The grow-your-own revolution

More and more young Jewish families are discovering the appeal of cultivating their own piece of land


By Jessica Elgot, July 15, 2010
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The Wallis family at their allotment in Hampstead Garden Suburb

The Wallis family at their allotment in Hampstead Garden Suburb

For a man with such an orderly allotment, Brian Berelowitz does not hold back on the flowery language: "I'm completely in love with my allotment. It has changed my life. It has given me such unbridled joy, working the earth and tending what I'm growing."

Berelowitz, a landscape gardener by trade, has rented his impressive allotment in Child's Hill, north London, for two years. He is one of the growing number of people turning their back on pre-chopped, plastic-packed vegetables from the supermarket in favour of growing their own.

"It's just a shame you can't do work on it on Shabbat," Berelowitz enthuses. "But we have eaten Shabbat meals here, on a pub bench by the shed, getting funny looks as we sing the brachot."

The sudden rise in popularity of allotments - the latest figures show 200,000 would-be gardeners are on waiting lists across the country - may be linked to the recession: growing food is cheaper than buying it. Indeed, Berelowitz points out that near his patch there are allotments devoted entirely to staple
vegetables such as potatoes.

You put seeds in the ground and pray like crazy

But there are the bourgeois growers too, perhaps inspired by celebrity chef allotment owners like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. They grow more fancy produce like red chard, multi-coloured basil and hubbard squash.

Berelowitz puts himself in the latter category - he is particularly proud of his exotic Israeli artichokes.

But that does not mean neglecting the basics, or having to buy fancy equipment. He says: "We build most of what we have from scraps. I make compost, and I made my runner-bean nets from football nets. I know a man here who grows vegetables in old lampshades. All the green waste that the council collects comes here - so even though it's a pain to recycle, it goes to real use."

Under the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, all councils in England and Wales have to provide enough allotments to have no more than six people on a waiting list - but that does not extend to central London, where space is at a premium. Councils are unable to keep up with the demand. Some councils are coping with space issues by offering plots smaller than the standard size, calling them "al-little-ments" or "baby-grows".

The other alternative is finding your own space. Rabbi Natan Levy of Shenley United Synagogue has transformed the derelict backyard of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) in Hendon into a blooming garden. The project is part of a course teaching "living Judaism", making connections between religion and modern ethical issues.

He says: "We do try to grow biblical plants - we grow figs, and we have a vine. We are trying to make a connection between all the different symbols in the food we are learning about, and then it's right out there, growing in
the garden."

Volunteers from UJIA, Hebrew classes and schools help out in the garden, which, says Rabbi Levy, is a sanctuary away from busy city lives.

"I love it," he says. "I have found it very therapeutic. First of all I like that gardening requires emunah - you have to have a lot of faith. You put these seeds in the ground, water them and pray like crazy."

For Rabbi Levy, it is important that the food has a practical as well as spiritual relevance. He explains: "We live in a world that is very disconnected from what we eat and how it is produced. It helps me on many different levels to see where a carrot comes from. It just takes a little bit of that initiative, which gives a lot of empowerment.

"This is pretty much my first go at gardening. I've had a lot of help but I find it easier because there is not much at stake ­- it's not like my family are depending on the garden for food. But I am very emotionally connected to the garden - whenever a plant gets eaten by a bug, I take it very personally.

"We sell everything we grow at the school and the money which we raise we give to [Jewish youth charity] GIFT. That is another teaching, giving away a corner of the field to feed the poor. We are engendering that idea through the garden. Although I do take some treats home for my little children. They aren't so keen on radishes."

Raising a family who value what goes on their plate was important to Robert Wallis and Lizzie Sturm, from Hampstead Garden Suburb. The couple rent an impressive three allotments, which, along with the crops, feature two chickens. Lizzie and Robert's two boys - Joshua, 13, and Isaac, 11 - have their own plots and help out with digging, weeding and watering.

"The children love it," Lizzie says. "Isaac has had friends over who didn't know what a real potato actually looked like.

"It's amazing to see how involved they get in the garden - he is now growing strawberries, sweet peas and flowers. It's the best playground for the boys too - it's full of mud and worms."

The family are seasoned allotment-holders, and are proud of the fact they have been growing their own food for 12 years, back when allotments were the preserve of pensioners. Robert says: "Before I got my own patch I used to offer my help to the elderly residents, and they would give me fruit and vegetables in return. We took over an allotment which had been abandoned. Now there's a waiting list of two or three years to get one."

Lizzie adds: "When we started we felt like pioneers, working the hard ground of the neglected earth."

The allotment, she says, has completely changed the tempo of her life: "We have become much more in touch with the seasons. It's amazing how the fruit and herbs grow in line with Jewish festivals. We have apples for Rosh Hashanah, horseradish in time
for Pesach. We also make delicious charoset, and pickled cucumbers."

Robert agrees that buying peaches in January from a supermarket is a bit like eating matzah in August - it makes you lose perspective.

He says: "I am not interested in whether the quality of what I grow tastes better than Marks & Spencer or Waitrose. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I'm interested in having that relationship with my food. The allotment is a way of life."

The Jewish Community Centre for London is running an urban food-growing course. Details at www.jcclondon.org.uk or tel: 020 7431 9866

    Last updated: 12:18pm, July 20 2010