Thankfully, German U-boats do not now prowl our waters, but for the past few weeks we have seen empty supermarket shelves, panic buying, and speculation about food shortages. The range of choice in our supermarkets is being restricted and there is no doubt that supply chains are precariously close to the edge. When war on Germany was declared in September 1939 thousands of Britons, foreseeing the inevitable scarcity that would soon arrive, prepared to feed themselves. Flower beds were ripped up, lawns dug over, and land made ready for production. Although we do not face such extreme shortages, with the prospect of continued lockdown into spring and summer, I think there is no better time than now to start growing fruit and vegetables.
I was first drawn to the idea of growing vegetables about eight years ago after watching the Good Life – a charming BBC sitcom made in the 70s about a suburban couple struggling to escape modern commercial life to become completely self-sufficient. My youthful intensity and attraction to hobbies and ways of thinking more suited to fifty-year-olds soon saw me digging up the lawn and beginning an industrial-scale production of crops. My vegetable growing diary from 2013 records me expecting a 40-50 kg yield of ‘King Edwards potatoes (maincrop)’ and is illustrated with plans that meticulously plot out the division of legumes, roots, and brassicas in which I had devised a ‘crop rotation’ system to maximise the size of my harvest each year. If I had had my way, I’m sure there would have been pigs roaming the garden, a goat eating up just about anything, and half a dozen beehives annoying the neighbours.
To my disappointment, my parents did not allow this to happen, but I did, at the very least, immerse myself in all things concerned with self-sufficiency. My bible was John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self Sufficiency which I believe to be the greatest manual on self-reliance and environmentalism ever written. John Seymour is a name that few have heard, despite the current popularity that surrounds the environmental movement. Perhaps this is because John Seymour’s philosophy involves action and self-responsibility, not moral virtue signalling and liking a few Facebook posts. Seymour, in the introduction to his magnum opus, argued that self-sufficiency ‘means the acceptance of complete responsibility for what you do or what you do not do, and one of its greatest rewards is the joy that comes from seeing each job right through – from sowing your own wheat to eating your own bread, from planting a field of pig food to slicing a side of bacon.’ His eloquent and jargon-free work, beautifully illustrated by his wife, guided me in my first attempts to grow food.
The hours spent battling insects and weeds, breaking up soil, building compost heaps, and dealing with all manner of problems associated with keeping vegetables and fruit alive, was always worth it when food I had grown entered the kitchen. I can still remember the taste and smell of the first potatoes I harvested, which were boiled and served with melted butter and herbs. Sitting outside in the warm glow of an early June evening, eating food that moments ago was growing footsteps away from you, is perhaps one of the most satisfying feelings possible. Like the sweet taste of an ice-cold beer after a day’s hard work, food will always taste better when you know the care and time that you have taken to cultivate it.
You might think this is all rather sentimental rubbish – Vyvyan in The Young Ones, perhaps the comedic nemesis of The Good Life, in one episode ripped apart the opening credits of the show while screaming: “It’s so bloody nice! Felicity ‘Treacle’ Kendal and Ricard ‘Sugar-Flavoured Snot’ Briers! They’re nothing but a couple of reactionary stereotypes, confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a loveable middle-class eccentric. And I hate them!” Perhaps this is true, but I don’t hate them. The sight of Jeremy Corbyn tending to his allotment is a profoundly English eccentricity – and in many respects deeply conservative. The connection to nature, to the land, to the seasons, and to local peculiarities which self-sufficiency brings also gives a conservative viewpoint to life. John Seymour was certainly reacting against the modern world when he wrote his great works on self-sufficiency, suggesting that a better and more sustainable life might be lived when man is more responsible for his immediate necessities.
Following a long break from vegetable growing– my A levels and then Cambridge took over – I am using the lockdown as an opportunity to resurrect the vegetable patch and I’m glad to have the help of my brother. The two of us almost a fortnight ago, surveying the ground on which my patch had once stood, realised an enormous yet exciting task awaited us. It is amazing how quickly untamed nature will reclaim land, and so for days now we have been clearing, chopping, and hacking back the growth of weeds, shrubs, and trees which must be managed before vegetables can even be thought about. The waste from this that could not be composted has been burnt on the bonfire. To begin a vegetable patch the ground must be broken up – ‘double digged’ if you can manage it – and turned into a light loam. We dug six patches between us, each one just over three metres in length and one and a half metres in width – backbreaking stuff. If you wish to grow vegetables, furthermore, you should get to know someone with horses. Nothing is better for the soil than horse manure, and so we have transported about fifteen wheelbarrow loads of manure into the garden. We have also fitted glass panels into the frame of a greenhouse that had been sitting unused in our garden for years and planted tomatoes. A greenhouse or windowsill is the perfect place to sow seeds which can later be planted outside when more developed.
With long and sprawling hot spring and summer days ahead of us, I cannot recommend enough the benefits of growing your own – even if space limits this to some fruit and herbs in pots. Despite growing awareness about environmental threats to our planet, many people seem to have forgotten the environment in their own back garden. Some, who don’t bother it seems for nature at all, have replaced their lawns with artificial turf, or simply just concrete. This is, of course, a symptom of the chaotic, busy, and unstructured lives the modern, globalised, world has created where people have no time for gardens or are more interested in spending their free time in front of screens. Perhaps as we all slow down during this lockdown, however, people will take John Seymour’s advice and strive ‘for a higher standard of living, for food which is fresh and organically-grown and good, for the good life in pleasant surroundings, for the health of body and peace of mind which come with varied hard work in the open air’.