Let me be honest. Last year my allotment was a disaster. Not because of weather or pigeons or tomato blight. Because of my neglect. I failed to prepare, plant or then attend to the plot at all, and as a consequence it became a weedy mess. My attentions were then limited to a few Blitzkrieg attacks with the strimmer, in a vain attempt to assuage my guilt, placate my neighbours and avoid a stroppy letter from the council. And then the Gotterdammerung climax of a massive bonfire in the autumn, when – in a frenzy of (more) guilt and frustration – I burned more or less everything in sight. Not a happy tale. [I’m not sure why I’m describing my year at the allotment in the same Wagnerian terms as the rise and fall of the Third Reich – no doubt a shrink would tell me].
Over the winter, in anticipation of the request for my 2018 payment, I agonised about keeping the plot on at all. A good gardening friend (that is, a good friend, and a good gardener – you know who you are) had given up hers. How could I justify keeping it on if I not only didn’t grow much, but couldn’t even look after it?
A conversation with a London allotmenter last summer stuck in my mind. When I confessed to her that my growing plans for 2017 amounted to little more than ‘rhubarb and raspberries’, she looked at me appalled. If that were the case with someone on her site, she said sternly, they’d be given their marching orders, and the plot would be given to someone prepared to do it properly. Wasn’t I keeping someone else from a worthwhile exercise in modest self-sufficiency and healthy eating?
But then, there’s history bound up with my plot. We got it when the boy was a baby – he’s now heading precipitously for 14. We’ve had happy days there as a family, and have the photos to prove it. Damn it, we were ahead of the curve when we took it on back in the early 2000s, before allotments became desirable again. A young family with an allotment was a novelty – I was interviewed by the (then new) ‘Grow Your Own’ magazine. How could I walk away from those memories?
Admittedly, the allotment is now in a worse state than it was a decade ago. And therein lies another tale, that of my transition from hobby allotmenter to professional gardener. Too many times I’ve not wanted to spend the weekend weeding, when I’ve spent all week on my knees amongst the creeping buttercups and couch grass. And, of course, being a full-time gardener means that my anxieties (never far below the surface) about what the allotment looks like are ever greater. I have no excuse for not having a fantastic, abundant, Instagram-worthy plot. And that burden, really far more about anxiety than time or energy, has weighed me down latterly.
So, it was with trepidation that I approached the plot yesterday for the first time this year. And?
Well, it was a weedy, overgrown mess. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud, but it was not perhaps as bad as I’d feared it would be. Couch grass has re-asserted itself all over the place. To be honest, it’s never really disappeared since we took the plot on. I rue the hours spent obsessively getting the raised beds level and square, when all they did was give an appearance of good order. I should have spent the first twelve months clearing and weeding the ground, before even thinking about building raised beds, fruit cages and the rest. Now the raised beds are falling apart, and the weeds are back.
I took up my strimmer, and went over the whole patch. It looks like someone cares for it now. And the area I gave the scorched earth treatment last November is still weed-free. There is rhubarb coming, and the fruit trees are looking good.
So I’m going back to basics. First of all, I shall lift and ‘park’ all the plants I want to keep: cardoons, currant bushes. Then, I’m hiring a weed-burner for a weekend to give everything a blast and take all the grass and weeds back to soil-level (at least, that’s what I hope will result). I shall channel my inner Colonel Kilgore, and blast out ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ as I work. Then it’s the unsightly but practical black sheeting for as much of the plot as can be covered. The shed needs re-roofing and painting. The raised beds need either removing or repairing – about half and half. Get all that done, and maybe, by the time the days are longer and the sun a bit warmer, I’ll be in a position to sow some seeds.