The third year on our allotment by Roger Roberts
Once again, we have had another successful last year on our 250-square-metre allotment here in central Cambridge. Although nowhere near self-sufficient – in fact I question whether such a situation is ever possible in our modern, interdependent world – we have nonetheless produced a sizeable quantity of delicious fruits and vegetables this year, supplemented by visits to our local wholefood shop and to the better class (if there is such a thing) of supermarket. My New Year Resolution was to avoid our local Tesco entirely and to escape its aisles of overfed, and yet undernourished, customers. The slogan ‘Every Little Helps’ reminds me that every single fruit and vegetable we grow ourselves helps to put an end to this type of unsustainable food production.
We enjoyed a lovely crop of new potatoes (Maris Peer and Lady Christl) and our root crops in general were particularly strong and healthy this year. The radishes and beetroot were very tasty and some of our carrots and parsnips were the biggest we have ever grown. Our soft fruit proved immensely popular with our daughter: our Cambridge Favourite strawberries cropped very well, as did the Autumn Bliss raspberries.
I planted some Goji berry bushes in the Spring but, following a warning issued by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) about Goji plants imported from some parts of the world that carry diseases that can affect potatoes and tomatoes, I decided to uproot and discard them. I thought it best to follow the precautionary principle, as I wouldn’t want to be responsible for spoiling other crops, whether they were mine or those of my fellow allotment-holders.
East meets West
Our three rows of Printanor garlic, planted in February, were strong and healthy: the bulbs make an aesthetic feature hanging from our kitchen ceiling and last us right through the year. In late winter I also planted some Thermidrome garlic which, although it may not store quite so well, is normally significantly bigger. I made two tasty batches of ‘home-grown’ hummus from chickpeas and garlic grown on our plot. Admittedly the lemon and tahini came from elsewhere but, in a rare display of patriotism, I was quite proud of our Great British Hummus. I prefer to live in a world where Middle England meets the Middle East through chickpeas and garlic, rather than through tanks and guns.
I also planted a row of the ‘Bocking 14’ cultivar of Russian comfrey to use as a compost activator, a fertilising mulch and liquid feed. As readers may know, by weight, comfrey leaves produce more nitrogen, phosphorous and potash than farmyard manure. In fact, they produce two or three times more potassium that farmyard manure and, as they have a low carbon to nitrogen ratio, this means that nitrogen is not taken from the plot when comfrey leaves are dug into the soil. Comfrey is such a vigorous plant that I expect a plentiful supply of leaves over the coming years.
We experimented with four types of pumpkin this year, the most successful being Potimarron, which originates in China and has a beautiful orange skin. It makes a delicious soup. The other three were Hokkaido, also used for soup; a turban pumpkin for roasting from Hungary and another round, green pumpkin variety from Hungary, which is grown for its seed. Having removed the seeds from the pumpkin, we dried them in our airing cupboard. Although we did not harvest a great quantity of seeds, they were certainly good quality. In amongst the pumpkin plants I sowed sunflower seeds and some grew to seven or eight feet high with huge yellow flowers looking down on the pumpkins. I often think that half of the pleasure of an allotment is making it beautiful and appreciating the contrasting shapes and colours in the flowers, fruits and leaves.
Salt of the Earth
When I look at the colourful and inviting fruits and vegetables brought into our kitchen from our allotment, I am reminded of the words of Henry Salt (1851-1939):
‘Vegetarianism is the diet of the future, as flesh-food is the diet of the past. In that striking and common contrast, a fruit shop side by side with a butcher’s, we have a most significant object lesson. There, on the one hand, are the barbarities of a savage custom – the headless carcasses, stiffened into a ghastly semblance of life, the joints and steaks and gobbets with their sickening odour, the harsh grating of the bone saw, and the dull thud of the chopper – a perpetual crying protest against the horrors of flesh-eating. And as if this were not witness sufficient, here close alongside is a wealth of golden fruit, a sight to make a poet happy, the only food that is entirely congenial to the physical structure and the natural instincts of humankind, that can entirely satisfy the highest human aspirations. Can we doubt, as we gaze at this contrast, that whatever intermediate steps may need to be gradually taken, whatever difficulties to be overcome, the path of progression from the barbarities to the humanities of diet lies clear and unmistakable before us?’
As we all know, there is something very special about growing our own vegan-organic food. It goes beyond simply saving money, growing crops that are pesticide-free and staying healthy. It puts us in touch with our ultimate mother, the Earth, in a unique way and it reminds us of the miracle of life, of its cycles and its seasons. I suggest that politicians, celebrities, business leaders and any others who live in danger of losing contact with reality tend an allotment. Then they can remind themselves on a regular basis about what really matters in the world and the place of man and woman in the scheme of things. A feeling of awe and respect might bring about a fresh set of priorities, a greater awareness of the fragility of our current lifestyles and a renewed sense of purpose and of peace.