Here is a bit of sunshine and the tale of our allotment.
We got an overgrown plot 8 years ago. It was on a site that was allotments many years ago but had gone wild and had only just been reclaimed by city dwellers intent on growing courgettes.
The plot was knee deep in bindweed and bramble. The soil was in parts solid yellow clay, occasionally punctuated by a willow or buddleia tree. Clearing it was a labour of love that involved thorned hands, stiff back and parental favours. But we got almost to the end and have a path on bit we have never got round to tackling.
We’ve been through a large number of lifetime guarantee spades and a lot of suncream but it has been a haven. And not only has it provided peace, it has provided food. After doing a lab based science PhD I realized I really didn’t want to work inside for 5 days a week. So I took on part time jobs and used the remaining time to help feed us. It worked, although the first year we ate a lot of radish tops. We were self sufficient in veg for 5 years and I got grumpy with anyone who tried to kindly bring bought vegetables into our house! (sorry!). We ate seasonally but also bought a big freezer and spent evenings blanching and freezing, pickling and drying our gluts. Dried leeks are a great thing by the way. Maybe twice a year we’d treat ourselves to a pepper or an aubergine, things we have never mastered growing well.
We grew chard. Lots of it. Every soil and outdoor space behaves differently. Different plants will self seed or thrive or just wither up and die. Our allotment likes chard and luckily we like it. It seeds everywhere and grows big and bountiful. For a few years we had self seeded rocket weeding itself in everywhere, now that’s gone and for the last 3 it’s been landcress. Our beans and peas do well where as our squash are hit and miss. Our carrots always used to fail and we gave up on parsnips because there are only so many of them I can face eating.
There have been loads of set backs. We have a massive slug and snail problem. Someone once told us that the downside of organic gardening was that the pests took a cut. No. They don’t take a cut. We’d be fine with A cut. It’s when they take THE cut. Pea weevils will munch pea plants less than a foot tall down to ground level overnight. Slugs will lay in wait until your courgette bush is just coming into blossom then neatly sever the trunk. Leek moth will burrow down into your unsuspecting leeks bulbs so when you pull them up by the fresh green leaves you are confronted with a rotting pile of mush.
As I get bored easily and as a way to escape common pests we usually try something new. We’ve successfully grown asparagus peas, artichokes, sweet potatoes, oca, calaloo (leaf amaranth), tomatillos and many other random things. We’ve unsuccessfully gown yukon, quinoa, seed amaranth, achocha, asparagus. I’m sure there are more. Even the failures are a pleasure. Looking back that is – I am sure at the time I was devastated.
Our veg harvest took a big hit when we had a baby. It turned out we had a somewhat full on small person who didn’t like lying down so gardening was sort of impossible. Our focus was on getting through the days rather than food although we tried to get up to the site when we could. I wanted him to experience the outdoors and had imagined him lovingly cooing at me from a blanket while I picked beans. I did pick beans, once, with him in a sling when he was about 5 months old and I remember having a ‘yes, ok, this is possible’ moment.
While we focused on growing a human, the fragments of bindweed grew back and the creeping buttercup encroached. We bought guilt inducing blueberries while our fruit bushes formed tentacles. The rasberries spread like triffids and the herb garden vanished into grass because that is what nature does. Bare earth gets colonised. Wood dividers crumble and become food for woodlice. Bricks and stones are crept over and carpeted with roots. Because it’s just borrowed space.
But we like borrowing it and nothing tastes as smug as a full plate of something your grew from scratch so we are back on it this year. Little T has gloves, a watering can and (biggest sell) a sandpit with diggers. He is starting to want to be helpful. So we’ve started digging the overgrown bits out again. Pushing back the boundries of meadowgrass and collecting the bindweed tendrils in big sacks which years in the future we’ll feed back to the soil. Our window sills are full of seedlings (due to the overwhelmingly unsharing nature of slugs we start everything in modules at home).
We’ll see how it goes and how often we can get to the plot but I feel so especially lucky in this strange time to have an outdoor space that is not only away from other people but also provides us with food. I am so glad I do not need to rely on growing my own food to live but am also reassured by the fact that we have the skills and knowledge to share and to do it if we need to.
So, here’s to everyone out there getting their hands in some mud and connecting to their food. Whether you are watching seedlings germinate on your kitchen window sill or living for months on artichokes and going-to-seed kale because it’s the only damn thing in season, I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.