Friday, 27 March 2009

Stereotype of an allotment holder

I often get wide eyed looks from colleagues at work when I tell them I have an allotment, they respond in bewilderment, ‘but you don’t loot like an allotment holder’. And I think to myself what does a allotment holder look like? Apparently the stereotype is either of a retired working class old man or middle aged man in a flat cap, braces and pipe with a healthy appetite for producing the largest root vegetable and using 'industrial' language now and again. Although this is a stereotypical and clichéd image of the past, it does to some extent still exist at some allotment sites.
However, things have definitely changed over the past few years. The profile of the allotment holder nowadays includes women, young families and schools who want to introduce children to both the seasonality of fruit and vegetables, as well as the provenance of food. Community groups highlight the therapeutic values of outdoor spaces and horticulture, as well as the social aspect of it. Allotments also allow people to be a bit more creative, get some exercise that they perhaps would not otherwise get. Some people want to simply grown their own vegetables as it tends to be much cheaper and tastier than shop bought ones. Others have eco green credentials and concern over environmental damage done by food miles. These are some of the reasons that allotments are enjoying a renaissance, but it is also a lifestyle choice as well. For people like myself who work five days a week, travelling to and from an office, and not doing much by way of creativity on weekdays, the allotment is my way of escaping the manic of a busy workplace, and getting some exercise, breathing fresh air and producing good food. However, my career demands mean I have to settle for being “a weekend allotmenteering woman” but the hours I do spend there, I thoroughly enjoy. I also get to dress down and get dirty, a good change from the smart office suit.

When I was a kid growing up in Wales, both my parents were keen vegetable growers. As gender roles would dictate, my father would always do the digging and my mother the planting and harvesting in our small back garden. My mother would grow simple food like green beans, peas, spinach, mustard leaves, mooli, radishes, tomatoes, herbs such as coriander and parsley, nothing too ambitious as she had limited space. It never occurred to her to get her own allotment plot I think because she never knew how to go about acquiring one.

I remember my Dad composting food waste; this was before compost bins appeared on the market. He would instruct us to throw any kitchen waste and cardboard in a corner of the garden and then throw an old carpet over it to exclude the light. I used to cringe, thinking my Dad was embarrassing us with his backward farmyard ways. But now on reflection, I know this was old fashioned method composting, a few months later, when he pulled up the carpet to reveal lovely rich soil converted from waste to lush rich soil. My father would get us all to take turns to dig the soil and my mother would encourage us to plant the seedlings into the ground and do the watering, but we’re we interested? Did we want to get our mitts dirty with grubby soil? Heck we did, I just wanted to get lost in adventure books and brothers wanted to play fight each other.

Now many years later, I finally caught the growing bug, I knew about allotments, I knew how to put my name on a list, and finally I got my own plot. My mother comes and visits me at least once a year, and she times it to coincide with the growing season usually between July and September. So she gets to relish in what I am growing. It makes me glow and so happy inside.
So what does this allotmenteer look like? Well she is female, petite and working full-time. I am of South Asian heritage. I do not follow any particular religion or belief. My diet is primarily vegetable and fruit based, complimented with wholefood ingredients such as grains, beans and pulses. I care about our environment and animal welfare. Yes, I am one of the many people whose face has changed allotment sites in the U.K, bringing much more than exotic vegetables, and ethnic cuisines; I also bring with me change.

Many allotments in England, especially places like London, Birmingham and Manchester are very culturally and ethnically diverse, but Scotlands allotments are still very reflective of its past, though some changes are being seen with community integration projects.

To end, last year I gave Pear Tree Wullie who must be in his eighties a courgette, but this was no ordinary green courgette, it wasn’t even a yellow courgette. It was a Ronda di nizza (a beautiful round courgette). He looked at it scratching his head and then said ‘I’ve been growing vegetables for over 40 years and I have never seen anything like this. What do you do with it?’ Ah the joys to come!

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