Years ago I wrote for JUNO about gardening:
“Our allotment was covered in weeds and waist-high grass. I had just had Rowan – our third baby – and I optimistically imagined balmy spring days at the allotment with the pram with Rowan sleeping or kicking his toes whilst I hoed or planted sumptuous varieties of leafy lettuce. However, when the time came, I couldn’t walk, let alone dig. So it was thanks to my husband and my daughters, who knew how much gardening meant to me, that we set off for the plot on a nice sunny March day. I spent the whole time in a camping chair breastfeeding. But somehow I could breathe out: in my mind and heart I had arrived.”
Having an allotment to go to has become an everyday part of our family life. Rowan, now nearly 8, empties the compost – somewhat reluctantly, as he’d rather be playing football; Tilly, now 11, is always willing to go and feed our chickens even if she is in ballet tights and wellies.
Our allotment is five minutes’ walk from our house and is divided in half – one side for chickens, and vegetable beds on the other. We have numerous compost heaps and a raspberry patch, which once a year I attempt to de-nettle. From January onwards we usually plant (in approximate order) garlic, onions, broad beans, potatoes, beetroot, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, runner beans and pumpkins.
Without my husband’s determination to dig and plant potatoes, I know that we would still have a weedy grassy patch. We use organic methods and suppress weeds with boards through the winter. Our approach is very different from that of most of our neighbour allotment holders, which is one of the downsides of a parish-owned allotment site. Inevitably people have different values and it is a skill to learn to tolerate the differences in approaches to gardening.
I find it hard to understand why someone would pour on weedkiller and then dig the patch over and plant the same crop back in the ground. They find it hard to understand what I love about messy stinging nettles! The basic difference between us though, I think, boils down to what you perceive as a weed. I like to keep a good crop of nettles for butterfly larvae and for supplying nettle tea; I use dandelions to make natural dye plants (see Issue 28, Summer 2012); I grow cow parsley and a few giant hogweed to make prints from, because I think they are beautiful. We do try to ensure that seed heads are removed before they blow onto neighbouring allotments, to keep the peace, but in practice this is difficult.
However, too many ‘weeds’ amongst vegetables are not good as they take nutrients and light away from the plants, so I do hoe them out, and because we don’t use weedkiller or manage to weed as much as is needed, by July I can feel defeated. Nevertheless, in spite of the grass and the inevitable weeds, even in January we have beetroot in the ground!
Eating and growing your own vegetables gives you an indescribable connection to the earth – something that our ancestors would not even have stopped to consider; they would have ‘had’ a plot of land to grow staples of potatoes and beans and greens if they could. Non-organic vegetables are in fact a relatively new concept, and the sprays and pesticides brought in in the 1950s have radically changed farming methods.
I want to inspire readers to plan what they might plant and then enjoy the harvest of home-grown salad in all its leafy abundance. A greenhouse has extended our ability to grow salad and even gherkins – though the neighbour to whom I gave a plant outshone mine in her polytunnel. I do not want to give the impression that we are self-sufficient in all our own vegetables. This would be a full-time occupation, but the vegetables and fruit that we do produce are greatly enjoyed all the more because they are home-grown. We do not need to buy salad from around April to September if the successional sowings come up.
With busy working lives and family demands – playing football, dance classes and discussing physics questions – Olly and I do question the sanity of attempting to keep a patch of land that could take up all of our ‘spare’ time. However, I think that if it is realistically managed and if it brings rewards such as a constant supply of eggs and some sort of vegetable harvest throughout the year, then it is worth it. We never return from the allotment empty-handed even if it’s only with a stray potato found when digging over a patch. If you started with a long-term view that over time you could manage a larger area, you might start thinking bigger, in terms of something like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project.
Caz Greenwood lives in West Hoathly, Sussex with her husband Olly and three children. She works as a professional artist and runs an art club for children and adults. She is also a trained Montessori teacher at Trefoil Montessori Farm School.
[Accurate at the time of printing. Edited article first published in Issue 35, Spring 2014]