Green fingers help preserve traditions
The study, by Leeds Beckett researchers Dr Natalia Gerodetti and Sally Foster and published in Landscape Research, looked at the role that growing fruit and vegetables had in the lives of first-generation migrants many of whom were allotment holders or gardeners in the city of Leeds.
“We wanted to look at what people grew and what those crops meant to them, whether they were foods from ‘home’ or from ‘here’,” explained Dr Gerodetti. “We also wanted to look at how the cultivation of food affected people’s involvement in wider social and cultural networks.”
The team from the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences interviewed male and female gardeners, from Zimbabwe, China, Jamaica, USA, Norway and Greece ranging in age from 40 to 78 years old.
For most of the interviewees, memories and tradition played an important role in choosing to grow crops from their native countries, and in some cases in simply choosing to grow their own food at all. As well as enabling them to have fruit and vegetables they couldn’t easily purchase in the UK, cultivation of an allotment or garden allowed them to carry on family or cultural traditions of self-sufficiency. Seeing plants growing and smelling the aromas as they grew or when they were cooked also triggered memories of childhood and of ‘home’.
But the allotments were also examples of the different ways that migrants adapted to a new life in the UK. Most grew what they saw as ‘English’ crops alongside food from ‘home’, and used different varieties of their native plants to cope with the British climate. There was also evidence of how the very practice of gardening adapted to a different culture. One interviewee covered his crop of cabbages to protect them from pigeons, which he wouldn’t have done in his native Zimbabwe, because, if the birds “come threatening my vegetables in Zimbabwe, they would become the next meal”.
“The mix of crops in the allotments highlighted how many so-called ‘English’ vegetables and fruit are themselves immigrants, such as potatoes, tomatoes and courgettes,” said Sally Foster. “The ‘hybrid’ nature of the allotments was also seen in the different uses of more common plants, such as pumpkin, which is grown in Zimbabwe for its leaves as well as its fruit.”
The team also found that growing crops played a part in how some immigrants interacted with their local communities, particularly those where there was an established diaspora within the city. The allotment holders from Zimbabwe, Jamaica and China often shared their produce with other immigrants from their countries, either as a gift or sold to raise money for their church.
“For the gardeners from Norway, Greece and the USA, the growing of crops was more an expression of their individual identities and values,” added Dr Gerodetti. “But despite these differences, the importance of cultivation in maintaining memories and traditions, while still adapting to a new environment, was a common theme across all gardeners.”