Food For Thought: The Right to an Allotment

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, June 9th 2015

allotments wheelbarrow

After four years of waiting, I am now number 321 in a queue of 690 waiting for an allotment in my local borough. The wait may seem long, but, as the situation currently stands – with some waiting lists extending for over a decade – it seems that I am lucky to be on a waiting list at all. Like most Londoners, I have to live with very little outside space, making the most of a single window sill and any vertical area that I have in order to produce a few small crops, interspersed with calendula and cornflowers that bring me great joy throughout the rest of the year.

Whilst there is a statutory duty for outer London boroughs to provide a “sufficient quantity”[1] of allotment plots to the people living in them, what this quantity is proportional to the number of residents in the area is unclear. And it is precisely this lack of clarity, “built up through a century of agitation”[2] in the fight for our right to allotments, that is now leading to their wanton destruction in the name of short­-term profit. The law, described by Colin Ward as “both vague and voluminous” and “in urgent need of revision”, is exploited by those in power, who perceive these hard­-won rights as burdensome and standing in the way of profit. If we replace the “safety­ first” culture of the 1960s, for that of “profit­ first” in the 2010s, it seems that John Betjeman put it rather succinctly: “We slice off old buildings, fell healthy trees, replace hedges with concrete posts and chain ­link fencing, all in the name of ‘[profit]­ first’, which is another phrase for ‘hurry past’.”[3]

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A Sordid History of Seeds Part II: The Soil Association

I’m pleased to announce that I have been commissioned to write about seeds, how they are legislated, and their history for the Soil Association; you can read my piece here. This post was inspired by, and partly based on, some writing that I did last month.

I am very glad that these articles have resonated so well with the growing community, and would love to hear people’s experiences elsewhere in the world, particularly from growers who save seed.

If you care about food, then you should care about seeds: who owns them, who controls them, and how it affects our lives and our environment.

I will be delving into this subject more deeply in the near future: how seed hegemony keeps developing countries in poverty cycles, how the number of leaves on a head of lettuce can be patented, how small groups of innovative growers have been circumventing these laws and keeping stronger, indigenous varieties alive, and ensuring we have good food stock for the future.

Incidentally, if you are based in or near South London and you are interested in saving seed, then visit Glengall Wharf Garden, a community garden that has pledged to become a safe haven for open pollinated, non hybridised GMO free seeds. They will be holding a seed swap at the end of the month — March 22nd — they are very friendly, and you will learn an awful lot, so do go along!

Green Manures: Why Don’t We Learn From Old Wisdom?

clover green manure crop nutrients soil leguminous nitrogen-fixing
Above: clover, a common nitrogen-fixing green manure crop used to return nutrients to the soil

Approaching a new plot of land is a daunting matter. Particularly in London. I have heard of people uncovering mattresses, televisions, and all manner of things lodged deep in this damp, clay soil.

Sadly, at a time when ‘vintage’ remains vogue, I doubt I am going to uncover any butler sinks any time soon. A shame, as they are lovely things in which to grow more vigorous species, like mint and nasturtiums.

The garden to which I’m tending this year is less than ten years old. The soil, whilst full of happy, healthy worms and traces of mycorrhiza (the parts of mushrooms we don’t tend to see), is very clay, clumpy, and generally in need of a lot of love. I can see where the garden is trying to come into its own, and have observed which species are doing well, but it could still do with a helping hand when it comes to building the soil.

It is no accident that we are starting to pay more attention to our soils and the way that we grow our crops, at a time when we are having to refine our growing and farming practices to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and climate change.  We are only just beginning to examine soil composition and its flora and fauna in earnest, and it is perhaps our increased understanding of these relationships that has led to zero-till and no-dig methods gaining popularity. Both are topics that I will examine in future.

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A Sordid History of Seeds: Swapping, Swindling & Why We Must Save for the Future

swap seeds: borlotti, painted lady, carlin peas, mr bounds
Seeds swapped and saved this year, including (L-R): Borlotti, Painted Lady, uknown, Carlin Peas and Mr Bounds

Despite the biting cold and the snow, February is a time of year that I always look forward to. It is the time when the scribbles and marginalia of the previous year’s notebooks start to turn into the shoots and leaves that will eventually make the crops of the coming year. It is a time when I get to enjoy the excitement of cracking open last year’s bean pods, enjoying each little snap of nature’s answer to bubble wrap. It is also the time of year that major seed companies most look forward to, as growers around the world buy seed in anticipation of Spring.

The unquestioned hegemony of seed companies over what people grow is something that I have always found very strange. When so much of what we grow willingly offers its seed, it seems weird and wasteful to buy new seed year after year. So why do we do it? Well, naturally, the problem started with the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution led to a number of major advancements in the practice of agriculture and horticulture, including the mass-production of glass, the invention of chemical fertilizers, and the birth of the large-scale seed supplier. The impact of these changes was unprecedented, allowing growers around the world to produce bigger, more resilient crops earlier in the year.

The scientific spirit of some of these plant breeders was commendable, with a number of their observations contributing to our current understanding of botany and plant reproduction. Some of them even enjoyed correspondence Charles Darwin.

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Sapindus, saponins, toxicity & why nature isn’t always best

horsechestnuts aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum, more commonly known as the horse chestnut. Contains high concentrations of the saponin aescin, which has proved useful in the treatment of inflammatory and venous ailments.

After yesterday’s post about sapindus and soap nuts, I thought it important to write a short aside about why natural is not always best, even if this runs contrary to the modern mantra. Yesterday evening, I received a message from a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a biophysicist.

Whilst I knew that saponins were renowned for their frothing properties, I was not familiar with some of their other attributes. As my friend put it, saponins are made up of amphiphilic molecules – half of the molecule likes to be in water, whilst the other likes to be in lipids. This allows them to solubilize lipids and oils, cleaning up grease”. Great. What these chemicals are also capable of doing, however, is destroying cells by altering their membranes. As said friend affirms, “they are probably used by the plant in defence against bacteria and fungi” and, like other soap-like chemicals, are a bit toxic to the environment. In fact, so effective are some saponins at killing fish, that they are employed by indigenous peoples for fishing to this day, in places ranging from Guyana to the Indian subcontinent.

So where does this leave us on the subject of soap nuts as an alternative to washing detergent? Well, firstly, I would be interested in running a comparative toxicity test to determine whether all things are equal. Presuming that they are, as my friend says, I can still see advantages in soap nuts, not only for their affordability, but also for their reduction in processing, packaging, and the possibility of composting them once spent. I presume that not all saponins are made equal, and that interesting, more local alternatives could be found in soapwort, saponaria officinalis, or the humble horse chestnut, aesculus hippocastanum (yes, I was glad to find out that they were good for something, too!). So I have some experimenting to do. Continue reading

Sapindus: a natural alternative to washing powder (and just as effective)

soapnuts sapindus saponins.jpg
Soap nuts, the dried fruit of the Sapindus plant, contains high concentrations of saponins and tannins.

Over the last year or so, I’ve become particularly conscious of the amount of unnecessary chemicals we put into our water systems, so I’ve been looking to make a few changes to my habits to see what I can improve on a microcosmic scale. In this instance, I wanted to find an answer to the kilos of washing powder that I use every year, and to see if there was a cost-effective alternative that didn’t require an increase in labour. I appear to have found the alternative: soap nuts.

Part of the lychee family, soap nuts are the berries of the sapindus tree. The etymology of this plant is a contraction of the plant’s origin and its soapy properties, coming from the Latin sapo, meaning ‘soap’, and indicus, denoting its Indian origin (though some similar plants can be found in North and Central America).

In his book Ethnopharmacology of Medicinal Plants: Asia and the Pacific (2007), Dr Christophe Wiat states that “the plant abounds with saponins and tannins, hence the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cosmetic, and expectorant properties”.  The berries feature in a number of folk remedies throughout Asia, from the treatment of skin complaints, to the washing of hair and fine silks – however, in this instance, I just wanted to get my washing clean.

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