Saturday, 19 May 2012
When I was a teenager I once went to a friend's house and found she was out. Her father was there and was not sure when she would be back, so in the mean while he showed me round his garden and enthused at length about his lettuces and herbs. I thought it was the most boring subject in the world. It was a real strain on the politeness of a fifteen-year-old. Now I have become that person. I can outbore the best talking about seeds, seedlings, cuttings, soil types, bugs, slugs and different varieties of tomato.
It's supposed to be an obligation for local councils to provide allotments for anybody who wants them. They used to be desperately unfashionable and then what with the Green movement and TV gardening programmes everybody started wanting one. I had to wait six years to get an allotment near to where I live and I feel guilty because other people I know have waited seven years.
Allotments in Oxford have beguiling names such as the Elder Stubbs, Spragglesea Mead and Deans Ham, Kestrel Crescent or the Trap Grounds in Aristotle Way. Who or what was Elder Stubbs? Was she a horticulturally-minded lady who bestowed this field on the thrifty gardeners of Cowley, or does it just mean that there were elder-trees there until somebody cut them down close to the ground? Did people once set traps for rabbits at the Trap Grounds?
The allotments in Quarry have a high steel fence around them these days. This is not to protect them from people who might pinch other people's spuds or strawberries, rotten though that is. It's on grounds of Health and Safety. Yes, somebody decided that it was too dangerous to risk children getting into an allotment because they might stand on a rake, trip over a six-inch-high raised bed, cut themselves on the glass of cucumber-frames or get garotted by a length of string supporting a raspberry cane. All these severe hazards were weighed up and so the Council spent lord knows how much on a massive metal fence. As you unlock the gate and swing it open it clangs and clunks like a prison door.
Inside all is tranquil. The oblong plots, stretching East to West, are studded with rows of tiny cabbages, black and white flowered beans, yellow-flowered broccoli, the vertical shafts of leeks and onions, the fronds of carrot tops, pea-canes, dense gooseberry-bushes, burgeoning potatoes and lots and lots of brown, well-dug earth. All apart from one, which is now mine. This is thick with foot-high couch-grass, thistles, massive dandelions, burdock, buttercups, bedstraw, henbit, vetch and chickweed. "The chap who had it didn't really look after it," I'm told as I look at it for the first time. "It will take a bit of hard graft to get it in order again!"
Allotment people are friendly. They offer advice, they share tools and they swop seeds and plants. There is a little Italian man who tries to grow vines on his plot and make wine just like in Tuscany. There is a Latvian lady who grows brussels sprouts and a man who grows all his seedlings in green and blue recycling boxes. They don't mind you nosing around looking at what they are growing and how they are doing it. Many of them hang old CDs on string to scare away birds, and if you listen carefully you can hear the faint tinkling of a thing like a Tibetan prayer-wheel, turning in the breeze. Is this the neighbourhood wind turbine, valiantly generating 0.002% of our electricity? No, it's another anti-bird device. It doesn't scare foxes though - they come prowling around the allotment at night.
A few weeks of hard graft later I have unearthed and weeded out strawberry beds, raspberries, and just one stately globe artichoke, which I might have mistaken for a massive thistle. I have ruthlessly dug out the buttercups, so pretty but so selfish as they take everything from the soil and give nothing back. I have planted potatoes, onions, beetroots, and squashes. I have left the clump of rhubarb I inherited because although I don't much care for rhubarb, and in fact I hardly know anyone who likes rhubarb, I think it has architectural qualities as a plant. Why pay a fortune for acanthus or gunnera when you can grown rhubarb?
My plot is well afoot.