I love food-gardening and I love to travel which is why, whenever I can afford it, I dust off my old mountain bike, mend the holes in the tent, say goodbye to New Zealand for a few months, and head with my husband to the least developed parts of the world – the sorts of places where people still cook and eat what they grow. India, Morocco, Albania, Georgia, Turkey, Romania, Greece … wherever the search for traditional gardening takes me, one thing is always the same – the generosity of the gardeners I meet along the way. Whether it’s a fist full of marble-sized potatoes from the mountains of Ladakh or an apron of lemons from an orchard in the Peloponnese, gardeners are givers.
But travel has also taught me that in a world of inequality and conflict, gardening is a fragile thing. Without fertile land, security of land tenure, or the peace in which to harvest what is sown, even the right to grow your own food cannot be guaranteed. So one spring, not long after I’d watched landless villagers in India create a garden space by clearing rock and rubble from a patch of dusty public land, and seen Greek fighter jets training in the sky while conflict raged in neighbouring Lebanon, I looked at a piece of wasteland on the edge of the road outside my house, and decided to build a garden there. It would rise up out of rock and thistle in acknowledgement of all those who garden in the poorest soils, and it would be built on public land in acknowledgement of gardeners everywhere who till without ever having security of land tenure. There would be no rules attached to the roadside garden at the bottom of the world, anyone could harvest as much as they needed from it, and at any time.
As I cleared away rocks and weeds, and sowed and planted, friends and neighbours asked curious questions. What if people stole from the garden? What if they took too much? What if they vandalised it? But what I wanted to know, when life is so much about having to pay for almost everything, was: would passersby find it possible to simply enjoy taking from the garden without feeling the need to offer anything in return …
As spring turned to summer, combivans, campervans, cyclists, backpackers, children, and even neighbours did call at the garden to harvest produce, take a photo, or simply picnic while they looked out over the sea or patted the donkeys in the adjoining field, and suddenly it seemed that something much bigger than the garden itself was drawing them in. It was as if, in all its simplicity, the give-away garden at the bottom of the world was growing happiness as well as vegetables.