Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Tragic demise of an organic allotment...

Once upon a time there was an allotment gardener. He commuted all week to a job he enjoyed, writing about gardening, and he had a lovely young family. He struggled to juggle these responsibilities with maintaining his allotment.
His plot was on a small but beautiful site surrounded on three sides by willows and other large trees. A waiting list was kept as a matter of policy, to help protect it from housing development, which was a great threat to many allotment sites during that time.
The council also had a very strict rule, that all plots on this site must be cultivated. This rule was partly designed to stop people on the waiting list from complaining that they hadn't got an allotment and that some tenants didn't appreciate theirs and look after them properly, and that life wasn't fair. But the rule was also policed to some extent by other tenants on the site, some of whom had gardened there for very many years. They contributed conscientiously to tasks that helped keep the site in good order, such as clearing blackberries from boundaries, trimming paths, pruning back the willow trees and calling the council when there were rats to be got rid of, and they felt much happier when all of the allotments were neat and tidy.
So when this man struggled to maintain his allotment alongside his demanding job and beautiful children, the council was informed. After some discussions, it was agreed to divide his plot in two, so that he had something more manageable in at least one area of his life.
So this is how I was allocated my half plot. I have been very glad that my neighbour reluctantly agreed to accept a half plot all those years ago, so that I too could have a manageable space to enjoy.
My neighbour tenant and I have been amicable, and we have seen several others come and go from the site during our tenancy. There was the woman whose father-in-law came over from Ireland for a week's holiday and cleared and dug her plot over for her. She planted it up and left, returning from the middle of the summer to harvest the food. One season she enjoyed lots of time down there with her new baby and toddler, during her maternity leave. She loved the gardening, but gave up her plot when she returned to work the following year.
An older tenant, who'd had a plot for years, struggled due to health problems over his two last summers, the weeds getting ever more prolific, the digging more of a struggle. Another woman came and enjoyed her plot for a season. The following summer her mother was very ill and her daughter had a baby. That year she couldn't fit in family support, allotment and essential full time job, so she was thrown off. I met her a few months later and she was quite angry that she hadn't been allowed to keep it after so long on the waiting list.
Another tenant, a wonderful veg gardener, had his cataracts done, and he was out of action for a year. He returned to his two full size plots, but voluntarily gave up one of them a couple of years later as he and his wife were no longer able to eat or give away everything he grew. Now he grows lots of evening primrose, a beautiful sight when watering in the evening.
Through all these sagas, my neighbour and I have managed to do sufficient labour to be allowed to stay. We're both quite green minded, organic (as far as we can) and have produced small amounts of delicious veg, which generally keep us motivated. He had a patch of weeds covering a third of the plot with signs, "slow worms live here" and a dustbin lid or two, while I had some old blackcurrant bushes, weedy and overgrown, providing shelter for blackbirds and sparrows, and the occasional resting place for a fox family.
For a couple of seasons, a friend helped him by clearing and gardening the back end of his plot, creating a deep bed and growing runner beans, and this was the point when we actually started to make headway in our annual Battle with the Hop Vine, which grew over leylandii from a neighbouring garden and choked the far end of our two half plots. He would bring free samples of different veg varieties to try, and would usually be found on Sunday mornings with one or two of his boys, pottering about and growing stuff.
But this year I haven't seen my organic neighbour and apart from a cutting down of the weedpatch and a rough trim of the shared path very early in the season, his plot hasn't been cultivated at all. There has been a great crop of parsnip seeds and artichoke flowers, and the bellbine and wild grasses have looked wonderful, but no one on the site appeared to have heard a word from him. And as we've never exchanged phone numbers, I had no way of finding out what was going on.
And then, early last week I arrived to do some watering and his whole plot had been cleared. The deep beds, the compost heap, all made from scavenged and recycled wood gathered over the years - everything had been pulled up or broken down and piled in a heap in one corner, over the formerly flourishing rhubarb patch. It was really shocking.
My neighbour Bill on the other side said a woman had been down with her mother and done it all over the weekend.
I met her on Saturday. She's dynamic, has spare time at present as her photography business is a little quiet, hasn't grown veg before but is full of energy and enthusiasm. "My long term objective is to open a restaurant, so this is a great opportunity for me to start with the food." She lives across the road from my organic neighbour, who has had an operation on his wrist and so can't do anything on his allotment this year. She's offered to help him out, and he's accepted gladly, giving her a free hand to do what she likes with it this year; she has even suggested putting a shed at the far end and having a small lawn.
It must be a great load off his mind that someone will look after his plot for this season, so he can return next year to something cultivated and not lose his tenancy. But I can't help wondering if he really expected her to clear everything off the plot and put down weedkiller? The old slow worm patch is looking very browned off this week, despite the plentiful rain over the weekend.


Jo said...

Oh dear. This is the problem when you give someone a free hand to do what they like. Perhaps he didn't think she would take it so literally. I hope he can restore it to how he wants when he gets back.

Scattered Gardener said...

Dear Jo, thank you for reading through the whole thing. Became something of meditation on things passing, which I hadn't intended when I started it!
A friend, another organic gardener, said the whole plot would need cleaning up with a green manure crop in order to begin to get it back to health. On the plus side, nature is very forgiving - one tenant drenched his plot with jeyes fluid to get rid of weeds, little of anything grew the following year, but the next tenant has restored it to health and productivity over the last two seasons.

NellJean said...

There's just something about cleaning up somebody else's 'clutter' that brings out the urge to clear everything for some of us. I hope she's not destroyed anything that he cannot rebuild. Maybe he wanted a new start and knew her well enough to know what to expect.

You asked me about purple Datura -- Thompson and Morgan have the seeds. They're called 'Blackberry Swirl' or something like that. I grow new ones every year, cold kills the plants to the ground where they may or may not return in a warm climate.

ReapWhatYouGrow said...

Crikey. The dangers of letting someone have a free hand! Thanks for writing it all, I really enjoyed reading all the comings and goings of your fellow plot holders.

My neighbour let someone look after her garden while she was away looking after her very ill mum. She got back and all the plants had been savaged. The lady said "I have tidied it all up for you". This included a huge grass that was really the whole centrepiece of a very small garden! She is really upset, so I hope your neighbour isn't ....