Sue, a Royal Parks WW1 research volunteer, interviewed Mike, a volunteer at the Kensington Gardens allotment, about the First World War heritage veg that he’s been growing. Here, Chloe and Eleanor reflect on how his experiences can tell us something about wartime growing:
During WW1, authorities were given powers to possess unoccupied land for cultivation. Often referred to as ‘war plots’, these allotments were intended to tackle food shortages, so as part of the war effort, people were encouraged to grow their own food.
But how to do this? Many city-dwellers had never grown their own food or seen it done. To tackle this, ‘model allotments’ were set up in parks, like Kensington Gardens and Regent’s Park, to educate citizens on gardening techniques. Here people could find out about the kinds of vegetables that could easily be grown in London, as well as how to tend to them.
A hundred years later, the allotments across the Parks have a similar purpose – inspiring people to grow and demonstrating what’s possible. Mike Phillips, a volunteer at Kensington Gardens, has his own allotment in Barnes, but in Kensington, “we’re not growing our own choice of produce or what we’d want for our own tables. We’re growing more for show.”
This can mean being less adventurous with the varieties they grow: “we do tend to stick to those things that we know are going to work... it is a public space and if we grow too many things that fail, people are going to walk in there and say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing here to look at’.”
Growing in a public space also means cultivating things you wouldn’t choose to grow privately. Kale and chard look fantastic in an overwintering allotment and provide interest and information for visitors – but if like Mike you don’t like eating them, in a private allotment you just don’t grow them.
Research volunteers on the Royal Parks in the First World War project haven’t yet uncovered any information about what the model allotments in Kensington Gardens might have looked like, or how much the personal tastes of the experienced ‘model gardeners’ might have influenced the varieties chosen. First-time veg growers were encouraged to turn their own private gardens into – surely unrealistic? - visions of order and beauty. What we’d give to be able to know how many people succeeded and caught the veg-growing bug forever!
An illustration from War-Time Gardening by Walter Brett: "how the small garden should look in war time".
You can visit the allotment at Kensington Gardens any day of the week and see WW1 growing in action.