Something is stirring on the allotments of England. Like pilgrims they come, on foot, or on two wheels, or on four. They trudge up the lane with laden wheelbarrows, or carrying small packets of promise. All is industry - the breaking of the hard earth, the mending of broken fences, the repair of the storm-lashed past and the sowing for the hopeful future.
They emerge back down lane clutching giant cabbagy things or oversized leeks (OK, OK, so I mean leeks bigger than my accidentally dwarf ones).
They stop to debate with one another what the season will bring. Will it be deluge or drought, cruelty or kindness? Already the early summer is giving way to late frosts, to confound the optimistic.
Each year brings something different: last year it was summer in spring, followed by something approaching autumn for most of summer. Some years it’s downpours not drought that are the problem. This year it’s off to a droughty start, but I wouldn’t put it past the Weather Controller to send months of rain to make up for lost time, starting in, say, June and lasting until about mid-August.
There are allotmenteers I know in their late 70s, others with painful arthritis or losing their sight, the young and old, gay and straight, men and women.
So this few, this happy few, this band of brothers and sisters, what drives us? Well, (a) enjoying vegetables and (b) wanting to grow them cheaply obviously is a good starting point, but beyond that there’s a whole c-z of other motivators. For some it’s the love of exercise. For others it’s being outdoors, and anything outdoors would do (I think I’m in that camp – the borderline claustrophobics).
Then there are the ones I suspect are the secret control freaks, whose allotments are the only things they get the final say over. Those escaping from domestic angst. Those looking for something to nurture. Those hard-up and trying to save money. Those growing for other people to sell or to use in restaurants. Those who recognise that too much time on their hands is a bad thing, and that time is better filled with growing than with being slumped in front of Flog ‘em in the Attic, Escape to the Location, Diagnosis She Wrote, Pointless Link, or whatever else clogs up the arteries of afternoon TV these days.
Strangely, I think the people who don’t last at allotmenteering are the ones who (a) enjoy vegetables and (b) want to grow them cheaply, but don’t tick any of the other boxes listed above. And yes, if those are your only motivators then, frankly, you’re better off down Tesco’s (other supermarkets are also available).
I’ve known several people start allotments with a great surge of enthusiasm, only to abandon them months or perhaps a year later. I did this myself in an earlier life, when my allotment under the South Downs in Eastbourne fast became a weed-infested chore rather than the Good Life experience I’d imagined.
The most common causes of allotment abandonment are as follows:
- The extraordinary and unforeseen rate at which weeds grow.
- The extraordinary and unforeseen rate at which things need watering in periods of drought or high temperature.
- The extraordinary and unforeseen rate at which courgettes grow – and indeed other things, leading to gluts of what’s already cheap in the shops by then.
- The Obligatory Old Man on the next allotment saying things like “Well you’re having a go, aren’t you, dear.” (this uttered to a friend with Royal Horticultural Society training).
- The combined cruelty of pests, diseases, deer, birds, thieves and weather, sometimes robbing you of things on the very cusp of the cooking pot.
- The friends who say they’ll do it with you and either disappear, argue about what to grow or turn out to be the control freaks mentioned above.
- The discovery that unless an allotment is right on your doorstep then finding the time to drive to it and do any work is surprisingly hard.
I’m lucky now: my allotment is only a short walk away and the only delay in getting there is chatting to other allotmenteers en route – some of whom seem to have allotments for the express purpose of lying in wait to engage other allotmenteers in dialogue or monologue.
Funnily enough my biggest problem these days is that, having grown the stuff, I haven’t always got the energy to cook it. There’s nothing more loony than staggering back from the allotment with a rustic basket groaning with produce – and then cooking vegetables from a bag in the freezer because it’s quicker and easier.
The key as in everything is to pace yourself. It’s better to start digging only a quarter of your allotment and make it work for you than dig it all over the first year and literally lose the plot in the summer.
As for outwitting the weather, the wise plant something for all eventualities and don’t take too much notice of the unreliable long-term forecasts. I’ll try melons this year in case it’s Mediterranean, and I’ve chosen drought-tolerant Pentland Crown potatoes and even planted a few chick peas on the advice of Alys Fowler in The Guardian. The strawberries which went crazy in the early heat last year have now been extended to an extra bed. Roll on Wimbledon!
But I won’t put all my allotment eggs in one basket, so I’ll think of a few things that won’t sulk if it rains all summer – lots of lovely lush spinach, some extra root vegetables maybe. Any ideas gratefully appreciated!
And whatever the weather, I’ll love the birdsong, the digging, the nurturing, the harvesting, the hope and despair, the chats with the Obligatory Old Man and – most of all – the chance to connect with nature and get dirt under my fingernails.