It seemed like a good idea at the time. I once infiltrated a posh Herb Workshop on a massive Gloucestshire estate, hoping to pick up cooking tips using herbs. Bad bad idea. The situation turned prickly after the lemon balm tea and lavender-bud shortbread, when we had to explain why we were there. All had gardens. All could actually make things grow. All, of course, except me. When I said that I didn’t like gardening there were murmured cries of “shame shame” from the two women who were already comparing this vast estate with “Prince Charles’ and Camilla’s garden.”
The event was probably the beginning of my total inadequacy at growing anything and squashed any confidence around Latin speaking gardeners. It was with relieved pleasure therefore when I was introduced to community gardening in Dunton, a nearby village, and watched its development nourish the souls of a people whose amenities were quickly waning. I was so enlivened that I felt just fine when I met the Peralta community gardeners in Berkeley California.
Why? Because they seemed human. Because they’re using a neglected piece of railroad land and making it beautiful. Because they insist that they grow organic. Because each plot has flowers to attract insects. And, above all, they are drawing together a community with a common interest. Here again is a chance for people to make friends and to encourage each other as they work together to make a garden fit for themselves and the visiting public. Their garden is decorated with lovely member-made ceramic tiles.
Their plots (being Californian) grow fruits, flowers and vegetables all year long. Their tiled ring bench is ideal just for sitting, thinking, writing or painting . One man plays midwife to the monarch butterfly by stringing up chrysalises on the tree.
Community gardens in Berkeley exist because of one man, Karl Linn, who campaigned to reclaim the commons from privitisation of public lands. He believed strongly that guidelines to secure public land for community gardens should be incorporated in the cities’ general plans. He was convinced that through the creation and use of accessible community garden commons, neighbourhoods could become arenas for extended family living. In my short stay in Berkeley I saw quite a few community gardens. All of them have huge WELCOME signs to the public.
And the campaign continues. Have a look at the YoutubeTED talk given by gangster guerilla gardener Ron Finley, who got sick of watching an increase in Dialysis centres, motorised wheel chairs, and having to drive 45 minutes for an organic apple, just because South Los Angeles was a Food Desert (his words) and residents were dying from curable diseases. The 4 minute talk is inspirational. I won’t give it away, but you’ll have to be prepared for colourful language.
In the UK the allotment system is much older. Its roots go back to the nineteenth century, but parcelled land could go back as far as to Anglo Saxon times. Champions of the allotment plan insisted that the government give land to the poor, due to the rapid industrialisation of the country. Today there are about 330 000 allotment plots in the UK. Wandering through an allotment, it’s interesting to see how they’re used. Fresh flowers AND vegetables are growing happily. A friend I know uses hers to grow unusual plants – like candy striped beetroot and blue potatoes.
Even from a non-gardener’s perspective it is a joy to see the pleasure and pride that people take in their gardens, marvelling at the miracle of growth, the delight in nurturing and cherishing the plants into maturity. Long may they continue to flourish, long may cities and towns protect them for the fruit and friendship that grows in them. If you can, do everything in your community to keep such a garden going. Who knows, you may even be offered a blue potato in gratitude.
Broad (Fava) Bean Rice Dish
Elizabeth, one of the Peralta gardeners offered us some broad beans (fava beans) which she grows to re-nourish the soil. To make this Persian recipe, get yourself a good DVD, something to watch as you shell the beans, and later take off their individual skins once they’re cooked.
Amounts vary according to the horde you are feeding:
Broad beans shelled, cooked gently, then pop the skins off them.
Rice cooked to al dente.
Fresh dill as much as you can get. I used 2 supermarket boxes for 3 people, but Persians use much more, about 5 cups. Strip the dill off its stems and chop it. Fling the stems into a bag in the freezer and save for the next time you make stock.
Yogurt about half a cup.
Saffron ground and soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water.
Butter or oil.
Add a quarter of the cooked rice. Layer on chopped dill and beans, repeat, ending with rice. Plop teaspoons of butter on top, and run some down the edges of the pan, or use oil. Cover with a clean cloth, then the pan’s lid. Over very low heat, cook until hot and steaming about 20 – 30 minutes. If you wait even longer you will get a crispy bottom. When done, put the bottom of the pan in cold water to push off the crispy rice on the bottom. Invert onto a plate. You may even get a whole “cake” of rice. Even if you don’t, it’s yummy eating.
This will be a vegan dish by omitting yogurt and butter. Just add the saffron water to the oil in the bottom. It’s vegetarian with butter and yogurt. But it’s also very good with smoked fish.
[By the way, do you have a garden glut of lettuce? Let me know. I have a lettuce pancake recipe.]