Where do I start?
Sharing an allotment, and other pleasures
The Ecologist, April 2007
Recently I received an e-mail from Cornwall . ‘I wonder if you might be interested in this?’, wrote Robert Cox. It turned out that I was. From a series of old Victorian greenhouses in the West Country, Robert is part of a team that runs Rocket Gardens, an online mail order scheme designed to make life easier for people who want to grow their own organic vegetables. The reason it caught my imagination was that it helped to answer a question I am often asked by people who want to start growing their own food for the first time.
The question is: ‘where do I start?’ Often it's accompanied by a nervous tone of voice or one of those anxious-looking email smilies. Usually, it's then followed by a supplementary question: ‘and how will I find the time?’ It's a fair question. Most of us lead busy lives, often busier than we would like, and growing vegetables is time-consuming. In my book, this is a plus. We live in a society in which everything is a commodity and in which we demand and expect everything instantly. This attitude is not going to wash on your potato patch, and a good thing too. Personally, I can think of few better ways to consume my time than pottering about amongst bean flowers and sunflowers under the evening sun.
Still, it remains the case that a lot of busy people are interested in growing food. Fortunately, there are a few shortcuts you can take that will allow you to grow your own food and spend a bit less time, and perhaps effort, doing it. The most obvious of these arises when you think about where and how you're going to grow it.
Recently in this column we've looked at how to grow your own food if you only have a small flat or a tiny container garden. If you want to be a bit more ambitious, the obvious next step is to get an allotment. I've had one for the last four years, and it's changed my life. However, it can, if you let it, be a hell of a lot of work. An allotment is a big piece of land, and unless you have a large family to feed or a lot of time on your hands, you are unlikely to actually use all of it. Just looking at it lying there untended, huge and intimidating can make you want to go home and watch the telly instead.
So why not share it? This is a great solution both to the lack of allotment plots in some parts of the country and your lack of time. I know many people who share a plot. Depending on how much land you want, and how much you want to grow, you could have three, four or even five of you on one plot. The advantages are many. It saves you money – not that an allotment will cost you much in the first place (between about £10 and £20 a year in most parts of the country). It means you have a small and more manageable piece of land to work. Most of all though, it means that you share things. Knowledge, equipment, tools, tips, seeds – a shared allotment means a lot more than simply shared soil. It means you have access to other peoples’ skills, minds and flasks of tea. It means you can panic together, console each other, and share your triumphs. Share an allotment, and you all save time and energy. It can be the perfect introduction to veg growing.
The next step would normally be to buy yourself some seeds and tools and get planting. This can be tricky in itself though. Where you start? What to grow? Crucially, how to grow it? Some veg are more accommodating than others. Get yourself some seed potatoes for example, stick them in the ground, and a few months later, you can dig up enough to keep you in mash for the rest of the year. Something like broccoli, on the other hand, is trickier. You need to sow it in a delicate bed, thin it, transplant it, ensure that it's fed and watered at the right time... it takes a while to understand the rhythms of these plants, and what exactly to do with them.
This is where Rocket Gardens comes in. If you're short of both time and expertise, they will sell you ready-grown organic vegetable seedlings, raised in their greenhouses from seed. You can either order individual veg from their list, or get yourself a ready-put-together selection: an instant herb garden, an instant salad garden or an instant vegetable garden. You'll receive it through the post, and all you need to do is plant it out according to the instructions. Hey presto: you're already halfway to feeding yourself for the next year.
I don't want this article to turn into a plug for this one company, particularly as they're not paying me anything, but I do think that this is a great idea. There may well be other companies like this out there, and if not, I’m sure there will be soon. The appetite for self-growing is increasing fast in this country. It's a real reason to be cheerful. And the more initiatives that exist allowing busy people to grow their own, the better things will get.
Yet despite this, the key message is that getting started remains up to you. It’s not up to companies like Rocket Gardens to get you out there and digging, and despite such helping hands, it's never going to be as easy as buying your veg from Tesco. But who wants it to be? This is a hundred times cheaper, a million times healthier and a billion times more fulfilling. Find a few other like-minded, busy-but-keen potential growers, and off you go. Share, plant, harvest and enjoy. The soil’s the limit.
- The Shared Garden Project has four allotments shared by 12 families, who grow biodynamically. You can read all about it at www.sharedgarden.co.uk
- My Tiny Plot is a great blog about allotmenting, with recipes, tips, stories and links. www.mytinyplot.co.uk