Back of Basics - Interview with Amanda de Vries

Amanda de Vries is a NHS doctor and a nature lover. Outside her busy schedule, she enjoys gardening, grows her own food and keeps chickens and bees. With a belief that looking after nature will look after oneself in return, Amanda strives to be sustainable and self-sufficient as much as possible.

Tell us about how and when you started gardening. Have you always enjoyed gardening? If not, what was the “aha moment” that has inspired you to do gardening?

I grew up in the countryside with a large garden, so I’ve been involved in gardening since I was a child. When I was a toddler, I used to ‘rescue’ worms while my parents were digging, finding them a new safe home. I used to wear a badge that says ‘Save the Worms’!

I realised just how much gardening meant to me when I went to university and moved to the city. I tried to make the most of the space I had when living in flats, growing plants on window ledges and balconies, but I really missed having a garden. When I look back, I realise living without a garden affected my wellbeing. I’m happiest outdoors in the garden.

We know you have a massive garden which requires a lot of work. Do you do all the work yourself or with helpers like family members? Can you please share your daily routine with us? How do you fit gardening in your busy schedule?

I’m an early bird, so I tend to get up between 5am and 6am. If I’m not working, I’ll have a cup of tea and either have a stroll round the garden or sit and listen to the birds for a while before I start the day. I’ll water anything that needs watering, tend to the chickens and make sure the bird feeders are topped up. On a work day I usually won’t get back until after 7pm, but my husband and I will often still have a walk round the garden, picking something from the vegetable garden for dinner. 

Most of the garden jobs are done at the weekend. It does take us a few hours, but I don’t see it as a job. For me it’s like a gym workout, therapy session and hobby all in one! My husband is a huge help. He does a lot of the big jobs with me. 

It can be difficult to find time to manage the garden, but I’ve learned to accept that it won’t be perfect, and there will always be things that need doing. I’ve found by adopting a ‘do what you can’ attitude, I take a lot of pressure off myself. There will never be enough time for everything, but that’s okay.

How do you make your garden wildlife friendly? Could you please share an unforgettable experience when you had wildlife visitors in your garden?  

We leave parts of the garden to grow wild. It means less work for us and more food and shelter for wildlife. We feed the birds all year round, and have several bird baths for them. It’s lovely to see the birds having a bath as I have breakfast! We don’t use any pesticides, encouraging natural predators like ladybirds. We also grow a lot of plants for pollinators, and I have a fairly relaxed attitude to weeds. If a weed has a benefit to insects, I’ll let it grow and just cut it back before it goes to seed. It saves a lot of time weeding!

Having a wildlife friendly garden is so rewarding. There is always something going on, and we’re finding new things all the time. The most exciting wildlife encounter we had in the garden was when we discovered we had otters. My husband found a strange track in the snow next to the brook, so I set up the wildlife camera in front of it. It took a few weeks, but eventually we caught a pair of otters. It was amazing to see!

Why do you consider self-sufficiency important? What is the most obvious benefit when you start having organic food? 

There are so many benefits to growing your own food. I initially started growing my own food because I enjoy it. It’s hugely satisfying eating something you’ve nurtured from seed. We grow as much of our fruit and veggie as we can, using our own homemade compost which I know is peat and chemical-free, and we reuse and recycle things round the garden. I think growing your own food really helps you connect with the land. I’ve found the more I garden, the more I feel a responsibility to look after the land, to give back to it for all the things it’s given to me. 

The biggest benefit of growing your own organic food is the flavour. Food you buy at the supermarket just doesn’t compare. Taking a bite of the first homegrown tomato of the year is one of life’s greatest pleasures!

Does nature and gardening bring you serenity? If yes, why? If not, where did you find serenity? 

Nature and gardening are the biggest sources of serenity for me. If I’ve had a hard day, I’ll step out into the garden. After a few minutes, and a few deep breaths, all the stresses of the day just melt away.

Are you a calm, serene person? What does serene living mean to you?

I try to be a calm person, but I don’t always succeed. I’m a worrier and I get easily stressed. What helps is that I’m quite a reflective person. I try to stay aware of how I’m feeling, that way I can take measures to look after myself. 

To me, serene living means making the most of what you have and looking after yourself. We don’t know what’s round the corner, so why spend each day feeling low, stressed or worrying? We owe ourselves more than that. Life is too short. 

What are your favourite activities or rituals when you need time and space to reflect, heal and recharge? Do you have a comfort corner / place / object?  

I find gardening very therapeutic when I need to reflect and recharge. If I’m feeling frustrated, something physical like digging really helps, but usually just pottering or doing odd jobs is all I need to recharge. 

Sometimes, if I just need some quiet time, I’ll take a cup of tea and sit in the garden, taking in the sights and sounds. I love watching the birds and listening to the buzzing bees. I find nature grounds me, and puts my troubles in perspective. 

During the pandemic, how did it impact your life? How did you manage to get through it and strike a balance between work and life?

I found the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on the things that were really important to me. Being able to spend extra time at home made me even more grateful for the things I have. It also brought me closer to my family, even though we couldn’t see each other.

With so much media coverage of the pandemic, and working in the NHS, I found it was even more important to take time for myself. I made a point of leaving work at work, and I would have days where I didn’t watch the news, to make sure I could escape from it for a bit. 

As things start to return to normal, I’m trying to make sure I protect some of that time for myself. It’s easy to find every evening and weekend filled up, but it’s okay to say no and allow yourself to have some time to relax. 

Do you think connecting with nature and wildlife is helpful for people going through difficult times? If yes, could you please elaborate how? If not, please state your reasons.

I think connecting with nature is so important. It grounds us and puts things in perspective. If you walk into a forest and stop for a minute, taking in all the sights and sounds, you realise just how much is going on around us. Our troubles seem so much smaller in comparison.

With so much change and uncertainty in life, nature offers a reassuring constant. Whatever life throws at you, nature will always be there, carrying on as normal. The seasons will change, summer follows spring, the sun rises and sets, whether you see it or not. However harsh the winter, you know spring will follow. 

Are you a tea drinker? What is your favourite tea? What does tea play a role in your life – for connecting or for quality self-time?

I love tea! There’s something hugely comforting about a cup of tea. If I’m having a bad day, a cup of tea instantly makes me feel better. My favourite is a good strong Yorkshire Tea, with a splash of milk, but I do enjoy a cup of herbal or green tea in the evening. I’ve started to grow more plants to make my own teas, and have been experimenting with new ingredients. I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far! 

Can you share three tips for our readers if they would like to live a serene / mindful life?

Find what you need to recharge. For me it’s the garden and nature. I draw my energy from them. I know if I’m feeling stressed, all I need is some time in the garden to feel calm again. It won’t be the same thing for everyone, but when you find what it is, and you’re able to recognise when you need it, you’ll know how to manage difficult times a lot better.

Make time for you. I find myself saying this on a daily basis. All too often it feels like there’s no time to do the things we enjoy. By the time you’ve been to work and done your household jobs, there’s little time left for anything else. However if you fit some time for you into your daily routine first, and fit everything else around it, you’ll be surprised what you can fit in. It might just be five or ten minutes, but you’ll feel so much better for it. 

Go back to basics. So much of what we see in the media is about fame and fortune, fashion and beauty. There’s so much pressure to be successful and popular, but at what cost? We worry about what to wear in the morning, what car we’re driving, or whether there’s a wrinkle appearing. We forget to be grateful that we have the things we really need: a roof over our head and food on our plate.  

If you spend some time with nature, going for a walk or just sitting outside, you realise nature doesn’t care what you look like or how much money you have. It’ll be there to bring you serenity regardless of those things. I’ve found I’m at my happiest in scruffy gardening clothes, with my hands in the soil and dirt under my fingernails. It costs nothing, but it means everything.

Get more inspiration from Amanda.


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