(or, one man's journey to hell and back)
A few weeks ago I jumped on the bandwagon which everyone seems to be jumping on – allotment gardening. For the benefit of my thousands of overseas followers (well, one) let me explain that an allotment is a small plot of land on a publicly-owned site, usually on the outskirts of a town, where – for a peppercorn rent – a cloth-capped factory worker can supplement his meagre wages by growing some veg for his family. Or it was. That notion is now well and truly out of date – the cloth-capped worker’s allotment, like his terraced house in Osney or Islington, having been nabbed by up-and-coming young doctors and barristers and execs wishing to 're-establish their primordial bond with the earth' etc. etc. and similarly transformed. Nowadays the talk over the Prosecco and pistachios is not of the new extension to the Tate Modern or Mark Rylance’s latest Lear at the Globe but of rhubarb and rocket and asparagus and all the fun and nutritious things that can be done with them once you have the mandatory juicer and are ‘au fait’ with all the right recipes!
When I say I jumped, I was actually pushed. By my son, Joe. He’s been home from his adopted China for a few months and, clearly dismayed at finding his middle-aged parents in such a shameful state of inertia, announced one morning that he had rented us an allotment for a year. It only cost £20, he added breezily, and there was no hurry about paying him back.
Initially I was furious though careful not to show it, so pathetically excited was he by his initiative. He took us to see it – whereupon I was even more furious. This patch of land may have been officially an allotment but in reality it was a wasteland, not having felt the prick of a gardener’s tyne in years. One end was a mountain of compost sprouting shoulder-high nettles, the other a jungle of brambles and couch grass. And it was already April. If we did ever manage to wrest any produce from this wilderness, it would be in about the year 2022 by which time we’d almost certainly be dead. Joe informed me - with rather sheepish optimism - that the presence of nettles indicates a high nitrogen content in the soil.
I considered hiring a rotovator but decided that would be economically counter-productive. We’re British, after all, so if we were going to do this thing, we were going to do it the British way – i.e. the most difficult way possible, in true stiff-upper-lip style. So we set to work, swinging off every day with our scythes and spades and mattocks slung over our shoulders like the Seven Dwarves. It was back-breaking work – we suffered, we despaired, we wept, we became addicted to Co-Codomol and Voltarol, we heaved and turned the sodden sod only for the sun to beat down on our sod and turn it to concrete. As we hacked at the rock-hard lumps of earth with our hoes and mattocks in an attempt to break them down, we felt we should be chained at the ankle and wailing some rhythmic lament about the agony of our lot and our hope of a brighter future in the next world.
Then I saw the light! The light in question being the simple realisation that allotment gardening has sod all (pardon the pun) to do with growing vegetables. Well it has, obviously, but it comes pretty low on the list of priorities. The main priority is to give the impression of growing vegetables. This can easily be achieved by accumulating loads of ‘gardeny’ clutter – stacks of flower-pots, sheathes of beanpoles, a wheelbarrow, a hosepipe, a composter and, of course, lots of seedpackets and little sticks to stick them on. And the pièce de résistance – an erection comprising steel hoops and polythene which may be providing shelter for tender seedlings but probably isn’t. And, most important of all, some picnic chairs and a table. For the real purpose of an allotment – I’ve now discovered – is to have somewhere to escape to. That cheery cry, ‘I’m just off to the allotment for a couple of hours!’ translates as ‘I’m just off to spend two hours doing absolutely f*** all while drinking tea and gazing at the landscape and occasionally mumbling some gem of spurious rustic wisdom in a West Country accent such as, ‘That east wind will dry out the tilthings nicely,’ or ‘If you can see the tower of Icklesham Church by lunchtime, he’ll be raining come eventide.’ In short, an allotment is a place to establish a private empire.
Ironically, I found my new “fuck it” approach to allotment gardening so liberating that I actually reached a point one day of thinking, ‘What the hell, I may as well plant something.’ I began with potatoes – ‘spuds are a good way to break up virgin land’ – another of my gems of rustic wisdom. I planted some courgette plants –which were promptly enjoyed by the local slug population; and some peas and summer cabbages which were promptly enjoyed by the local pigeon population. Then, one balmy Sunday, I went mad and, in a kind of orgasm of optimism, sowed French beans, dwarf beans and carrots and planted out leeks and rhubarb. One bean broke the surface about two weeks later and I haven’t been so excited since I became a father. It’s now been eaten by something.
So, to sum up: we have potatoes, potatoes and… er, potatoes. And some leeks. And some splendid courgette plants with no courgettes on them. I may celebrate with another blog post if anything else comes up but, then again, I may not. You’ll have to excuse me now – I’m going to fill my thermos, make myself a sandwich and go and do a couple of hours on the allotment!
Watch this space (or rather, this barren patch of weed-infested wilderness) for updates!
This is how our allotment looked when we took it on
Our allotment now!
Courgettes and spuds!
The height of allotment chic. My neighbour Peter uses his plot for growing vines, asparagus and globe artichokes. This is the standard I aspire to (not)
At least we have a nice view