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.