Marchelle Farrell on coming from a Caribbean childhood to an English allotment | House & Garden

In an extract from This Allotment: Stories of Growing, Eating and Nurturing, writer and therapist Marchelle Farrell recounts her experience of taking on an English allotment, as contrasted against her childhood in the Caribbean

We go through the listing gate and stand uncertainly, looking at the space. I tread down a couple of nettles and scuff up some earth with the toe of my wellies. Stooping, I pick up a handful of soil; it is dark brown and crumbles between my fingers, a reassuringly rich loam. I brush off my hands and turn away from the flat, weedy patch we have inherited to look at the valley falling away from it to the brook out of sight and earshot below, and then rising again beyond. With loamstained fingers, I shade my eyes as I squint up at the overcast sky. Apart from a strip sheltered by the hedge rapidly turning into trees at the back, this plot is in full sun, with well-draining soil, the opposite of our steeply shaded, heavy-clay, moist garden. The children promptly climb into an old bath discarded against the fence and begin to play a high-stakes game that involves sailing through a sea of nettles without getting stung. My husband and I look at each other, pick up our tools and set to work.
I never intended to have an allotment. They were not a thing to desire where I grew up. In the urban sprawl occupying a densely creeping band across the north-east of Trinidad, hemmed in on three sides by mountains, marshland and the sea, there seemed little thought of growing spaces, little call for them. There were parks in the older town centres, vestiges of colonial city-planning given the names of dead governors or queens. For most of my childhood we lived near the largest grouping of urban green space, within walking distance of the Queen’s Park Savannah, the Royal Botanic Garden, the Hollows and Memorial Square. These parks were composed of tamed trees, closely clipped lawn, disused fountains and impeccably tended planting, neat white stripes painted around the bottom of palm trees. They were spaces that had been reclaimed from the colonial landlords when they were ousted, for public leisure and enjoyment, but the legacy of their creation lingered and their planting was heavily controlled and policed. For people to come together over a plot of land in these public areas in the shared act of growing for nourishment was unthinkable. In the weeding out of that story of relating to land, we had lost our common ground.
In the suburban gardens of my earliest childhood, much of the growing was either ornamental or fruit trees. My grandmother spent a great deal of time gardening, focused on tending her beloved roses and other decorative plants in her proud front garden, while setting her teenage sons the task of managing the mango, avocado and citrus of various sorts in the back yard. Other than the fruit, her only concession to growing plants for consumption was an aloe vera by the kitchen door and a few other herbs used for their medicinal properties. Often made to drink the bitter aloe’s water – for the cooling she thought that my fiery temperament needed – I held no appreciation for these plants. In our neighbourhood, perhaps the odd person raised their own patch of pigeon peas, or harvested sorrel for Christmas, but most of the veg we ate came from the local shop or the market, much of it imported from other Caribbean islands or further overseas. I had a few friends who lived more rurally or owned land out in ‘de bush’, as we named the tropical rainforest wilderness on the hills. But their relationship with that land seemed mostly to involve hunting local wild meat to be feasted on for parties and for pleasure.
There was some agricultural activity on the island still, though mostly the economy relied on oil and gas drilled and pumped from fields offshore. When I was very young, cows roamed the expanse of grass we called the savannah, which lay at the end of the cul-de-sac my grandparents lived on, though they had disappeared by the time I was a teen. The goats that grazed verges on less busy roads, or the yard fowl once commonly kept for their eggs and the Sunday roast, similarly faded from view. Farmers grew food at scale, and we needed them, and yet there was an unspoken snobbery about their necessary work. They did not sit high up in the island’s inherited hierarchy of social class. To live off the land in that way was somehow dirty, and marked you as poor. To return to working the earth as many of our ancestors had been forcibly brought to the island to do was a backwards step in our progression away from the shackles of history. I strode forward into the white sterility of medical training to my community’s great joy and blessings.

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