The birds have flown

This could all go terribly wrong, and we know that because it’s gone terribly wrong before. However, the weather has been marvellous and the two week weather forecast is not predicting any cold snap and so, having hardened off most of our tender plants, IMG_20200424_160701yesterday we decided to go for bust and put them in the ground, in order to make room in the (tiny) greenhouse for the next wave of shrinking violets. Around half of the outdoor tomatoes are acclimatising in their pots under a fleece cloche, and the rest will join them today.  The gherkins are now in the hot bed where they’ll thrive in their warm and rich environment; French beans, borlotti beans and even the courgettes are out, taking their chance in the world of sun and rain.

But for me, the best bit of the day was prowling around the plot planting out sunflowers, marigolds and hollyhocks here and there – wherever I could find a suitable place. In the winter the allotment is so strongly structured around the beds that it can look very formal, and the structure we’ve come up with makes it possible to work in any weather – especially since we’ve abolished digging as each bed is worked up and as free of pernicious weeds as possible. However the rather austere formality of beds and rotations benefits from being broken up, not least because we want to attract insects and to do companion planting, but also because we want to create the feeling of a cottage garden.  So almost every bed has invited guests – nasturtium, marigolds, chamomile, lots of wallflowers. The little sheltered spot between shed and greenhouse is being invaded by a clematis and there are catmints and random patches of herbs like dill, sweet cicely, parsley, chervil and fennel creating height and texture along with a number of varieties of mint confined from rampaging in large containers. An allotment might well be dedicated to producing food, but it’s also a work of art and a mini nature reserve – that’s a lot of heft in a *ten rod (250 square metre) plot.

*At school, we were still using exercise books that were designed before the war and the back page always carried a full range of explanations of “imperial measure” – which included a measurement of length known as ‘rod pole or perch’.  The only term still in use at all is rod – as in ’10 rod plot’. A rod is about five and a half yards which, it’s said, was the distance between a ploughman and the front of a team of horses. The name is drilled into my memory because whenever the register was called in school I was always addressed as ‘rod pole or perch’ – by my beloved music teacher Austin Woodman who taught me how to listen.

Anyway, to get back to the point, as summer advances the geometry of the beds is softened – we hope – by the anarchy of yesterday’s sowings and plantings. The regular rows of cabbages are the marching band to the carnival that surrounds them.  This year, in the midst of the covid 19 pandemic, the allotment has taken on the entirely new role of representing what life is meant to be like for us.  Madame summed it up yesterday when she said that sometimes she wakes up shadowed by an indefinable sense of emptiness and loss; full of anxiety about a future whose shape we can’t begin to guess at. Sowing, planting and dreaming have become the only anchor in a world where the possibility of not hugging our children and grandchildren for eighteen months can be airily discussed by politicians and media commentators who have long disconnected from life outside Westminster. For me it’s more a sense of volcanic anger and despair which the allotment has the capacity to dim for a few hours each day. Those tiny seeds have a huge task in front of them.

The whole allotment site is now looking better than it’s ever been before.  One of our near neighbours has constructed the most wonderful greenhouse from bits of scrap timber, pallets and old shower doors. There’s another rather flimsy one covered with thin polythene. It’s taken on the purposeful air of a favela; self regulating somewhere beyond the reach of rules and officials but expressing the hopes and dreams of several hundred allotmenteers, most of whom live in flats.  I’m fascinated by the way regional and ethnic styles have appeared, along with new fruits and vegetables. Twenty or thirty years ago the last big burst of activity was fuelled by Italian restaurant workers who brought the vines that still function as fences on many plots, and the figs that grazers and browsers like to pass as they (we) navigate the narrow footpaths. Some of the Eastern European newcomers have brought their formidable skills to bear on poultry keeping as an annexe to the plots. I’m looking forward to the day that we first hear the muffled grunting of a hidden pig, gleefully and productively consuming food waste. Happy daze – as Mr Oliver might say!

How long is a piece of string?

IMG_3866 – is the same sort of unanswerable question as “when is the date of the last frost?” And like all unanswerable questions, the only possible answer is – “it depends”. This picture shows what happened last season when we made the wrong guess. IMG_2261We were up in Snowdonia enjoying the view of the snow capped mountains and wearing every thread of warm clothing we possessed and it hardly entered our minds that the “Beast from the East” was – at that moment – doing for our runner beans. However we had anticipated that a late frost might happen and so we had a duplicate set in the greenhouse. Our neighbour, struggling not to let too much schadenfreude show, was slightly foxed by the fact that our beans seemed to regenerate within 24 hours. Yes it’s National Gardens Week and every other programme on the telly is advocating gardening as a panacaea for all the ills that beset us, but in the interests of factual accuracy I need to say that allotments can also be intensely competitive places. Generosity and animosity exist in exactly the same proportions on an allotment site as they do anywhere else within the human race. By and large, gardeners occupy a nicer than average place on the bell-curve of human wickedness but don’t count on it! Elections for site reps can involve chicanery on a parliamentary scale.

IMG_3736Anyway, that’s enough bubble popping for one day.  To continue on the date of the last frost, I should also say that the buds on the grape vine were also badly affected, but once again the vine regrouped and a new crop appeared within a couple of weeks.  There was no big effect on the harvest either, it seems. All these weather events took place between the last week in April and the first in May and so it was our intention this season to delay planting out the tender plants until around 5th May. All our sowing was based around that date and now the Potwell Inn is full of plants that desperately need to go out.  A couple of courgettes in the propagator seem to think they’re outside already and are traling all over the place.  Moving them without snapping them off is going to be quite a challenge.

Our morning ritual is to scan the weather charts to see what the night time temperatures will be, and we discovered this morning that we’re due a dip to as low as 2C early on Saturday morning. This is very concerning because the allotment is a bit of a frost trap and if anyone is going to catch it, it will be us. So – with all the difficulty of keeping overgrown and increasingly leggy plants indoors, we’re going to have to wait another week. All part of life’s rich tapestry then. We’ve been on the plots for coming up to three years, and we’re still trying to juggle between book knowledge and real, on the ground, experience – so we’re no closer to answering the question of the date of the last frost, just keen to avoid it by a safe margin.

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