Thursday 23 February 2017

High Hoe...

Kevin O'Shaughnessy

It's one of the great myths of our time and it's fast becoming a national obsession. Hardly a day goes by without hearing some smug, sanctimonious expert on the radio or television extolling its delights.

Yes, listen to them pontificate and you'd think that unless you possess a vegetable plot which produces a bountiful harvest of nutritious wonders for your dinner table, you aren't a fully functioning member of society.

The vegetables you grow yourself will taste much better than the mass-produced, artificial stuff on offer in the shops.

They will be fresher, healthier, bursting with vitality, and free of all those nasty chemical fertilisers and pesticides that infiltrate the food chain and poison our bodies

Not only that, we are told, you will save a fortune. No more monstrous grocery bills. Just buy a few little packets of seeds and you'll have an endless supply of nutritious goodness to be savoured by all the family.

The crops will taste so good they will even transform the eating habits of my fussy daughter, whose vegetable-eating exploits extend to once, unwittingly, devouring a whole pea.

Then, as an added bonus, just think of the lifestyle. Sunny days out in the fresh air digging and sowing, smiling children happily watering and weeding as you potter about at a leisurely pace in your oasis of calm.

Listen carefully and you may hear the distant rumble of trucks on the main road, but instead of intruding on your nirvana, the sound simply serves to remind you of how far removed you have become from the manic pace and pressures of modern living.

Okay, it involves some real work. Nothing back-breaking, but enough shovelling to get the muscles moving, build up a bit of a sweat, keep fit ... and maybe do away the need for those gym fees.

Well, sorry to shatter any illusions today, but it's all a lie.

Far from providing a sense of fulfilment, trying to grow your own vegetables is one of the most frustrating, soul-destroying and, er, fruitless endeavours known to man.

I should know. Two years have now passed since first taking possession of one of the local council's prized allotments at Goatstown, in the heart of south Dublin suburbia.

They are in such demand, there is even a waiting list to get on the proper waiting list. After years of impatiently anticipating the far-off day when I might, in my dotage, finally reach the promised land, to actually get an allotment was a source of great joy. I was going to dig it, live the dream, be at one with nature and reap what I sow.

Sadly, reality has since intervened. To date, the total harvest from the plot amounts to little more than a hill of beans.

There have been some minor successes: a few sticks of rhubarb made it all the way to the stomach via a tasty crumble, there's also a plentiful supply of onions, enough garlic to keep us going for about a full week, and lots of lettuce slowly rotting away in the fridge.

Apart from that, it has been one disaster after another. The crop of broccoli was just about ready for harvesting when it got completely wiped out by a plague of pigeons.

God only knows what's eating the turnips, but it's certainly not human. Whatever it is, it has left them looking vaguely extra-terrestrial, with whitish antennae protruding into the air where the leaves should be.

As for the cucumber and pumpkins, it was a complete slugfest, with the total slimeballs launching a series of sustained attacks until all trace of vegetation was obliterated.

And yes, I heeded the advice of an experienced gardener, who suggested using beer-traps to fight them off. I successfully killed hundreds of slugs by alcohol poisoning, after filling little plastic containers with the finest premium lager and placing them around the crops.

However, it did not succeed in protecting the plants. The free beer only seemed to attract more of them to the allotment. They told all their friends it was party time and each night gangs of them would slither over to gorge themselves on the plants before heading on to the beer ... all at my expense.

Bad enough buying drink when chatting up women, but you really do have to draw the line with slugs.

As for potatoes, forget it. It's said that no sane Irishman, if presented with an opportunity to grow potatoes, could possibly possess a logical reason for not doing so.

Well, think again. If the blight doesn't get them, the wireworm most certainly will. I'd never heard of the little bugger before, but now he's a bona fide hate figure.

He gets into the spuds and turns the centre of them into mush, he's bullet-proof against insecticides and has completely taken over the allotment site.

The wireworm is not the only one. The allotments seem to be a breeding ground for a mind-boggling array of bugs and diseases. With all the different plot-holders bringing in their own bugs, they all meet up and multiply -- a bit like hospitals and the MRSA super-bugs.

But there are other pests, two-legged ones, which can wreak an equal amount of havoc. My future prize carrots were little thicker than pencils when, with back turned, my little helpers took a shine to them, pulled them all up and ate them unwashed. The only consolation was at least it was better that the children got there before the greenfly, the rabbits or whatever other pest was eyeing them up.

Oh, let's not forget the artichokes, those fellows with the glorious big purple heads on them. Yes, they grew surprisingly well, untroubled by predators.

However, it soon became apparent why nothing else had bothered eating them when they were served up at home after being painstakingly cooked to perfection.

Suffice to say, they are a member of the thistle family, and no matter how you dress them up, they still taste just like thistle.

And I'm not even going to mention all the crops that died through incompetence, or were killed by frost, smothered by weeds, parched by drought, or simply died of neglect when I dared to head off on holidays for two weeks.

For the honour of experiencing all this failure and frustration, I have paid out an eye-watering amount of cash.

It's not just a matter of purchasing some seeds and planting them. You have to pay the rent for the allotment, and buy all sorts of equipment, from watering cans to shovels to compost bins, perhaps even a wheelbarrow.

Then there's the fertiliser, netting to keep the birds off, sheets of black plastic to keep the weeds down ... and that's before you even factor in all the beer for the slugs.

Put a price on your time, the countless hours squandered, and the only logical conclusion is that the growing of vegetables should be left to the professionals.

If you want to eat vegetables, save yourself the time, hassle and the expense, and just go to the shop and buy them.

You even get to pick the ones you like the look of, instead of having to put up with whatever mis-shapen aberration you eventually manage to dig out of the ground.

To suggest that any soft-handed townie can, just on a whim, go off and grow their own vegetables -- and do a better job at it -- is not just a myth, it is a gross insult to the farming community.

They have the knowledge, the ability and the equipment to do it properly. They can make a living out of it because they are good at it. They are the professionals.

If the nation was depending on amateur growers such as me for our food supply, the current recession would have by now moved up a few notches to full-blown famine.

Yet, the grow-your-own myth persists. Demand for allotments is at an all-time high and sales of seeds for crops has exceeded sales in flower seeds for the first time since the 1950s.

If you are one of those many thousands of fad-followers who are contemplating picking up a shovel and planting some of those seeds, don't say you weren't warned ...

Irish Independent

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