The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian cooking with a side helping of food politics

What is a “Circus Gardener”?

Circus Gardener logoIt was back in 2008 when I first took on an allotment plot. It was overrun with weeds. Determined to garden organically, I politely rebuffed overtures from a neighbouring plot holder who wanted me to spray the plot with weedkiller. Instead I began the long and laborious task of digging out the weeds by hand. Eventually, when I had completed that task I began to erect raised beds, using old scaffolding planks.

My neighbouring plot holder became increasingly scornful the more my plot began to take shape, becoming openly dismissive of my organic techniques and plot layout. Whilst my organic approach involved enriching the soil naturally and dealing with pests through a combination of companion planting and encouraging natural predators, he used all manner of dubious chemicals to “improve” his soil and “protect” his crops.
steve
After a while he began to refer to me dismissively as a “Circus Gardener”, the implication being that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Despite his disdain, my plot began to thrive as I grew range of rare heritage crops, including several quite unusual fruit and vegetables varieties. My plot even received a “silver” award one year in the annual Worcester Allotments Competition.

But pride of place on my allotment was given to this sign I erected on my shed.

the circus garden sign

I find that there is often scope to turn a negative into a positive, whether it is in gardening, in cooking or indeed in life itself, and my adoption of “The Circus Gardener” as my alias reflects that philosophy.

I gave up my allotment plot in July 2016, following an unfortunate accident in which I suffered multiple rib fractures, requiring a slow and painful recovery. My horticultural energies are now divided between my own garden, in which I grow a modest range of herbs, fruit and flowers, and the wonderful Old North Stables Teaching and Display Gardens, where I work as a volunteer most Saturday mornings.

30 replies

  1. Dear Steve,
    Today I caught up with Sara Rawstron with whom I worked more than decade ago and she told me about the Circus Gardener’s Kitchen. It would be brilliant of you to come and give a little talk to our Malvern Hills Green Party branch about your passion for organic allotment growing and your recipes etc. Your story (with its side helping of food politics) sounds so exciting and different. We are a small group – though we are well represented on our councils (I am a county councillor and district councillor in Malvern; we have three green district councillors, three green town councillors and myself on the county council!).
    We meet every first Thursday of the month in the Great Malvern Hotel (in the centre of Malvern) at 8.00pm – next two meetings are April 3rd and May 1st (neither of which I can do as I am teaching away both days). But what about June 5th? If you are willing – might that work for you?
    Very best wishes
    John W Raine

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your outlook. Very similar to mine. I’m learning so much each year we have the allotment and testing myself on cooking directly from it too. Lovely blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts

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  3. How bizarre that your neighbour was so discouraging, gardeners are meant to be a friendly and nurturing bunch! Great that you’re plot is doing so well, we’ll be following your blog with interest 🙂

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  4. Thanks for your comments. Most of the plot holders on my site are in fact lovely. For some reason this particular individual has a deep disdain for the organic approach, but I’m grateful to him at least for inspiring the name for this site!

    Steve

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  5. You and Vinny have lots in common. There is even a picture of Vinny juggling somewhere among his many blog posts. You might also like his posts about the night circus, especially if you also like to read 🙂 – https://cookupastory.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/the-night-circus-black-and-white-torte-with-raspberries-at-centre-ring/

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  6. PS – I would ADORE trying some of your more exotic fruits and veggies. Have you tried growing Garcinia cambogia? If so you might magically become a millionaire!

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  7. Hi, Vinny, and thanks for your comments. I enjoyed the Night Circus post. I think the fruit you mention is the one that is supposed to help with weight loss? I suspect it needs a far warmer climate than Worcester, in the heart of England, can deliver!
    Steve

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  8. What is the size of a plot and how long a tenure do you get?

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  9. Plots are usually rectangular and around 250 square metres in area. It is often possible to lease half a plot (this is how I started, before taking on the full plot). The lease is renewed annually and the cost varies, depending on the charges levied by the Council which owns the land.

    Steve

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  10. Good to know how the name came about. Has old grumpy from the next plot ever calmed down towards you?

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  11. I suppose so – he more or less ignores me these days, which I choose to interpret as a grudging acceptance that I probably do know what I’m doing!

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  12. Stumbled upon this blog from Oh My Veggies and boy am I glad did. Your comments (esp your side of politics) are so well written and thought provoking. And the accompanying photographs are so clean and crisp — they really make the food “pop”. Thank you for taking the time to share and inspire!

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  13. I stumbled on your Kale, Quinoa and Nut Roast en Croute recipe, probably through Oh My Veggies. Have just mixed the filling and am letting it cool. What a wonderful mixture. My husband and I could just eat it as is, if we weren’t looking so forward to having it with a crust around it. Can’t wait to see what else you’ve been cooking up. Another Canadian.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi there, came across your blog whilst pottering around on the veganuary page with some delight I must say. I took on an allotment this year, also well covered in weeds so enjoyed your take on the name etc. I m also determined not to use weed killers. In an attempt to learn more about gardening and wildlife I started to volunteer for the RSPB as I admired their site for all the ideas about the birds and the bugs. Here’s the bit I finally wanted to get to, in my reply. They also introduced me to a wildlife gardening forum and in one newsletter, it talked about the researched link between a particular weed killer and cancer ‘leading the world health organisation cancer agency to conclude they are ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans.’ There was other info to. Just incase you are interested. You may, of course, already know this.
    Denise

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    • Hi Denise.

      Thank you very much for taking the time to leave your comments.

      I think you are referring to glysophate, which is the key component of Roundup, the weedkiller manufactured by the US chemicals giant Monsanto. In March this year the World Health Organisation found that it is “probably carcinogenic”. Despite this, I am amazed to see it still on sale in garden centres.

      Good luck with your allotment, and I hope you keep to your plan not to use weedkiller. It’s a long and unending battle keeping weeds under control by hand, but It’s far safer for us and other wildlife and, to be honest, it’s a battle I have quite grown to like over the years! 🙂

      Best wishes

      Steve

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  15. Very inspiring Steve and hats off to your perseverance:)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Hi Steve

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your wonderful plot and for all the goodies you have left behind.

    I have inherited your old plot and have heard all about your organic approach and food blog with a political spin from some of the other plot holders.

    I am inspired by your approach and would love to follow your blog.

    May I ask where you purchased your heritage varieties and organic seeds please?

    Kind regards

    Lennie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lennie

      How lovely of you to get in touch. I’m so happy that “my” plot has gone to a good home! Thank you also for following this blog.

      Although I no longer have an allotment plot I haven’t given up growing organic vegetables and fruit, but I now do so at the wonderful Old North Stables project, which is located on the edge of the racecourse. You’d be welcome to drop in there at any time (I am there most Saturdays, but it is open most days of the week. Visitors are always welcome and we like to show them what we are doing there).

      In terms of heritage seed varieties, I am afraid you cannot purchase them: it is illegal to buy or sell them! I’ve written one or two rants on the blog about the pro-big business seed legislation that has created such a bizarre situation.

      The heritage seed varieties that I have collected over the years have therefore been obtained through good old-fashioned seed swapping with other organic growers. (The Old North Stables has an annual seed swap each May, which again you would be welcome to check out). I have also obtained quite a few varieties via the Heritage Seed Library which is maintained by Garden Organic. You can find more details via the Garden Organic website – see my “links” page. And of course, I’d be happy to let you have any spare heritage seeds that I may still have. If you’d be interested either contact me via the “contact” button at the top of this blog or follow me on twitter and DM me with your contact details.

      Best wishes

      Steve

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      • Thanks Steve

        I didn’t realise it would be so difficult to keep heritage varieties going, I shall have a look at your links and will most definitely call in at the old northwick stables site.

        Once again thank you and happy growing.

        Lennie

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Love, love, love your style, CircusGardener! Organic is totally the way to go for yield and ‘crop protection.’ I don’t bother with the borders except to keep the turf grass from infiltrating (easy to do). I am religious about organic matter and steal leaves, grass clippings, cardboard, and the like to re-purpose into MY garden. The earthworms and grubs thank me for it by tilling and aerating and enriching the soil for my plants — completely free of charge. No work. No watering. No chemicals. What’s not to like, huh?

    Glad to have found you. I look forward to checking out your articles. So far, I’ve enjoyed how you tie recipes into the history of food. Cheers! ~ Shannon

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Found you when you “liked” my comment on LeggyPeggy’s post. LOVE your blog.

    Based on your metaphor I’m a Street Cart. Have a teeny plot in our courtyard where the rabbits, grasshoppers, (and maybe a rat . . . or two) come to dine. So far have harvested some kind of “blight” on cauliflower, 2 avocados, 3 bell peppers and a bunch of weeds. But I do keep planting because the rabbits, grasshoppers and a rat or two love the cuisine.

    Glad you clicked “like”!

    Liked by 1 person

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