How to live off the land for a year

Could you live off the land for a year without buying a single thing to eat? This was the challenge a retired journalist set himself on Radio 4 this week. Max Cotton lives on a five-acre smallholding near Glastonbury in Somerset with his wife Maxine, two pigs, two dozen hens and a Jersey-Friesian cross named Brenda. He also has six adult sons who, as far as this project is concerned, ‘prefer to pontificate than help very much.’ Cotton’s hopes for peas by April were even less realistic than I thought Cotton conceded at the outset that he would allow himself to purchase salt as a necessity. For everything else, he

Why do we expect to buy tomatoes and cucumbers all year round?

When did it become an inalienable human right for 65 million Britons to have a cucumber in March? When did we suddenly regard the possession, weekly, of a half kilo or so of vine-ripened tomatoes as fundamental to our very being, when our corner of the northern hemisphere is still essentially frozen and has been for months? If we were in southern Italy or if London were transposed with Madrid – so 800 miles closer to the equator – then one might begin to think that a leafy salad or a few tomatoes could or should be a daily staple, even in these darker days. But up here, at 52

The unfamiliar Orwell: the writer as passionate gardener

This is a book about George Orwell’s recognition that desire and joy can be forces of opposition to the authoritarian state and its intrusions. To explore the theme, Rebecca Solnit has produced a sequence of loosely linked essays around the roses and fruit bushes the author of Animal Farm planted in 1936 in the garden of his modest Hertfordshire house. A Californian with more than 20 books behind her, Solnit opens this latest with a pilgrimage to Wallington, where Orwell’s Albertine roses have endured. The blooms instigate a reconsideration of the man ‘most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism’, which in turn invites the author ‘to dig deeper’ and

The art of the asparagus

Manet’s ‘Botte d’asperges’ are probably the most famous asparagus in the world. The artist painted the delicious white- and lilac-tinged spears for the collector Charles Ephrussi in 1880 before invoicing him for 800 francs. Ephrussi was so delighted with them that he paid Manet 1,000 instead, to which Manet responded by sending a second picture. ‘One appears to have escaped your bunch,’ the painter quipped in his accompanying note. The new canvas featured a single asparagus. Manet was in the last decade of his life when he began sending small paintings of fruit and flowers to his friends. While Ephrussi received asparagus, the muse Méry Laurent got apples, and artist

The best podcasts for all your corona-gardening needs

The American diet was probably at its healthiest in the second world war. Fearing interruption to supply chains, Washington launched a national Victory Gardening programme within a fortnight of Pearl Harbor, and saw two thirds of the population heed the cry to fill their backyards, rooftops and window boxes with veg. The scheme was so successful that, by 1943, home-gardeners were producing 43 per cent of all fresh food consumed. ‘Dig for Victory’, the latest episode of Gastropod, a superbly researched food and science podcast, opens with the co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley rustling bags of manure as they attempt to plant tomatoes, peppers and ‘urbs’ in a tiny