Growing My Own

Boycotting the superstores means taking on five allotments

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st October 2005

It was the onions that did it. I was already having doubts about the Co-op, but this was beyond parody. Onions from New Zealand? In late summer, while our own crop was being lifted? And they hadn’t, by the look of them, been shipped. The skins were smooth and tight: a few weeks in a steel container would have left them looking like Rupert Murdoch. When I saw the label I felt an overwhelming loneliness: the rest of the world had gone mad.

But what could I do? The greengrocers have almost all gone, and the remainder now sell the same globo-pap as the superstores. I joined an organic box scheme, but found that half the stuff wilted by the middle of the week. I would boycott the lot of them and grow my own. All of it.

It took me a while to see the drawback. As readers of the Guardian will appreciate (I hope they bloody do), I keep myself quite busy. How on earth would I find the time?

There’s a small, well-used allotment site at the bottom of my street, and a large, under-used one a few hundred yards away. The big one was handing out plots for fruit trees. Scarcely considering the implications, I took three there and one on the local site. Four allotments. God.

Slowly I thought up a way of making it work. Once the fruit trees were established, I realised, they wouldn’t need much time. That was quite a big “once”. One plot already had a row of young apple and plum trees. One had been ridged and trenched by the previous user, and had grassed over. The third was covered in brambles ten feet high. If I was going to stick to my rule of minimising my use of fossil fuels, I couldn’t do it by myself.

But trees, if they are well-looked after, fruit almost logarithmically. In the first year, nothing, in the second perhaps five or six apples or pears, in the third a dozen or fifteen, and so on. I calculated that if I brought some friends in to help me, and shared the fruit with them, it would delay my self-sufficiency by no more than a year.

We quickly cleared and levelled the second plot, and planted 14 trees: ancient apple varieties like the Pitmaston pineapple, Ribston pippin and Reverend Wilkes, cherries, pears and a greengage, and about 30 metres of blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries. When those were in, I hacked the brambles down on the third plot. We’ve just finished digging out the rootballs, and will plant another 14 trees this autumn. If all goes well, by 2008 we’ll have enough fruit to keep us going all year: apples from September till May (we’ve chosen varieties which ripen at different times), then rhubarb, then cherries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries, then blackberries, then plums, then autumn raspberries, pears and apples again. We’ll have to water the new trees for a few months, scythe the grass in the summer and mulch the bushes, and we should build an apple store, but from then on the whole orchard will need no more than 12 hours a year.

When I took on the vegetable plot, I spent a few days working out why so many people give up. The soil is lousy and the organic matter consists mostly of slugs, but the biggest problem is that every unused plot is a mat of couch grass and mare’s tail. They’ll overwhelm anyone who doesn’t give up his job and spend his life weeding. If you’re not prepared to use Roundup – and wipe out the frog population – there’s only one remaining strategy.

I bought a roll of damp-proof membrane and covered the ground for eighteen months. That killed almost everything. Then I spent a couple of days digging a two-foot trench around the whole plot. I cut a strip from the membrane and pinned it to the outer wall of the trench with nails, then pulled the soil back in. This meant that once I’d got rid of the survivors, the perennial weeds couldn’t come back. I got the local sawmill to cut me some nine-inch planks, boxed it all up in raised beds, and dug in manure at the ridiculous rate of 70kg per square metre. I did something else which seemed a bit mad at the time: I planted almost everything between mid-February and the end of March, and cloched the beds. I reasoned that the plants would get their roots down before the pests came out and the dry weather began, which would save a lot of time later on.

Setting up the plot took ten days’ work and cost £250. The plastic meant there was an environmental impact, but the membrane should last 20 years, and the cloches ten. I started sowing in the warm period around February 10th, with beetroot, lettuces, rocket, chicory, broad beans, carrots, spring onions, leeks, radishes, dill and coriander. Three weeks later, I planted new and maincrop potatoes and sowed sweetcorn, salsify and climbing French beans, then a few weeks after that courgettes, tomatoes, kale and broccoli. Despite the scepticism of my neighbours, they all came up. In late July I planted out the leeks and put in mooli and four kinds of winter salad. As soon as the summer beds are clear, I’ll sow broad beans and garlic and, a little later, onions. I’ve planted everything in shallow trenches, to conserve water. This also cuts watering time more or less in half.

The results so far have been extraordinary: beetroot six inches across, sweetcorn seven feet high, and more vegetables on this small patch than my household, and quite a few of my neighbours, have been able to handle.
I spent about eight hours a week there in the spring and early summer, sowing, weeding and dragging blankets on and off the cloches, but since then no more than the odd half hour, watering the winter seedlings. I’ve now wiped out the perennials, so next year there’ll be less work. I think, in other words, I’ve cracked it. So what have I done to celebrate? Got myself a fifth one. Perhaps it isn’t the rest of the world that’s gone mad after all.