Foodie Tips Courtesy of Yuri Gagarin

I remember the day I got my plot at the local community garden. I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Fear because I wasn’t sure I could grow anything. Excitement because if I could grow something, anything – be it potatoes, spinach, peas, broad beans – it’d be very satisfying to eat the food I’d grown. I knew there was something else in this mixture, something deeper – I couldn’t name it then, but I could feel it.

I’d already been working at the site six months. The land had previously been used as a dumping ground but with council permission and money, it was now a new green space with individual plots for members. The first task was to clear the land and prepare the soil. I spent months of Saturdays alongside other volunteers removing utensils, plastic bags, old clothes and broken bottles from the ground. One day I dug out a telephone. I thought of all the buried conversations and wondered what became of them.

We cleared the space, removed the contaminated soil, added new. The new soil would enrich the ground. We’d also compost and by nourishing the earth, it would nourish us in return. At least that’s what I thought would happen. I was given a prime plot against the back wall. It was sheltered from the wind and received sun most of the day. I was now ready for the growing to begin. I started by digging. I used a pitchfork and shovel to turn the soil over and over again, marvelling at its blackness, its richness. Then I studied the weather. Then I wondered what to plant. Because for all my eagerness and ready-to-go-ness, I realised I was afraid of starting.

The truth was I didn’t know how to start. Which was kind of funny. Because I excelled at starting things. All my life I’d started things. Living in five different countries, fifteen different cities and two continents made me good at starting things. Even in this city, I’d moved eight times in as many years. Settling didn’t come easy. I didn’t seem to be able to put down roots. I kept turning the soil, watching it move and shift. How could I possibly know what to plant, what would successfully take root?

But I had to do something. Anyone who neglected their plot couldn’t keep it. So I brought an old bookcase and propped it up against the wall. I put pots, seedling trays and bags of potting soil on its shelves. I brought a large, bright pink tub, filled it with soil and sat it next to the bookcase. There, potatoes could grow.

Then I brought a disco ball—the glitter and shine would keep the squirrels and birds at bay so tender shoots and berries could mature. I surveyed my plot. It looked pretty good, though I’d have to do something about all that naked soil. I doubted I could get away with saying brown was the new green. Maybe a birdfeeder would help and I set off for the local nursery. I came back with a lavender bush, raspberry canes, a bay tree, strawberry plants, marigolds and some purple calendulas – a good start.

I invited my friend Russell over – an experienced gardener. He surveyed the space. “You have the strangest things growing on your plot,” he said and uncovered a Phillip Stark lemon squeezer I was using to support raspberry canes. I asked him if he had any advice for me. “Well,” he said, “your disco ball looks healthy, but I’d keep an eye on that bookcase – might be prone to woodworm.” I understood what he was saying.

I didn’t know why I was reluctant to begin planting, to get growing. Or why I felt indifferent to what I had just put in. I decided I was restless; I’d been spending too much time at the allotment, I needed a break and went to a nearby park. There, I discovered a statue of Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – marking his visit to the UK in 1961. I didn’t know much about the cosmonaut but I knew Russian cuisine: borscht, rye bread, boiled potatoes, stuffed cabbage rolls, beetroot salads, garlic cloves, and nearly every dish covered in sour cream or mayonnaise. Heavy food for a man whose mission was to fly through space amongst the stars. Funny he could consume all that heaviness and still fly.

Then something occurred to me – maybe it was possible to fly and flit about, yet remain connected. It didn’t have to be one or the other. I thought about how I’d moved around so much I didn’t know how to put down roots. And now I was scared to. But I was getting older and tired, worn down. I needed to settle, I needed to connect. Looking at that statue, a seed was planted. This plot could keep me in one place but I could still go off and come back. Looking after it, I could recharge, take nourishment from my surroundings, develop ties, establish roots. I didn’t need to fear I was giving something up. Instead, I’d be gaining something – my very own space. I smiled. Now I knew how to get started.

So this is what I grow on my plot: beetroots, potatoes, radishes, carrots, onions, parsnips, garlic. Other things too, like berries and flowers and herbs. But the majority are root vegetables. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there – keeping me steady and secure, gently helping me take root. Nourishing me. When the vegetables are ready, I harvest and eat them. They’re tasty and filling. They make me feel solid, grounded. But also lighter, happier, content. It’s like being grounded – while flying.