I think the allotments department must have had a bit of a binge last week because suddenly the site was crowded with newcomers, many of them thirty-somethings with children in tow, and some with parents and in-laws to advise as well. The sun was obviously a big factor, although there was a bitter east wind blowing across the higher parts of the site; down at the bottom we were more sheltered and soon started peeling off the precautionary sweaters and jackets. Clearly – and this is marvellous – the allotment has escaped its traditional culture and become something of a trend. Whether it’s to do with likely food shortages, the increasing interest in vegan and vegetarianism,or a turn against intensive horticulture isn’t clear, it’s probably a bit of all three.
The biggest worry is that although allotmenteering is marvellously therapeutic and healthy when everything goes according to plan, it can bring immense disappointments too; for instance the mice have just eaten the whole of our second sowing of peas. They had the first sowing too and so we’re starting the third batch under glass in root trainers while I purge the offenders. I think the whole therapeutic gardening meme deserves unpacking a bit. It shouldn’t promise instant happiness and freedom from stress because what it does far more selectively is accustom us to dealing positively with disappointment; to treat success and failure equally as imposters, as Mr Kipling said before he started the cake business. My guess is that some at least of these newcomers have very little experience of gardening. One of our new neighbours today was hacking at his very weed infested and tussocky plot in a way that’s guaranteed to bring disappointment later in the year when the newly invigorated bindweed kicks off. It’s hard to intervene when people aren’t actually asking you for advice. We should probably set up a mentoring scheme, but the men in particular as as likely to ask for help as they would ask for directions from a passer by. Why wielding a spade should engender such powerful elk-dragging feelings in young men is a mystery and so the apprenticeship often takes far longer than it need.
I think the ghastly phrase ‘self sufficiency’ has a lot to answer for. Short of inheriting 10 acres of prime mixed farmland and a private income, complete self sufficiency is a fantasy. The rest of us just have to grow what we can and buy the rest as thoughtfully as possible. Better still, accepting that we’re dependent on others as they depend on us is the foundation of human community – you know, that thing that’s not functioning very well at the moment, especially in supermarkets. Panic buying is the dysfunctional 21st century form of self-sufficiency.
Paradoxically the one thing I’d want as the first taught skill on my imaginary mentoring scheme would be digging, especially for prospective no-diggers. I watched my mother and father and my grandparents dig, long before I bought my first RHS book with those wonderful pictures of men in trilbys leaning on their spades in front of an immaculately trenched row. There’s really no easy way to get the ground ready for no-dig systems – I know because I’ve tried them all over the last 50 years – flame guns, strimming and even (wash my mouth out with salt water) – glyphosate! True, they all produce immediate results, but none of them produce more than cosmetic improvements. Get rid of the weeds by proper digging first and while you do that you’ll learn all about the depth of your soil, you can improve it by composting and break up any soil pan to improve drainage. Then – and it might take three years – you can put the spade in a car boot sale, although it’s pretty useful for lots of other jobs. You can grow things from day one as you clear the ground, but a thorough digging over as crops are harvested will help to discourage even the evil weeds like bindweed. Slow and steady is the way to go and year on year, results will improve.
My second tip would be to choose one guide rather than read a dozen books, all with different views. As time goes on you’ll find out for yourself what works. And my third tip is to invest in the best tools, seeds and plants that you can afford. Using poor tools makes hard work of any job. That’s it really.
I should say that most of us old-stagers have decided to interpret the social distancing rules as permission to do even more allotmenteering. My prediction is that this year could be a great year for allotments so long as we move the imaginary fences out a couple of metres and don’t insist on having face to face conversations. In fact I’d go further and say that local authorities ought to buying suitable land with a view to doubling or tripling the number of allotments as a contribution to the greening of the environment. Well tended allotments are highly productive and could make an important contribution to food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and – notwithstanding my earlier comments – general wellbeing.
When we first moved on to our plot the first thing I did was to repurpose some old planks we found and make a double bench. Before we turned a single spadeful we had somewhere to sit down, drink a cup of tea from the flask and plan. Sometimes our plans coincided and sometimes they didn’t but eventually we always came to a common mind. Gardening is at least 50% daydreaming, and rushing into the first plan is sure to give you backache. Just as it is with fitness training, the most important part is what’s happening when you’re not training.
The photo shows how the bench has evolved on our plot over the last four years. It’s a little piece of paradise, sheltered from the wind (and the neighbours) with a brolly and a grisly but free plastic table for picnics and potting. Everywhere was busy busy busy – it looked like a Pioneer Corps training camp today, and it filled us with pleasure.
Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more about our strategies for coping with self isolation. Meanwhile please respect the need for keeping a safe distance from older people and remember that many vulnerable people look pretty normal. Asthma, heart disease and diabetes are invisible so it’s better for everyone if we take a step or two back.