Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The gift of garlic

I don't give away much any more. When we first had the allotment we gave away loads, usually because we had got our planting all wrong and had got far too much beetroot, or courgette, or whatever. Nowadays we are a lot smarter, and while we have not exactly banished the notion of surplus altogether, we tend to eat pretty much everything we grow.
So I don't give away much now; and in particular, I don't give away my precious garlic. I love my garlic, and my family all appreciates it - the children are particularly keen on roast potatoes with garlic, bless them. Why the hell should anyone else get any? After all, any surplus can be easily dealt with by cooking something monstrous like Chicken With 40 Cloves of Garlic (for those of you that don't know, this is a real dish: very good eating it is, too. If a trifle pungent).
But several months ago a friend demanded I give him some of my new season garlic when it was ready, and today - being a man of my word - I finally handed over a head of Early Wight, so fresh out of the ground it still had a light coating of East Acton mud.
He didn't get the Albigensian garlic, though. That's my favourite: it is a very pretty purple, grows well on our allotment, and lasts forever - we are still eating last year's crop, and indeed last night had an entire head's worth with some pork chops. Along, I might add, with some allotment potatoes (Sharpe's Express), some allotment broad beans, and some allotment peas cooked with allotment lettuce a la francaise. Made it all worth while, really.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Peas v beans

Until now, I have never had to ask myself this most taxing of questions: which are better - peas or beans? Myself, I love broad beans. They are one of my favourite vegetables, and really do taste so much better when you grow them yourself. Peas, on the other hand, have a reputation as being a bit trickier to grow - if the mice don't get the seeds when you first plant them, the pea weevil gets them when they are all podded up and ready to go.
What's more, I have always had a sneaking suspicion that frozen peas are so good that it would be hard to match them.
Last year we tried growing them, and I am not sure it was really worth it. The crop was so small that we ate most of the peas raw from the pod (which is no bad thing: they were delicious).
This year we finally grew enough, and even remembered to put some pea sticks in so that they did not all fall over. What were they like? They were brilliant. Sweet, succulent, like little green smarties when raw, and just as good when cooked. Not, perhaps, such a plentiful crop as with the broad beans, but on the other hand they don't get blackfly, which makes them OK in my book.
Which are better? Well, they are a lot easier to pod than broad beans, which puts them edging ahead, but it is a close-run thing and I don't think I am ready to make the final decision quite yet...

Monday, 14 July 2008

Everyone needs good neighbours

Making a quick dash to the allotment in between rainshowers - we needed a lettuce for our supper, and I thought I would try and fit in a bit of weeding before it started pouring again - I presumed that I would be the only person down there, what with the anti-social weather and all. But no: there, trotting energetically up and down the path was a chap in shorts who was busying himself carrying a pile of compost bags from the gate down to his plot. Even before I got close I could tell that I had never seen him before, not least because my fellow plot-holders are not generally the type to run anywhere, and certainly not with bags of compost on their shoulders: it is not the sort of thing you get up to when you won't see 75 again.
How exciting! A new neighbour! I love it when a fresh face turns up on the allotment: it always opens a whole world of new possibilities. Will they have a lovely plot, full of interesting vegetables in neatly tended rows? Or will it be a mass of weeds before you can say Convolvulus arvensis? (That's the dreaded bindweed, of course). Will they be our friends, offering us their surplus tomatoes whenever we bump into them? Or will we have endless petty rows about whose turn it is to cut the grass on the path between our plots? Who knows what excitements lie ahead.
Nick seemed a personable fellow, though, and a hard worker. The way he dug the compost into the bed and raked it all over quite reminded me of my younger self. Ah, how it brought back memories of when we first got our plot and worked like Trojans every weekend to get it up to scratch. (Actually, Mrs Low points out that my memory must be playing tricks with me, because the way she remembers it I was one for stopping every half hour and asking when it was time for our next cup of tea).
The most interesting point about his arrival, though, was he is part of the phenomenon of dividing up plots which was swept through the allotment world. After lying untended for years the plot was divided in half and let to two different families. Now it turns out one of the people is so busy at work that they have not had time to look after their plot, and so have let one-third of it to my new friend Nick. So he has got one-sixth of an allotment - which, judging by the way he set about cultivating his little patch, he should have no problem keeping under control. And if it is still too much? Well, perhaps he can just divide and sub-let again. This one could run and run.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Princess Push-off

Everyone has their favourite time on the allotment: Michael, for instance, likes to go in the morning, while Lucy appears in the evening after work. I go whenever I can fit it in, but my favourite time of all is at dawn in midsummer, long before anyone else has got up. The pre-breakfast allotment visit is an annual ritual, when Mrs Low and I drag ourselves out of bed unfeasibly early in order to harvest vegetables for the school summer fair.
It started a few years ago, when we had a salad surplus and I thought it would be a good idea to flog what we didn't need at the fair. Since then we have felt unable to give it up, and so one morning a year find ourselves grubbing about trying to work out how much chard we can spare (lots - it always grows back) and whether it was a sacrifice too far to sell our new potatoes (too damn right: let them grow their own spuds).
An hour or so later, and we had a pretty good haul, including beetroot, chard, spinach, peas, salad, spring onions, rhubarb, sweet peas, roses, poppies and carnations. We also liberated some perfect little courgettes - complete with flowers - from our neighbour's plot because we knew they were going spare, although we did check first; I am sure she didn't mind the 7.30am phone call from us asking "Can we have your courgettes, please?" It is for charity, after all.
These things don't sell themselves, however, and it is the little marketing touches that make the difference: the hand-drawn labels by my daughter Kitty on the pots of chilli seedlings, for instance, and the edible flowers - nasturtiums and heartsease - in the bagged salad which meant we could charge an extortionate £2 a pop and still keep a straight face. Then there is the question of to clean or not to clean: we wash the spring onions, because they look good when they are pristine white, but not the beetroot because a bit of earth on the root gives it an authentic touch. It must work, because the entire beetroot stock went in about half an hour.
What made me feel really proud, however, is the fact that the small posies of flowers we were selling included an attractive purple thistle-like flower which grows self-seeded on the edge of our plot; we really should have got rid of it ages ago, but it is so pretty we haven't the heart. Essentially we were making money for the school fair by selling our weeds. (My gardener friend tells me it is one of the Centaurea family, but I have no idea which one).
The only hiccup came when the dad who was giving kids rides on the back of his motorcycle for £1 a go was told by the police to stop: the fair is held in a paddock next to Kensington Palace, and apparently Princess Michael of Kent didn't like the noise. I expect she is feeling a bit bad about that now, because she probably didn't realise it was for charity. Perhaps she would like to come over and have a look for herself next year; if she gets her people to talk to my people, I could even put aside a bag of beetroot for her.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Manor Gardens

To Leyton, London E10 - practically the other side of the world for a dyed-in-the-wool west Londoner like myself - for an allotment open day. Marsh Lane Fields is the new home for the Manor Gardens allotments, the ones that were bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympics. The old Manor Gardens site was a delight: hidden away, it was a secret place of old fruit trees, eccentric sheds and beautifully tended plots. Their new site, in contrast, is a shocker. An electricity pylon runs over it, a gasometer is round the corner, and half the site is a swamp because the contractors who were responsible for setting up the old Lammas land as allotments manage to compact the soil with their heavy vehicles, ruining the drainage and ensuring that it floods every time there is heavy rain. Marvellous.
The incredible thing, though, is how the indominatable allotment spirit shines through, despite all their setbacks. The oldest member of the Society, 86-year-old Tommy, has created a perfect allotment from scratch. Cynthia, a teacher who I met at the last open day a year ago, had no sooner got her new plot up and running - raised beds and all - than she discovered that it will probably have to be dug up all over again with a mechanical digger so that they can sort out the drainage. Despite everything she seemed remarkably cheerful.
Allotment folk? They are made of special stuff.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

I want this hoe

There is an old gardening saying, show me the shed and I will show you the man. Well, actually there isn't, but there ought to be, because I am convinced that most gardeners reveal the inner secrets of their personality through their shed. I am not sure what mine says about me, but suffice it to say it is small, cluttered, full of stuff I never use and littered throughout with the reminders of my botched attempts to mount various hooks, hanging rails and shelves and thereby create order out of chaos. Chaos wins every time, of course, which is why the other day I found myself girding myself up for the annual shed clear-out.
This is a moment of spiritual cleansing, akin to going on a retreat or perhaps meditating, when I tip everything out on to the allotment path, stare at it for a while, wonder what on earth that unlabelled pot of white powder is (fertiliser? sugar? deadly poisonous weedkiller?), and then put it all back again, except more tidily. A few things get thrown away - the thrifty gardener would keep that old bit of used fleece for next year, but really there are limits - and there are moments when I have an inner debate with myself about just how many bits of old string I need, but essentially it is an exercise in reorganisation rather than reduction.
I may, however, have to start getting tough with myself. The problem is my ever-expanding tool collection. Like most men, my hobbies are essentially just an excuse for the purchase of a never-ending array of consumer durables, in this case garden tools. My current obsession is with hoes: I already have a draw hoe, a Dutch hoe (also known as a push hoe) and an onion hoe, but am worried that my gardening needs will not be fully met unless I get my hands on that most splendid of tools, the Chillington hoe. Shaped like an adze (if you do not know what an adze looks like - well, you're probably not alone), with the blade at right angles to the shaft, this is used in a chopping rather than a scuffling motion, and is more to do with soil cultivation than weeding; clearly I will not be able to get my plot into good shape next winter unless I own one. It is also a product for the hardcore tool enthusiast only, because it comes without a handle, which you have to buy and attach yourself. I have started dropping little hints already, to be in time for Christmas. If I do get one, some other tool will have to be sacrificed to make room: that'll involve another clear-out, I suppose.
PS Got any tools which are too broken to use but too good to throw away? Tools Shed is a project run by the Conservation Foundation which gives new life to all those spades, forks, trowels and, yes, hoes which lie at the back of the shed waiting to be repaired. They collect them, get them repaired by prisoners at HMP Wandsworth, and then give them to London schools for their gardens. Tools Shed will be at the Hampton Court Flower Show next month, and is putting the call out to contractors with old tools to bring them along to the show.

Friday, 20 June 2008


There are certain days in the allotment calendar which are always greeted with excitement in the Low household, heralding as they do a new stage in the growing season. The day you sow the first seeds of the year, the day you harvest the first crops (and yes, the broad beans were very tasty, thank you, tender and sweet and not unduly overpopulated with blackfly, thanks to a judicious application of washing-up liquid a few weeks earlier. Even if they weren't the tastiest broad beans in west London, they were certainly the cleanest) and, marginally less popular but no less important for all that, the day you start your winter digging.
There is another day of significance which allotment folk often overlook, however: the day that your neighbours first start trying to foist their surplus crops on to you. It is an incredibly important day in the vegetable year, because it signifies the moment when things start to get out of hand, that hard-to-define but easy-to-recognise instant when your plot changes from a desolate mudpatch that looks as if it wouldn't feed a dormouse on a diet let alone a hungry family of four, to a lush and fecund vegetable production facility where you will be struggling to eat everything that comes out of the ground.
It was our plot neighbour John who got the ball rolling. There I was cutting some lettuce, picking some spring onions, generally minding my own business when John came up, machete in hand (all jobs on John's plot get done with the machete, a universal wonder-tool which is used for weeding, harvesting, cultivating, planting and, on occasion, eating) and announced that he had some spare garlic, and would I like some? He had half a dozen heads in his hand which looked pretty good to me, and as our own garlic wasn't ready yet I gave it the requisite hesitation and said yes, thanks very much. This was obviously taken to be a sign of weakness, because John instantly produced another fistful, and said I should have that too. Heaven knows how long he would have gone on shoving garlic into my hands if I hadn't stopped him and said, "That's plenty, thanks."
What I failed to occur to me in the midst of my garlic panic was that we had a glut of our own to deal with. A couple of months ago we sowed some carrots and spring onions together, but the carrots failed to germinate which means that we now had a mildly embarrassing surplus of spring onions. All I have to do now is catch John when his guard is down - preferably without his machete.