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.