gardening, food poverty and giving a fig*

Straight from the tree. Close up shot of hand holding freshly picked figs. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

Straight from the tree. Today’s fig harvest. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

According to contemporary sources (The Free Dictionary, Merriam WebsterThe Cambridge Dictionary), the term “living from hand to mouth” is used to suggest bare survival — getting by on the minimum.

My 25 year old copy of Brewer’s Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell Publishers, London, 1992), adds a moral dimension with the following:

To live from hand to mouth. Improvidently, without thought for the morrow. The phrase implies the ready consumption of whatever one gets.

I can’t find a reliable source for the phrase (suggestions welcome), but with or without the whiff of moral censure, the term is positively dripping with negative connotations.

Without diminishing the very real suffering of millions of people who are doing it tough and barely surviving in a world of increasing inequality; for a gardener, living hand to mouth can mean something positive — a celebration of the fruits of our labour.

Yet the ability to cultivate a garden is beyond the reach of many, if not most, people. Access to land, tools, seeds — even water — is limited. And those who most need that regular, if small, supply of fresh food, are those most denied it.

So as I give thanks for my handful of figs, and for the beetroot, brassicas, herbs and citrus fruit to come, I also want to acknowledge the efforts of countless individuals and organisations working across the world, in a multitude of innovative ways, to grow and/or distribute fresh food within their communities.

Here are just a few of the initiatives I am aware of in my small part of the world. If you know of such groups in your community, please tell me about them in the comments, or post a link to their websites.

Community Fruit Harvesting. Auckland-based, but increasingly working across NZ to collect surplus and unwanted produce, and distribute — either fresh or as preserves — to charities.

Garden to Table. A New Zealand-wide programme that works with schools to create gardens and teach children to grow, harvest and prepare fresh produce.

Compost Collective. Auckland initiative to reduce organic landfill waste through composting, has become involved with a number of gardening initiatives.

Kelmarna Gardens, Auckland

Wellington City Council Community Gardens

Written for Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge at Lens and Pens by Sally.

* For anyone who is unfamiliar with the term “to not give a fig”, The Free Dictionary defines it as to not care.

“Always the bough is breaking …”

Grainy b&w shot of milkweed seed head. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

Milkweed seed head. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

I’ve become a gardener. Not just in the literal sense of having a garden; but more in the way that my garden has become a filter through which I see the world.

I grow flowers for the bees, set beer traps for snails, chase wasps from the swan plants and am the Big T’s eager accomplice in Monarch butterfly husbandry.

When I grow hungry, the contents of the  vege patch are as important as the contents of my fridge.

And when the annoying TV weatherman casts impending rain as a villain swooping in to spoil the party, I want to shout “sod off! Think of the plants; think of the gardens.”

The thing about gardening is that you become part of a cycle; birth, life, death, decay, re-birth. Compost as metaphor!

I have become connected. Though my little patch of cultivated dirt, I feel a sense of belonging to the Earth that is not only new, but surprising in its intensity.

Grainy b&w shot of milkweed seed head. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

Milkweed seed head. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

I found this poem yesterday and realised that where once, if asked about my attitude to life and death, I’d have quoted Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Now I think Willam Soutar‘s Song might be more apt.


End is in beginning;
And in beginning end:
Death is not loss, nor life winning;
But each and to each is friend.

The hands which give are taking;
And the hands which take bestow:
Always the bough is breaking
Heavy with fruit or snow.

DP Photo Challenge #3: 


Image: Su Leslie, 2016

“Garden as though you will live forever.” — William Kent

Gardening is both an act of faith in the future, and an investment in it. At a personal and a global level, we need plants to sustain life.

My little garden is flourishing right now and giving me enormous pleasure, as well as putting food on our table.


Image: Su Leslie, 2016

As the Big T and I plan our escape from the city, there is quite a lot of uncertainty about where we will g, but top of my wish list (along with high-speed Internet and a good local cafe) is space for gardens and maybe a little orchard.


Image: Su Leslie, 2016

It’s taken me a long time to grow a real connection with the food I eat, and the environment I inhabit. That is something I want to carry into my future.

This post was written for the Daily Post Photo Challenge. The theme is future.

Celebrating the first fig of the season


Close-up of sliced fig, crumbled blue cheese (Kapiti Kahurangi) and rocket salad. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

Detail: fig, blue cheese (Kapiti Kahurangi) and rocket salad. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

It may not be true that a watched fig never ripens, but it has certainly seemed that way. I’ve been popping outside (several times a day) to check on the fig tree since we got back from our road-trip.

Close-up image of fig ripening on tree. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

Almost ripe. First fig of the season — yesterday. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

Today I was rewarded with a perfectly ripe, luscious fruit.

Close-up shot of ripe fig on kitchen work-top. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

The first fig. Image: Su Leslie, 2016.

Close-up of halved fig on wooden trencher. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

The first fig. Image: Su Leslie, 2016.

I’ve celebrated the start of our fruit harvest with this fig, blue cheese and rocket salad for lunch. Yum!


Fig, blue cheese (Kapiti Kahurangi) and rocket salad. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

Fig, blue cheese (Kapiti Kahurangi) and rocket salad. Image: Su Leslie, 2016


Who gives a fig?

These are not figs from my tree; I ate them before it occurred to me to take a photo. The credit for this picture belongs to photo credit: Xerones via photopin cc

These are not figs from my tree; I ate mine before it occurred to me to take a photo. The credit for this picture belongs to (photo credit: Xerones via photopin cc)

I have a small fig tree in my garden. After languishing for several years in a pot, it finally found a new home in the row of fruit trees I like to think of as “the orchard.”

It’s now fig season, and the first few were ripe a couple of weeks ago. Between my noticing this fact  and going out to harvest a couple, the birds had already eaten the ripe fruit.

Now I’m a pretty lazy gardener and generally don’t quite get around to making much of an effort to protect my plants. But I love figs, and even in season they tend not to be cheap (around $19.00 a kilo). So I actually went to the garden centre and bought some protective netting. I was expecting it to be quite expensive, but a piece of plastic net, 4 metres x 1 metre cost about eight dollars. That’s enough to protect my figs AND my mandarin tree, which also has ripening fruit that’s attractive to the birds.

$8 netting protects my figs from the birds.

$8 netting protects my figs from the birds.

I’m so happy! I picked a couple of figs today and they were perfect. But more importantly, I’ve taken a small positive step towards protecting a food crop. And ok, it’s a little tree now – but it’s already way bigger than it was when I replanted it, so in years to come, I can probably expect it will grow even bigger and produce even more fruit.

I’ve been thinking about this small act because it seems a bit symbolic of my changing attitude to food and its production. Since my son was born (aaagh … 15 years ago), I’ve become much more conscious of what’s in the stuff that fills supermarkets. I remember reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, and feeling that I’d found a sort of eater’s Holy Grail in his wonderful, simple mantra:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Now I realise that I’ve become an evangelical gardener; eager to swap stories with other gardeners, and to share the produce that’s flourishing in my two little vege patches. I’m a convert to local, seasonal, home-grown. Hallelujah!

And like many converts, I’ve become a proselytizer; increasingly angry about bad food, uneven access to food, and expecially wasted food.

I’ve written in the past about the plum trees at the end of my street. On public land, their fruit seems to go largely unharvested. Similarly, some friends have a very large fig tree which produces abundant fruit. When I asked a few years ago if I might have a few figs to make chutney – which I offered to share with them- they didn’t say no, but sort of shrugged and told me that all the fruit was eaten by the birds anyway. I remember thinking at the time that netting might be a solution. I guess that’s probably where I got the idea that netting would be prohibitively expensive.

But that’s the thing – it’s not. I reckon that a net big enough for their tree would cost about $20 – or the same as a kilo of figs. I’m not great at judging quantities and weights and stuff, but I think there is more than a kilo of figs on their tree.

To me, this just makes sense. Even if they don’t like figs; other people do (not just me; it’s not naked self-interest now that I have my own tree).

I can feel a bit of  a rant coming on, and you didn’t sign up for that when you kindly stopped by this post, so I’ll stop here.

But I can’t help feeling this is something I’m going to keep coming back to.