The best thing that happened to me this summer was 13 inches long and bright yellow. And boy, it was worth the wait.
I’ve been trying to grow sweetcorn on my allotment for three years and it’s never worked. I planted the seeds, I watered and tended them, I fed them and after three months of it, in high summer, the cobs were always white, rubbery and completely inedible. They ’hadn’t pollinated’, I was told, knowingly, by old men in gumboots wearing sly smiles.
But not this year. This time, for whatever reason, I got it right. I carted home my freshly-picked cobs in triumph, tossed them into a pan of water (boil for ten minutes, no salt) and then ate them, with butter and pepper. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the best sweetcorn I had ever tasted, and probably the best sweetcorn ever grown by human hands.
Growing your own food does this to you; it instils such a sense of pride that digging up your potatoes becomes something akin to attending the birth of your first child (only less messy). And the sweetcorn was only the best bit. This year, my allotment also yielded me a basket of fantastically tasty peas, three varieties of carrot, fresh cherry tomatoes (red and gold), garlic, strawberries, raspberries, several different types of lettuce, runner beans, French beans, broad beans, red onions, brown onions, yellow courgettes, green courgettes, beetroot (white and red), potatoes (three varieties, including my favourite: the weird-looking knobbly Pink Fir Apple) and pumpkin.
Much of this is still in my freezer. One of the pumpkins became last night’s dinner (the best soup I’ve ever had, too, now that I think about it). Meanwhile, still in the ground, to tide me over for the winter, are dozens of leeks, ten broccoli plants and two lines of parsnips. All of this is organic, all of it was grown from seed by yours truly, and all of it tasted a zillion times better than anything you can buy in the shops.
Three years ago, though, things were very different. I knew nothing about growing food. I had never grown anything at all, in fact, with the exception of a few herbs in a windowbox once – an experiment which ended when my flatmate accidentally nudged it two storeys down into the street below. I had no idea how to make a bean frame or what a ‘mulch’ was. Like most other people, I bought my vegetables from the shops. I had friends who had allotments, but far from persuading me to join in, their constant wittering about which varieties of leek they grew and precisely how they made compost made me determined never to become an allotment bore. And why bother anyway when Tesco’s is round the corner?
Curiously enough, it took a Brazilian peasant to change my mind. Three years ago, in the process of researching a book on the anti-globalisation movement, I found myself in the wide fields of southern Brazil, touring a rural settlement with a farmer called Osmar. Osmar was a member of the Movimento Sem Terra, the landless workers movement, which has been resettling landless people on unused land all over Brazil for twenty years, giving them new life and new hope in the process. I had met dozens of people like Osmar, stayed with them, toured their land, seen the work they had put into it and the pride it had given them – and tasted the results.
Now Osmar, with his thumbs hooked into his belt, was gazing out across his pumpkin field as the dusk began to gather over the blue tin roof of his house.
‘Every man’, he said to me, simply, ‘should have a piece of land.’ I don’t quite know why, but his words stuck with me. When I got back home six months later, one of the first things I did was apply for an allotment.
It didn’t take me long to find one. I paid my rent, signed my name and stood, thumbs hooked into my belt, proudly surveying my 300 square yards. It was smothered in brambles and grass. Not just any grass, either, it turned out, but a persistent perennial weed known as ‘couch grass’ which I still haven’t managed to beat back properly three years later. No-one had used it for years. It was a disaster. What the hell was I supposed to do with this? I felt like giving up before I started.
But I didn’t. I organised with the allotment society to get my plot ploughed up by the council’s rotivator (for free), bought myself a book called ‘The Vegetable Expert’ and got stuck in. My knowledge, at this stage, was basic in the extreme: I knew that if you put seeds in soil and added water, they grew. That was it. It was going to be a steep learning curve. But if Osmar could do it, I told myself, so could I. In any case, I remembered my granddad’s allotment; he and his dad had two plots side by side, which they used to grow potatoes and beans and escape from their wives. Maybe it ran in the family. There was only one way to find out.
In many ways it was a freak of history that I was able to do this at all. Allotments are a uniquely British institution – like the House of Lords or the monarchy, only less embarrassing and considerably more useful. They date back to the parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the 18th century, which enclosed vast amounts of common land used by the poor and gave it over to wealthy landowners for grazing. As a result, vast numbers of the rural poor were forced to move to the burgeoning cities to work in the factories and mills of the new industrial revolution. But the numbers of people in the cities quickly outstripped the amount of food available to feed them, and hunger and even rebellion threatened.
The solution? Parliament decided to ‘allot’ every worker a piece of land on which to grow their own food. From the mid-nineteenth century until the late 20th century, various acts of parliament granted the right of allotment to ordinary people – you and me – in both town and country. Today, every local council is obliged by law to offer allotment gardens for public use at very low rent (mine costs me Â£16 a year).
All excellent stuff – but also, surely, redundant? People may have needed land to grow their own food during the Enclosures; or, of course, during the Second World War, when the famous ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign made the allotments of Britain thrive like never before. But today? With supermarket shelves bristling with out of season fruit and veg every day of the year? With most of it fairly cheap? With a global economy providing us more variety than the average 19th century turnip muncher could have dreamed of? Why grub about in the mud when you can pop into Asda and get a pack of baby sweetcorn for a quid?
The reasons, of course, are many. For a start, growing your own food is immensely personally satisfying. It’s also healthy, both when you eat the results and when you expend sweat in digging and hoeing. It’s cheaper, by far, to grow vegetables than to buy them – though it takes more time, of course.
But there’s a bigger reason too – for things are changing out there, faster than we possibly realise. The global economy that brings us all this ‘cheap’ food from afar looks increasingly like it is built on sand. It is certainly reliant on oil, and oil, as last month’s issue explained, is not going to last forever. Insecure supplies, terrorism, travails in the middle east and, of course, climate change, is going to make our reliance on the black stuff seem very tenuous in the very near future. The era of cheap oil is very probably over, and as it ends, the supposedly unbreakable supply chains that bring food to our tables will begin to collapse, or at the very least become much more expensive. Cheap veg, like cheap petrol, is very probably on the way out. Under these circumstances, growing your own begins to seem a very smart move indeed.
Allotmenteering, in other words, is no longer a tiresome hobby practised by old geezers in wellies and donkey jackets; it’s an insurance policy against an uncertain future.
My steep learning curve turned out not to be as painful as I thought it might be. That first year, I got a fair bit of ground cleared, weeded and dug over, and began, with the help of my trusty book, to start planting things. Easy things, I thought, for starters: potatoes, courgettes, carrots. In they went and amazingly, a few weeks later, up they grew. I can still remember the excitement of turning up on my plot one day to see a line of small, green, fluffy fronds where I had planted my carrot seeds. I can still remember, too, the sight and the smell of digging up my first ever potatoes a few months later, and discovering, to my amazement, that not only did they look like potatoes, but they tasted like them too.
From then on, there was no stopping me; and there still isn’t. Every month, it seems, I learn something new. How to make leafmould, and why; how to (attempt to) keep slugs away without pellets; how to build a coldframe; how to compost; how to keep pheasants away from my strawberry patch. The list goes on – and this is before we even get to the fringe benefits.
I have, for example, become a much better cook since I started allotmenteering. Suddenly it seems a crime to waste any of my precious crops, so I’ve had to learn what to do with them; how to make pumpkin soup; raspberry jam; onion marmalade; green tomato chutney; casseroles; stews â€¦
I’ve also learnt the value of sharing things – from tools to ideas – with fellow plotters; and of true recycling. Want to smother the weeds on your plot with layers of old carpet? Want to edge your borders with planks? Want some glass to build a coldframe or greenhouse? Want to avoid paying for them? Then you do what I, and all good allotmenteers, do, and trail around town hoiking things out of skips. It’s free, it cuts down on waste and it’s also quite entertaining. It’s amazing the things people throw away.
And there’s something else, too: having an allotment helps you understand where you are. It helps you to get to know you local environment; your place. What type of soil does it have? What kinds of insects and birds inhabit it? What does the air smell like on an autumn evening? How often does it rain, and how hard? What grows well and what doesn’t? What time does the sun begin to set? Closeted inside homes or offices, these are questions I used to find it difficult to answer. Not any more, and it has made me feel, somehow, like a better and more complete human being.
And the benefits keep coming. I’ve made new friends, and realised what an interesting, diverse and occasionally bizarre bunch of people inhabit my neighbouring plots. Within a few hundred yards are a young couple from New Zealand, two old geezers in cloth caps who seem to maintain an eternal bonfire for no good reason; an old Indian woman who gardens in a sari and wellies; a city councillor who grows pumpkins the size of Mars; a chain-smoking pensioner from Lithuania and an ever-increasing influx of young people, keen to grow their own food on their own terms.
For allotmenteering, it seems, is becoming popular – even slightly hip – these days. Food scares, horror stories about supermarkets, increasing lack of green spaces and a simple desire to get out of the house has led to a resurgence in veg-growing. Suddenly it seems on the verge of becoming a movement; a national gathering of people who have been force-fed long enough by the industrial food machine, and want to eat – and live – on their own terms.
Who can blame them? For one other thing you learn very quickly when you start allotmenteering is just how tasteless, bland and artificial all those shiny, identical supermarket vegetables are. Suddenly it seems as if you are waking up from a long, weird dream in which all the strawberries tasted of rubber and the apples were made of plastic and all looked exactly the same and everyone considered this to be normal and barely worth commenting on. Suddenly you look through the sliding doors at those vegetable aisles under the strip lights and see them for what they are. Call that a carrot? Real carrots have mud on them, and they taste of something! Get thee behind me, Sainsbury’s.
And this is when you know you’ve succeeded. This is when you know the allotment has really done its work on you. For at heart, this is not about growing vegetables at all. It’s not about mulching, or compost heaps, or long-handled hoes. It is a declaration of independence: here I stand, on my own plot of land. I grow what I want, when I want, and there’s nothing you can do about. And no, I don’t have a loyalty card.
As for me: the end of the growing season is approaching, but the year’s work isn’t over yet. Tomorrow I’m having a trailer full of horse dung delivered from a local farm. That’ll take me several joyous days to dig into my now mostly-empty beds. Then I’ll be digging a new one, and edging my existing plot with planks, to keep the couch grass out. After all that, if winter isn’t fully upon me, I’ll be buying a new shed.
Then I’ll take my pumpkin soup out of the freezer, sit in front of the fire and wait for the winter to pass, knowing that when it does, whatever else happens, I’ve got something to look forward to when the spring comes.