"My relationship to the plot is almost a love affair," says food editor Allan Jenkins of his allotment in North London. "I think about it often; do not like being away from it—her?—and feel guilty when I'm not there." Jenkins shares his vegetable garden with photographer Howard Sooley, whose pictures would imply that he feels the same way. They cultivate it, they blog about it and it's called Plot 29.
Photographs by Howard Sooley.
Above: The plot has given a lot back from its earliest days. Here, Howard Sooley's daughters, Rose and Nancy, give a sense of scale to the abundance. Allan Jenkins explains how he began his allotment life:
"The idea for the plot came about because a few of us on the Observer magazine were growing tomato seeds (they became more important to me than my next cover) and this seemed a way we could work together away from the office without the hierarchy of editor, art director, etc," says Allan. "However, the sheer amount of work involved—I dug out skip loads of bricks and glass and wire—soon put paid to that idea: too much work away from work. Howard was the gardening photographer on the magazine working with Monty Don (former columnist, now presenter of Gardener's World). He came; he stayed; and sharing is deeply at the heart of our project."
Above and below: Rainbow chard Bright Lights and purple French bean Blauhilde. Both available from Sarah Raven at £1.95 per packet.
"The allotment was always going to be biodynamic, partly because the best grower I know—Jane Scotter at Fern Verrow in Herefordshire—is biodynamic and I have always admired her and the produce she grows," continues Jenkins. "It has a vitality I have never seen elsewhere, with salads for instance staying fresh for a week. The site at Branch Hill is all-organic anyway, and this seemed natural, an act of faith almost, an experiment that would be proved by the making. At work I am very logical, working with tight budgets etc, and in gardening I want it to be different. And it is."
Biodynamic agriculture emphasizes that animals, crops, and soil combine to form a single ecosystem. It holds that food should be produced and distributed locally using natural, chemical-free methods.
Above and below: Sora radish harvested and its younger days on the plot. Radish can be sown under-cover now; Demeter biodynamic seeds from £1.90 at Lunar Organics.
"The plot means everything, almost. A healing, perhaps, a sense of place. There is something powerful about working with soil (a biodynamic mantra: it is all in the soil). It is a powerful connection," says Allan Jenkins. "And oddly, I have proved to be an instinctive, maybe even a gifted gardener."
Above and below: Companion plant nasturtium and rows of salad leaves between sunflowers and wigwams of French beans.
"How productive was the first year? Insanely, madly, ridiculously fertile, almost as if all the energy it had stored by not being gardened was unleashed," says Allan. "We had four foot hedges of tagetes, banks of sweet peas, swaths of spinach. We were overwhelmed by its beauty and bounty. We had put in ten tons of topsoil and three tons of biodynamic cow manure, plus lots of treatments."
Above: "This came in a mix of calendula seed from Oregon," says Howard Sooley. "One of the best calendula I have ever seen. I still dream about it." But what is it called? No-one knows. Below: Liquid stinging nettle feed.
Continues Allan: "The best advice for me was from Jane Scotter who stayed over and 'stirred' a prep with us one morning. Also the Seed Ambassadors from Oregon who gave us seed they had gathered at home and on their travels. And honestly our own instincts, and of course Howard whose quiet presence and unassuming knowledge is always inspiring."
Above and below: Smells good, looks good. Pot marigold (calendula) going to seed with dill and Allan communing with the soil.
"I already had a fairly clear idea of my attitude to food," continues Allan. "I had grown organic food aged 19 in an eco-commune in Anglesey; been a single parent of two girls aged 20; had been Food Editor of the Independent newspaper. But growing my own food confirmed my thinking in some ways: about waste, agro-business and freshness."
For more of Allan Jenkins' gardening, see A Danish Summerhouse Garden.