By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, June 9th 2015
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” 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” 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’.”
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.
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.
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.
One of the main challenges I’ve faced living in London is that I have had to move around a lot. Whilst this has had some benefits (ummm…?), the main set-back is that I have had to plan my growing on a temporary basis. Restricted outdoor space means getting creative, too. However, even when I’ve had little more than a windowsill, I have managed to yield some excellent results, so don’t let this hold you back. It’s just a matter of planning and picking the right crops to suit your space. On one windowsill a few years ago, I grew salad, spring onions, calendula, cornflowers, radishes and herbs with great success. It’ll depend which way your window is facing, amongst other things, but a little research can go a long way.
A good resource at your disposal is your local community garden. Most boroughs have them, and many of them hold courses with opportunities for hands-on practice that will push your skills to the next level. If you are in South East London, I cannot recommend Glengall Wharf Garden enough. They are kind, patient, interested and interesting, and have provided me with a wealth of invaluable information. They hold a number of courses throughout the year, and provide gentle, encouraging guidance to everyone from the most seasoned gardeners to complete beginners.
Although I have done a lot of sowing-and-growing during my relatively short time on this planet, I like to consult books on even the most basic of things just to familiarize myself with alternative methods. It provides me with a way to troubleshoot if and when things go wrong (they often do!), and it is very satisfying when new, experimental methods work out well. We all have something new to learn, and, it seems, even the experts miss a trick every now and again. I came across one such instance recently when reading through the Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4. Diacono often talks about using Jiffy propagation plugsto start his seeds off. Whilst these are indeed effective (and perhaps useful for growing on a commercial scale), it seemed silly to me, because there’s a resource available in most households (except, perhaps, some vegan households!) that is superior, and a good reuse of household waste: egg shells.
Making an egg shell seed starter is easy, read on for my guide to making your own.
For many people, the New Year heralds a sigh of relief with its promise of clean slates and forward-thinking, yet for me, the month of January is always filled with frustration. Its etymology contains happy nudges towards the actions associated with the New Year: namely, rejuvenation and reflection. Specifically, January is related to both the double-headed Roman god of new beginnings, Janus, and the fearsome warrior-goddess Juno [*for those interested, see P.S. for etymology/history]. But for me, January is a waiting game lodged between the two of them. Having reflected on last year’s successes and failures, and having planned most of the whats-and-wheres for growing in 2015, I am very eager to start getting my hands dirty.
Although there are still things to be foraged at this time of year — from tansies to incredibly tardy apples — the excitement of the heights of the mushroom season has died down considerably, and I find myself like a child counting down to Christmas thinking about the seas of wild garlic that will soon surface again from the deep. Happily, the relative quiet of the outdoors has had me creating all kinds of fermented concoctions at home: from staples such as sourdough to yoghurt and delicious beer.