This past week as been a very busy one on the allotment I share with my sister, Jane Earthy, in Somerset. She conveniently married a chap with a useful surname for her career as horticultural guru and when it comes to our joint attempt at self-sufficiency I am very much second in command. Even though as a child I apparently loved to spend time with my Grandpa on the allotment and could express joy at the tiniest potato, when we took ours on three years ago I simply didn’t have a clue, writing about the challenges my sister has encountered in the face of my ignorance in a previous blog post, Sisters are growing it for themselves.
Not being the most agile of creatures I have also, on occasion, been rather like Margot picking beans one by one in The Good Life, as I slip and slide and tread heavily on recently planted seedlings.
However, I sense that my knowledge of root veg and appreciation of seasonal produce is improving. My faux pas are fewer and further between and I can now think of vaguely intelligent questions to ask, although the idea of working without direction still terrifies me. The consequences are too dire. I remember the ‘weeding the carrots’ incident only too well.
This year is an exciting one though. We have undertaken a programme of ‘remodelling’ this winter which has revitalised the plot and given us a lot more ground to work with. The old raspberry canes have been uprooted and the shed rebuilt on the shady ground our ‘pick-your-own’ plot previously occupied. We have a new lean-too to enjoy: a very chic traditional allotment structure of bits of old wood, drain pipe and corrugated plastic and an old metal bed base will serve as a drying bench for onions and garlic.
Thanks to a bit of flirting by my sister (she is the glamorous half of our duo and even has the ex-mayor of the town offering her his apples and plums…) a small poly tunnel will go up in the spring. So – lots more opportunities to grow increasingly exotic varieties and a place to escape from the rain and open the thermos flask.
We are lucky enough to have the last plot before open fields and enjoy a very attractive view over a hedgerow which is like our own Spring or Autumn Watch studio (though sadly no Chris Packham or Martin Hughes-Games). We have bees, butterflies, tiny mammals (and probably rats) and as I ho-ho-hoed between the onions on Sunday in true Mr McGregor style a (rather wheezy) wren was dusting off the vocal chords. In the autumn a parliament of rooks will chatter away in that chilly way they do as harbingers of winter frost. And all year round we have our ‘pet’ blackbird and robins, who wait for us to turn over the soil before sneaking up behind our boots to nab the grubs we have exposed. It really doesn’t pay to get too attached to invertebrates on our plot.
Of course – with the hedgerow, and steep bank it sits on, comes the rabbit warren. Last year, in despair as our second batch of bean seedlings found their way to a bunny banquet, I ‘tweeted’ a plea for ideas to control these cute but crafty critters. ‘Shoot them!’ was the overwhelming response. On the allotment, normally quiet retiring types have invested in air guns and ferrets but although ours is one of the most vulnerable plots we cannot bring ourselves to harm any of our neighbouring Thumpers and Fivers. What is a broad bean supper between friends?
Next to the gate, where the shed used to sit and just past the pile of sticky, steaming cow poo (what do farmers feed them on?), we have a brand new bed for soft fruit – raspberry canes, strawberries, gooseberries and rhubarb (OK I know rhubarb is a vegetable and it isn’t soft, but you can put it in a crumble and that is good enough for me). We also have a little orchard of cherry and apple trees, small now but they promise much and with another ancient plum and fruit trees on neighbouring plots we are sure to have a brief spell of blissful blossom in the spring. Am I painting a sufficiently idyllic picture here?
Because for me it is a little idyll. We do have the sound of the A38 rumbling away in the distance; at the weekend we have the shouts of the (very small) crowd cheering on their football club and the main line between Exeter and Taunton takes fast trains along the side of the River Tone which meanders through the neighbouring popular dog walk. But at times it is blissfully quiet. Even if there are many plot holders diligently digging, planting or picking it seems there is a hushed reverence for the soil and the harvest it offers. Not just in terms of home-grown, fresh vegetables and fruit but as food for the soul.