What it is to have an allotment…

A tale from villager Rob Johnson

Musbury Allotments

“I’m just going up the allotment” is a phrase so simply said as “walking the dog” or “off to the pub” that it now fits very comfortably into my life’s routine. Except that I haven’t got a dog and whilst going to the pub is an option, going to the allotment is a necessity. It’s not that I need an allotment to survive or more often that my allotment needs me for its own sake. It’s just that after 35 years on the same plot it’s become a passion and a way of living that I simply couldn’t imagine being without.

There is so much to having an allotment that cannot be fully explained until you’ve had one, pulled it to heel, and enjoyed it walking obediently beside you. It will charge away at the first hint of warmth and have you running along to catch up, but with time and the twin trials of failure and experiment it will reap huge reward and be that much more satisfying for the effort it first took.

Is it about taking your own food home – like the ‘gatherer’ locked into our psyche from a distant past? Well, I believe it’s a good bit of that, but it is certainly the exquisite taste and texture of really fresh vegetables that becomes utterly addictive. Anticipation also plays a key part, from that first miracle when a tiny seedling pushes through the warm soil to the momentary pause as food like no other meets your lips. An experience I find so tantalising when relished on a truly seasonal basis, that I’m always looking forward with optimism at each stage, year on year, and always willing to try something new.

Musbury Allotments

It can be hard work, harder than going to the gym, but I get all that exercise in fresh air and with a truly wholesome purpose. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. To start with I was working, unlike the old retired boys who in those days spent hours leaning on their fork handles quietly watching me as I scurried about in the evenings and on Saturday mornings – doing everything wrong! I’ve learnt some good tips from those early days. ‘Begin with the edges and the job will seem easy from the start’ or, ‘the time to be hoeing is when you can’t see any weeds – pick a fine day and get up early’. Experience is a wonderful thing and sitting on the soil with a gardening book, a tape measure, and a shiny new trowel is not to be mocked! Every year brings new opportunities for learning, no two seasons are the same, and what grew really well one year will probably not be that which succeeds the next. Once that easy- going philosophy is absorbed without guilt, one is free to exercise a pseudo management strategy that will allow the perfect production of a bountiful harvest every time! Afraid not – that would be a dull life indeed. There is, however, something about a rotation plan that inspires confidence and a visible comfort in the order of things, enough at least to make you think you’re in control. Mother Nature is a fickle friend and though she can be in harmony on her own, let her into my patch and I’m the one that goes wild. I do have a set aside bit for the friendly bugs to live in down at the end, but when it comes to the crunch I have a simple remedy for asparagus beetles – and a not so crisp a cure for caterpillars.

Call me peculiar, but a heap of well-rotted manure is not just a pile of shovelling that will keep me busy all morning, as I fling it evenly over the bare soil – to me, its gold that once buried turns into riches. In all senses, not just the ones of the nose, an allotment is a very hands on and sensory indulgence. There is something about a low evening light that backlit, shines fresh green through new plant leaves and picks out the even texture of freshly tilled brown earth. Enough romanticising, it’s also a place of practical challenge and even warfare! I could be foolish and think it’s just the quality of my fruit and veg that makes every other creature want to eat it. Badgers seek out the juiciest cobs of ripe sweet corn, even though they trail through fields of maize to get them. Hedgehogs love strawberries, mice and rooks will dig up germinating broad bean seeds, pigeons flail the sprouting broccoli in winter and rabbits have a taste for beetroot – not to mention the perils of all the entomological stuff. A certain amount of crop protection is therefore vital and offers further creative opportunities at little cost if resourcefulness is applied – a key attribute for any successful allotmenteer I’ve found. And no better place to find them than on another plot, for what you don’t know about some variety, pest or ailment, someone else will or just share in your delight at seeing a crop well grown to maturity and give you some of it to try yourself.

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