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Can you dig it?

“How on earth did you get an allotment there? Isn’t there a waiting list?”

Everyone has been asking me that, since I got my plot in Four Oaks in December, because that’s what we’ve all been told: getting an allotment is hard. Truth be told, I thought it would be hard too. I thought I’d put my name down on a list and I’d go and get on with my life and then one day, in a few years time, I’d get a call:

“Hello. May I speak to Mr Hickman, please?”
“Uh yeah, sure.” I’d be struggling to place the voice — formal, but not without warmth, posh without being too plummy.
“I’m calling from the Allotment Association. We have a plot for you.”

I’d be well into my forties by this point, and my kids would be robust little men who I could take to the allotment with me and leave them to potter, play and plant.

What actually happened was this: I emailed a guy, and he asked me to come over that weekend to view a plot.

“We’ve actually got two plots. You can choose.”
“Uh yeah, sure.”
“So when you’ve decided, just sign here. Have you got a cheque book with you to pay the rent?”

I’m 35. My youngest kid isn’t yet two and he’s the sort of toddler who will eat all of the soil and hurl himself off any object he can climb onto. This wasn’t the plan at all.

“So uh, yeah I’ve got an allotment now. We’ve got an allotment now. That’s OK isn’t it?”

Corrina, my wife, is a wonderful and patient woman. She seems to like it when I develop cute little habits like making my own bread. She teases me about it “all your little hipster things, you should write them up for The Guardian or something.”

“An allotment sounds great” she says “good luck with it, I hope you can find the time.”

I’m pretty sure this allotment thing is supposed to be relaxing and rewarding, but since I was given a key to get through the big iron gate and the combination for the communal shed’s padlock I’ve been feeling a little anxious about it all. That is mainly because people keep telling me how it’s going to be hard work and asking me “are you sure you’ll have enough time?” I wonder if I should tell them forty-something me will have lots of time, I wonder if I should protest that the allotment people didn’t read their bloody script.

So. Time. Commitment.

It’s now February. I got the keys a few days before Christmas. This is what I have done so far:

  • Visited the allotments to sign an agreement in which I promise to be responsible and go to the plot often to look after it.
  • Been to the plot again, with the kids, to show them it and to panic a little bit about what I’m supposed to do next.
  • Harvested some kale that the previous incumbent had left for me.
  • Been to the plot again with the kids and Corrina so she could look at it and panic with me about what I’m going to do with it next.
  • Harvested some more kale.
  • Prodded things to try to work out what there is in the ground.
  • Drawn a little map of the plot, so I can go away and plan.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t go to the plot at all in January and I know for a fact that I have forgotten the combination for the communal shed’s padlock.

I am terrible at this.

‘Why is there a large wooden crate on the driveway?’

‘Oh, someone was throwing it away, I thought we could use it at the allotment.’

‘…’

‘You know. For storing stuff.’

Corrina has a wonderful expression she uses on me: puzzled, happy, so beautiful and totally indulgent of my oddness. She uses it a lot. It’s my favourite.

I’m fairly sure that as an allotment holder I am supposed to do this sort of thing — scavenging wood, recycling stuff, generally jerry-rigging the place and running the show with all manner of Heath Robinson improvisations. I still haven’t been down to the plot again, though.

There are a number of reasons why I’m anxious about the allotment.

The weight of history

I’m from Guernsey, but not the offshore finance bit of it. My family were growers. My Uncle was the biggest rose producer on the island. He had letters from the Royal Family up on the wall in his office, letters of thanks for supplying blooms to them for weddings and what have you. My Uncle was a very successful commercial grower.

My Mum & Dad were growers too. We were strawberry farmers, basically. And guess what: Mum & Dad were very successful strawberry farmers. They were good. I’m surprised the Royal Family never ordered any strawberries from them, to be honest.

My Mum & my Uncle probably got their skills from their father, my Pop Carré. By the time I was born Pop lived in a little council flat off Lisson Grove in London, by the Regents Canal, where he kept an award winning London garden: halfway between Lords and Marylebone Station, my grandfather was the best gardener in Westminster. And what of his parents? Well, there’s a photo of them up on the wall at Mum’s: my Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather holding a tray of their own prize winning grapes that are about to be presented to the Royal Family.

My family are bloody good at growing. It’s a lot to live up to.

I peaked early

I’ve had my moments. When I was a kid Pop Carré taught me how to propagate new vines using the rubbish he produced when he cut back a half a greenhouse of grapes for my Mum. I sold them on to a local nursery, and made a lot of pocket money out of the venture. Also, more recently, I managed to do a lot with not very much space at our old house, where I put together a functioning kitchen garden in a very minimal space. For a moment there I thought I could be a gardener, that finally I’d found a practical skill that I’d inherited from my family.

We sold our old house in 2013 in the Spring, moving in the summer, so I had a year off from gardening (there wasn’t any point in starting growing when I knew I’d miss the harvest). The new house already had a vegetable patch, small but serviceable, so I got back into things last year only to see everything, literally everything, fail.

I blamed the light, the soil, all the bastard slugs but it may just be that I’m rubbish at this after all.

Bad omens

The plot is in fairly good nick. That’s good news. Or is it?

“The guy just got busy, family and kids and that, and drifted away.”

This could be my fate, too. It doesn’t bode well.

A friend gives me a wonderful book The Royal Horticultural Society Allotment Handbook. I’d been recommended it, and it looks to be just the thing I need.

“Yeah we had an allotment” he says “but then you know… kids. So anyway, here’s the book, mate. Good luck.”

Peer pressure

A few days after I got my own allotment, I see on Facebook that a friend has got one too. Every time I open Facebook, there’s a new photo of her plot, another freshly dug patch of ground and a cheerful status update. She is much better than me at this: at allotment holding but also at curating her social brand so that she is definitely an allotmenter. This was supposed to be my new thing, so I’m a bit miffed. I was all poised to be Jon the allotment guy. In the end I only had about six days of people liking my status about having an allotment before my thunder was well and truly stolen. Now I’m just some guy with a patch of dirt. I lack a narrative. I also lack a community: my usurper is in South Birmingham, and it turns out dozens of our mutual Facebook friends have plots near her. So they’re all busy sharing notes and tips but here I am in North Birmingham, wondering how to get started, with nobody to turn to.

Well that’s not really true. My plot is next door to the people who run my local bottle shop, an amazing craft beer place called Cellar Door. They’re really good at managing their plot. They’ve just bought a greenhouse and everything. It’s making buying beer a bit awkward, to be honest. One day they might stage an intervention on me “no more beer, Jon, until you go back to the allotments and get your life in order.” That might be a kindness.

In truth it probably doesn’t matter much that I’ve not been down to the plot; it’s been snowing, on and off, since Christmas and there’s not much growing that happens in February, is there? Well I hope not. I’m worried that I might have missed a key deadline, like I was supposed to do something to prepare the ground or I was supposed to sow something now if I want to be harvesting it in the summer.

There’s a specific set of problems I have, and I need to get to grips with them. My plot was being managed right up until I took it on. This is good and this is bad. On the plus side there are some nice things in the ground that I want to keep, like raspberries and blackcurrants. There is also a good structure to the place: marked out beds, neat paths. The things I’m struggling with are knowing what is in the ground already and knowing what has been in the ground before. Some things I can tell straight off, because they’re above ground, other things are a mystery: is that patch there empty or is there something amazing under the ground? I also need to know what was in the ground before as that dictates what I should grow on that ground next, because you’re supposed to rotate things. This, really is the key thing holding me back: not knowing where to start, and not wanting to make a wrong move. But I need to go into March with a plan: a plan for what will go where and a timetable that will dictate what I do when. I realise that what I need to do is allow myself some mistakes, allow that my first season won’t be exactly what I want it to be. Most of all I need to stop looking at what other people are doing and focus on my own project.

Just then my Facebook pings with a message. My friend, my nemesis in South Birmingham, has sent me a copy of her allotment plan, as mapped out on the Grow Veg website. It looks so good. I am so ridiculously jealous.

I open my Allotment Handbook (bad juju be damned!) for ideas and inspiration. It’s pretty overwhelming. There’s all this information on what you should do when you’re choosing an allotment, like test the soil, none of which I have done. I skip this as dwelling on it will just hold me back. Next there’s a section on approaches to managing the soil: organic, double digging, no-dig. I’m pretty much hyperventilating now. Then they start going on about ‘biodynamic theories’ and ‘monoculture crops’. I have a cup of tea, regroup, skip several pages and… finally I’ve found a thread, finally I’ve found a beginning.

A plan of sorts

I read a section on choosing crops and the book has a really useful table that groups plants under three headings: ‘Cheap & easy to grow but relatively expensive to buy’, ‘Cheap to buy, short season or take up space (possibly not worth growing)’ and ‘Money can’t buy — grow your own or go without’.

Looking through the list of things that are cheap to grown but expensive to buy there are a lot of Hickman family staple foods (courgettes, rhubarb, beetroot, spinach), several things we’ve successfully grown at home (french beans, runner beans) and a few things I’ve just recently got into (celeriac, purple sprouting broccoli). ‘Cheap & easy to grow but relatively expensive to buy’ is now my list of things I want to grow, but to it I have to add new potatoes because, well, new potatoes basically. I also add fennel, because my fennel habit could bankrupt us otherwise.

Now I have a list, I just need to work out which things will go where and then start a timeline. Perhaps I’ve missed the window to plant some of these things this year but who cares? I can plant those next year, or the year after, or if I don’t have time now I’ll have plenty of time when I’m in my forties.

It’s time to relax about this. Relax, but also lean in. It’s time to start digging.

Next month: let’s get physical — it’s time to get the plan into action

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