Urban gardener, Cleve West: The full Monty

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The Independent Online

The allotment is calling. Our various trips away from home have meant little activity there recently - from us, that is. Back-up from my mother and step-father, who spent many hours there weeding beds and paths, gave us a window to plant garlic bulbs and rye (green manure) among the leeks and some onion seedlings I had sown back in September. But rushed moments are far from satisfying. Connecting with the plot goes much deeper than just sowing, harvesting and reaping on time. The repetition and rhythm involved in some of the most elementary tasks is often likened to a meditative exercise, which manifests some sort of spiritual connection with the land. A day spent over a drawing board or in front of the computer isn't half as satisfying as the physical fatigue from a day digging, hoeing, sweeping or raking. Sleep is never so deep, complete and nourishing than after a spell in the garden.

The link with the earth is more than just dirt under your fingernails. Being outside is one of life's great pick-you-ups. Like going for a run, swim or post-Christmas-dinner walk, the benefits are always more apparent after the event - the hardest thing is often getting off the couch or away from the computer screen in the first place. Outside is where you can see, smell and touch the passing of the seasons that reinforce the cyclical nature of our existence.

Never was this made clearer than the day I spent with Monty Don at The Rock, a smallholding in Herefordshire where his project to help a group of drug-users on treatment orders is currently being screened by the BBC. Bewildered and alarmed by increasingly large numbers of drug-users in rural districts, Monty created the TV series in the belief that forging a link with the soil might provide the catalyst to help some of these addicts escape the downward spiral.

Cynics might dismiss the idea as a TV stunt, but this 'experiment' has been seen, for some at least, to work. 'What has come out of it is that they need a structure or framework, for they have no sense of responsibility for themselves or anyone else,' Monty explained. 'By tapping into the uncheatable truth of nature, the farm provides a sense of order and self-worth for their chaotic lives.'

My afternoon at the farm coincided with preparations for the Ludlow Food Festival where the group came face to face with the community, selling their produce and thus completing the first full circle. The enthusiasm for the event was genuine, but it was obvious that this had been no easy ride for anyone. I had missed Monty's despair at the early stages, trying to keep them motivated and away from drugs on the farm; the moment some members of the group almost mutinied when Monty banned junk food on site. With the group changing from time to time - depending on personal circumstances - there was always the potential for disruption, but there was an undeniable feeling of hope, largely brought about by reinforcing the natural cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and selling food.

If the thought of attaching any sort of mystical value to growing food makes you scoff, then consider the Japanese Zen garden. OK, there may be a big difference between rocks and radishes, gravel and garlic, moss and mange tout, but just as shakkei (the art of borrowing from the landscape) celebrates the passing of the seasons (albeit within a minimalist context), so too can shallots. Food in season is just as powerful an affirmation of time and place as blossom, seed and leaf colour - nourishing us in every sense of the word.

Hmm, I'd better stop there ... I can sense the allotment groaning that it has enough to contend with just feeding us, without having to provide a path to spiritual enlightenment. If you see me on the street with a glazed look, waving my arms and muttering the mantra, 'rake to a fine tilth', please ignore ... Veggie-nirvana could be just round the corner.

BBC2's 'Growing Out of Trouble' is screened on Thursdays at 9pm. The book of the series is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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