I delve into our vegetable patches and allotment plots to discover just how the grow your own movement took root

The seeds of gardening fervor were sown for Jamie Butterworth when he was just nine. Three years later, he’d dug up half his grandparents’ garden and turned it into an organic allotment.

“I’ll never forget sowing those first seeds and the buzz from seeing something so tiny grow into something so big,” says Jamie, now 22 and studying horticulture at one of the nation’s greatest gardens, RHS Wisley. “It is undoubtedly one of life’s big thrills.”

But Jamie is not alone in his passion for plants, and, as one of a new generation of young enthusiasts that are reinvigorating our green spaces; he’s breathing new life into a movement that goes back to the Anglo Saxon era.

Deeply embedded in our culture – in times of trouble the British have turned to the soil for solace and, in the face of crop failures, poor summers, flooding, and even bombing, grow-your-owners have risen from the potash.

Today, with almost 80,000 gardeners wanting an allotment and an average of 52 people on the waiting list for every 100 plots, it seems our verve for veg has never been stronger.

“Whenever food supply is threatened, or prices are rising there is a pronounced upswing in grow your own,” says Dr Peter Brent, the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) historian. “And while other countries have allotments too, they’ve never had as much publicity or success as the British.”

During its unfurling history, Britain’s vegetable patches have held a mirror up to some of the most momentous moments of social and political change, from the Enclosure acts of the 18th century, through two world wars and numerous recessions to today’s thirst for frugal living, organics and sustainability.

“The grow your own movement is no longer the domain of the cloth capped older man. It’s an antidote to a frenetic world,” said Rebecca Speight, during her time as the National Trust’s local food champion. “It offers authenticity and connection and brings people back in touch with nature – a desire that is very deep within us.” (Since original publication of this article, Rebecca has become Chief Executive of the Woodland Trust)

 Private provisions

The notion of a private space for the ‘common man’ to grow fruit and vegetables is thought to date back to the 5th century, but the allotment system that we recognise today developed from the Parliamentary enclosure movement of the 1750s.

While early allotments had many provisos (no gardening on a Sunday when you should be in church, for example), by the 18th century, two Allotment Acts pushed the grow your own movement up a gear with larger parcels of land given to the labouring poor in the rapidly industrialized cities and towns.

At the other end of the social scale, the first garden society, the RHS, was also formed. “There had been various agricultural societies, which gave prizes for breeding cattle etc but, until then, nobody had paid particular attention to things that happened in the garden rather than the fields,” says Dr Elliot.

And it was among the roots and shoots of one of Britain’s burgeoning kitchen gardens – Down House in Kent – that the, then relatively unknown, naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin began developing his ideas that would lead to his ground-breaking work on natural selection.

“Staring at flowers for hours on end and transferring pollen grains with a paintbrush, Darwin must have cut a strange figure,” says Rowan Blaik, head gardener at Down House. “His gardeners Brooks and Lettington – who were winning prizes at the local shows for their fruits and vegetables – would look on Darwin’s ‘tinkerings’ in the garden with bemusement.”

But Blaik says the impact of the movement on Darwin’s work cannot be underestimated. “Over 40 years, the grow your own movement helped him enormously with his work, and he looked to his growers, gardeners and plant breeders for inspiration and teaching,” says Blaik. “Although you would imagine he would have been using exotics for his research, most of Darwin’s early experiments were with fruit and vegetable seed – he created up to 54 cultivars of gooseberry for example.”

Growing pains

The growth in growing continued apace in 1908, with the Small Holdings and Allotments Act placing a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments and by 1925 this was further shored up by the establishment of ‘statutory allotments’, which local authorities could not sell off or covert without ministerial consent.

In one truly remarkable story during the First World War, uncovered by the RHS Lindley Library, an intrepid group of British men set up a horticultural society in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany, helping to feed their fellow prisoners and even organising RHS standard flower shows to boost morale. All of this was made possible by secret bundles of seeds, bulbs and advice sent by the RHS to its affiliate, deep behind enemy lines.

But surprisingly, while there were more than 1 million 40-pole plots, providing more than two million tons of veg during the First World War, at the advent of the Second World War it was a different story. “By 1939, two-thirds of food was imported – including most onions and carrots – and there were only 800,000 allotments,” says Ursula Buchan, author of A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War.

As a result, if the soldiers (not to mention civilians) were to march on their stomachs to victory, they would need nutritious veg closer to home – and so, one month after the outbreak of the Second World War, the now famous ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign began.

Private gardens, parks and even football grounds were dug up and by 1943 more than one million tonnes of vegetables were being grown.

“Hurlingham Polo Ground was turned into allotments, and vegetables grew even in the deep silt of the dry moat around the Tower of London,” writes Buchan in A Green and Pleasant Land. “The incendiary-bomb-damaged roof garden of Selfridge’s department store was turned into a plot…there were vegetables growing in the Twickenham stadium…and one of the most inspiring of all local Dig For Victory stories was that of the Bethnal Green Bombed Sites Producers Association…who turned bombed out buildings into garden plots. At times, the members were forced to sieve soil with pierced dustbin lids to remove debris…and in some places they had to dig down six feet through solid foundations. Gardening served as a reminder to Britons that their green and pleasant land was worth fighting and dying for.”

Even the Anderson shelters (which later became distinctive sheds on many allotments) were greened up. “Civilians continued to worry they were conspicuous from the air, so many households made them more appealing and less obtrusive by growing nasturtiums, marigolds, lettuces and marrows on the top,” write Buchan.

Nevertheless, while we might have a nostalgic view of the days of the dig campaign, it was hard work for those on the ground. Indeed, not everyone embraced the government’s enthusiasm – many millions of households didn’t in fact Dig, buying the majority of veg from greengrocers – and the government’s push for people to eat the humble carrot, with recipes for curried carrot, carrot jam and puddings, weren’t digested well by the public.

“People also had to be very ingenious with very little resources,” says Buchan. “There were few tools and a shortage of wellies, thanks to the Japanese invading Malaya, as well as potash, which had been imported from Germany. Heated greenhouses weren’t possible either, and ‘Cloches against Hitler’ soon became the catchy slogan for promoting the inexpensive protection and forcing of crops!

“But gardening has practical, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions; it is both earthily satisfying and emotionally recuperative…so it is small wonder that in wartime people often strove very hard to tend a garden, sometimes in extremely unpromising circumstances.”

Changing climate

But once the war ended the Dig For Victory spirit seemed destined for the compost heap as allotments fell into disrepair and a new war began to rage as local authorities began to reclaim allotment land for housing.

With the advent of TV, instant mash and ready meals there was even less reason to get out into the great outdoors, and post 1950, the ‘men and sheds’ image of allotments pervaded. By the early nineties only 200,000 or so allotment plots were in use.

In the last decade, however, new shoots have risen from the broken cold frames and old wheelbarrows, and as people look for cheaper ways to source food – and save the planet – ‘Best Kept Allotments’, school growing schemes, community plots and even waiting lists are growing. And with this growth a new kind of grower has emerged – now predominantly younger and also female – and the types of things we grow has changed too.

“The allotment has always been a curious and friendly place but now there’s all classes, cultures and ages represented,” says Mike Thurlow, an allotmenteer for 40 years and horticulturalist for the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG). “Now we’re growing things like okra and sweet potatoes that just wouldn’t have been considered in my father’s day – even sweetcorn seemed exotic 10 years ago!”

Peter Earl, RHS Rosemoor’s fruit and veg expert, who grows grapes, kiwis, gourds, peaches and nectarines at the Devonshire garden, agrees. “Breeders are now better able to develop cultivars of exotic fruits and vegetables that can cope with the British climate and there are also more ways to affordably protect unusual crops which means they are within the reach of a lot more gardeners,” he says.

At the Minnowburn allotments on the outskirts of Belfast – one of 1,000 allotments plots created by the National Trust in 2009 to answer the demand for more growing space – polish plot-holder Tomasz Ciesielski grows pickling cucumbers and other veg from his native country.

“My favourite plants we brought from Poland are the yellow beans and kohlrabi,” says Ciesielski, who tends the plot with his wife and two children. “My parents also sent me a dozen off-cuts of grape vine and while I do not believe it will be fruiting as rich as those from Spain or Italy, I hope our kids will some day have the chance to try something different! Without trying these things we will never know if these plants can adapt to the local climate. ”

Of course, it would be easy to suggest this newfound passion for growing is simply down to the frugal after-effects of austerity measures, but for many it goes much deeper.

“When we launched the 1,000 allotments eight years ago, people said it would be a fashion and they would be empty in two years, but that’s just not happened. They continue to grow,” says Rebecca Speight. “And in an era of food scares, the allotment continues to offer the most control over where our food comes from. We may have moved away from the wartime mentality of mass production but it remains a place to escape and slow down.”

Indeed, recent research has recommended that GPs should put community food growing ‘on prescription’ due to the proven benefits it has on fitness, diet and well being.

And as the young blood in an historic movement, Jamie Butterworth is one convert that believes grow your own will continue to thrive. “So many people are now realizing that growing fruit and vegetables is both economical, nutritious, and fun,” he says. “And when they see that first seed sprouting, there’s really no looking back.”

First published in Great British Food magazine