Allotment Diary: March 2023
Despite the remnants of last week’s snowfall still lying on the ground, a warm feeling of profound human connection accompanied our inaugural visit to the new allotment. Unlocking the padlocked side gate and stepping over the threshold we felt as though we were being ushered into some ancient order of wholesome vegetable folk, which in a quite literal sense we were. Passing the ramshackle arcana of plots, each a reflection of its keeper’s personality, whims and green-thumbed aspirations, I couldn’t think of a better visual metaphor for the spirit of joyously eccentric practicality that is allotment keeping. Images of The Good Life’s Tom and Barbara in their wellies and patched corduroy flares easily came to mind as the wheelbarrow bumped along the well-worn paths separating one plot from another. My goodness it felt good to be alive.
“Ken used to grow a thick row of cut flowers in your plot, and if some of those bulbs come up you should have a lovely selection come the warmer weather.”
Chris, one of our new neighbours, paused in his weeding to give us a rundown of the plot’s history. Ours had thrived under the dutiful care of a man named Ken for some 40 years or so. Such was his longstanding presence that everyone we met was familiar with this local legend, each new introduction occasioned by the same anecdote about Ken, aka “Mr Rotavator” and his trusty mechanical sidekick.
Listening to these stories I confess that I felt some small degree of sadness on Ken’s behalf, the common thread being that he had been forced to step back due to ill health, which after 40 years behind the rotavator must have been quite the emotional wrench. It seemed cruel that his once beloved plot, or at least one sizeable section of it, was now a tangle of raspberry canes and knotted weeds, and that the felt on his shed roof had started to peel away in the winter storms. But all of this was to be expected and easily remedied, with the largest of the two plots in remarkably good condition. More than anything I felt immensely grateful to Ken’s stewardship of this land, and to the very existence of the allotment itself. In a world of spiralling costs and the near total digital colonisation of our lives there’s a lot to be said about the simple perfection of a bunch of people from all walks of life rubbing shoulders in a common pasture with just the chattering of magpies and a flask of tea to distract them. It might sound romantic, but it is in such moments that I feel I might just have strayed, however fleetingly, into raw existence, the overwhelming thought being ‘this is how it was meant to be.’
I know it’s early days, and I do tend to hyper-fixate on any new interest that happens my way, but I am already so completely enamoured by the socially minded concept of allotments that I am certain to become an evangelical allotment-bore. It’s incredible to think that for a few quid a year you can have access to such a remarkable place, just so long as you happen to live somewhere that hasn’t sacrificed its valuable allotments to identikit Barratt housing developments. Even the application process was refreshingly anachronistic – old school paper forms and a cheque - my one regret being that our induction wasn’t undertaken at midnight beneath a harvest moon accompanied by an honour guard of fork wielding gardeners.
Had you ridden the train between Coventry and Rugby anytime in the late 80s and early 90s, the last ten minutes of that journey in either direction would have afforded you an unbroken panoramic of allotments, almost all of them now lost to uninterrupted urban sprawl. It’s maddening to think that even as we talk of climate change and need for communities to have access to some form of “green”, allotments are being ploughed under and councils busying themselves aggressively felling mature trees like they pose some kind of existential threat. This level of cognitive dissonance is surely only possible in a truly insane world. Turns out that having the occasional glimpse of something green and/or flowering is good for the soul (who knew!) and that growing your own veg has certain economic as well as obvious psychological benefits. Growing things should be part of every school curriculum, as should any activity that promises to revitalise our relationship to the land. As a result of this limited availability, to be an allotment keeper is to exercise a not insignificant amount of green privilege, while at the same time recognising that everyone really should have access to something like this. It’s a curious thing. As we’ve toiled away clearing and turning the ground these past few weeks I keep catching myself in a welcome and undeniably middle-aged reverie, leaning on the spade to catch my breath and marvelling at just how incontinently wonderful it all is. More of that please.
And there’s a rebellious, even anti-modern character to allotments and their keeping that feels equally refreshing. Several of those we have met are openly disdainful of the big brand garden centres, preferring instead to source local plants, second hand tools and DIY compost. To win at allotment keeping it seems you have to leave your consumerist nonsense at the gate, spend as little money as possible, and recycle everything. This also explains the strange mania for adorning one’s allotment with a caddisfly-like array of strange objects. For his part, one of Ken’s signature moves was to top every potentially eye-poking garden cane with an old tennis ball, and during the course of that first morning I must have found at least a dozen or more hidden amongst the tussocks, each of which I fired into the open shed with a kind of lazy solemnity. In a similar fashion a nearby plot boasts - if “boast” is even the right word - a series of decapitated dolls heads, each skewered onto canes for much the same purpose, with the added benefit of sending out a strong “abandon hope” dystopian deterrent to would be allotment scrumpers. In addition to the dolls heads I counted at least two of those life size mannequin heads with realistic hair used by hair stylists to hone their craft, the gaudy silicone features now weathered to a cyborg-in-the-wilderness patina. I imagine any football kicked into that particular plot is destined to go unclaimed.
As a nipper I recall my father taking me down to the Coventry Allotment Keepers Association to buy his seed potatoes. The CAKA headquarters or whatever it was called was comprised of a sprawling series of massive, generously creosoted sheds that were almost black in appearance and reeking of age and dedicated maintenance. The head keeper was a large man who sat behind a trestle table beside a set of oversized industrial weighing scales, into which he would place everything from potatoes to great handfuls of galvanised nails before reading the price from his ledger. We visited throughout the season, coming away with sacks of blood and bonemeal, along with several polystyrene punnets of seedlings that would sit nodding on the seat beside me on the ride home in whichever of my dad’s old bangers happened to be running at the time.
As such there was a seasonal ritualism to the experience, although in truth I often found the experience intimidating, mostly because the old boys, and it was almost exclusively a wizened all-male domain back then, would insist on trying to embarrass me by asking probing questions about my progress in the world of romance, or worse, force me to do math in my head, calculating the total cost and percentage discount of whatever produce my dad happened to be buying. This is something that I have hated, HATED all my life, and is rooted in endless childhood mathematic failures and resultant phobias. Ask me to suddenly and unexpectedly subtract one modest figure from another and my mind goes into a dizzying freefall. I feel sick and breakout in a cold sweat. Such is the sense of humiliating vertigo that it’s all I can do to stop myself counting on my fingers. Often I would just guess, wildly, and accept the consequences, since hard experience had taught me that it was better to make a swift but inaccurate guess than a long contemplative one. If you could get within reach of the right answer sometimes a quick answer hinted at an level of comprehension that sadly was only ever performative. Under normal circumstances I get by, as I’m sure most people do, but ask me to do simple mental arithmetic in any kind of public forum and there’s a good chance I’ll go to pieces. Unfortunately for me this was how the sadists at CAKA liked to get their kicks, meaning that these seemingly benign outings would often end with me sat sulking and defeated in the passenger seat with a large box of broad beans on my lap wishing someone would just hurry up and burn the place down.
Our new allotment association also has a “shop” in the form of a large shed, and I am happy to report that everyone is perfectly lovely and the only humiliations so far have been brief and self-inflicted. The maths thing still raises its ugly little head from time to time, and honestly it continues to infuriate me that even now, as an allotment keeping forty-one year old who uses complex data in a professional context pretty much every day, I can still be triggered in this way. It wasn’t just that I was bad at maths, but that it made so little sense to me. My father, a skilled toolmaker with a God-given knack for numbers, tried his upmost to teach me in the evenings after school and my god did I fight him over this. The only thing worse than being bad at maths was being bad at maths in my father’s eyes, and I struggle to recall a single lesson that didn’t end in tears and a lot of misdirected anger. He had even purchased a huge volume of GCSE maths problems and past exam papers, a giant pink and grey textbook that capable of swatting a badger dead with a single blow, which would sit threateningly on the kitchen counter next to an A4 pad documenting my past failures. There wasn’t a schedule as such, it was more that dad would sense that now, this evening, conditions were sufficiently calm to warrant another misguided attempt at a tutorial, and I’d be marshalled into the kitchen for another round. Down would come the textbook and I’d have to sit in quiet, deepening panic as he reacquainted himself the with the rotten fruits of our previous endeavours. Starting a lesson by recounting past traumas is hardly good pedagogy, but this was the chosen tactic that we pursued, him carefully looking over my scribbled notes before inevitably starting in with the long division, my personal Kryptonite.
This was all done with love I hasten to add, albeit hopelessly misguidedly, but such is the way with so many education-based anxieties. I would at least initially try to understand the chosen problem before succumbing to frustration and then rage, cursing my inadequacies as I stropped-off into my room. It was like my brain was fighting me. Other than the people at CAKA the other domain where one could expect to be cross examined in this way was builders’ merchants, tragically another of my father’s favourite haunts, and I always suspected that my father saw these experiences as necessary to my development. I had to learn, surely, that arithmetic failure has real world consequences, which is to say shame and humiliation, and where better to learn this painful lesson than when standing on line in front of half a dozen builders, all of them traumatised graduates of this exact same course. The crowning irony of all of this is that at the end of every failed attempt to drill basic mathematic principles into my rock like skull, someone, sometimes my father, sometimes a total stranger, would tell me that such skills were essential life skills, because you won’t always have a calculator. Asses.
As I nervously discussed the economics of allotment keeping with my new neighbour Chris, he explained that I should avoid buying chicken manure from the big brand garden centres since our community shop will sell me a large 10KG sack for £10. He said this in a half-whisper as though imparting valuable insider knowledge, to which I responded with an appropriate level of conspiratorial nods and knowing half-smiles. The first Sunday of every month is Open Shed, meaning the shop and little café, also housed in a shed, is open for business. You can get yourself a hot bacon cob (sandwich) and a cup of tea while catching up on the latest village gossip, or perhaps talking to someone in a shadowy corner about the dark arts of chicken manure price gouging. “With some of that expensive big brand manure you can’t even be sure that it’s 100% chicken droppings,” Chris informed me, my immediate question being how can you tell the difference? The giveaway, or so I am told, is in the way the little pellets dissolve in the rain, but the only way to really know for sure is to pop one in your mouth and roll it around on your palate, subjecting it to a little experimental suck. If it tastes like chicken shit then you’re probably onto a winner.