allotments

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.

allotment joy

After six years of waiting, we finally got the call in July. The call from the council to tell us an allotment was coming free.

It was ‘rather overgrown’, the woman said, but if we would make a start on it we would be able to take it on permanently from the end of the year.

I could hardly believe it. We had more or less given up hope of ever getting more space to grow food. After resolving to take the garden more seriously back in March, I spent the spring and summer squeezing vegetable plants into every spare corner. We have had more salad than we can eat, armfuls of chard and piles of runner beans and courgettes.

There is not, however, any room to grow much more and like most people who start growing their own food we have been desperate to branch out further. Once you have eaten a few meals where all the veg came from your own plot, you want to do it all the time.

I can barely describe how I felt when we first went to check the allotment out. It was like being three years old and understanding for the first time that I would be getting a birthday. Even the reality of ‘rather overgrown’ wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits:

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It’s in a truly beautiful spot, this allotment, on a sun-drenched slope that runs down to my beloved Porter Brook . Opening the gate feels a little like entering a cathedral: there’s that same sense of deep quiet and the mystery of unseen activity.

It’s heavenly for wildlife. All the unkempt edges are alive with bees and butterflies and I hear birdsong there that I don’t recognise from my daily walks in the valley.

Our allotment neighbours also seem to be a lot of fun.scarecrowWhat inspired me to take better care of the garden was reading Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture and understanding for the first time the seriousness of honouring whatever land has been entrusted to us.

From that point of view, the allotment is a little daunting. Although it is shared, our portion still seems like a huge expanse of land – roughly four times the size of our (admittedly tiny) garden.

But I get a leap of excitement every time I think of something else we could grow there that would never fit in at home. Artichokes! Asparagus! All our potatoes!

Since our first visit we have, whenever possible, been chopping and clearing, hacking back brambles to reveal compost bins, gooseberry bushes, even an old bath sunk into the ground.

This week there was actual digging.

On the way to the first raised bed

Finishing touches

Ta-daa!

Ta-daa!

There’s still a heap  of work to be done and I know it won’t always be easy, but for now I’m just happy and grateful to have time and sunshine and a place to dig. Now pass me that seed catalogue …

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Bed number two: here we come.

twelve

When life has been grey for a while, you can forget that eventually the sun will come out. So it was this morning, a blessed relief from all the rain and hail we have been having. I took an impromptu walk to my son’s school, which is currently having so much building work done that you have to go in by a very roundabout way. It turns out the sunshine was not the only surprise.

First I found this allotment. You have to love a school that has an allotment.

And here’s a better view of that splendid scarecrow.

Opposite the allotment is an area that is labelled ‘The Potager’. Who knew a school could have a potager?

This daisy seems to be coping well with the harsh weather.

Although I am learning to like grey, for a couple of brief hours this morning I was very, very grateful for the contrasts of light and shadow …

… and even a glimpse of blue sky.