Allotment Diaries

Last week the annual invoice for our allotment fees arrived, and with the deadline unable to wait until next payday, I somewhat reluctantly transferred the required sums. I thought of the weeds and overgrown patches, the gap in the beds where my plans for successional sowing were beaten by summer heat, laziness and other distractions, and the growing winter-to-do-list… and wondered why I bothered.

My back garden – my ‘weedy eden’ – full of buzzing bees and hoverflies, huge crickets and secretive shrews.

I have the tiny wild patch at home now, which needs its own special brand of TLC, and in the day job I spend all my working hours tending to plants and selling them to other peoples gardens. Did I really need the allotment? Would I ever get the plot to the standards of those I gazed upon with envy through the portal of Instagram? Was I lying to myself when I thought I could manage to keep on top of the jobs with increasing demands on my time? The thought of giving up the plot of land I had poured literal sweat and tears into over the past 3 and a half years, caused a strange pain in my chest. Was it only 3 and a half years – it seemed the soil of that place had been ingrained into my skin, and my heart for far far longer, and yet I could feel the bite of frost and the tangible tingle of possibility from that first day I stepped onto the plot, as though it were only yesterday. All these thoughts and more niggled and elbowed each other around my head as I tried to sleep that evening. And when I am anxious, over wrought, unsure or stressed there are only two things to do: go for a long walk, or weed. I opted for the weeding. The end of the week came around eventually. Friday I would garden.

My morning got off to a slow start, but by 10am I was finally standing on the edge of the plot, travel mug of tea in hand, eyeing the beds and plants warily. Like old acquaintances that meet after a long time, unexpectedly in the supermarket queue or by the car-park pay machine, and aren’t sure if the other will be friendly or not recognise them cheerily. A robin hopped down to perch on the top of the shed door and peer at my quizzically. I doubt this is one of the individuals I used to have regular chats with when first turning over the soil, three Februaries ago, but it has a similar familiar attitude that has earned the species it’s nickname of ‘gardeners friend’. I took the robin’s acceptance as a good sign; gardens and allotments it seems are forgiving of absence, and this plot in particular seems to have grown used to my come-and-go habit of spring and autumn activity flurries, and summer retreats.

The plot has seen quite a transformation in the last 3 and half years – this photo was taken in the 2nd spring, Feb/Mar 2017, complete with 6 months old shed and a freshly dug bed.

I decided to start with the raised bed where the shallots had been harvested in July, and the last few carrots were looking past their best. It seemed the easiest bed to tackle, plus there was a bramble growing in the middle (as I discovered painfully when investigating a small carrot harvest a few weeks ago) that I was worried about getting a foothold. In the end, the bramble came out far easier than I expected, its roots only shallowly gripping the dry and dusty soil. Around it couch grass and bindweed, ground elder and a clover like weed with brittle white roots, had all got a hold in the bed. There was no way they had found their way up through the layers of cardboard and weed membrane and near 2 foot of soil, so I surmised they must have been transported in as seed or root fragments in the wheelbarrow loads of topsoil when we moved the bed here from its previous temporary location. However they arrived, there was only one way to get them out: a fork, and some determined persistence. Indulged in this mindful (or mindless) task, I was able to contemplate the various shades of success and failure throughout this year’s crops.

The single bunch of sweet peas I managed to produce this year – short stemmed and sparse, but pretty, pink and fragrant.

Naturally, I dwelled initially on the negatives. My sweet peas were a disaster this year. Attacked by an apocalyptic infestation of aphid early in the season, they never really recovered, and in the hot dry weather they struggled to produce a single vase of scented flowers before succumbing to drought conditions and turning to seed before I could coax them to repeat bloom. The dwarf beans, both french and runner, didn’t fair much better – slug damage and early summer drought are enemies of these kind of plants.

Carrots were slow and patchy in terms of germination, and slugs had a larger meal out of the tasty roots than we did in the end.

Garlic however, fared better than ever; third year lucky perhaps. It did eventually succumb to the dreaded inevitable rust fungus, but we still managed to gather a decent harvest. Same result with the cut and come again lettuce, and the kale – good harvests earlier in the year, but I neglected to sow some late batches.

The dahlia patch in spring (buckets behind to catch and save any rain we might have, to reduce the number of trips we have to make with watering cans to the filling point at the top of the hill.)
A few dahlias including the salmon-pink of ‘Linda’s Baby’ and the wonderfully cheerful red and yellow ‘Pooh’ which is loved by the bees.

Then there are the dahlias.
Not ending up of the plate in this case of course, but a feast to the eyes with through colours and forms. I love these plants. The allotment’s soil is sandy and free draining, so I leave the plants in the ground over the winter, protected from frosts by a 2-4 inch mulch blanket of compost. I lifted the tubers the first year, and lost most of them to mould. Since then I have left them in situ, and each spring they push through almost without fail. I protect the new shoots initially with wool pellets to deter the slugs, and this year also scattered some general purpose fertiliser granules in the spring. By the end of Summer I have more flowers than I know what to do with, and if i keep picking and dead heading they will keep blooming until the first frosts!
Over the last winter we build a ‘support cage’ of posts and wires, to give each plant its own space to grow up through, as some of the larger flowered varieties particularly can be inclined to flop. This proved quite successful.

On Saturday morning I popped back to the plot to pick some flowers for the house. I was entertaining my parents for an Autumn Equinox celebration feast in the evening and nothing makes a home feel nicer than fresh flowers. I picked roses, asters, calendula, tansy, salvia, radish, nasturtiums, astrantia, and even some weeds.

Later that evening, after our guests had wandered out into the darkness bound for their own home, I settled down on the sofa and looked around mine. 5 vases of flowers, each unique, each chemical free and zero air miles, each free and each my own. Maybe it was the two glasses of red wine I had enjoyed during the course of our meal. Or the bright colours of the blooms cheering me. Or maybe it was all the mood-boosting beneficial microbes breathed in from the soil the day before. Whatever the reason I was certain of one thing: those allotment fees?

Worth every penny.

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