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Vegetable growing joins the garden status stakes

Friday 07 November 2008

For many years, our countryside commentator John Sheard looked upon members of the Royal Horticultural Society as gardening demi-Gods, the sort of people who rule over stately home spreads and organise the Chelsea Flower Show. Now, he is delighted that they have turned their attention to the humble veg plot

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I went to interview a pleasant Yorkshire Dales lady who lives in one of those converted old farm houses that feature on a million picture post cards, all honey-coloured stone, with a sweeping gravel drive and a profusion of trees and shrubs decked out in their very best autumn livery.
Vegetable growing joins the garden status stakes
Photo: Royal Horticultural Society

Later, when she showed me round the back of the house where, undoubtedly, the family once relaxed on a neatly mown lawn, I was astonished to see as series of raised beds stuffed with ... leaks and Brussels sprouts.

Now I have been growing veg for almost 40 years and back in the days when I started, had I had the temerity to exhibit in our local village show – which I didn’t – I would have been in competition with men who often kept pigeons on their allotments and had a whippet constantly by their sides.

This was not a stereotype. The centre of the local veg growing scene was the working mans’ club and they handed out some pretty big prizes for the best entries at show time. I would have been allowed in the club but I would have been considered with some suspicion – and I regret to say that this worthy establishment closed down long since.

I am pretty sure that the couple who ran the dream house in the Dales have never been working men’s club members and I doubt, from the layout of their back garden, that they have been growing veg for very long. But, thanks to TV and the soaring price of food, this has now become the latest big thing with the professional classes.

And this was proved to me in spades this week when, in my doctors surgery for a routine check-up, I picked up a copy of the very bible of upper class gardening, the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine, The Garden. And, delight of delights, it has just started a vegetable growing column written by The Observer’s gardening expert, Nigel Slater.

Slater is not only a horticulturist by also a cook and he is writing a column on how to cook the veg he grows, shown on the RHS website (details later). Now I could say that there is nothing very new in this – I was doing the same 20 years ago – but the fact that the message has penetrated so deep into the consciousness of the middle classes can only be a step in the right direction as far as the environment is concerned.

One of my concerns about purely floral gardening, either for show or, worse still, for keeping ahead of the Joneses, is that such enthusiasts have, in the past at least, used chemicals by the kilo to keep pests from their precious blooms. And as we all know, many of those sprays kill beneficial insects and the birds, hedgehogs and amphibians like frogs which feed on them.

But if sensible people are to grow veg in large numbers, they will surely realise that dumping lethal chemicals on food they themselves intend to eat is pretty stupid if not downright fatal. With luck, this realisation will spread to the flower beds too and save our wildlife a lot of hassle.

This is particularly important at the moment with bees, which are dying off in their millions throughout the Western world from disease and a mysterious new phenomenon which is causing whole colonies to simply disappear from their hives. This latter outbreak has been linked with pesticide sprays although the manufacturers deny it.

However, that is looking on the black side. The fact that more and people of all classes are taking to the veg patch is, to me, a matter of great pleasure. It will give them fresh air, vigorous exercise and – with a bit of luck – make thousands of them learn to cook. The RHS may have been slow getting to the scene – but they are very welcome now they are here.

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