Every evening when I get back from the allotment I look at my hands. They’re not as soft as they used to be, yet the children still say my touch is just as light as when they themselves were pumpkin-sized. They’re not the prettiest hands you’ll see and after a long day working at the plot there will always be a little lingering dirt even after the third soak. These are the hands that nourish my family, I grow food, and then cook it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
This is my seventh year of growing my own food on an allotment but I grew some food at home for the year before that. Making the move to an allotment wasn’t a difficult choice to make; growing your own food is made so much easier when you have a wealth of advisors, space, and comaradery to draw upon.
While my husband and I tend to our own ten metre by twenty metre plot, along with our three (sometimes reluctant) children, we are surrounded by family and friends who also grow their own food in their adjacent plots. It was by happy design that my father-in-law landed the plot opposite ours and the children merrily trot between the two gates, pestering us all equally. The smallest boy plucks peas and then eats the pods whole with relish; he’ll pick up a carrot and request that it be ‘opened’ (washed) so he can snack as he wanders around. The allotment has become his personal larder; dinners can be a battle but he’s eaten well ‘on the hoof’ so there’s no point in stressing too much.
We started off with just a few raised beds then expanded as our knowledge increased, adding a polytunnel and many more raised beds. Now we grow essentially most of what we eat and this Summer, once again, we should ditch fruit and vegetables from the shopping list while we use up what we grow. It’s not just produce that is conventionally grown (or sold) in Ireland; this year we’ll have peaches, melons, grapes, garlic scapes, tomatoes, peppers, cherries, and far more than I can keep up with at times.
Since I started growing my own food my whole attitude to food has changed. Now I want to know produce has been grown pesticide and herbicide free; where my meat has come from, and how the animals have been treated. When our Local Authority (Fingal County Council) mooted the suggestion of a pig-rearing syndicate for a free range herd on the allotment scheme I jumped at the opportunity.
Working as a syndicate to rear a herd of pigs means that we have to learn to pull together as a community to care for the animals. The plotholders take an active part in rearing the pigs; from feeding to monitoring the fences, to collecting surplus from local shops. It’s very much a community effort that benefits the syndicate members, local grocers, and farmers. This coming December those members will receive enough pork for the following six to twelve months if they’re clever about how they use it. We also pay the farmer and various other suppliers with pork to keep the costs of running the syndicate down. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only such scheme in the country.
Community is embedded within the allotment scheme and it has become a sign of our changing society. From retired civil servants, to the beekeeper who also is a member of the local retained volunteer fire service, to the families of Eastern European, Middle Eastern origin (and beyond) we all labour side-by-side, share our knowledge, and support one another. Seeds and seedlings are swapped with as much generosity as know-how.
The best piece of growing advice I ever received came from a far more wiser plotholder than I: “No matter what happens the allotment will be here,” he said. “I will have tough days and easy days, we will lose some family members, and we will gain others. The seasons will still pass, the plants will still grow, and the allotment will still be here. Life goes on and on at the allotment, despite my best efforts.” He chuckled inwards and I felt a lump in my throat.
Growing our own food teaches us so much more about life than we realise. We learn how to deal with failure, that sometimes success doesn’t come without a price, and how working together reaps the rewards that are far greater than a bountiful harvest.
Disclosure: A version of this piece originally appeared in The Sunday Times.