Young discover joys of the vegetable patch

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The Independent Online

The pursuit of the perfect pumpkin, or a sublime strawberry, is no longer the preserve of grizzly old gardeners who chase children away from their patch. Thanks to the celebrity and political campaigning that has pushed healthy eating and food provenance up the agenda, the humble vegetable patch is undergoing a renaissance.

Increasing numbers of young people are rolling up their sleeves and flexing their green fingers by growing their own fruit and vegetables, according to research published by B&Q.

And the new breed of modern gardener is nowhere near retirement age, with a large number of people aged 18-24 now growing their own fruit and veg. Among the new generation is Peter Reynolds, 34, a business development manager, and his wife Gillian, 30, a hospital worker. The couple bought their own allotment in Oxford about five years ago.

"We just wanted to know exactly what we were eating, and also it's a good way of getting outdoors," Mr Reynolds said. "We spend our working day inside so it's a good way to get out and keep fit. It's been such a success, we grow more vegetables than we can eat and often give them away. Not everything works out but the majority of things do. We grow all kinds of things: potatoes, onions, courgettes, peas, strawberries. We grow the fruit and veg we like and freeze some of the extra produce so that we can eat it in the winter.

"Both our families did grow some of their own vegetables so we had a little bit of experience, but we've also had some good advice from other people where we have our allotment."

However, he warned: "It's not for the faint-hearted, especially at the start. The first year can be quite difficult but once you've made the investment in time and energy it does get easier. Another benefit is the tremendous satisfaction to be gained from cultivating fruit and vegetables from seed to harvest to table. And children delight in the transformation from seedling to crop."

Bryn Pugh, of the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), agreed with the survey's findings. "The image of grandad with sacks of spuds over the handlebars of his bike is very much a thing of the past," he said. " People who are taking up allotments now are young professionals who want to feed their family food that is as free from chemicals as it can be. Also, there are those who are deeply concerned about food miles." Mr Pugh added that he had seen a marked increase in the number of women allotment gardeners, from about two per cent in the 1970's to between 18 and 20 per cent today.

Although the survey shows that the most popular crop is still the tomato, it also reveals that the younger generation display more sophisticated culinary tastes in their choice of planting. The top 10 fruits and vegetables that people are planning to grow in the next year include rocket, chillies, Lollo Rosso lettuce and even vines - turning the nation's vegetable patches into "deli" patches.

Mr Pugh said: "It's nothing strange to see coriander, mango and okra being grown. The traditional vegetables such as potatoes, legumes and brassica are still grown, but the more exotic vegetables you can buy from retailers can now be found growing on English allotments."

The research also shows that Kent is being challenged for its title of the "Garden of England". The south-west is now home to more Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wannabes than any other English region, with more of those surveyed growing their own veg than anywhere else.