Carol and Andrew Oldham’s Life on Pig Row
I love gardening programmes. If they are filled with ingenuity and involve things you can eat, then I’m glued. So when I found out there was a wonderful blog where I could have regular updates on utilising a garden for food being grown in an organic way, and being allowed to see when things didn’t work well and why, I needed to know more. As a scientist, I felt it was important to survey such undertakings first hand to ensure that Carol and Andrew Oldham’s ‘Life on Pig Row’ blog was not, for example, exaggerating the quality of their strawberries. I am happy to report they were not. But the blog is about more than the garden. It has become a window onto a very interesting and challenging way of life.
Blogging, when done well, helps people and creates a vast community that reaches beyond your front gate, your immediate community and even your country. We have readers across the globe now, up to 14,000 people read our blog each day, hundreds read and view what we are up to on a day by day basis at our Facebook Page and twitter feed (@lifeonpigrow). We didn’t set out to have all these people as part of the Pig Row community. We wanted to blog to record the journey we were going through, as a family taking on an old house, a derelict garden and a desire to get back to basics. We weren’t detaching ourselves from the real world, we never set out to do that, we set out to see what we could learn, how we could grow, how we could become a closer family and, in turn, lessen our impact on the planet. The blog gave us the space to record our ups and downs, we were always brutally honest, when our Green bio-heating went wrong, we blogged about it. A series of blogs that were supposed to span a fortnight, ended up running for a year as we recorded the awful truth of the green deal, the lack of policing around it and the realisation that sometimes the manufacturer doesn’t know its own product well enough to inspire confidence. We have recorded great moments when we uncovered features in our house, grew great crops, saw our son, Little D grow from a baby to a pre-schooler. A blog is like a living diary, a moment in time, a social contract with other people. It allows us to meet people virtually, people like us, in a world that has become more and more about the individual rather than the supportive community.
You have a Facebook page and tweet as well as running a blog. How do you free up time for all these things, as well as doing work that brings in money?
This one is very simple; we switch off the television and go outside. Andrew does a lot of the garden but is helped by a young woman called Jenny. Jenny found us via our blog and Facebook Page. She came to buy plants and stayed. All she wanted was space to grow and learn from what we are doing. We have had help from friends, like Debz and Peter who came all the way from York to help us raise a polytunnel. Carol takes the produce and turns it into preserves, jams, chutneys, fruit leather, food we can swap, share, barter with or gift. Andrew is disabled and his disability means sitting for long periods of time are out, so he gardens, he uses a notebook; he turns back the clock, keeping it simple, keeping it personal. Money becomes less important when you slow down your life, you can barter, you can raise money by selling surplus. We are not self-sufficient, we are self-sufficientish. Carol runs her own China and Vintage business, Andrew teaches part-time, writes articles, fiction and poetry. We don’t just survive, we live.
How do you decide what goes on the blog?
We blog what is happening to us. Sometimes if it just a moment, just an image, it goes on the Facebook Page. Sometimes we blog information that people have requested: a recipe for Rhubarb Schnapps, Tom Thumb Bakes or bread. Food is very popular on our blog; food is very popular with us. With the Wartime Garden it allowed us to decide how to structure a blog over a year, it has allowed us to recreate twenty-six Pig For Victory leaflets that helps everyone to grow, cook or forage no matter what space you have. We have ¼ acre but we didn’t start with that, our old house Drovers had only a front garden the size of a car park space. We grew there and that laid the foundation to what we are doing here. We do have four distinct areas we cover though and those are growing, green, family and food. That gives us structure, which grounds us in our writing rather than going off on a tangent, a rant, we use our twitter feed for that.
You recently had a guest blog on Life on Pig Row, about a little boy’s experiences in Germany just after the war. Why do you post people’s memories of gardens and gardening experiences?
If you want to understand how a person thinks, look at their bookshelf, if you want to see how they feel, walk through their garden. Gardens are important, they are our spiritual origin, they are both private and public and throughout history they weave like jewels. Gardens are about survival, they have fed our families, fed nations, cure ailments, diseases, made clothes and have become a way of showing wealth, status and power. Gardens have ruined people, secured their success and in many cases brought people back from a dark place. A garden is the most tangible reflection of the human spirit, greenery makes us happy, an apple tree at harvest makes us drool and flowers in spring give us hope. The garden is a personal, private experience but a public one too, they are social history, they are an imprint of that gardener. Beyond good design and hard landscaping there ticks the heart of that gardener, that family and those people who have passed through the land. It is a social archaeology that should be recorded. We were delighted to run the guest blog from Emma Davies and her Father. We wanted to address the homefront on both sides of the war, too little is known about the day to day domestic stories in Britain and Germany. More should be shown about growing in social history, if it was we would see how little difference there is between people of all cultures. Gardeners across the world have a universal language that is positive, it is the language of life, of growing rather than of destruction. We grow to survive, we grow because we love to, we grow because it makes us happy. You ask someone about their garden and they will tell you the story of their life. Gardens give life. Growing maintains it.
What sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to start a blog?
Decide from the start what you want to write about and stick to it. You have to be passionate about what you want to blog about without that passion your blog will quickly become a chore. Be honest, watch your spelling, grammar and edit. Blogs should not be just throwaway thoughts; that’s twitter. They should engage a reader and reach out to them. That is the essence of good writing.
How can a blogger build a large following?
A blog is really a doorway to wider social media. You should be using as much social media as possible, it isn’t really about our audience is bigger than yours. It’s more about just enjoying social media, people do get that, what they don’t get is blogs going from opinion, how to etc to full on hard selling. To them it is almost like a betrayal. Remember, as in our case, we have invited you into our way of life; we won’t suddenly start blogging about buying things off us or doing infomercials. That’s not us and if that’s what you want to do, then why are you blogging? We do have a large following, up to 14,000 people a day, due to the fact that Andrew writes a gardening column and Carol blogs on vintage lifestyle but we also use social media every day. Social media isn’t about followers, it’s about communities online. Followers sound so detached and we are not about being isolated. Initially we started as a way to archive what we were doing at Pig Row, mainly photos of dodgy décor, awful laurels and then Andrew did a few columns in The Cottage Gardener, as he is a member of the Cottage Garden Society. He did it to support them, to donate some of his time to a great community. From there is just seemed to grow organically. We get a large following because we’ve been told we’re different from other gardeners, we are not just writing about what we grow, or another blog about our allotment, we are tackling the problems we had going green, inviting people in to join our online family and discussing one of the greatest things about life, food, and food from your own produce, for your family. Without our Facebook Page we would have been lost long ago, there are people on there who have helped us from supplying know how to physical aid and in return we’ve helped them. It’s not about creating a following; it’s about creating a community of like minded people, a community that is supportive.
You’ve had some media interest in your blog. How has that developed?
We can’t really talk about this at the moment. However, it has developed because we are social people; there is always a cake and a cup of tea waiting for you if you visit. We like feeding people.
You’re recognised when you go to gardening events. What sort of response are you getting from people who recognise you?
This has only happened in the last few months after The Guardian article and our blogging on the Wartime Garden. It has meant that we have had to be on camera more on our You Tube channel. Those people who have recognised us, have been absolutely wonderful, we have had people come up to us and say, ‘Before I started reading your blog and Facebook Page I just had a backyard, now I have four raised beds’. They are really proud of what they have achieved, even when the caterpillars munch their cabbages. You can see it on their faces that we have helped them take that step into growing your own, cooking your own and thinking about your carbon footprint. We’re real people, they’re real people and that’s what makes it so wonderful, we have sat with people we have never met, other than online, with our phones out sharing our photos with one another. That relationship then continues online, as they have the confidence to share more and more about themselves, their gardens, their kitchens. Life on Pig Row never set out in social media to say, ‘Look at us’. It was always about a wider community, we are all Pig Rowers at heart, and we all want the world to slow down. We were fortunate, we did step off that merry go round due to ill health, we did start to put quality of life first but we still have to work, we still shop in a supermarket for some things we cannot produce or barter for. We still support people to make any kind of step to growing and cooking their own. We have lost contact with the very thing that keeps us all alive, the dirt beneath our feet, and that is an important message that we want to share. People who recognise us get that. Want to know how to get involved, we help, our community helps. Everyone on the Life on Pig Row Facebook Page, twitter feeds, Instagram etc should be recognised. These are great people.
When the wartime project is finished, what will be your next project?
There will be another project but we are keeping that under wraps. Next year the project will involve a wider community of growers, who will be blogging with us. That’s all we can say at the moment.