My sister Jane is a proper gardener. She works with plants all day; knows Latin names for things and has won awards. Her skill has even resulted in her kissing Mark Ramprakash so I was a little surprised about 18 months ago when she rang me in something of a panic.
She had come to the top of the waiting list for an allotment and with her own garden and a very sceptical husband to deal with she took the only course left open to her – she asked her plant-killing horticultural ignoramus of a sister to take it on with her.
My husband was equally dismissive of the whole idea, so I quickly said ‘yes’ – after all, hadn’t I always wanted to feed my family on my own organic veg and fruit? Didn’t I want to lead a healthy outdoor lifestyle? Hadn’t I always managed to kill every plant ever given to me and dried my pots of herbs whilst they were still but seedlings? My sister was either very brave or she simply wanted to enjoy playing the tyrant and watching her sibling suffer. I will give her the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
Now we are in our second season and I can honestly say I am almost getting the hang of it. OK, so I pulled up the parsnips thinking they were weeds and a little while ago managed to trample all over the onions and ruin half the crop of beetroot. And yesterday I put the fork through the best potato of the bunch. But compared to last year I am a regular Alan Titchmarsh.
In our first 6 months my sister could dine out on my inability to understand planting one onion just to grow just one, slightly bigger onion (I thought they grew like potatoes) or my belief that carrots grow in bunches in large fields in East Anglia. ‘What’s that?’ I would innocently ask as we planted something green (a lot of it is green actually – so unhelpful..) ‘Spring cabbage’ would come the reply. ‘Oh’ I say, ‘when will we harvest that then?’
And how can you guess what to do with a globe artichoke?
However, progress is progress. I know how to tie bean canes together, I can plant leeks (they are so cute when you put them in the ground!) and we have had a monster crop of butternut squash. Sweet peas have been almost literally coming out of our ears (we haven’t got much space left in the ground you understand), and I am world-class at strimming grass and shovelling s**t.
Obviously, the exercise is great and being outdoors is mentally therapeutic – our plot is next to fields so it is really like our own little piece of the countryside – but the end product is the best bit. Harvesting your own beans, courgettes, potatoes, cabbage or sweetcorn (we even had four bits of asparagus, although I am sure that is not the technical term) and taking them home for dinner is a fabulous feeling. My daughter now eats peas, beans and mange tout. A year ago the only green on her plate was the same size portion of broccoli she ate as a toddler.
We will have autumn raspberries soon, bucket loads of them and I will make jam and tarts and we will be pulling little pips out of our teeth till Christmas.
I don’t yet have the confidence to do much on my own up there. I am too scared to do much more than dig or water without instruction. My sister has actually been remarkably patient considering she has in the dim and distant past clearly been tempted to physical violence when coping with a dithery sister who likes to have her head in a book and paint her fingernails. So I want to thank her publicly for introducing me to the wonderful world of organic grow your own, she is a star and I really do appreciate it.
I read through this post nostalgically this morning. We love the allotment, and are in our third year now. The enthusiasm is as keen as ever but this year nature has tested our determination to be organic and wildlife friendly to the limits. Rabbits and blackfly have decimated seedlings and eaten onion tops to such a disheartening extent that at times it has felt a little as if a famine has come upon us.
We had only enough broad beans to decorate the edge of a scallop starter after black fly settled in great drifts almost overnight. We saw just one ladybird and despite it seeming like coccinellid heaven I swear even that poor thing was looking sick of the sight of the bloody pests.
And then we got downy mildew on our onions.
To add insult to the proverbial injury, our plot borders onto open countryside and a wooded bank that is basically a high class bunny hotel. Keeping our crops safe is like the Battle of Rorke’s Drift each year. Apparently other allotmenteers use ferrets to keep numbers down and one woman arms herself with an air rifle after a particularly barren year on her little piece of land. It seems they are a crop like any other and my sister and I feel like daft townies as we ask about ‘humane’ methods. Wallace & Grommit presumably…
So we have decided that this winter we are going to remodel the whole plot. There will be a small polytunnel, more netting and better use of space, including a bed for cut flowers. We will plant new fruit bushes to replace the old ones we inherited and order a range of disease resistant seeds to combat the mildews, the little black fly things that burrow into carrots and club root. And better fencing to keep Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny at bay.
The investment must be worth it. My sister has no fondness for babies and small children but she nurtures her seedlings as if they have a soul. My saying ‘oh we can plant some more’ has seen her wave sharpened secateurs threateningly in my direction. Seriously, it is sad to see her so disheartened and anything I can do to get us productive again for 2012 will be worthwhile.
Remind me I said that on a bitter day in January won’t you?