Eating fresh - Allotment crops are bountiful and better to eat than ever

Mixed vegetables

Mixed vegetables - Credit: Archant

Esther Leach discovers the joys of allotment gardening

Phil Gommersall and Brian Jenner

Phil Gommersall and Brian Jenner - Credit: Archant

Here’s an unlikely cookery tip from allotment gardener Phil Gomersall: marinade fresh beetroot in pernod. ‘It’s delicious,’ says Phil pressing his fingertips together and raising them to his lips. ‘I swear it is, although the advice comes from a chef who was happy to add pernod to everything,’ he adds. Phil is not just an allotment gardener with two plots at Victory Gardens in Rawdon on the city outskirts of Leeds. He is chairman of the Yorkshire Allotment Gardeners Federation, heads up the publicity for the Leeds and District branch and is secretary of the Victory Gardens Allotment Association. He’s also heavily involved in promoting the ‘joys of allotment gardening’ at most of the agricultural and horticultural shows and often gives talks around the region.

And today Phil is talking very persuasively about making the most of the bountiful crops of fruit and vegetables harvested so far this year. ‘I’m not a fancy cook – I’m a steam ‘em and roast ‘em kind of cook,’ says Phil. ‘And all I eat are the fresh fruit and vegetables from the allotments; supermarket produce just doesn’t have the same flavour. And I am not fussy about the varieties of fruit and vegetables. The ones I’ve grown all taste good.’

Phil was a farmer for 15 years before becoming a plumber and later getting involved in growing his own food for his family and supporting allotment gardeners. He’s heartened to see young families take over allotments to ensure fresh food on the table. ‘One little girl ran up to me with a red onion in her hand and I asked her if she had grown it herself and she said she had. I decided to make up a certificate especially for her saying she had grown the onion and she was well made up with that.’

Allotment gardening can bring out the inventiveness in growers and Phil’s plumbing experience came in handy when he put together a makeshift under soil heating system using an old radiator carefully angled low to catch the winter sun which then warmed pipes running under soil in a raised bed. It enabled him to grow grapes which produced 26 pints of wine.

Anne Mary Dwight in her allotment

Anne Mary Dwight in her allotment - Credit: Archant

‘Interest in allotments comes in waves. It’s hard work and not everyone stays,’ says Phil, as we walk through Victory Gardens pointing out crops from raspberries and apples to kale and onions. There is a waiting list for allotments at the moment but people shouldn’t be deterred from making inquiries.

Next year is the Leeds District Allotment Gardeners Federation centenary and Phil is planning a ‘pop-up’ allotment in the centre of Leeds which will depict different gardening eras. ‘It’s in the thought stage at the moment but the idea is to have an allotment in the city divided into quarters representing 25 years of gardening in each quarter.’ The aim is encourage more people to grow their own and eat fresh. ‘I like kale with bacon, that’s a good combination,’ adds Phil, thinking hard about the best way to cook allotment produce.

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