Room to grow: how allotment life can be the best therapy


For the past year I’ve kept an allotment. Taking it over in a state of disrepair, some years after the death of the previous tenant, I’ve cleared weeds, dug beds, planted apple trees, improvised panels for the greenhouse out of bits of transparent plastic conservatory roof, mowed grass and failed to fix the leak in the potting shed. In between all that, I’ve grown vegetables.

I’ve always had an interest in gardening. My mother encouraged me and my brother and sister to keep a flower bed each when we were kids – mine, being in the shade next to where we buried the pets and underneath the tree house, never thrived, while my brother’s was an absolute suntrap and full of delicious-smelling lavender. We all helped with the veg beds in the back garden, watering inadequately and massacring slugs, which I’m not all that proud of, but must confess I enjoyed at the time.

When my wife and I moved to a flat adjacent to the Spa Hill allotments in Crystal Palace, south London, 18 months ago, I thought of putting my name down for one, knowing I’d get a plot quickly because I lived nearby. I kept a vegetable bed in our back garden first, though, to check my lifestyle allowed for all the watering. In the end, it did and it didn’t, like anyone’s life. But by the end of last summer I had another reason for wanting to grow more.

Between 2015 and 2018, I had my head in a blender. A life-threatening illness kept my wife, Charlie, in and out of hospital, cost us all the money we’d ever earned and isolated us terribly from the rest of the world. A serious trauma caused her to suddenly and unexpectedly to develop anorexia nervosa. She was formally diagnosed in the spring of 2016.

Her condition continued to deteriorate and that autumn she spent four months in an NHS unit where I visited every day and watched as, with extraordinary courage and willpower, she regained a healthy weight. The following year, we married and bought our first home, but Charlie was still struggling to enjoy life. This time we gathered together all the money we could find and tried a private clinic. After a year of serious work there, five weeks as an inpatient then several months attending every day, she finally gained control over her illness.

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The sense of emergency we had lived with began to recede a little and I started trying to assess the damage I’d suffered myself. I knew I’d been affected. I had flashbacks all the time to the first days in hospital, when Charlie’s survival was in the balance, and I slept in the chair next to her. I hadn’t really seen anyone socially since the illness was diagnosed, because anything that wasn’t time spent with Charlie or time spent working to support her seemed abhorrent to me. I had lost some of my facility for speaking, finding it harder to think of words.

I also found it difficult to eat at a table, or eat with other people, because of the memories that came with food – unless I’m eating with my wife, I find it less traumatic to eat standing up and alone. For a long time I became nocturnal. I used to run round parks at four in the morning, or be in the gym when the blokes who ran the kebab shops clocked off and came in to lift weights.

I tried therapy. First, I tried something called a “worry group”. Then I was sent to talking therapy. I didn’t get very far. The time I had to talk through what had happened to me started to run out, and I felt like opening up those wounds without time to resolve them was going to do me more harm than good. I stepped back – and got an allotment instead.

When you work with words, you get to know their power and their limit. I realised I needed a non-verbal way of getting over what had happened to me. My wife’s illness was the first real trauma I’d experienced and it broke many of my ideas about life. I discovered that some things don’t have meaning and can’t be turned into positives; some things are evil and senseless and take life away from you. Going over them in words won’t necessarily help, because there isn’t necessarily some hidden meaning, some truth you can get to, some moral to the story. There’s only senseless pain, because part of life is senseless pain.

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So I turned to gardening. What excited me was the opportunity to nurture things, and to grow things my wife and I could eat. We’ve developed a very involved relationship with food, that has brought us closer together as we both relearn life. Part of recovery for my wife has been building a life full of recipes and beautiful ingredients and exploring ways of cooking creatively and deliciously. The way to live, it turns out, is to love living: to immerse yourself in flavour and smell, and know every step of what you’re doing, be part of all of it as it happens. Growing things is a way for me to contribute to that. When I’m with Charlie, she and I do an enormous amount of cooking, so I felt that keeping a garden would enrich that process, make every stage of preparing a meal a form of celebration.

Now we’ve started harvesting. I’m growing onions, garlic, peas, broads, runners, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, leeks, lettuce, spinach, carrots, artichokes, beetroot, parsnips and courgettes. Today, I’ve made a broad bean and herb pesto, and picked red new potatoes, bright as apples in the moment you unearth them, and red onions for caramelising and making into gravy. Earlier this week we made spanakopita, my favourite meal. Every day we make salads from things I’ve grown. It helps me: I feel like I’m contributing to our staying well, and I lower our carbon footprint, and I make our meals taste better (the longer I leave my lettuce in the ground, the sweeter the leaves are – allotments give you flavour that supermarkets can’t).

Visiting the allotment every day has also helped reconnect me with people. I’ve become part of a raggedy community I’d never otherwise know, who don’t know really each other’s names, but lend each other seedlings and hoses and whatever anyone needs. I’ve had rows there, and broken up rows between other plot-holders, but I’ve also made friends, borrowed books, learned how to compost and reconnected with something beyond the verbal: the act of nurturing, the act of care.

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It is sometimes frightening; sometimes difficult. Talking to people I don’t know makes me feel vulnerable and when I accidentally kill some of my beetroot (for some reason I find beetroot very easy to kill), I feel as if I’ve failed, and when food and failure are connected in my mind, that can send me into a tailspin. But it’s been the single best way I’ve found of recovering.

When my wife’s illness started, I thought that writing would help me to survive. I wrote about our struggles, and tried to bear witness, in a novel and a series of plays. But doing so wasn’t cathartic for me. It just meant going through the pain again, more slowly. You don’t have to do that when you’re thinning your parsnips. You just have to work out how you’ll cook them to make them taste good. So doing that has helped me to make the world big again, helped me start to feel less angry with everything.

Now I’m telling a story, The Vanishing Hours, about how people can lose what they love, and then get it back. It’s more full of joy and recovery than anything I’ve written in years, I think, and that’s partly thanks to all the gardening.

I’ve heard anecdotally that the NHS has started asking people who struggle with anxiety whether they’ve considered getting an allotment. I think in the next decade, they’ll start prescribing them. Mine has helped me reach out and remember that life is bigger than the corner I’d been backed into.

The Vanishing Hours by Barney Norris is out now, published by Doubleday (£12.99). Buy it for £9.99 from guardianbookshop.com



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