Saturday, 23 August 2014
Allotment - why
It's hard work, allotmenting. Really hard work. Very little of it involves floating round in a pretty summer dress and sandals picking perfectly ripe raspberries or sitting on a bench in the shade sipping homemade blackcurrant cordial and watching the butterflies. A lot of it involves sweat, actual pain and a never-ending battle with bindweed.
Several of the plots at the site I'm on have been taken over, only to be left, still neglected, until the plotholder is thrown out for not tending their patch. One plot was visited only twice. Another one, near mine, which is particularly thick with couch grass, had a 2' x 2' square cleared, and a single potato was planted. The next time the plotholder came, the couch grass had reclaimed the square and the solitary potato was never seen again.
Ownership of an allotment should not be undertaken lightly or ill-advisedly. It needn't take over your life, but it does have to become a regular part of it. The bottom line is, hours of your time are needed. Hard and dirty work will be required. On occasion it will hurt. So why would anyone knock themselves out growing their own food, a good proportion of which will be consumed by slugs, pigeons, rabbits and more insects that you thought possible, when for a small fee, Tesco will bring clean blemish free vegetables right to your door.
I know you'll have heard all of the arguments in favour of growing your own. The health benefits of course, of fresh, chemical-free food. Just the other day a study found up to 60% higher levels of antioxidants in organic food.*
Then there's the lower environmental impact. With no chemicals, no packaging and very few food miles involved in your own food, the footprint on the earth is barely a whisper.
The taste and texture of your own produce is often a revelation. You can grow varieties that the supermarkets never stock, where the flavours are exquisite. And you can grow things the supermarkets don't stock at all. This year I have radish pods, sorrel leaves, wineberries and tayberries. The more variety in my kitchen, the happier I am.
The allotment community is a big bonus too. All sorts of interesting people have allotments. By and large they are a friendly, helpful and encouraging bunch. The children are happy to see their friends from school and around town there, and they've made new friends too. They play, they help out, even if it's only a bit, they grow, and without even being aware of it, they learn.
But I want to add one more point to the list. Something a little less tangible. Allotments were created in the 1800s to allow people to feed themselves, following their exclusion from much of the common land, which was being divided up amongst wealthy landowners. They were a necessity for those families back then. Without their own plot of land for basic vegetables and a pig, life could have been pretty bleak and certainly emptier. Today, few of us are starving, but in other ways we can find ourselves lacking the things that make life meaningful - quiet, reflective time, a chance to connect with nature and live in tune with the seasons, uninterrupted time with our children, gentle education for them and us and reassurance that despite whatever we may be going through, the rhythmic cycle of nature will keep rolling on. Summer will always come again.
When I go to my allotment, I shut the gate behind me and I'm instantly in a different world. That's not to say I don't dwell on problems while I'm weeding, I do of course, but down at the plot I see them in a different light. I mentally work through them in this calm space and usually they shrink a little and assume more manageable proportions.
For me, the allotment gives so much more than food, it balances me in the midst of this complicated 21st century life we lead. The real poverty now for many of us in the Western world is in our minds. We need calm and quiet. A place without electronic screens and beeps and full calendars and tight schedules. While I'm there, I slow right down. I might have to leave at 3 o'clock precisely, but while I'm at the plot there's no rushing. It's a time for my soul to heave a blissful sigh.
So I'm here to tell you, despite the hard work, it's all worth it. If you'd like to see the transformation of a plot, from a rubbish-strewn weed-infested wasteland to a beautiful and productive place, have a look here. It's something I find utterly inspiring.
* Organic vs non-organic food - a study by Newcastle University, published 11 July 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition.