The art ofOF ALLOTMENT GARDENING WITH ROSIE BIRKETT
Few things are as rewarding as growing your own food – not only is it an excuse to get outside and in touch with nature in the warmer weather, but it’s also the best way to explore the joys of seasonal cooking. Rosie Birkett, author of The Joyful Home Cook and one of our favourite food gurus, shares everything you need to know before giving allotment gardening a go in your own garden.
While I still describe myself as an allotment novice, growing my own food has been an incredible learning curve, and is such an inspiration for my cooking, because it is both greatly satisfying, and extra delicious to cook with ingredients that are fresh from your own patch. If you’re thinking of starting to grow your own then I will try and manage your expectations a little. It’s taken us two years of hard work to get to a point where our allotment is yielding a substantial amount of food, and there have been plenty of little hiccups along the way – broad beans that have been decimated by blackfly, courgettes that have rotted on their stems before we could harvest them, strawberries written off by pesky slugs.
The whole process is as much about spending time outside in nature, learning about the growing cycles and needs of plants, getting your hands dirty and working physically hard, as it is about yielding delicious ingredients, and because we try to do things in a non-chemical way, we often end up sharing with the local wildlife. I don’t really mind though, because I’m a believer in trying to promote soil health and biodiversity rather than spraying everything with damaging chemicals that will kill not just weeds but also microbes that are crucial to the mini ecosystems at play.
Even when I lose a crop to some sort of pest or blight, I wouldn’t swap the evenings I’ve spent outside, digging, pruning, sewing seeds or weeding, for anything. Growing your own is great for both mental and physical health, and for your home cooking. Once you’ve lived through the whole process of growing and harvesting an ingredient, you can’t help but feel inspired to cook with it. As well as automatically cooking more seasonally, you end up wasting much less of the ingredient too because you know what’s gone into making it and how precious it is, giving you a much deeper connection to the food you eat and cook. What could be more delicious than that?
Rosie’s top tips
1. Buy a good book on allotment growing. I’ve got Allotment by Allan Buckingham and I’d really recommend it, it’s got plenty of step-by-step guides and useful lists of things to plant and jobs to complete month after month.
2. Start small, and be realistic about what’s achievable – don’t try and do too much at once. Our allotment was way too big for us when we started, but once we cut it down by half, it was far more manageable and we utilised the space much better. If you don’t have an allotment start with a raised bed, or box or tub outside your door.
3. September is still a good time to sow salad, for a fresh supply of home-grown leaves and sprouts. Buy and sow seeds like rocket, salad leaves, spring onions, radishes and lettuce.
4. If you’ve been growing tomatoes, make sure you harvest any left on the plants to ripen them at home and use them in a good recipe.
5. Stay on top of watering and weeding. Along with knowing what to sow and plant when, being committed to watering and weeding whatever space you’re growing in is key to maintaining healthy crops and keeping plants alive.
6. I love a jam jar cocktail to take with me to the allotment and something you can mix together and transport easily in a jar like a negroni works really well.