What an Amazing Experience

I heard some years ago about allotments from some friends who had allotments but I never gave the idea much attention. Only recently, I started considering it. Thanks to our lovely daughter, Ranya, who initiated the idea, encouraged it and pursued it further; searching and emailing until finally we got a plot and without her help we would not have been where we are now, members in Whetstone Stray Allottees Association.

Since late November 2016, it has been a surprisingly amazing experience that has surpassed all my expectations. As a child, I used to enjoy spending the long school summer break by the seaside more than going to the mountains and countryside. For an urban girl, an academic woman with no experience in farming, planting or growing things, apart from, as a child, picking the jasmine and gardenia flowers from the pots on the balcony of my parent’s house in Lebanon to make necklaces, I think I have come a long way. Recently, I have been planting seeds of vegetables, watching them grow inch by inch, leaf by leaf, caring for them, learning from them and enjoying the crop. It has really been an absolutely exciting, creative, enjoyable, amazing and much valued experience almost to the extent of my disbelief!

My son comments on the photos I send to him by saying: “I can see you have become vegetarians and farmers and all you need is export the product”!. Well, not yet but we have become very interested in and more understanding of the hard work of farmers and what they may go through. He was certainly impressed with what he saw when he visited the plot. Perhaps one day all our ancestors were farmers and this is how they survived. Our friend Jonathan tells me how instrumental growing vegetables was in people’s lives in Britain during the second Wold War. His mother, who used to work in the British army, used to tell him that people were told then “to grow for victory” and that “planting was fuel for the land”. Nowadays, perhaps we grow to survive, to maintain good health, physically and mentally, to make good use of the land and to have an interactive relationship with nature.

Yes, an amazing experience that has taught me a lot and I would like to share with you why I consider it so amazing and much valued experience. It is because of what I learned and what this experience has taught me; the following:

1- To face up to the challenges and handle them delicately and you will be okay. For a woman with feet and knee problems, it was a real challenge to do the digging when you insist on doing the work yourself to make it a special experience. Well, it was not always easy but at least I tried and did as much as I could.

2- To enrich your language and widen your scope; and for me to learn basic vocabulary and terminology for all stages of work in the plot, of plants etc. This is important for communicating. For example, I did not know the names of tools but now I know some at least with still a lot more to learn.

3- To be down to earth, a very humbling experience. I felt while working in the soil I had always to be respectful, friendly and considerate to the environment and to others, no matter how small or irritating a creature may be, never to undermine them. At times I allowed slugs to eat some of the leaves. I planted flowers for the bees. I remember the robins that used to come around and wait patiently for the worms to be unearthed while I was digging in autumn to have their meals. I used to talk, whistle and sing to the birds and later to the plants as they were growing.

4- To be more generous than I usually am and to think of others who may not have any of what you do. Indeed, I shared with others the plentiful crop of what I had grown; allotees, neighbours, friends and colleagues at university. I really enjoy cooking and feeding others especially those who need it not just the homeless at Christmas time, as I did last December, but others all year round.

5- To enjoy a real life experience; I gave chard, beans and courgette to some of my students or those who cook. In fact, chard entered my classrooms and became amazingly part of the language lesson.

6- To make friends, share and exchange the experience with fellow allotees. I am really grateful to our immediate neighbour allottees; Stefani, Lynne, Siobhan, Eric, Cahill, Charlotte, Dorothy, further away, with her encouraging and informative emails right from the start who showed us around her plot too and, of course, Les and Bridget who were always available for help and advice. As well as many others who would stop by the plot and comment on our work or just talk about the weather and so on.

7- To plan, prepare, design, coordinate and organise plans for achieving better outcomes. My initial idea was to plant seeds in every inch of the land as many vegetables as possible and I did plant twenty six different vegetables. This meant overcrowded areas of plants given the lack of my knowledge of how much space is needed for them to grow. We were lucky with the fruits that previous plot holders planted.

8- To be optimistic and hopeful and to look for a window of opportunity despite catastrophes; such as, bad and severe weather conditions the wind destroyed, in February, the small plastic green house in which I had the seedlings and small pots which were all damaged. However, the seeds that were in small pots indoors on the kitchen worktop and on the floor remained intact. I replanted seeds of plants that were damaged and they all did very well except for the tomatoes which were hit by blight, like everyone else’s.

9- To be patient and tolerant with others. I did not mind the pigeons eating the leaves of some of my plants, thinking new leaves would grow later and similarly with slugs and snails. Weed which was growing fast because of the summer rain, I would pick some but leave others especially when they show their flowers. Physically, I worked as much as I could with limitations, of course, but on those days I felt there was no need to go to the gym, even if they noted my absence, having done my workout for the day and relaxed all while working in the plot.

10- To care for and give attention to each plant because in the end you reap what you sow, but at the same time, to be tolerant with yourself especially when you make mistakes. I have planted every single seed with so much love and care; I used to get up early at 6 to drive and water the plants and rush in the evening to do the same on the few hot days we had. But I certainly made mistakes and am learning from them. I once tried to convince my husband that what I picked from what I planted for the salad was radishes that were white and purple in colour with a sharp and crispy flavour but he was not sure. It turned out to be small turnips because I put the wrong label there. My learning curve is just starting to grow.

Finally, I have always been keen on cooking fresh vegetables that I used to buy from the market or from Waitrose but with this amazing experience, I did not need to buy any during three months of summer, except for tomatoes. I have additionally discovered the real taste of freshness of the organic vegetables that I grew. I became more creative with recipes, especially chard, courgette, beans and broad beans. I have also made a cooperative jam of mixed fruits from plums that our neighbour allotee Lynne offered with our tayberries and we both shared the jam. I have enjoyed every moment of this amazing, unique, much valued, exciting and inspiring experience, hard as it is at times for me but very rewarding. I hope all fellow allotees have enjoyed their experience as well.

Farihan Cheblak
31 August 2017