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The good seed

Allotments are diversity in action

The Ecologist, January 2008

Diversity: everybody loves it. Second only to ‘sustainable’ as the most overused word in the green vocabulary, you can’t get away from it. Diversity of species, diversity of ecosystems, diversity of crops: from an ecological point of view, diversity is a good thing.

And so it goes down on the vegetable patch. One of the reasons that monocultural farming turns out to be such a bad idea is that monoculture is a good deal less stable than diversity. The more crops you have, the more security: a disease, a plague of predators or a bad summer is less of a problem if you have plenty of crops to choose from. Diversity of crops also means diversity of the species that leave from, near or under them. Which is also nice, unless they’re slugs.

A few acres of allotment is diversity in action. The varieties of crop you’ll find can be intriguing, especially if some people have taken a more interesting route to the food on their plates and planted some rare or old varieties rather than just sticking to what they can find in the garden centre. But while a mind-boggling variety of crops is certainly interesting (at least to a vegetable bore like me) there’s another kind of diversity to be found on an allotment which is much less commented upon but is equally part of its overall ecosystem: the diversity of people.

I’ve recently finished writing a book about England , which will be published next year (watch this space). I spent nine months travelling the country, looking at how globalisation, consumerism and money are cloning the landscape and replacing character with corporate blandness, and meeting people who are trying to stop it. One of the things I found on my travels surprised me, and worried me too: the increasing division between the social classes. ‘Class War’ is supposed to be a thing of the past; I’m not so sure. All across the nation, landscapes are being smoothed out and made safe for second home-owners, 4x4 drivers, gastropub diners and the swelling ranks of the wealthy urban bourgeoisie. Those who can’t afford to join, or don’t want to, are being pushed to the margins.

What this means in practice is that we are becoming more stratified as a nation. Social mobility is declining, and we are spending more and more time with people like ourselves, looking suspiciously over our shoulders at either the Chavs or the Sloanes, depending on our income. It’s not a good portent.

All over the land, though, there is at least one place where the classes, the races and the religions all mix, talk, meet and work side by side: the allotment. There can be few more socially diverse places to be. As the country as a whole becomes ghettoised by money, down between the bean rows, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. There is hope still in the pumpkin patches of the nation.

Take my allotments as an example. The time I spend down there brings me into contact with people I would probably never meet otherwise. There are the old boys, for starters: the original denizens of the allotments, who have kept the flame burning over the past few decades when no-one but them was interested in growing their own carrots, these are mostly retired working-class men whose fathers before them had a plot. They like to do things traditionally: long, straight lines of Brussels sprouts, black wellies, donkey jackets and lots of chemicals.

Treat them right and they’re a fount of wisdom about the vagaries of the soil. Some of them, though, remain a bit suspicious of people like me, who are part of the new wave of allotmenteers: young, middle class, green-minded and excitable, we like to grow things organically, and have all sort of naïve ideas about nurturing the soil the natural way. We are the ones filling up the waiting lists across the land. We have had enough of the superstores and the biotech companies, and we’re going back to basics.

But it’s not just the class divide that can be bridged down on the plot: the ethnic diversity is pretty rare too. Pretty much any urban allotment will have its fair share of immigrants, many of whom came from countries where a connection to the land was still much stronger than it is here. My mother-in law, who came from a farming background in India in the 1970s, had an allotment for years. She fed her growing children from it. There are plenty of middle-aged women and men from the subcontinent on my allotments, and they bring with them new foods and new ways of growing them which people like me eagerly lap up.

The ethnic diversity on my allotments is pretty intriguing. As well as people from India , Pakistan and Bangladesh , there are Latvians, Poles, Germans, New Zealanders and Canadians. Eighty-year old Neville, from the West Indies , still cycles down to his plot every day, looking as relaxed as only a West Indian can, and at least twenty years younger than his age. I have had scything lessons from a Yugoslavian farmers’ daughter and shared my abundant apple crop with people from several continents.

I’m not suggesting we’re some kind of multi-ethnic, classless paradise down on the plots. Not everybody likes each other, or even bothers talking: we’re only human. But there’s something about this messy, fenceless example of social diversity which offers hope for the future. It shows that we don’t have to be divided from each other; that we can come together in some kind of common cause, even if that cause is basically just growing a bit of food for our dinners.

It shows, too, that such mixing doesn’t come about through government directives or social engineering, but organically, from the ground up, like the food itself. Provide people with a genuinely egalitarian, almost-public, almost-communal space, and they will use it. And much more will grow in the process than simply carrots.