Posted by Vikki in March's Magazine
We’ve had local food, seasonal food, and organic food, now more of us want to go one better and grow our own. But if you’re looking for allotment space in the city centre you’ll be in for a long wait. A list released by Edinburgh City Council put the wait for an allotment on Leith Links at approximately six years.
With spring so near, I often look out on to the communal wasteland, sorry, garden, behind my flat and make the same promise I did last year; ignore the waiting list and get out there and dig. My pristine white gardening gloves remain resolutely unused. Is the fuss about nothing? Are we all just jumping on the latest environmentally friendly, foodie bandwagon, or are we in the grip of a Good Life style revolution?
There is certainly something wholesome about the idea of an allotment. Something, perhaps, to do with the fact that the movement was started by benevolent, liberal, middle class Victorians, who believed they could cure the diseased working classes by encouraging them to eat better. And despite sounding patronisingly bourgeois, this healthy living approach is still relevant. With government health campaigns targeting our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and gradually expanding waistlines, an allotment could be a way to keep the pounds off through exercise and healthy eating.
Allotment gardening was at its peak during World War Two, when over 1.5 million of us were ‘digging for victory’. Today we can choose which fresh foods to buy and when to buy them. Back then it was a necessity rather than a lifestyle. Now industrial farming and imported foods have granted us the luxury of choice – we select our fruit and vegetables on the basis of taste, health and locality. Despite these modern means of food production, the yield from your own allotment certainly can’t be beaten for freshness. Many gardeners swear nothing tastes better than fruit and vegetables grown by their own fair hand, but they would say that. Maybe we’ve just gotten used to the flavour of mass produced food, which is often picked early to make sure it lasts through its long journey to the shelves. But so many easily perishable soft fruits, like strawberries and raspberries, are relatively easy to grow. Shortening the journey to your plate can only improve the taste; and what journey could be shorter than from your own plant to your mouth?
Sizzling snarlers & chilled lager
But is allotment-produced food really healthier? There’s no need to use excessive chemicals when you are growing for your own use, so allotment fruit and vegetables are practically organic. However, a review of research into the nutritional content of our food released last year concluded that there were only slightly improved levels of nutrients, vitamins and minerals in organic produce. This could put you off spending the extra on organic ranges in the supermarket, but if you’re growing your own, then this news is even better.
Locality can be as much about your community as the provenance of your dinner. Visit an allotment on a summer’s evening and you’d be as likely to witness freshly barbecued sausages and cold beers as you would a new crop of potatoes – so much for the health kick. Community gardening projects have sprung up across the city, encouraging people to get outdoors and meet their neighbours, and to promote the use of our green space. It puts my overgrown, nettle-riddled patch of land to shame.
One of the biggest recent concerns when it comes to our food is that of cost. As sick to death as we all are of hearing about crunching credit and economic woes, we still try to save a bit of cash on our weekly shop. Opinion is divided as to whether or not growing your own is any cheaper than the supermarket. Your allotment crops are not guaranteed – if slugs or blight take hold, all that digging will have been for nothing. And, taking into account the costs of the plot, the seeds, the equipment and the work involved, it may not work out cheaper, even if it is tastier.
But, like me, plenty of Edinburgh residents are flirting with the idea of home grown produce, and waiting lists for allotments are growing. Last month Edinburgh City Council released its new Allotment Strategy, Cultivating Communities: A Growing Concern. In it, the Council identified 29 sites, which could potentially become allotments. These would be funded by a gradual increase in annual rental costs from the current price of £60 to £100 in four years time. To supplement allotment provision further, the Council could also approach private developers to release land for use as temporary plots to meet demand.
But this spring, the wasteland beneath my window remains my only option if I’m to embark on a Tom and Barbara inspired drive for self-sufficiency. Watch this space.