Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Now Grow Some Food

When ‘Sideburns’ fanzine famously drew three guitar chords and then exhorted their readers to “now form a band”, they were part of a mindset that launched a movement that saw music made independently. It might not have overthrown the music industry but it did make many realise that you don’t have to accept what big business offers, you can do it yourself. I’m not going to claim that growing vegetables is the new rock ‘n’ roll, but it is the most punk thing that I do these days. Rejecting the food industry and doing it yourself is a radical act.
If my Dad was alive today and came to our house, he would think rationing had returned. Our small back garden has a modest vegetable patch brimming with beans, courgettes, lettuces and radishes. The greenhouse squashed into one corner houses tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. In the small chicken run in the other corner, three hens peck around in the dirt. If I took him up to our allotment, he would see more beans, peas, rows of potatoes and onions, cabbages and cauliflowers, carrots, turnips, parsnips, swedes and sweet corn (I should really stop now because even I’m bored but I can’t leave out the marrows, squashes, pumpkins, artichokes and fennel). By the time we got back home to the smell of baking bread he would be convinced it was life during wartime.
When I was young, I tired of my dad’s stories of how the back garden of his 1930s and 40s south London terrace where he grew up was an arcadia of fruit and veg for the table and chickens for eggs and/or the pot. I tired of his tales of resourcefulness and thrift, how nothing was wasted and everything was re-used. And now? And now I take it all back.
We don’t do all this as some sort of nostalgia trip, a nod to my dad’s generation that they were right. We do all this because we want to and we need to: our family wants to eat well and healthily, but we need to because we can’t afford to do that if we don’t grow some good food ourselves. We could buy the cheapest supermarket food but that would be a false economy: ‘value’ food is the lowest quality. We eat what is available from our own production and we buy fruit and veg from local honesty tables or farm shops – that is real value food – before we resort to supermarkets. We don’t claim to be holier than thou or self sufficient; we just want to do this for ourselves. We want to take some responsibility for how we live, and live in a way that has a low impact.
I have also gone back to my dad’s model of resourcefulness. If there is any uneaten food, it becomes another meal or the dog/cat/ chickens will get a look in; food never gets thrown away. And we throw away little else to landfill: if it can’t be recycled or passed on, it can be re-used. If there isn’t an obvious use for it immediately, it can stay in the shed until a use makes itself apparent. Bits of old fencing become a wood store roof; an old vacuum cleaner becomes a scarecrow (you have to imagine).
Before we got an allotment from the Herstmonceux Allotment Association we devoted more space in our garden to veg. That still wasn’t enough for our needs, so we were considering renting part of a relative’s garden to cultivate for vegetables. I still think this is a good idea if you don’t have space or an allotment. Getting the allotment meant that we could then use some space at home to keep chickens.
Over the last few years we have learnt quite a bit about growing fruit and veg, mostly from talking to the more experienced allotmenteers. We still make mistakes but these things, if a little obvious, might be worth passing on:
• If space is limited, grow the veg that is more expensive to buy
• Grow from seed where possible – we buy brassica and squash plants though, because we have not had much luck with these from seed.
• Don’t buy plants from chain stores; go to independents like Flowers Green in Herstmonceux or Wallace Plants in Laughton – cheaper and better.
• Dig well before planting.
• Water sparingly – plants get used to lots of water and it can become laborious.
• Don’t be suckered into buying loads of useless and expensive accessories. Even growing your own is becoming commodified – you can buy a nice seed chest for £40(!) in one chain.
• Enjoy it!

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