My first ‘multi-crop’ harvest of the year was sad and pitiful, and the photo I took of it was even worse. You can barely tell what lies beneath the peas, and everything just kind of blends into the surrounding swarm of couch grass. The seeds and plants that birthed those vegetables and flowers were supposed to make me feel better, and they didn’t. It was the culmination of months of growing, tending and fretting, and now, as we return to business as usual in a post-pandemic world, and I am able to get to my allotment less, I am thinking more about why I started to grow my own food.
The peas and lettuce in the photo come from seeds that originate from Homs, Syria. In 1949, they were donated by the Near East Foundation to the US National Plant Germplasm System. In 2014, they were shared with Roughwood Seed Collection by the Experimental Farm Network, who preserve crops from parts of the world that have experienced farmland loss due to war and natural disaster. In 2020, I bought a few packets from True Love Seeds and they made their way across the Atlantic once again.
By introducing Syrian seeds into my allotment, I thought they could help to rebuild memories of my grandparents’ farm, a place I haven’t visited in over 10 years. For a while I would obsess over how I could make my London plot look less like itself and more like the one I’d walked through as a child on summer holidays. I visited the farm for the first time in the early 2000s. Although it was not as picturesque after years of neglect, walking down its winding path, drawn towards the sound of the river that gushed, bountiful and wide, right beside the farm, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It’s hard not to idealise land that is able to look after itself even when its caretakers can’t: my grandfather had passed away a long time ago, and my grandmother’s remaining years were spent sitting outside the farmhouse after morning prayer, telling off the wild cats, watching the world continue to turn from her own little pocket of time. At night, it really did feel like you could reach out and touch the sky.
So I began planting Syrian vegetables: lettuce and peas, even Aleppo peppers, and a Damask rose bush, named after Damascus, the city the rose was allegedly taken from by French Crusader Robert de Brie. But my plan didn’t work. The peas tasted creamy and sweet but gave nothing more. In fact, it dawned on me that I couldn’t even remember eating peas, or lettuce, in Syria. One of the most common uses of peas in Syrian cuisine, riz bi bazalia, is one of my least favourite dishes. These were not the foods I remember; they were not the silken culinary nodes that connected my cobwebbed network of memories. The foods that stayed with me were those that strengthened my affinity to the bitter, sour, fermented, and sickly sweet. These were the olives, both the ones I foolishly pulled from the trees and bit into raw, and the preserved ones sampled from large vats in the market; it was the peach I bit into, and to this day cannot forget the taste of its juice, which cut into the corners of my mouth like a smile; I remember green grape chandeliers hanging in bunches above my head that I would absent-mindedly reach for when I felt peckish, or rows of fig and pine nut trees that lined the perimeter of the land, and seemed to me as tall as mountains.
When I share my home-grown vegetables, usually the annual glut of courgettes and cucumbers, the most common remark from elders is how much the vegetables taste like ‘back home’. I would never put this experience down to my own growing abilities, but it was a compliment that stuck with me and romanticised my approach to growing my own food for a long while. People were experiencing a familiarity in the crops, and a reminder of how they themselves grew up, rather than the actual taste of the cucumber. This is not to say that I don’t grow delicious vegetables (!), but it is to say that for a lot of people, including myself, a large and foundational part of growing our own food involves attempts at physically bringing into the present cherished moments that will always remain firmly rooted in my past.
State repression, greed, war and displacement have decimated Syria. When I sprinkle seeds into peat-free compost in Zone 5, what am I really trying to connect to here? How does this bring me closer to the childhood memories I made on that land: the walks I would go on to find frogs and lizards, the fruits and vegetables I would taste for the first time, the hours I’d spend sitting by the long-since-broken fountain at the end of the farm, watching soldiers across the river in the midday sun train like their lives depended on it thinking, “what are they working so hard for?”.
I have thought about all the reasons why I think I grow my own food: to be self-sustainable, to know exactly what is going into my food; because both my parents grew up on farms and there is a green streak somewhere “in my blood”. I could also say definitively (as I have done in the past) that it’s a comfort, a balm, a piece of paradise within urbanity. Although in moments all these things are true, for almost three seasons of the year it’s generally difficult and conscientious work. I find it hard to naturalise myself to nature. I shiver when I see dead rats on my plot, my first impulse is to squeal when I find caterpillars on my vegetables, robins still make me jump when they creep up behind me on a fence or table. I have never felt such animosity towards anything more than I have towards a cabbage white butterfly, and still I persevere with it.
And despite what I think to myself, I am not trying to escape the city for greener pastures. I love my city. It, too, is becoming harder to love in its own way. It is tiresome and demanding. There are times when it lifts you up and you feel all the lightness of coasting across the River Thames, but with the swiftness of a London pigeon gunning for a chicken bone, it can bring you right back down to the ground.
I now know that to try and fit the precious memories of one city into another is futile, even through the most unassuming of places such as an allotment patch. There is not enough room inside London, no matter how much I try to rearrange the furniture. But, every now and then, a gap emerges, a glitch, like a Tetris piece you just couldn’t manage to slot in place. For the smallest of seconds, I will look down at my hands as I place seedlings into the soil, and imagine my grandmother doing the same. When there is total silence, and the neighbours that encircle the allotment site retreat into their houses, the roads silent aside from the faint grumbling of engines, I think about her little pocket of time and how I’m starting to grow my own.
Nadine writes and grows in London. She is part of the Khidr Collective, a UK-based multidisciplinary arts collective, and is fiction editor of their annual zine. You can follow her growing journey @__slimpickings on Instagram.