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.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Mud, glorious mud

Here is a question I don't think Trinny and Susannah have ever properly addressed: what to wear on the allotment? It came to mind when I was being interviewed about my book by Robert Elms on his lunchtime radio show on BBC London. Dapper man that he is, Robert didn't seem to be all that keen on allotment gardening. He didn't know an awful lot about it, but had the distinct impression that it involved mud, and he really couldn't be doing with mud. I tried reassuring him by explaining that there were these things called gardening gloves, which is applied correctly did quite a decent job of keeping the hands mud-free. We are pretty keen on gardening gloves down on the Low family plot: I have got at least four pairs - don't ask me where I got them, they just sort of appeared, like odd socks at the bottom of the laundry basket - my wife has got several, and even the children have got a pair each. They look very fetching in them. I draw the line, however, at those rubber surgical gloves that come in packs of 150 which some gardeners like to wear and throw away after use. They are not very green, I would have thought, but my main objection is that they just look plain weird. Anyway, sometimes you just want to feel the earth between your fingers: it's quite sensual, in a muddy kind of way.
No, no, explained Elms, it wasn't the mud on his hands he was worried about: it was mud on his best suit. There's really no answer to that, is there? Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with gardening in a suit: people used to do it all the time. While researching my book, I found pictures of our allotment from the Second World War where the men did not just wear suits to dig their spuds, they wore ties as well. And hats.
Monty Don famously favours corduroys, and that leather jerkin. I have got a fleece-lined checked shirt for winter gardening, and a lightweight one for summer wear. I have, however, yet to adopt the fashion item de rigueur on our allotment: the flat cap. Perhaps it's an age thing.
Robert Elms was right, though: there is no avoiding the dirt. My friend Jason pointed out recently that I should have subtitled the book after that movie which came out earlier in the year: There Will Be Mud. I wonder what Daniel Day-Lewis wears for the garden?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Covent Garden

Allotments in central London are a rarity - why have a lovely green space for people to grow their fruit and vegetables when you can have another office block, or perhaps another road? - so I am looking forward to this Sunday (May 18) when I will be visiting the allotment in Covent Garden. This is what it looks like...

Looks pretty spruce, doesn't it? It's quite hard to tell, but as far as I can judge there don't seem to be any slugs munching their way through the cabbages, or carrot fly holes in the carrots, or Brussels sprouts toppling over because the wind got to them; so all in all it doesn't really bear much of a resemblance to my own plot at all. It is still a splendid initiative, though, all part of a series of events called the Spring Renaissance. Working together with the Conservation Foundation, the festival has set up a proper working allotment on the North Piazza where, on Sunday at noon, I will be giving a reading from my book One Man And His Dig. That's if anyone is listening, of course: if they aren't, I will just be directing tourists to the Transport Museum.
If the thought of me appearing at the festival (Valentine Low Live at Covent Garden! One performance only! I like the sound of that...) is not excitement enough, Richard Reynolds - the author of Guerrilla Gardening - will be there at noon on Saturday. Who knows, we could even join forces and start a Guerrilla Vegetable Gardening movement. Just imagine: people waking up one morning to find that Parliament Square had been turned into a giant vegetable patch, or that every Tesco car park in the country had been invaded by row after row of cabbages and beetroot. The revolution starts here!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A question of carrots

Orlando, my eight-year-old son, was reading my copy of Kitchen Garden magazine - chiefly because his big sister had got to the Beano first, but he is a lad who likes his vegetables - when he looked up with a quizzical expression. "Dad," he said, "How come the carrots you get in the shops are all nice and straight, but the ones we grow are all twisty?"
Kids - they really know how to hurt you, don't they? Carrots have been the bane of my life ever since we first got our allotment nearly four years ago. The first year we had the plot we hardly managed to grow any. The second and third years we actually produced a crop, but they were so mis-shapen and generally un-carrotlike that I wished Esther Rantzen was still doing That's Life so I could send them in to the comedy vegetable slot. I'm convinced that one of them looked Osama bin Laden, if you looked at it in a sideways squinty sort of way.
Anyway, it is all to do with the soil, which where we are in west London is heavy clay, with lots of lumps and stones thrown in - about the worst carrot-growing conditions imaginable. This year, however, I am determined to produce a good crop of straight, uniform carrots, the sort of chaps that win prizes at county shows. I prepared a luxury carrot bed by digging out the soil, sieving it, mixing it with compost and builders' sand and then returning it to the bed, so that I ended up with the carrot equivalent of the Georges V in Paris. If I don't grow a bumper crop of monster carrots it won't be for lack of trying.
Some vegetables, though, always look good - assuming they actually reach the finishing line. Tomatoes, for instance: they can be relied on to look pretty much like they do on the seed packet - all round and red and glossy. The trouble is getting them there, though. Until the bank holiday weekend we had a splendid collection of tomatoes under way, which were all going great guns in the mini-greenhouse outside the back door. In fact the tomato jungle was beginning to take over everything - the greenhouse overspill was lodged on the kitchen table - and as they were starting to grow too big for their pots we decided, perhaps rashly, to plant some out on the allotment rather earlier than some would consider wise.
We went away for the weekend, thinking everything was hunky dory: by the time we got back the tomatoes we had left in the mini-greenhouse had all shrivelled up, the victims of too much sun and not enough rain. It was a disaster. I tried very hard to be brave in front of Orlando, but I think he could feel my pain. Let's hope the carrots turn out OK.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Latvia's finest

In my day job as a journalist - as opposed to the real work of tending the allotment - I received a press release the other day about a new campaign called Dig Your Dinner, which is trying to encourage people to grow their own food. That is clearly a theme close to my heart, but what really caught my attention was a mention of the Heritage Seed Library, run by Garden Organic, which aims to protect 800 endangered species.
Among the 10 they highlighted were Mrs Fortune’s Climbing French Bean, which were donated to the Seed Library by two friends who share an allotment next to each other in Bristol. One of them used to visit an elderly lady called Doris Fortune in the early 1960s and was given some beans by her. They originated from an old retired gardener who tended the Royal Family's garden at Windsor.
I'm a sucker for detail like that. Take another of their endangered seeds, the Gravedigger Pea. They got them from a Mr Thompson, a retired farmer from Warwickshire, who got them from his neighbour Mr Beal who in turn got them from his friend, a gravedigger living at Kidlington, near Oxford. A real pea with a real story, not some dubious F1 hybrid bred solely for the convenience of the big growers.
Meanwhile the people behind all this have very kindly sent me some endangered seeds (the Seed Library is not allowed to sell them because they are not on the EU Seeds Register). They are Latvian Peas - which, I must confess, I have never heard of. Does anyone know anything about them? How to grow them, what their habit is, how they taste, that sort of thing? All information gratefully received - and I will, of course, report back myself as soon I get round to growing them.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Look, mum, I'm on the telly

Whenever I dig over the ground on the allotment I am joined by a robin who recognises that it is a good opportunity to feast on any worms that I happen to uncover. He is quite unafraid, hopping around within a few feet of me and then nipping in whenever he sees a tasty morsel wriggling around. I guess that most gardeners have similar little friends.
I am pleased to say, however, that mine is now a television star. London Tonight came down to the allotment at the weekend to film a piece about how trendy allotments are - and to give my book, One Man And His Dig, a nice plug - and as well as shooting lots of footage of me yakking away while the children slaved away behind me (exploitation is such an ugly word, I always think) they also got some good shots of the robin. There he was at the beginning of the sequence, sitting on a fence post; and there he was at the end, tucking into a lovely fat worm. Lucky chap.
I was also on Radio 4's Loose Ends on Saturday. It is hosted by Clive Anderson these days, although I was being interviewed by Arthur Smith. Anyone interested in hearing Arthur and I talk about manure, courgettes, slugs and Helen Mirren has until next Saturday (April 26) to listen to the show again via the BBC website (I am about three-quarters of the way through the programme, after the comedian Ed Aczel - who is very funny - and before Craig Brown).

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Tomato madness

No two years on the allotment are the same. Some years the potato crop is terrible, but the beans are fantastic; others years you cannot move for courgettes, but scarcely manage to grow a single carrot. And then of course there are the obsessions. Last year we went completely overboard on the squash front, growing so many that our kitchen looked like the west London entry for the National Pumpkin Festival (is there such an event? If there is, we would have won it hands down). Two years ago I developed a mild lettuce obsession, which I have more or less dealt with now, although I still have the occasional flashbacks.
This year it is tomatoes. For some reason we have gone completely mad for tomatoes, filling pot after pot with young seedlings, which is all very well except for the fact that we only have enough room on the allotment to grow about half a dozen plants. I have no idea what we are going to with rest of them.
I am not even entirely sure where all these tomatoes came from. Some were freebies, given away with things like Kitchen Garden magazine; others were presents, often in the form of seed collections given to our children and then purloined by us. (That is how low we have sunk - taking the seeds from our children to grow ourselves). Some we have actually bought ourselves.
The result is that this year's tomato collection includes the following varieties: Sungold (an old favourite, a very sweet cherry tomato), Costoluto Fiorentino (an Italian ribbed number), Zucchero (no idea: I got it in a seed swap, and presume from the name it is on the sweet side), Yellow Pear (nicked from the kids: presumably it is yellow, and pear-shaped) and Red Pear (the same, only red).
As I write this, we have gone away for a few days to my parents-in-law in Wiltshire, which involved my taking the tomatoes out of the mini-greenhouse - where I was worried they might get a bit overheated if I was not there to look after them (this, of course, is a classic symptom of the obsessive - thinking that your babies cannot possibly survive without constant attention) - and putting them on trays on the kitchen table, which is nice and light but not as hot as the mini greenhouse.
They look great, but it does mean that our kitchen table is filled with 56 pots of young tomato plants, not counting the chilli plants which I also brought in. It doesn't leave a lot of room for breakfast.
I haven't yet broken it to the rest of the family, but we may have to move out for a few weeks.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Men in flat caps

There aren't that many celebrity allotment-holders around - probably because once you are rich and famous you are not going to spend your time getting dirt under your fingernails just to make sure you can bring a few cabbages to the table - so it is always nice to discover a new one. Here's the latest addition to the roll: John Humphrys. He was interviewing a couple of allotmenteers on the Today programme this morning, and mentioned in passing that he got his first allotment at the age of 14. 14? Did the young Humphrys have to support his family even before he left school? Things must have been tough in Cardiff back in those days: did he fit his veg-digging activities in between shifts down the pit? I think we should be told.
He was interviewing Andy and Dave Hamilton about their book, The Self-Sufficient-ish Bible: An Eco-Living Guide for the 21st Century, and got on to the subject of whether allotments are populated by old men in flat caps, or young and trendy types who knit their own tofu. I don't know about the Hamilton twins' allotments in Bristol, but I can report that where I am in East Acton, the flat cap is alive and well. My allotment neighbours Michael and John are never to be seen without their caps, and I would go so far as to say that I would not recognise them if I came across them bare-headed. I don't wear a flat cap myself, but then again I am a little way off retirement age. I will probably buy myself one for my 60th birthday, if they still make them then.
Intrigued by the Hamiltons' book, I Googled the twins and found an interview with them in the Times from a few days ago. It mentioned Andy's tip for preventing slugs from eating your lettuces. "Chuck a load of slugs in a food mixer, blend them and then put the goo around your plants," he said. "They won't come near it."
I must admit I had never heard of this method, for perhaps obvious reasons. If anyone feels like trying it on, I would be most interested in hearing about the results.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Smoke gets in your eyes

Down at the allotment we have been having trouble with the neighbours. It's the age-old problem that has caused fractious relations between gardeners and their neighbours since forever: the bonfire. Gardeners need to burn their rubbish. Bonfires produce smoke. And anyone unfortunate enough to live downwind of that smoke usually finds the experience distinctly unsettling.
(Perhaps the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden had nothing to do with apples and snakes, but an unfortunate misunderstanding concerning the burning of some autumn leaves).
Most of the time you can get away with it. With a bit of sensitivity - waiting until the wind is in the right direction, only burning the stuff when it is good and dry - it is possible to have the occasional bonfire without sparking off civil war.
On the Bromyard allotments, however, it has all gone a bit far for that. There is a new block of flats just across the road, and they have been getting very narked at the smoke coming their way. Voices have been raised. Threats have been issued. It has all got very nasty.
It is not nice of course having smoke blowing in through your bedroom window. But the allotments were there long before the flats were dreamed of. Are they telling us that we are going to have to run our allotments without ever being allowed to burn our old prunings and cabbage stalks? Are these people for real?
I can foresee the next complaint. Every spring I go to a nearby stables and stock up with horse manure for the following year. What with the noxious smells, the environmental disturbance and the health risk, I expect to be on the receiving end of a restraining order before the year is out...

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Purple sprouting time

There is absolutely no point in having an allotment unless you are going to show off: so here, without further ado, is my dinner from last night. Lovely purple sprouting broccoli, as fresh as you like, not to mention young and tender. Delicious. There was also some fish and potatoes, but they were merely supporting players in a culinary production where the PSB was the undisputed star.
Mind you, you've got to be patient with purple sprouting. You sow it in about a month's time, which means that it takes up valuable allotment space for 11 months of the year. Some people might consider that a bit of a waste, but when you consider that it is one of the few green crops around at this time of year, and is the prince of vegetables, I reckon that it is a price worth paying. In fact now I come to think of it, March is an undervalued time of year. Not only is the PSB coming into its own, but there are also leeks to be had - my other favourite vegetable. Let's hear it for March!
I wonder if Anita Pallenberg grows purple sprouting. Remember Anita Pallenberg? The ultimate rock chick, she was Brian Jones's girlfriend and then Keith Richards's partner for many years, and made a number of movie appearances including Barbarella and Performance. These days, I read in the Observer recently, she lives in west London and has an allotment in Chiswick. "This is the third year, and I go out there twice a week at least with another girl and it's fun," she told interviewer Lynn Barber. "I've got strawberries, artichokes, leeks, broad beans."
It never occurred to me that my allotment neighbours might include a former rock icon. Perhaps I had better check.
PS There was a lovely mention in Publishing News of my book One Man and His Dig (published on 6 May by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). It said: "He's entertaining, amusing and his chirpy optimism would help anyone staring glumly at their current patch of mud." Which was nice, except that my wife asked when we were going to see a bit more of that chirpy optimism at home. Oh well, you can't please everyone.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Yellow courgettes

After 11 years, seven months, two weeks and two days of marriage (not that I'm counting) I am pleased to be able to say that my wife and I don't generally have too many disagreements. We like the same movies, the same food, the same music (some of the time) and, best of all, we both love doing the allotment. The only regret is that we are not often able to go there at the same time.
Occasionally, however, we have slightly differing ideas about what to grow on our plot, and over the years I have learned a lot about the delicate art of compromise. I have, for instance, generously permitted the cultivation of beetroot, a vegetable which in my opinion is fit only to be fed to farm animals (and then only if they have been very naughty).
The other area where I have had to give in is on the subject of coloured vegetables. I am something of a traditionalist, believing that vegetables should be the colour they were when I was a lad: carrots should be orange, cabbages should be green, tomatoes should be red. My wife, however, thinks that there is no point in growing your own unless you include some interesting varieties. And that means growing a few fancy coloured ones, like purple Brussels sprouts and Red Russian kale.
For the past few years we have grown yellow courgettes alongside the traditional green ones. I have to admit they are pretty good, too. But the variety we grew last year, Soleil, turned out all wrong - a rather bilious shade of yellow with green streaks. They looked seasick. I don't know what went wrong, but I thought we had better try another one this year.
The question is, which? We once grew Taxi, which did pretty well our first year, but it is not widely available these days. Anyway, I am not sure I approve of growing a vegetable named after a New York cab on a London allotment. Some people rate Gold Rush highly, while others swear by Orelia. Then there's Parador, and Jemmer, not to mention One Ball, which are yellow and round. It is all very difficult. Perhaps I can interest my wife in the Italian variety Lungo Bianco, which is white, or Nero di Milano, which is black, or at least the sort of very dark green that passes for black. Then there is always Rugosa Friulana, a warty thing described by Seeds of Italy as "very ugly" - they're not joking - but also extremely flavoursome. Still, I've got about three months to go before I have to sow my courgettes: I expect I will have made up my mind by then.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Lovely leeks

Leeks: you can't really beat them, can you? Here is last year's crop, covered in a tasteful dusting of snow and none the worse for that: it takes more than a light outbreak of winter to put leeks off their game. Along with broad beans and purple sprouting broccoli they are one of my favourite vegetables, and all the more lovable for the fact that they are one of the few things available to eat from the allotment at this time of year.
That, though, is the very reason I am feeling rather guilty at the moment. The leeks in the picture are Musselburgh, one of the most popular leek varieties, and for the last couple of years they have stood the Low family in pretty good stead. Productive, reliable and tasty, they are pretty much without fault.
So why have I betrayed them?
I bought my seeds for the year the other day, from the rather wonderful Real Seed catalogue; but instead of sticking to the leeks which have performed so well for the last two years, I was seduced by some fancy French variety. Bleu de Solaise, they are called, and according to the Real Seed people they are long, with blue grey leaves, and very hardy. In a comparative trial with Musselburgh, they were noticeably more vigorous, growing faster and bigger. They sound great.
But frankly, why bother? The old ones were more than good enough, so why change? The fact is, I am just a bit of an old tart. Like many gardeners, I cannot help wondering whether there isn't some variety out there which is better than the one I am growing already. It is a perpetual fascination with the new and the untried, a classic case of the grass always being greener on the other side. Or in the case, the leeks. And not exactly greener, more like bluer.
Anyway, one cannot just grow the same thing every year - that would be boring. All the same, I cannot help feeling mildly guilty, as though I had let down a trusted friend. Sorry, leeks.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Potato Fair

I went to the London Potato Fair the other day to get our seed potatoes for this year: meanwhile, here are some I prepared earlier. These are the Pink Fir Apples we grew last year, which we are still eating at the beginning of February. OK, I must admit that we forgot about them for a bit, but when I finally got them out of the garden shed they were still in pretty good nick. Perhaps not quite as firm as when they were first harvested, but still eating well, and the flavour was as good as ever. It was an excellent crop of PFAs in 2007, which I put down to all that rain. As they say, there's no such thing as bad weather. (On the other hand, don't talk to me about the tomatoes. They did not have a good time of it last year. Still, you can't have everything).

The Potato Fair is one of the highlights of my year: I look forward to it the way my kids look forward to Christmas ("Dear Santa, This year I would like some Charlottes, some Red Duke of York and some Pink Fir Apples. I promise I have been a very good boy.") There are more than 100 varieties of seed potato, and although 15p a tuber is more expensive than if you buy in bulk, the fact that you can buy individual tubers is brilliant for people like me who like to grow several different types of spud. I would like to say that you can get just about every variety one has ever heard of, but some of the popular-but-rare varieties sell out incredibly quickly. We got there about three quarters of an hour after it started, with our hearts set on buying some Roseval, only to find out that they had all been snapped up already. I think that next year I am going to have to camp out the night before, just to make sure I get the spuds I want. Not that I'm eccentric or anything.

To be honest, I wouldn't be the only eccentric person there. There are all sorts of wonderfully odd people at the fair, including one middle-aged lady who was scouring the fair for her favourite potato (Marfona, as it happens) with an air of absolute determination.
The other highlight (apart from the seed swap, which might have to be the subject of another blog) was meeting the wonderful Liane, who has done the illustrations for my book: they are, in my unbiased opinion, absolutely gorgeous. She has a plot in north London, but made the journey down to Peckham to check out the potato fair, which she had not been to before. I am glad to say that she was so enthralled by the occasion that she bought some potatoes which she simply did not need, but will somehow manage to find space for.

Choosing potatoes is always a skilful operation; getting the right balance of cooking style/flavour/harvesting time is an intellectual exercise of the utmost subtlety. I cannot say we necessarily got it right, but this is what we came away with: Anya (we are trying to kick our Charlotte habit, although they are so reliable and delicious I could quite easily grow them every year without ever getting bored), Kestrel, Red Duke of York, King Edward and Belle de Fontenay (which sounds like the beautiful heroine from some 19th century French novel, or possibly the title of a romantic opera). There was also one more, which my eight-year-old son Orlando chose: the Salad Blue. When I got home I looked it up, and discovered it's not actually a salad potato at all. If you try boiling it, it will disintegrate without so much as a by-your-leave. But it is blue. Apparently it makes an amusing mash.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Shed of the year

This is no ordinary shed. It may bear a passing resemblance to the sort of construction which can be found on allotments up and down the country, but there is much more to it than that. It is in fact, Art. It has been created by the chap on the right here, Thomas Pausz, an MA student at the Royal College of Art in London, and is meant to be a recreation of the community shed at the Manor Gardens allotments in Hackney Wick, the ones that were bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympics.

Thomas - who has lived in this country for 10 years, but was born in Paris to a Polish father and Breton mother - made it as his contribution to the college's design and architecture interim show. It is about shared memories, collective experience, and the political and social aspects of shed life (You didn't realise there were political aspects to shed life? Where have you been?).

The story about how Thomas came to build it is quite interesting. He lives in Hackney, and likes cycling around the area. One day he chanced upon the Manor Gardens site, and decided to have a look round. After a while he tried to leave, only to discover that he had been locked in. So he then spent the next hour or so having a really good explore, and was overwhelmed by the profusion of sheds there (and indeed anyone who knew the site would agree that they had some pretty good sheds). "I was completely amazed," he said. Finally he left, by climbing over the fence.

Funnily enough, when he came to do his project, he realised that the one shed he had not discovered was the community shed. He turned that omission into a virtue, by deliberately avoiding any photographs of the old shed, and instead re-created it by asking plot-holders what it looked like. They all had quite different memories; one recalled there being a photograph of the Queen inside, while another swore blind it was decorated with a picture of a Page 3 girl. Easy to confuse the two, I suppose. His technique explains why his shed - which is currently on view outside the Royal College of Art, next to the Royal Albert Hall - is not an exact replica of the original. I saw it the morning before it was completed, and told Thomas that I thought the original had more carpet, and more comfy chairs. (It was very well appointed, the Manor Gardens shed).

Meanwhile the evicted plotholders are trying to settle into their new home, on a specially constructed site in nearby Leyton. They are not having a very good time of it. Julie Sumner, who led the campaign against eviction, told me: "It is like a prisoner of war camp, built by B&Q. It is very sparse and bleak and regimented. Because it is very open it is much more windswept than our previous one. Also the soil is not draining properly, and we are standing in water half the time. They [the London Development Agency, responsible for bringing the Olympics to London and kicking out the Manor Gardens plotholders] spend £1.5 million in building these new allotments and they cannot even get it right. It does not give you a lot of confidence in them, does it?"

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Sprout tops

I don't think I had even heard of sprout tops until about seven or eight years ago; or at least, I certainly had never considered eating them. Now they are everywhere ("everywhere", in this instance, meaning all the best restaurants). My very wonderful colleague Fay Maschler, in a review of some west London gastropub, mentioned the other day how she was served "a side dish of sprout tops, a vegetable currently in vogue", while Giles Coren in the Times seemed to like the sprout tops he ate at Rowley Leigh's Café Anglais*. I assumed he liked them, because he described them as "sleek and buttery", which sounds to me like a good thing. But you never know.

Anyway, here are ours. The more observant amongst you will deduce that they are not this year's sprouts, because they are photographed against a snowy background, and we haven't had any snow in London this year. In fact they are last year's, but I thought it was OK to put the picture in, because it is so pretty.

The first time I ate sprout tops was one Christmas with my brother-in-law, who is a top bloke in many respects but who had chosen - for reasons best known to himself - not to wash them, or indeed to cut them up in any way: they were served whole, and somewhat gritty. But they were delicious, and despite the slightly crunchy texture I was hooked. I have since learned that it is OK to wash them, and to chop them up.

The only problem is that they are the cause of a slight disagreement with my wife. She is basically only interested in growing sprouts for the sake of the sprout tops. I like the sprouts too, and reckon you ought to let the plants stand while you work your way through the sprouts. She says we ought to get on with it and eat the sprout tops while they are still looking good. It leads to tense times on the allotment, with me in a constant state of anxiety because of the worry that Mrs Low will cut down the sprouts as soon as my back is turned. I am thinking of posting an armed guard next to the sprouts, just in case.

[*It is my birthday today, and we are going to the Café Anglais to celebrate. I hope the sprout tops are still on the menu]

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Hello and welcome from Plot 8

Like most allotment holders, I love looking at other people's plots. When I can't get to look at other allotments, I like looking at fellow plot-holders' blogs. What are they growing? What do their plots look like? Are they suffering from the same problems as me? And what are they doing about them?
After spending rather too much of the past couple of years gawping at other people's efforts, I thought: why not have a go myself? After all, isn't that the whole point of this blogging lark - anyone can do it? So, welcome to my blog. And indeed, welcome to my plot. I share it with my wife Eliza, children Kitty and Orlando, and rather more slugs, pigeons, flea beetles, foxes, snails, greenfly, blackfly and whitefly than I care to mention. There are also a couple of cats which make the occasional appearance, and some mice (last spotted when I was digging up my potatoes last year: there were three babies, so small they were still blind, so I guess I can say I really have seen Three Blind Mice), although the former have never actually been spotted giving chase to the latter. Perhaps they do it when I'm not around.
Where am I? The plot is part of the Acton Gardening Association, in west London. The Association has several sites: ours is called Bromyard, on Bromyard Avenue - just off the Uxbridge Road. It is a tiny site, just 15 plots: number 8 is slap bang in the middle. Our nearest neighbour is the Virgin Active health club - basically we are surrounded by its car park. It is all very salubrious.
The greatest joy of reading people's allotment blogs is looking at the photos. So here, by way of hello, is a picture of me with a pumpkin I grew last year. It made an excellent Halloween lantern.