“I don’t know if I can describe it, to be honest. It was a sense of relief to get this allotment, and to know that this little space was all mine.”
As Johan gently attaches some over-enthusiastic sunflowers to a metal support along one side of his allotment, he points out that these supports are actually old mattress springs. And that the vegetable bed beneath his feet received its winter warmth from the same mattress’ stuffing. The springs also support tomatoes, achoca fruit and some African horned cucumbers which are called kiwano in his home country of South Africa. For a broad-shouldered strong man, who looks more like a Springboks rugby player than a vegetable grower in rural Cambridgeshire, he handles the string and stalks delicately and patiently. You can take a man out of the Royal Engineers’ search and bomb disposal unit but you can’t take this need for precision out of the man.
“In 2006 I followed one of my surfing friends from South Africa over here to join the Royal Engineers,'' Johan explains, “where I trained as an engineer, search and bomb disposal expert and served for nine years, my last station being in Wimbech in Essex.” During Johan’s years of service he had always managed to have a small plot to grow on, but not as much as he wanted and also, to his regret, when he was away with the military he didn’t have time to tend to it.
“I inherited my love of growing from my grandfather. We didn’t have much money at all growing up but he always taught me that what we did have was a lot more than some people. I could turn the light on and I had light. I could turn the tap on and I had water. And that already put me in the privileged sector. In our garden we had avocados, mangos, lemons, pomegranates, lychees, passion fruits and orange trees.”
Adapting to the British climate did curb Johan’s enthusiasm for a while, however, with efforts to produce tomatoes and strawberries not really coming to fruition during his army years. “I didn’t understand how to grow properly, to be honest, not really getting the concept of sun and heat and all that.” However, when he was medically discharged from the army, due to a back injury and hearing loss that occured during his service, he realised that what he needed was some serious space to grow and time to learn more about it.
This took time in itself, and finally, four years after leaving the army this allotment, 5m wide by 25m long, came up for grabs, and then, very soon after, a neighbouring one did too. It’s a bit like people who try for years to have a baby and all of a sudden, they are told they are having twins. The plot thickens though, because just as one part of Johan’s world started to open up, another was imploding. He pulls out a few rhubarb stalks, cuts off the large leaves and takes a deep breath: “Last year, just before I got the allotment, I was diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which was a combination of issues from my past but also from my service.” So, even though he had waited several years, the allotment couldn’t have come at a better time for Johan. It turned out that clearing a vast patch of 2m high weeds and starting to dig deep, was just the therapy that he needed.
Pointing at his ramshackle shed at the back of the allotment, Johan says, “You couldn’t even see the shed on the first day, the weeds were so high. But I thought, I’ll start small and even if I get a few potatoes in the first year and just work a small corner, I’ll be happy. But in fact, with the help of my wife and my eight year old daughter, we cleared all the weeds in just one day. I think because the soil hadn’t been disturbed for so long, it wasn’t too compact, so everything came up pretty easily.”
What Johan didn’t expect, however, was an instant reward for all that hard work on day one. Underneath the weeds they discovered these two rambunctious rhubarb plants, ten rows of potatoes, a somewhat starved strawberry patch and two raspberrry patches. “They hadn’t been doing well because they weren’t getting light, you see”, says Johan, “but once we pulled the weeds out, within about three weeks the potato plants tripled in size, the strawberry plants started to come to life and we even got strawberries and raspberries last year. It felt like Christmas.”
Johan knows that PTSD is not something you are going to fix in a day, and that the roots of his illness spread far and wide. As well as getting excellent support during his service, and most of all from his beloved wife, he does credit the allotment for bringing him both light and life: “It’s the place where I am happy and relaxed. My PTSD symptoms can sometimes get quite bad. Like seeing family tragedies in my head that never happened, because my brain shows what that looks like in a flashback. I get those by the hour sometimes, even more on bad days. But the allotment really helps me to focus and push all of that noise out of my head. It gives me that peace of mind, and sanity I suppose, where I can completely relax. And just garden.”
The pleasure that Johan gains out of growing goes deep. He smiles with pure unadulterated joy when he talks about how his family will benefit from it, but also the environment, and even “how many thousands of insects enjoy my area.” He talks about how an allotment is a gift that keeps on giving, and how much he loves the culture of generosity that emanates from that amongst allotmenteers.
Within the last year he was given a greenhouse, already packed by him with tomatoes, cucumbers, pepper plants and aubergines. His raised beds are built out of scaffolding boards that a local company donates to the allotments when they can no longer use them, and his garden fork is just one of a shed load of tools he was given by a woman who was downsizing and wanted to pass them on. She may as well have been an angel from horticultural heaven, as far as Johan was concerned: “Honestly there must have been £2000 worth of tools that she gave us. I just couldn’t believe it. I was in tears, I was so happy. Up until then, I was using a plastic milk bottle with a handle, which I had put holes into, to sprinkle water over my plants.”
One of Johan’s other treasured gifts has been membership of Garden Organic magazine, which includes membership of their heritage seed library: “I volunteer to be a seed guardian, which means that they send me runner beans, french beans or tomato seeds, all rare varieties which they are low on stock of. We then grow them as seed guardians, save some of the seeds and send them back at the end of the year. So this makes sure that these varieties don’t die out. I am really enjoying that actually.”
As the evening summer sun starts to spread its last few rays over this expansive, flat Cambridgeshire landscape, the village clock strikes the hour and the fruits of Johan’s labour start to glow throughout his plot. It’s hard to imagine that these bright yellow courgettes, ripe red currants and statuesque purple artichokes were just aspirations a year ago.
A pheasant scurries across the other side of the allotments, and Johan stops and listens to the familiar flapping noise. “This is my favourite time of day here,” he says, “when nature really comes to life. Nature teaches me to be resilient, you know? I love just sitting here sometimes, with my wife and daughters, and seeing the impact that our work is having on life around us. Because although this allotment is helping me, it’s not all about that. It also works the other way around. So the bees, insects and everything are gaining so much from everything we give them too. So sometimes it’s good to sit back and just enjoy what you’ve got and also what you are providing.”
Cocktail waiters are spoilt for choice when finding a name for a drink made with the kiwano fruit that Johan grows in his allotment’s greenhouse, given that its other given names are the horned melon, jelly melon and cuke-a-saurus. They can grow to the size of an avocado and are golden orange when fully ripe, with skin that is protected by sharpish horns. If you haven’t eaten a kiwano before, you’re in for a taste and colour treat when you cut it open, it’s green gelatinous flesh releasing fresh smells similar to those of a cucumber.
It may look a bit like a kiwi inside but the seeds are crunchier, although they won’t do you any harm if you just swallow them. Johan remembers kiwanos growing wild along the perimeter fence of his school when growing up in South Africa: “I used to pick them after rugby practice in the afternoon and eat them on my way home. They have a creamy, sweet, tangy flavour and you can eat them just as they are, or mix them into a summer salad. The flavour is light and fresh enough to accompany the full bodied flavour of game meat. I really want to try making a cocktail with them though.”
For green smoothie fans, however, the kiwano is a perfect match, bursting with vitamin C and lots of other green goodies. Just add the flesh (seeds and all) to some kale, cucumber, green grapes, lime juice, mint and some water to your juicer and you'll have enough energy to dig and weed for an eight hour shift. Or when you’re done, you might just want to enjoy a sundowner cocktail to reward yourself. Johan definitely deserves one, which is why, for The Allotmenteers, there is just one name that should be used for this cocktail.
- 1 kiwano fruit
- 30 ml tequila
- 15 ml Grand Marnier
- ½ lime, juiced
Scoop out and blitz the kiwano fruit’s flesh and seeds, and then sieve it to remove any seed remnants. Add the green juice to your cocktail shaker with the tequila, Grand Marnier and lime juice, and shake it all about. Serve with or without ice and raise a glass to the good life.
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