a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Blog Action Day 2011: Food - Allotment gardening in London

Every year, in an attempt to use our blogging power for good rather than filling the internet with drivel on what we bought at the supermarket/the amusing thing our cat just did, Blog Action Day suggests that bloggers the world over all write a post on the same day inspired by a common issue of global significance.  This year, as Blog Action Day coincides with World Food Day, that theme is food.  So here comes my take on food, with a suitable London slant...

When one thinks of cities and the industries and economic activities that take place within them, agriculture and food production does not leap instantly to mind.  The cultivation of crops is the concern of rural areas, the land of fields and tractors and tiny villages where everyone knows everyone else's business.  Yet plenty of cities, and London is no exception, have urban farms.  From Hounslow to Romford, London's farms vary in size and charm, and given their lack of space tending towards small livestock holdings rather than many acres of cereal crops or large orchards and polytunnels of soft fruit.  These farms therefore do not provide much food for London's inhabitants, although they do offer hours of entertainment for small children and the odd Accidental Londoner with a fondness for fat, furry donkeys missing a bit of rural home.

Yet within the city there are several acres of land which are dedicated to food production, cultivated by Londoners themselves - London's allotments.  Nearly all London's boroughs - bar the most central, densely inhabited areas like Westminster - contain small patches of green land, divided into plots or 'allotments', which can be leased by borough residents via allotment or leisure garden associations.  (Although the councils are the official landlords, they commonly palm off the administrative and operational responsibility onto these associations, run by a voluntary committee.)  Some new housing developments now include allotment space within their designs and plans; this added feature hugely increases their popularity.  With obscene property prices, and the cost of a garden adding many thousands of pounds to a flat or house's price tag, Londoners are keener than ever to obtain coveted leases on allotments to have their own bit of garden somewhere in the city.  Scurrilous rumours abound that obtaining a plot is a cut-throat process of endless waiting lists and suspicious queue-jumping tactics; in my own borough interest is so huge that the waiting list for a local allotment has now been closed due to the ridiculous amount of names already on it.  Yet I have it on good authority, from one involved in overseeing one of these waiting lists, that the system is actually rigorously and fairly adjudicated and no one is allowed access to a plot without undergoing a strict vetting.

But once you have your allotment you can get to work.  These allotments are not the sorts of gardens that one uses simply to sit in and read the paper or to host barbecues in the summer; these are working plots for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables.
A bumper crop of onions grown by a legendary allotment-holder in West London

I remember visiting the Accidental grandparents in London as a child, and finding large canvas bags of dirty potatoes and bright red tomatoes on the end of the kitchen table.  The Accidental Grandfather was a keen allotment-gardener for six decades, renting patches in Ealing and Wimbledon.  He grew violet radishes and salad peppers and peculiar cucumbers that looked like yellow tomatoes, walking-stick cabbages and various frilly or sprouty herbs.  Each season he recorded his planting in a notebook which bulges fat, full of old seed packets and newspaper cuttings on how best to trap disruptive moles.  In the allotment produce show he was the undefeated grower of the allotment's ugliest root vegetable, a proud horticultural title he held for three years, winning each time with the same sinister looking 'thing' which was reburied and dug up each year specially to make its hideous appearance at the show.  What species of vegetable (and I use that term in its loosest sense) the thing actually was remains a mystery of allotment folklore.  

The Accidental Grandfather hugely approves of the allotment system, seeing it as 'a true manifestation of British spirit and optimism in a climate not always the kindest of growing conditions.'  The allotment community he describes sounds wonderfully varied and fascinating.  His fellow allotment holders included a BBC poet with an unruly plot that frequently earned him Council reprimands, a vine-growing, wine-making British army cook from Cyprus, and the heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, who built a huge and expensive greenhouse on his patch to house his collection of exotic orchids.  The relinquishing of the Accidental Grandfather's final allotment was done sadly a few years ago, when 30 years of rugby and a wartime leaping out of airplanes caught up with him, preventing him from kneeling in the earth to dig his plot.

A work chum (let's call him the Accidental Allotmenteer) currently tends a particularly fine allotment out in West London, from which he and his family produce a fair crop of food, that, weather permitting (this summer has not been kind to many allotment cultivators), can happily satisfy their greengrocery needs.  Many of us Londoners can only dream of this level of self-sufficiency, and the ability to eat our supper safe in the knowledge of exactly where its ingredients came from, and that no horrid chemicals had been used to make them look rounder, fatter, or shinier.  I know from my own minimal attempts to grow carrots and tomatoes on the windowsill of my garden-free flat how satisfying it is to eat something that you have cultivated and tended yourself.  Nothing tastes better than your own invested time and energy.
Alongside (and within) the raised beds, the grow-bags and the trellises, allotments provide habitats for animal as well as vegetable organisms.  Where concrete cities can be inhospitable environments for animal life, expanses of green space can be welcoming havens for insects, amphibians, birds and even small mammals. Some allotments allow the hosting of bee-hives on plots, recognising the reciprocal relationship that animals and plants have had for thousands of years.

The Accidental Allotmenteer, similarly to the Accidental Grandfather, reports a wonderful diversity in his fellow gardeners.  The ages of allotment-renters on his gardens range from twenty-something to eighty.  And he reports an increase in the number of younger people interested in allotment-ing over the past few years, amid the general rise in demand for allotments.  I had assumed the rise in demand for a space to grow food had been linked to the economic crisis and people seeking cheaper food sourcing, however the Accidental Allotmenteer assures me it is actually due to media coverage of allotments, to television programmes proposing them as the hot, must-have urban accessory.  Has growing one's own food become sexy once more?  Is The Good Life becoming popular again?  Or are we returning to a way of life that places value on individual and household sustainability and self-sufficiency in an age of increasing globalisation?  Maybe cities like London, and its allotments, can lead the way in showing other places how to do it.

4 comments:

  1. You love gardening, you don't shop in Oxford Street, you have just passed your degree. Be careful: you are becoming dangerously perfect!
    Anyway, this love of gardening hasn't reached me just yet, which means that there is still room for improvement on my side. Phew!

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  2. Ha, I wish, MuMuGB! Not sure I'd have the time and energy to keep up an allotment - they seem to take quite a lot of dedication. I'll just stick with my window-sill pots...

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  3. Great post.Thanks for sharing such a useful information with us.

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  4. You're welcome, Garden Seeds. I was glad of Blog Action Day's theme to give me the inspiration.

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