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.