Last night we looked at the resurrection of the front garden. Tonight we're looking at how food is more than a passing fashion on our plots.
There will be many of you who have watched the great Harry Dodson in Victorian Kitchen Garden or Monty Don in one of his better TV outings, Fork to Fork, or maybe you watch Gardeners' World or Beechgrove Gardens each week. You will have daydreamed about growing your own, some of you may have done it on a small scale, some of you on a large scale but there is something we can all agree on, that growing your own has become fashionable. It was a fashion that many critics believed would die out a few years after it started, it was a passing fad that many councils hoped would go away but the rise of seed sales, groups that save seed, seed swaps and allotment waiting lists show that this is a fashion that won't be going away. The reason for this is simple, the world we live in, the food chains we have helped to build and the strangle hold that many supermarkets have on our communities. It could even be explained as a nostalgic desire to return to simpler time, a cure for our busy over rich technological lives but then again if you're reading this you're very much using technology, and good for you. This is not a black and white argument, we cannot break the food chains instantly, we shouldn't seek to break the supermarkets but we should embrace our horticultural past and our horticultural future.
You're probably feeling comforted by these old black and white photos of growers and gardeners from the early twentieth century. They do make you smile, make you feel all warm and fuzzy but they lull you into a lie about growing, that it is all posing for photos by your mammoth runner beans or showing off your cloches to strangers on the pages of Gardening for Amateurs. Growing is hard, on any scale, it will make you smile, it will make you cry, it will give you hands like a docker and the language to go with the calluses. Television gardening needs to reflect this rather than embrace the vegetable posturing of the past. Even painters in the sixteenth century did this, like the famous After the harvest by Pieter Aertsen - Monty Don shows us his abundance every Friday night (you can't blame him but by gum we wouldn't have liked to have seen him swear at his failed cabbages). There is nothing knew about showing off your abundance, it's the keeping up the Jones' mentality, it's a little of our greed showing through, a little of our envy, a little of our ego, a little of 'well if Monty can do it, so can I'. Some people who come to growing this way give up, the allotment beats them. That's what we want to believe, that's what we tell each other on our plots: 'lazy buggers, only came down once a week/once a month/once before the four horsemen the apocalypse rode over their carrots'. Let's face it, anyone who takes on a plot is NOT a lazy person, they may have aspirations that exceed their physical reserves but laziness it not one of their traits. You can't be a lazy gardener. You can be a faux gardener. You can be a passive gardener or in most cases, a gardener who has a full time job and bills to pay and a family that needs them to ferry them around in their car. You can also be a gardener who for five hundred years has been lied to about growing. There's a reason why in the Aertsen painting all the farmers are lying around, they're shagged out. That's the truth of allotment failures, the people who fail are shagged out, why? Allotments are often too far away from the places we live. Many of the first allotments where in walking distance of people's houses, today we cannot say the same and that is why many allotmenteers fail. They don't understand why because when they grew in pots in their backyard everything went great but when they got an allotment four miles away everything went tits up. They want to grow, they're desperate to say, 'Those peas on your plate, I grew those peas' but when the allotment kicks them, many of them stay down and that is a crying shame. No more photos on their Facebook wall of oversized courgettes, no more thoughtful messages about how they are saving the world and kittens by growing carrots. Food growing on any scale is important, that's why we admire the photos here because of the sheer scale of growing.
Let's face it, many of these photos are selling you a dream, they're literally bollocks. They are a dream akin to the Aertsen painting, they are sanitised, clean shirted, serious men or women with their produce. They do not swear at cabbages. But in any lie there are ideas that do pay dividends from the past.
How many of you consider your borders beyond hedge trimming or a lick of stain every year? Certainly the photo above of the gourds and pumpkins is using space well, if not effectively, using radial heat from the brickwork but neglecting the problems with the eventual harvest. If you have a hedge, you can grow food, throw in some raspberry canes, some blackberries, some hops, some cobnuts and you still have a hedge but a productive hedge. Have a fence, if it's strong grow strawberries in pots screwed to it or trail small marrows or trailing courgettes along it's length. Growing doesn't have to be field scale, you live in a house, you probably live in suburbia or a city - you are lucky bugger - temperatures in suburbia and city centres are higher than in rural, open field cultivation. This means you can often grow for longer but you have to grow clever. You don't have to have an allotment in your backyard put some beans in large pot, some lettuce in a windowbox will mean more to you than an allotment that you can never get to, where you are told off by the council for not have 70% cultivated. Christ, we don't have our 1/4 acre 70% cultivated, we'd have nowhere to sit or eat, we'd exhaust the soil in a couple of years. Out of 1/4 acre we have around 50% in use at anytime. The reason, we are two people with a four year old, life is for living, food should be part of that and we should celebrate it rather than feel guilty about it. Food growing can be done by everyone, it has been done by everyone but many of those growers never ended up on a canvas, in a magazine or on our screens on Friday night because they were filthy, caked in mud, cut to buggery from blackberries, swearing at their cabbages, losing their temper with a council telling them to cultivate faster and harder. You don't have to don a straw boater and pose with a large bed of freshly dug spuds without a single spot of mud on you. You don't have to pose for anyone, you don't have to explain why you failed on an allotment or be judged by those that remain. We are by nature gardeners who are unaware that we trail dirt through the house, gardeners who drink from the hose and gardeners who fail. Failing is not a bad thing, we come from a long line of gardeners who failed. We can learn from the past, we can grow more but we don't have to feel guilty, we only need to rethink how we grow and the scale we do it on. Embrace growing, embrace the truth of growing and enjoy every second of it, and if you want to pose for the camera, do so in the moment, show that dirty face, those hands caked in soil, that sweat on your brow and break the cycle of abundance that is shoved down our throats every time we want to learn about food growing.