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A cafe sign with the letters ASK

The Art of Asking…….at a distance of course

By Stuart Faulkner


The sun is shining, the flowers are out, the sky is blue, it’s March and I’m in a t-shirt – yes a t-shirt – but I’m frustrated. Why might you ask? Warm sunshine and t-shirt weather in March is unheard of, I should be happy. But everything is shut.

After years of being on a waiting list I finally get an allotment plot in Oxford. It needs a bit of work – quite a bit of work actually – it’s been unused for a few years, floods in the winter, and has some serious weed issues. But it’s mine. Time to go ‘the good life’ and produce almost everything I need to be self-sufficient – or at least dramatically reduce what I need to buy from supermarkets, where I always shudder with the thought of how fresh (or not), the produce is, how local it is (or not), and literally no idea if organic genuinely means organic or it is just a well navigated loo-pole in marketing law.

I’ve spend weeks planning in my head and on paper what needs to be done – build raised beds (an ark for my vegetables in winter), soil to fill and feed said vegetables, fruit cages to build (a safe haven from the flying rats - pigeons) and ground sheets (to stifle the alien-like invasive weeds).

Alas most of it involves buying things from shops – which are shut, or being delivered - which aren’t happening.

So how do I obtain all these things in the middle of a zombie apocalypse (or any other emergency for that matter)? Over the last 12 months I have re-engaged in the ‘art of asking’. It has been a joy to wander around the quite streets of Oxford and see what is in peoples’ skips, behind shops, and things on-line to find most of what I needed for free.

Easy ask #1 Gardening – everyone seems to be doing gardening now – garden soil, old sheds, plastic piping, etc. I found one skip full of garden soil. A quick ask of the owner and they were more than happy for me to take the soil from their skip as it saved them money paying for it to be taken away. I have no car, so 42 round trips with my bike (4 miles each I worked out), with panniers and rucksack full of soil =  ~500kg soil, enough to fill two recently constructed raised beds.

Easy ask number 2# Renovations – everyone seems to be doing renovations now. Another house was replacing all their existing wooden floor boards with almost identical new wooden floor boards. A slightly curious decision, but I wasn’t complaining. Another quick ask with the owner, several more round trips with 8 foot pine boards strapped to my cross bar (don’t try that at home kids), and I was in possession of enough wood to build even more raised beds and repair my shed.

Easy ask 3# Retail waste – retail produces loads of material that gets taken away to be recycled, but with a quick chat and an ask of the shop owner (you get the central theme here) and they were happy for it to go to a good home. Numerous trips to the corner shop and bike shop meant I was in possession of large pieces of thick cardboard – great for weed control, raised beds, or just putting on your compost heap (providing you remove all labels and tape)- and free wooden crates. The crates make a perfect smaller contained raise bed, a vertical trellis, tied together to make a compost heap, or can be deconstructed for wood to make other things. You can purchase wooden crates from many reputable companies, but why would you, when they are free if you ask.

Easy ask 4# Community websites – ‘One person’s waste, is another’s treasure’ (or something like that). I found several websites really useful to source items I was looking for including, soil (again), compost, horse manure, and wood. ‘Freegle’, ‘Gumtree’, Big Wardrobe’, and ‘Seed swap’ to name a few (other reputable websites are available of course), allow you to swap, exchange almost any item for free, or occasionally purchase for a small fee (all negotiable if you ask)  - all from your local area.


It has been really fun asking for things when other means of daily life don’t always work out. I’m always presently surprised how helpful and friendly people are. So go on give it a try – if I managed all this on only my bike, you can too.

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