I’m referring to the title of Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is a compilation of his articles for the Daily Telegraph – (well nobody’s perfect). He’s both a gardener and a plant ecologist, but above all he’s a proper scientist who applies his properly scientific scepticism to many of the assumptions that guide public policy towards land use. He’s on our side. Here’s a quote from his book (Page 167):
During the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, allotments and gardens provided around 10 per cent of food consumed in the UK, despite covering less than 1 per cent of the area of arable cultivation. Recent research also shows that gardens and allotments produce yields of fruit and vegetables four to eleven times higher than conventional agricultural crops.
There’s much worthwhile reading in his books, but let’s focus on that figure for a moment. The article from which the quotation is taken is focusing on the quality of allotment soil, but the takeaway point for me is the potential contribution that small gardens and allotments can make to rescuing the environment from the destruction being wrought by industrialised extractive farming whilst simultaneously providing a secure food supply. If you’ve ever driven down through France you’ll have seen the endless convoys of heavy freight lorries bringing crops up from Spain, grown by virtual slave labour under a sea of plastic.
Two points arise from this that I think are worth some serious thought. Firstly, we allotmenteers would probably bridle at the thought that we are using land intensively, but the fact is we are doing just that, and the only difference between us and the arable strip-miners is the way we go about it. The increased yield we obtain is only possible so long as we replace what we have taken from the soil or, better still, add more until the soil positively sings with vitality.
The inevitable conflict of world views will always set the organic allotmenteers and gardeners against the non organic approaches. There’s abundant evidence that organic methods are a win-win for those of us who eat our own produce and for the environment too. If you’ve ever tried to read the small print on a bottle of proprietry insecticide, you’ll know that you need a magnifying glass and a handbook to guide you through the process. What’s the difference between pyrethrum and pyrethroids and are they equally safe? How, when you get to the allotment, are you going to measure the exact dilution of some chemical or other when all you’ve got is a watering can or a jug graduated in fluid ounces? and where exactly are you going to rinse the containers and discard the washings? Human nature being what it is, it’s overwhelmingly likely that many people are getting the dose rates wrong and ignoring the tiny print warnings on the packaging, and it’s unfair to blame the non organic gardeners who probably lament the loss of wildlife and the pollution of watercourses as much as we organic allotmenteers do.
When we were at art school in the seventies we lived in a rented eighteenth century farm cottage with a large garden front and rear. We grew one of our best ever vegetable patches there, in deep soil that was black with generations of night soil and constant cultivation. When we took it on it was very neglected but all we needed to do was scrape the top off and compost it while we reaped the reward of the previous generations. Just across the fields there was one of the most magnificent cottage gardens we’d ever seen. Mr Maggs, the gardener lived alone and the washing line was usually populated like a Himalayan prayer flag with all his snuff stained handkerchiefs. After spending months peering over the wall I asked him one day “How do you get these wonderful results?” His answer was instantaneous – “DDT” he said.
So that’s one issue we need to take seriously. When you grow intensively, as we do, it brings responsibilities and temptations and sometimes we get it wrong. But the second issue is one that’s looming just around the corner in the UK. We have a housing crisis and the Local Authorities have no money. Where do we think they’re going to come looking for land when the crisis boils over? Our allotments are easy pickings for cash strapped local authorities, and allotmenteers are about as easy to organise as cats. We’re fiercely independent and resistant to groups and campaigns, and when they come looking for land they’ll be armed with arguments that make us look and feel bad. Why should we indulge ourselves at the expense of the homeless. Well the answer to that is “because you sold off all the decent land to property developers who built buy-to-lets and cleaned up, and now you’re expecting us to solve the problem.
We simply have to start building the case for allotments and gardens from a wider perspective than personal satsfaction. Yes it keeps us fit and healthy into old age, yes it’s vital to biodiversity, especially in cities. Yes it make a contribution to food security and yes it’s a major vehicle for carbon capture. That’s just four reasons and there are many more. But if we don’t start to organise and make our case we’ll be a pushover and then everyone will suffer.