Get Thee Behind Me,
Get an allotment! It's fun, healthy - and an insurance
policy against an uncertain future
The Ecologist, November 2005
The best thing that happened to me this summer was
13 inches long and bright yellow. And boy, it was worth
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
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
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
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 £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
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;
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
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
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