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Veg goes posh at Chelsea Flower Show

Friday 22 May 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a keen allotment holder, relishes the fact that vegetables have been on show at this week’s super-posh Royal Chelsea Flower Show, traces the history of the allotment movement – and advises would-be grow-your-own enthusiasts on how to get the local council to provide allotment land...

BEAUTY, they say, is in the eye of the beholder and to me the picture illustrating this column is absolutely ravishing. It shows one of the most popular exhibits at this week’s Royal Chelsea Flower show and it was created by the horticultural genius who built the Eden Centre in Cornwall.

Take a look, dear reader, and you will spot the difference: this is not a garden full of exotic flowers, with elaborate statues, decking and water features, the norm in past years for this, the pinnacle of British gardening.

Veg at Chelsea
Posh veg at Chelsea.
Picture courtesy RHS

It is as veg plot. Its plants are meant for eating, not dreaming or impressing the neighbours, and it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. It makes me jealous, too - if only my allotment here in the Yorkshire Dales looked a quarter as ravishing – but the very fact that fruit and veg have been on show at the Chelsea is an indication of a huge mood swing in the hearts of our gardeners.

Not since the Dig for Victory campaign of World War 11, when millions of acres of parks, playing fields and public gardens were turned over to veg, has growing your own food been so popular. This sudden surge, and in particular a massive demand for allotment space, have multiple roots (no pun intended) but that is nothing new.

The allotment movement can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages when rural serfs had their own strips of land granted by local squires. When the fields were brutally enclosed in the 17th and 18th Centuries, cottage holders – now paid employees of the landowners - were given their own vegetable plots to help them survive.

It was not always a peaceful process: there were riots in which people were killed and others shipped off to Australia as convicts. But at the beginning of the 20th Century, Parliament passed laws forcing local authorities to provide land for public allotments if there was a proven demand.

Those laws are still in force although one would not think so. Local councils throughout the realm have been selling off allotments for decades, mainly for housing development, and here in the Yorkshire Dales, councils have often bee amongst the worst offenders.

There has been as bitter row raging in Skipton for the past five years or so but the battle has now been lost: houses are being built on the Burnside allotments, sold off at much below their proper value by Skipton Town Council, according to opponents, and throughout the Dales there is a long waiting list for the few sites still available.

To a certain extent, this is the fault of the gardeners themselves. When I took over my allotment some 12 years ago, only three or four of the ten available plots were under cultivation. The rest (and indeed, mine) were overgrown with weeds and briars and infested by rabbits.

For after the Dig for Victory campaign when prosperity began to return in the late 1950s, allotments had lost their allure. Veg gardening had always been a predominantly working class hobby and allotments were often home to pigeon lofts, chicken runs and even the odd pig pen – an 18th Century cottage holder would have felt completely at home. But as pay packets grew from the 1960s onwards, to allotments went into steep decline.

The arrival of the 21st Century, with all its technological advances, brought the new boom which has led to veg plots being a star attraction at Chelsea and the baffling world of this technology may be one of the reasons for it. I detect a widespread yearning for people to go back to a simpler lifestyle and there is little simpler than sinking your hands into well maintained soil.

Your council is bound by law to create new allotments if enough people sign a petition demanding them

TV, too, has played a major part, although “lifestyle” gardening seems to be more about keeping up with the Joneses than actually tending plants: I have not watched Gardeners’ World since the sad early death of Geoff Hamilton, who truly pioneered organic vegetable gardening.

And then, of course, we have had three decades of food scares: listeria in cheese, salmonella in eggs, Mad Cow Disease in beef, layers of pesticides and insecticides on the skins of apples and pears, avian ‘flu and now swine ‘flu.

No wonder the new boom in veg cultivation has been led by the middle classes, the ones who don’t eat the junk food full of fat, sugar and salt which seem to be the favourites of the lower income masses despite the sterling efforts of Jamie Oliver.

Trouble is, of course, that local councils have sold off most of the allotment sites, as they have also sold of many of the school playing fields in yet another assault on the nation’s health. But fear not, would-be allotment holders. Your council is bound by law to create new allotments if enough people sign a petition demanding them. For advice on this, contact the Allotment Regeneration Initiative on ari@farmgarden.org.uk

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