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Vegetable gardening in the Yorkshire Dales desert

Friday 28 July 2006

Our rural affairs commentator John Sheard discusses life on the allotment as Europe is threatened by a vegetable shortage. But are there life and death decisions to make?

THIS weekend, Britain's MPs jet off for their 76-day summer holidays - not bad for a job that pays some £65,000 a year with another £100,000 or so for expenses - which means that civil servants will sink from their normal working torpor into the standard summer coma.

So without that lot thinking up new ways of making rural life even more difficult, I can write about something really important: gardening. Or to be more precise, vegetable gardening in the Yorkshire Dales desert.

The thought came to me when two bits of news were revealed today (Friday). One was that July temperatures have been the hottest since record began in the 17th Century. The second was that Europe is facing a continent-wide shortage of fresh vegetables because crops have either died in the drought or have ripened so fast that food processors can't deal with the glut.

John Sheard, over the garden gate

Now here, for once, Sheardie might have the last laugh but before explaining that, I must say an unlikely thank you to an even more unlikely source: Yorkshire Water. This is a company which, only a decade ago, I was excoriating as Yorkshire Waster because it wasted billions of gallons of water through leaky pipes.

I remember villages in the Yorkshire Dales being supplied with drinking water by tankers being shipped in from the Lune Valley, which annoyed me in two ways: one the shortage, the other that fact that I fish the Lune for sea-trout and to be extracting huge quantities of water from it in mid-summer played havoc with the fishing.

But credit where it's due, Yorkshire Water got its act together, laid new mains up into the Dales, and now has one of the lowest leakage rates in the country. And it is thanks to them that I fed my family yesterday on stuffed marrow taken from my allotment and will tonight have fresh broad beans and cabbage with a slowly boiled ham hock.

You see, I can still use a hose on the allotment so while the area around me is slowly being reduced to desert, my veg is hanging on - by a thread, I admit, but not turning brown and crisp as it did in the last big drought I remember in 1976.

Then there was a hosepipe ban but I was fortunate in that we lived high in the Pennines, had a large vegetable garden, and actually had a tiny beck which flowed underneath it. My then small children made a fortune in pocket money by helping me carry buckets of water from the beck - until that ran dry too.

In the awful and dangerous world in which we live now this might seem superficial, but I was then faced with the most terrible decision ever faced by a gardener, literally a matter of life or death: where would we use the household waste water saved from the wash basin or the shower?

Should I save the runner beans and let their French bean cousins die? What's more important: spinach or summer cabbage? And if the cabbages are to go, should it be the standard green ones or the red, so useful for pickling? In the end, my wife made the decision: we simply gave away what we couldn't eat rather than let it wilt under the merciless sun.

Well, this week has been even hotter and drier than 1976 and, although the choices are not quite so stark, there are still decisions to be made because, out of a sense of common decency, I do not simply soak the whole lot with the hose. Although our reservoirs are (or were) full, the latest forecast suggests that this draught could go on until the end of August so what could happen then?

For example, the onions should be almost ready for lifting but mine are the size of golf-balls because I have not watered them to the point of satiation. Why: because I have directed more of my precious water to the shallots, which keep for virtually the whole year and are much more expensive in the shops that your bog-standard onion.

In every bed, a similar quandary grips me. Decisions, decision. Perhaps the best thing is to switch on the telly and watch the test match. Here, at least, England have made a good start at Old Trafford. And, for once, there is little chance of rain stopping play. So, please excuse, I must draw the curtains and get a cold beer from the fridge…

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