I was given a patch next to a formidable Turkish woman called Makbala, whose everyday look (headscarf, ankle length dress and sandals) made her look like Charles Bronson in drag. She was a skilled and inspiring neighbour. In her sixties but enormously strong, she worked on four plots (600 square metres of soil) as well as on mine, keeping it up for a friend until I took it on. I was lucky - bar a few weeds, my 150 square metres were in fairly good condition. All that I needed was a shed. This my husband built for me out of timber scrupulously salvaged from skips. But by the time he’d bought the clear plastic corrugated sheeting that I’d decided I had to have for a lean-to greenhouse, it ended up costing nearly as much as a ready-made shed. My sister decorated the door with a pattern of parrots and the children painted a scribble of owls and numbers on one side.
On the day I began digging, Makbala watched me for a few minutes before snatching the spade from my hand - she quickly dug more in 30 seconds than I had in five minutes. When she was satisfied that she had set me straight she let me carry on unmolested.
One day she beckoned to me. I followed her and found her crouched behind her shed. In a shallow hole she had built a fire over which she was making flat breads. She heated a curved disc of metal over the fire pit; rolled out the dough paper-thin and then flung it across the metal for a minute or so. When it had coloured she smeared it with one end of a pack of butter, crumbled over some feta from a large tin, rolled it up and gave it to me.
She was generous with her plants too, giving me dark-leaved mints, bitter seedlings of dandelion chicory and chilli peppers seedlings ready for planting out. She mocked my planting schemes and raised her eyebrows at my haphazard watering but on cold spring mornings she would sometimes bring me a small glass of hot, dark red tea and a big bag of sugar to sweeten it.
I had very little knowledge of vegetable gardening when I began. I looked across at Makbala’s garden and watched how she worked and what she grew. Makbala worked in her garden every day and it showed, row after fruitful row bore witness to her husbandry and experience. She grew Sweet Williams and long green peppers, potatoes, curly bitter endives, pumpkins, purslane, sorrel and giant lines of red beans; against her vast shed she had planted vines, irises and great sheaves of gladioli. I copied what Makbala did each spring, digging the entire plot over, spreading it with muck and replanting it, starting with potatoes. I pored over complicated potager schemes in glossy gardening books but in the end settled for slicing my plot into five beds, divided by paths, and got on with turning the soil. It was as simple as picking up a spade and starting to dig.
I have learnt to garden in the same way I learnt to cook, with curiosity and delight standing in for experience. I am very much an enthusiastic amateur rather an expert. My battles against weeds, slugs, droughts and floods are often unsuccessful but beside the wonder and satisfaction of planting and harvesting your own food none of these trials matter and it’s a wonder worth sharing. Alice B Toklas describes it perfectly in her eponymous cookbook:
'The first gathering in the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby - how could anything so beautiful be mine? And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.'
Jojo Tulloh has been food editor of The Week since 2000. She is currently working on a second book, The Modern Peasant: Food Stories from the Future City, to be published by Chatto & Windus in 2012. She lives in London with her family.Photograph by Jason Lowe
Author: Jojo Tulloh Email: email@example.com