allotment

magical places

potato patch

It looks a bit scruffy, doesn’t it? This corner of our potato patch, the leaves yellowing and the stems flopping every which way. It doesn’t look like something you might love.

Hiding beneath the soil are Pink Fir Apple potatoes; that unpromising foliage is like the X on a treasure map. I will never get tired of pushing my hands into the soil, tugging cool, knobbly potatoes away from the roots of the plants and heaping them like bounty on the grass.

pink fir apples

I dug Pink Fir Apples from this patch to take to my parents the last time I visited them in their home. My dad was ill, dying in fact, and  potatoes from this earth were part of the last meal he ever ate. I steamed them until they were just tender and sliced them onto a side plate, tiny to match his appetite. I liked the way the knife resisted for a second before it slid through the potato flesh.

‘He doesn’t eat much now,’ my mum said. I cut half a salmon fillet into little cubes and set them beside a tiny heap of runner beans, also from the allotment. Dad wasn’t speaking much either by this time but he mumbled: ‘This is lovely,’ and asked for a second helping. I made it even tinier than the first. He ate it all and had two grapes for dessert. Hours later, his swallowing reflex packed up.

For as long as I live, this corner of our allotment will be inscribed with the memory of digging those last potatoes for Dad.

allotment viewIt isn’t the only memory that lives here. There’s the bed I weeded with a deeply distressed friend, who slowly relaxed as she cleared the ground of dandelion, bittercress and thistle. There’s the millpond at the bottom of the site where the herons nested this year; the Bramley apple tree our children gave us the first Christmas we had this plot, and all the beds that Julian and I have dug as we slowly learn how to make this land productive.

This is how it goes when you care for a patch of earth. You and the land become knitted together in a sharing of memory, the creation of what Helen Macdonald, in one of my favourite chapters of her book H is for Hawk, calls a ‘magical place’. Writing of the hill where she has been flying her goshawk she says, ‘I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. but in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I’ve made it mine.’

I don’t own this allotment. I’ve only got permission to grow food here. But in coming here day after day, learning how to manage weeds, save seed, care for the soil, I have made it mine.

If somebody should force me to give it up, it would be like having a part of myself ripped away. My friend Sara, grower and activist extraordinaire, has written movingly of this exact experience, the severe distress of having her allotment tarmacked over to make way for a bus route. It’s happening up and down the country as hard-pressed councils release more and more land for development.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the people who make decisions for us, day in and day out, all knew what it meant to create magical places.

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Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.

On the allotment: July 17

teaselsWhen we took on the allotment we promised ourselves one thing: we would not allow it to become a source of stress.

Easier said than done.

Last week we needed to propagate the strawberries, there was sowing to do for autumn planting and a third of the plot still consisted of nose-high grass.

overgrown

I had a brief moment of head-clenching tension and then thought: enough.

We are privileged enough not to depend on this land for food. The crops will become an increasingly important part of our diet but one of the main reasons we love this plot is that as well as helping us learn to grow vegetables, it is enriching our lives and refreshing our spirits, forcing us to move away from the computer screens that dominate the rest of our time.

So we took the decision to focus only on clearing the rest of the ground and digging out new beds. That will allow us to have a proper planting plan next year.

There is still plenty to do.

brambles

weed heap

I’m a bit sad that this means we might not have our own strawberries next year, but that’s another thing about growing food: it forces you to take a longer perspective. We might have to buy them from the greengrocer for a season, but we can hope for a crop in 2016.

It’s a difficult mental adjustment when you are used to daily, even hourly, deadlines. But it feels like a healthy kind of discipline.

This has been a good fortnight for flowers …

courgette flower

Courgette

French bean

French bean

Tomato

Tomato

… and a very bad one for rhubarb.

rhubarb

Things are even worse now than in this picture: almost all the leaves have dropped off and the stems have turned a nasty shade of brown. I’ve been Googling away to try and identify the problem and was a bit ashamed to turn up site after site proclaiming that rhubarb is a very easy crop to grow and poses virtually no problems.

But I fear we may have crown rot. Does anyone else have experience of this, or suggestions for a different diagnosis? I’m tempted to spread a thick layer of manure all around and hope for the best, but I don’t want to waste the stuff if the rhubarb is really a lost cause.

Linking up with Soulemama, who is doing interesting things with a bumper bean crop.

on the allotment :: July 3

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

 harvest

shallots

shallots1

There are two types of harvest on our allotment: ones we have worked for and ones that are an astonishing free gift. The shallots fall in to the former category – they were the first things we planted here when we only had two workable beds in the autumn. Right now they are hanging in the greenhouse to dry out, and I am frantically Googling recipes. Knowing how much of something to plant seems to be one of the hardest things for an allotment newbie to grasp.

All the fruit was here when we took over the plot and apart from a bit of weeding I have done virtually nothing to care for the plants. It feels like cheating.

The gooseberries have become jam, a crumble, and, most deliciously, some gooseberry and elderflower sorbet using a recipe from Sarah Raven’s excellent Garden Cookbook. Possibly my favourite frozen dessert ever.

digging

roots

There has been digging this past fortnight, too. It’s a bit like marking out territory for me: every time we move, and now on this allotment, I heft out the soil in a trench one spit* deep, shovel in a layer of manure, cover with soil by digging a parallel trench, and so on to the end of the bed.

Along the way you get the satisfaction of extracting weeds right down to their roots, even the most tenacious customers like bindweed and dandelions.

I never disrupt the soil again. Every spring and autumn I cover the beds with manure or home-made compost that the worms can draw down to enrich the earth. Tip: I have recently discovered that our city farm sells fantastic manure for a smallish sum of money that goes straight back into their educational programmes.

slates

The latest bed is edged with slates from our neighbours who were having a new roof installed. I’m enjoying using only found materials for the allotment: we have a tiny budget so it’s a necessity, but I actually prefer the effect to something more uniform.

blackcurrants

redcurrantsFinally our son, helpfully just back from university, has been hacking away some of the comfrey, bindweed and thistles that were rampaging through the currant bushes. I don’t think the harvest will be huge this year, but surely something good must result from berries as magical as these.

Joining with Soulemama and others around the world to share news about growing.

*spit: a layer of earth whose depth is equal to the length of the blade of a spade

on the allotment: June 19

slugs

snail

cucumber seedlings

This week I could complain about the slugs and snails or boast about the cucumber seedlings, but what I would really like to do is celebrate the humble broad bean.

broad beans

Ours were sown in March, so are well behind our neighbour’s crop, which they put in last winter. I think I will try overwintering for next year, as it would be lovely to have some fresh beans right now to smash into crostini toppings or whizz into hummus to go with the plates of salad leaves we are harvesting.

bean flower

However, I love this stage of the broad bean. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a flower that is black and white: so elegant and striking, and so unlikely somehow. But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when I was reading John Clare as part of my degree, that I realised these flowers also have a heavenly scent. Clare (1793-1864) has been one of the great discoveries of my course so far: he’s astonishingly relevant today in his attitude to the environment, and his beautifully observed writing about the natural world around his Northamptonshire village of Helpstone makes me want to rush out into the woods and start looking for birds and flowers.

Here’s the poem that taught me to lean over to smell the broad beans:

The Bean Field

A bean field full in blossom smells as sweet
As Araby, or groves of orange flowers;
Black-eyed and white, and feathered to one’s feet,
How sweet they smell in morning’s dewy hours!
When seething night is left upon the flowers,
And when morn’s bright sun shines o’er the field,
The bean-bloom glitters in the gems o’ showers,
And sweet the fragrance which the union yields
To battered footpaths crossing o’er the fields.

John Clare

I was tying some of the taller plants to canes the other day and realised the leaves are also perfumed: they smell almost the same as the beans and to brush against one is to experience the delicious anticipation of the day when the pods will be ripe enough to open. My mother always froze some and served them up on Christmas Eve, smothered in parsley sauce, the perfect accompaniment to boiled ham. And I shall do the same.

I’m linking up with Soulemama today, and other people around the world who post notes about how their gardens are growing.

How does your garden grow?

Hmm, well in our garden the answer to that question all depends on where you stand. I could place you in front of the bog garden and pond, for example.

pond and bog garden

iris
That might give the impression of a relatively well-tended space. But you would only have to turn through 90 degrees to see this.

hedge clippings
And this.

DSC_0011

Hedge clippings waiting to be disposed of, a flowerbed so full it is amazing everything doesn’t collapse from strangulation.

It’s a similar story, but multiplied to the power of ten, down on the allotment. On the one hand I am ridiculously excited about the number of beans we have been able to plant, and I particularly like having enough room for a ridge support, which makes me feel like a proper veg grower.

beans
On the other hand – this confusion of fruit bushes, comfrey and waist-high grass is more typical of the plot as a whole.

DSC_0003
There have been times this month when I have wondered whether we will ever get on top of everything. Slugs ate all our beetroot and Brussels sprout seedlings. Birds took the first strawberries.

As an allotment newbie I’m learning the importance of perseverance. I’ve put nets on the strawberries and bought some new Brussels sprouts plants – which will also be netted. I’ve taken an old strimmer to be overhauled. It feels like a long slog, getting this plot under control, but every day there are encouragements to spur us on.

gooseberries

DSC_0034

green strawberries

I’m linking up with Soulemama today: I love the idea of gardeners all over the world sharing their plots. What’s more, sometimes Amanda posts a garden cocktail recipe. I’m not normally a great cocktail fan, but she had me at the Rhubarb Collins – another great incentive to persevere with growing.