Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Anna and Frank (Nos. 369 & 370)

This is the old Italian couple I've mentioned before, Anna and Frank. Their daughter, Cathy, has plot no. 40.

More on exchange

I was digging away quite merrily on the Salvation Army allotment yesterday, when I heard Franco let himself in with an annoyed clang of the chains on the gates. He hates the fact that we are now supposed to lock the gates, and as I'd just locked them for the second time after they'd been left open, when he called me over, I thought he was annoyed with me.

"Young lady, young lady!" he called, "I don't know your name..."

I told him. "Maria?" he said.

I corrected him, for what it was worth - not a lot where my name is concerned - I shall probably be Maria now for the rest of my life with him, but I have been called worse - far worse.

He pointed to a pile of brown twigs on the path. I've got used to our mutual path being littered with planks, plastic bags, tubs full of water, weeds, and recently, even an old car mat.

But he explained that the twigs were the tops of his perpetual spinach plants which he had allowed to flower and set seed and dry out, and he was now offering to let me help myself to whatever I needed for the following year. "Sow them in April," he said, "no earlier."

I thanked him very much, and helped myself, resolving in future to save more of my seeds, like the Italians do. After all, why pay more?

Exchange and the Gift economy

The concept of exchange is, of course, vital in Social Anthropology. The Gift economy is rife in allotment society.

Here's one example from yesterday alone:

Joan told me that Big John (No. 79) had done some work on their front door for them - the paint had peeled off or something, and Big John had touched it up for them, but wouldn't even accept any payment for the paint he had bought and used. They had bought him a litre of whisky for doing it. But John had done a lot of digging on Big John's allotment while the latter was away (partly because he's done all his winter digging and was at a loose end), so it seemed a fair exchange to me. However, in the spirit of Mauss's The Gift, the bottle of whisky represents the bigger gift topping the last one, which leaves the recipient happily indebted to the giver, and thus perpetuates the cycle of gift-giving. That's in Social Anthropological terms - in human terms, all it means is that John and Joan were more than grateful to Big John for his generosity, and wanted to show him their appreciation.

Joan (No. 78)

I just had to take this picture of Joan as she came out to dig some carrots for tea.

She was wearing this rather beautiful, Edwardian style blue coat that looked like something Vita Sackville-West might have worn. She definitely knows how to garden in style.

Joan and John have the plot next to the Salvation Army allotment, and it backs on to their house, so it's very convenient for John to pop out and do a bit of work a few times a day.

Connie (No. 52)

Connie and her husband (?) work the allotment next to the little Italian lady's. Angelina has complained about "the man" before, because his allotment edges were "dirty". When I took this photo, he was watching suspiciously from behind the runner beans.

Hazel (Plots 54 & 55)

Hazel is indefatigable. She has two plots, which are prodigious producers. When I caught sight of Hazel yesterday, she had an armful of corn cobs that any supermarked would be proud of. I was talking to her partner a few days ago, and she said that when they lived in Sussex (?), she had three.

She's an active member of SALGA, the allotment society, but tells me they don't discuss allotment politics, which is why I haven't bothered to join. They really need an allotment society which has teeth as far as the Council is concerned. Maybe I ought to join in order to make it more political, but there are only so many hours in the day.

I saw her at the Flower and Produce show. She was serving the teas, and I bought an absolutely unforgettable piece of strawberry sponge from her.

Sylvia and Reg (No.350)

Sylvia and Reg have been on their plot about five years.

The Project

I want this blog to form part of a Social Anthropology study of Pickard's Field allotments. The blog would therefore be the fieldwork notebook.

Last week, I started writing down who's who on each allotment. Now, I want to photograph each allotment holder with his/her/their allotment. This requires a bit of nerve, because I have to go and ask total strangers if I can take their photo.

Of course, that's not all this project is. As an artist, I want to take high-quality photographs of what I see, and also I ought (terrible word) to draw what I see down there.

The blog is also a receptacle for what I learn about gardening. I'm learning all the time, from my own experience, and from the advice given me from other allotmenteers. The fact that half the allotment-holders were born and raised in Italy and their roots go back to peasant farming in Calabria sometimes before WW2 is a gift. Virgil, another Italian, wrote his Georgics as a treatise on farming, but, like him, I don't just want to write a dry old tome: the allotments are an endless source of stories, and I want reading about them to be a pleasure.

Monday, 29 September 2008

The Bramble Patch (No. 71)

I talked to Nobby on Saturday about my plans for the Cat allotment, and he let me take a photo of him for my blog.

His plot is no. 71. He said when he got it a couple of years ago, half of it was covered with brambles, hence its name, "The Bramble Patch". He told me the roots were brown and stringy like those I'm finding on my allotment (but not the same), and turned black when dug up. I'm considering putting weedkiller on mine over the winter. I want to find out the name of the weedkiller Lawrence D. Hills used to recommend, which breaks down in the soil in about six weeks. I think it was called ammonium sulphamate. I don't want to use one that'll linger for years. It will be expensive to do the whole plot, but worth it, I think. Save me months of backbreaking work.

A cat on the allotment

Just about to go down the allotment. We have been promised rain and wind tomorrow, so I want to get a bit more digging in while I can.

On Saturday, the weather was beautiful, and I got a lot of digging done. A kitten wandered on to the allotments and played for a while. Her name was Lucy. Much as I'd love to have a cat, I'm still determined to spend several weeks in France and Italy as soon as I can afford it, so it's not a possibility.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Italian lessons

After last night's Italian class, I was determined to start speaking Italian to the Italians on the allotment, and saw a likely suspect as soon as I arrived. "Ciao!" I said. "Va bene?" I explained I was learning Italian and wanted to practise, and it was like magic! I asked him most of the questions I'd set myself to ask, like "Come ti chiami?" and "Come si scrive, il tuo cognome?" He said "Francesco Marzo" (or that's what it sounded like), but when I asked him to spell his surname, it only had three letters, which I think were MNO. Francesco is the allotment lech - he always kisses me when he sees me. He has a wife, but that doesn't deter him. He asked me if I wanted him to give me Italian lessons, and wanted to know where I lived.

Later, I tried talking to the little Italian lady in Italian, but she resolutely answered me in her usual fairly incomprehensible English. I found out her name though: Angelina. She said she was 72 and had been in England 42 years. Her husband was dead and her son was in Spain (she seemed to grimace at the mention of her son, as if he was no good, and having seen him, I wouldn't be surprised).

Francesco's Italian was very different from that of either of my teachers. But I could understand about half of it. God knows what he thought of mine. I'm just hoping to keep him at arm's length now.

The Tomato King

Joe was collecting tomatoes, and I asked if I could photograph him (he gave me the tomatoes he is holding in the photograph). He said there had been a frost five days ago and it had killed all his plants. I hadn't noticed a frost, but there had been a terrible fog recently, so I suppose it was cold enough to kill his tomato plants - Joe called it "that bloody cloud!" I thought his plants were all brown because of blight, but no, that makes them black. He was still picking the tomatoes though, and said they would continue to ripen. But he hadn't got many bottles of tomatoes this year - about 40 compared with the usual 500 or so. He said 1964 had been his best year, when he'd sold boxes and boxes of tomatoes to the Indian shop for £2 a go. That was on his old allotment though, which had much better soil.


I went down the allotment after six tonight to light a couple of bonfires, one on each allotment. I lit the one in Blue's dustbin on the SA allotment, and it burned everything cleanly really quickly, and was really hot. As I was doing so, Franco came and lit a fire at the top of his allotment, and went home, leaving it blazing away like mad.

When mine had died down a bit, I went to the Cat allotment, and set fire to the pile of grape boxes down there, hoping to burn off some of the weeds. A police helicopter arrived and hovered overhead. Everyone said, oh, no they're looking for someone, but I reckon they were filming all the bonfires, because everyone else seemed to have the idea as me, and had come down on a fine evening to burn their rubbish.

My fire got a bit out of hand, because the tractor had mown the grass, and it was spreading through the grass. I went back to the SA shed to get a spade to put it out with. Someone had left the gate open, and a group of kids on bikes poured in and started milling about. They said the helicopter was watching the fires. One also told me that his mum had said that there was a pervert about, driving a green car, wearing nothing below the waist. I couldn't help laughing, which I don't think was the reaction he was hoping for.

I left the miserable Italian to get rid of them, and went back to the Cat allotment, where my fire had died down a bit. Joe was adding more weeds to his fire, and a man from the houses had come out and built a fire which was going well. The police helicopter was still circling overhead.

How to eat artichokes

Yesterday evening, at my Italian class, I told my teacher about Angelo giving me some artichoke plants, and she told me how the Italians eat them. She says you have to hold it in one hand throughout, and not touch the heart, because that will make it bitter. You peel off the "scales" and dip them in olive oil and eat them raw! Then the heart, and then the stem! She said the stem is very sweet.

I've only ever had tinned artichoke hearts. The first time I ate artichokes was during my first aeroplane flight, when I was flying Air France back to Nice for my second term there, when I was at University studying French. I remember being amazed at the luxury of being given artichokes for my in-flight meal.


I was doing my regulation digging yesterday, when Angelo came and gave me a bundle of artichoke plants. He said, "Plant them now, or if you don't, put them in water overnight." He wanted me to plant them along the outer edge of my allotment, but I said, no, it's not clean yet. They grow like weeds along the other edge, in his brother, Joe's plot, and other Italians have them too.

I was delighted with this gift. Either Angelo or Joe had promised me some artichoke plants some time ago, but I'd never got them till now. I suppose Angelo must have been thinning them out: he said they don't produce heads unless they are far enough apart, and I haven't seen any heads on the ones at the edge of my plot.

Anyway, I thought I'd plant them on the Salvation Army allotment for the time being, and went straight up there, knackered as I was, and put five in along the edge. As I was passing, Joe passed, and he said, "Oh, you take artichoke plants from my brother, eh, but not from me! If you want any more, just say." After I'd planted those six, I decided to call it a day, and brought the rest home, and put them in a watering can full of water overnight.

Today, I thought I'd plant one in the little plot outside my front door - they are very ornamental when they grow big and produce heads. More than one would swamp the plot, so I took the rest back to the SA allotment, and started clearing the space between the strawberries and the tarpaulin they've put down. Officially, my half of the plot ends between the two rows of strawberries, but as they left that scrap to go wild, and didn't even eat the strawberries or the broad beans that I so kindly donated to them, I am taking it back, and planting a hedge of artichokes between us. (They'll probably dig them up, out of ignorance).

"Go and photograph that man!"

The trouble with not writing your blog every day is that you forget what happened even a couple of days ago. All I remember about the 24th was doing my two rows' digging, then on my way home, chasing round the allotments, photographing everything I set eyes on - including the grape boxes and grape must in the Italians' compost bins - and for the simple joy of having my camera back.

I tried to photograph the little Italian lady, but although she would have made a beautiful photo, she wouldn't let me (this was after a very long conversation full of ma's and sempre's about the fact that the council hadn't "cleaned" the allotment next to hers, which she is constantly complaining about, because the weeds and slugs invade hers). She told me to "go and photograph that man" instead, so I did.

Red Cabbage

The red cabbage, as I said, looks exquisite, especially when you slice through it and expose the inside. However, it's a different matter when you come to cook it. Or, should I say, it still looks beautiful - all mauves, sea-greens and blues - but you hardly want to eat the stuff. I've been eating it, however, and it tastes exactly the same as green cabbage, it just looks really weird on the plate.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

...and rain stopped play.

The rain has come back - sort of mizzly, damp rain, no good for anything. It started just after I'd left home (just after I'd put my pyjamas on the line, in fact), and by the time I got to the allotment, it was getting through my trousers, and the only people down there (the old Italian couple) were moving off home. He was carrying a sack full of produce, she was pushing the big red rotovator. I offered to help, but she said no.

So all I've done today is cut a red cabbage for my dinner. It is my only red cabbage, and was a cuckoo in the nest of a packet of Greyhound cabbage seeds. It is perfectly beautiful, and deserves to be eaten in a red cabbage salad or cole slaw, but I shall boil it to go with my chicken and Salvation Army potatoes.

At least I've got my camera back now from the mender's, so I can accompany my scrawlings with photographs.

Monday, 22 September 2008

No wonder the Russians worship tractors!

Today a man came from the council with a tractor and scraped the top off several of the derelict allotments. I spotted him from a distance, and when I caught up with him, asked him if he'd skim mine. He obliged, saving me months of hard work.

I had just enough time before the tractor arrived to clear the boxes off the grass at the top and remove the carpet strips Joe had placed in between our allotments to prevent my weeds invading his plot. I found slow worms under some - tiny, bronze things, not frightening at all, but exquisitely beautiful. I had piled all the weeds I meant to burn into one of the grape boxes, and was on my way to the SA allotment, having chucked all the other boxes on to the uncultivated head of the neighbouring allotment. I was just digging up some more of the Salvation Army's potatoes, when I heard a loud graunching sound, as the tractor scraped the top off the grass piece at the top. He came back again and again, scraping the rest of the plot down to the bare soil. The noise was horrendous.

When he had finished I went and had a look. It was miraculous. Apart from the top end, it was flat as a pancake, and I could see what looked like soil for the first time. I might attempt to rotovate this middle bit. The top bit, which I hadn't envisaged starting work on until 2010 was revealed like a shaven head, covered in lumps and bumps. I shall dig that bit first. It adds nearly half an allotment on to the top of what had already been worked recently, and because the plot is much wider than the SA allotment, is at least half as big again. Plenty enough to feed me in the years to come.

I dragged the carpet pieces over to add to the giant pile of debris the tractor had scooped up and dumped on one of the cleared plots. After running to and fro about six times, I chucked the boxes back on to my allotment just before the rain began to fall. After a week without rain, here we go again! Sempre rain!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Firewood and harvest festivals

Italian John gave me some wood to light my fires with - about fifty empty grape boxes. He'd brought them down on a wheelbarrow and offered me a few as I passed. He ended up tipping them all on the end of my allotment. He said he had another "lorry"-load (i.e. barrow). He said, if I burnt them there they would kill the grass. It's a thought. I meant to go back down tonight to build a couple of fires, mainly to kill that vicious weed I'm digging up. It's not Japanese Knotweed, but it ought to be classed as invasive.

I cut the runner beans down today. It's always sad when you do that - it marks the end of summer. No more beans till next year.

Something Understood on Radio Four this morning was all about Harvest Festivals. I used to love the Harvest Festival when I was a kid. The front of the church was piled high with vegetables, mainly marrows. My mum only ever donated tins of beans, which I was rather ashamed of - I wished I could bring huge marrows into school. After the service, we used to go round all the pensioners' houses with baskets of veg (imagine them letting little girls do that now!).

I don't agree with Mark Tully that we should recognise the hand of God in all this (or whatever he said); but Nature is powerful, and land pretty soon reverts to Nature if left untended. We should be grateful for what we can eke from our plots in the face of constant onslaughts by slugs, caterpillars, and vicious weeds: it is a precarious way of ensuring I have enough to eat, dependent on the goodwill of the council and on a constant battle with disease and wildlife. I'm grateful. I can sing the hymns in the spirit of them without having to believe in God.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Winter vegetables

All the tomatoes that I brought home have succumbed to blight, and I'm going to have to throw them in the dustbin. I don't know whether Joe ever did spray my broccoli, but not a caterpillar remains. We are now crossing over into winter, and I shall have to get used to puritan vegetables like cabbage. But the rows of Italian varieties of lettuce given me by Joe are flourishing, and look very pretty, especially the scariole, though I had to go and buy a canister of slug pellets, since the slugs have already taken a fancy to them. I bought some garlic (three bulbs from Sainsbury's cost 89p) and planted two rows. The Italians plant around ten rows, and I think I will plant more, because the six or seven bulbs I grew last year were infinitely superior to the dried out old stuff you buy in the shops.

I must confess I have started digging up the potatoes on the Salvation Army's half of the allotment. This is because they haven't been down for five or six weeks and I can't bear to see good food go to waste. The spuds are big and cook well, but I got my come-uppance last night when I was peeling one and out of a slug hole wriggled a 3-cm centipede. I ran outside screaming, and cut out the offending portion of potato over my lawn.

Bonfires and pay dirt

Still keeping up with my regulation digging of two rows per day. Am finding some horrible weed, like a monstrous version of couch grass, but the roots are brown and like string, and the knots of grass that spring from the nodes coarser than couch. I'm getting closer to the middle, which was cultivated last year, and there the soil is blacker and marginally softer. You could say I'm hitting pay dirt. In the rest, both grey and yellow clay lie less than six inches below the surface ("Too heavy," said a passing Italian), so I am digging in all manner of organic matter, including the grass clippings from the path which my neighbours, the Adver couple, had conveniently mowed yesterday.

I've been putting the roots of this vicious weed on the pile ready to be burnt, and yesterday evening I went down and lit two bonfires. You have to go down after six to do that, and a couple of others were doing the same. Jack had brought wood and paraffin to get his going, and was burning his potato haulms. I told him paraffin was cheating, and lit both mine with just paper. The one on the Cat allotment burned like wildfire - it was mainly dried grass - and I had to stand well back as the flames leapt into the air. It was over in minutes. The other, on the SA allotment, was an attempt to burn a collection of old brussels sprouts stalks and diseased tomato haulms in an old dustbin that Blue had joyously knocked holes in when he found it. The fire took ages and a whole issue of the Adver, complete with photos of Billie Piper, to get going, and then it petered out after a short while. "Too wet," said a passing Italian.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The history of the Cat allotment

As soon as I got to my allotment today, Franco grilled me about my discussion with the Allotment Officer yesterday. I wasn't able to tell him much - when I tried to remember what she'd said about the track (Franco's particular concern), I could only tell him that she intended to get it done, but that she wanted to put down recycled road grit or something or other, not normal gravel, and was having problems getting the contractors to get a move on. He said philosophically, "Ah well, we see!"

After digging a parsnip to go with my roast chicken tonight, and picking the few remaining runner beans, I went to do some digging on the Cat allotment. While I was there, a man with white hair came past. He and his family had been clearing their allotments, which are between Nobby's and Simon's. I think he might be the owner of the rotovator, but I'm not sure. He was English, but his family seem to be Italian. Either that or I'm mixing up the two allotments.

He saw me digging and said he usually hoes it right down first. I thought about this, and said I'd already scythed it and didn't have a suitable hoe - you would need an Italian hoe for that (which I found out last year is called a zappa). When he had gone, I thought about it further and thought, what's the point of wasting all that energy hoeing the whole allotment, when you're going to bury the turf anyway, so that the worms will take care of it? And it will give them something to eat?

The old couple passed by as I was digging too. She first, limping. She said in broken English that an Italian had had the allotment before me, but he had been paralysed and was confined to a chair and had had to go back to live in Italy. An English man had had it after him, but he didn't do very much, then he gave up.

A few minutes later, the man came past, laboriously pushing his red rotovator, which he had just used to turn over the soil where his ill-fated tomatoes had been. He was stopping every fifteen paces to rest, and I felt like giving him a hand, but I thought better of it. He stopped and stared for awhile, considering. "Ver' heavy," he said, then after another longish pause, said the English man who had had it before me didn't dig it deep enough - less than 6 inches deep, I gathered from his gestures. "No good, no deep enough". I said something about the clay I was finding less than 6 inches beneath the surface, and after another considered silence, he said, "Ah well, don't knock yourself out," and went on his way.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Allotment Officer's visit

Just after Manger had left, I looked up and saw two women walking along the track. I guessed immediately who one of them must be, and I was right - it was Emma, the Allotment Officer. Hah! I thought, now's my chance to bring up all my"issues" with her.

She is very nice, Emma, but she is trying to do a full-time job on a part-time basis, and is also having to contend with sluggardly contractors. She told me the number of allotmenteers she had to deal with - I forget the figure - but even so, that's no excuse for ignoring the majority of my emails and phone-calls. I did get my new allotment eventually, after bombarding her with communications, but it took me months, and was very frustrating.

It was interesting to hear her tell it from her side though - of the difficulties she's having trying to do her job. I believe she is sincere, but as she admitted herself, maybe too nice - maybe she isn't being forceful enough.

She said the Cat allotment was definitely mine now, but that she would send me a copy of the form I filled in, plus a copy of the regulations (at the moment, I don't have a contract or a copy of the rules). Her companion, whose name I forget, said she was the Allotment rep, but I've never seen her before. She has an allotment way down on the other side. She tried to tell me how to clear my allotment, assuming of course that I was a raw beginner, and she was sooooo experienced after three years on the site (I bet she's got raised beds - she looked the type). So anyway, I had to show them my other allotment, and as I did, I took the opportunity to complain about the Salvation Army's neglect and ask Emma if anything could be done about it.

Emma said there might be - she would try. They are dividing all the vacant plots in half to deal with the waiting list, and she said she could divide this plot in half, and then maybe I could have the half I'm working at the moment, and she could threaten them with eviction for non-cultivation. It was all very vague, and left me hoping for something I'd given up hoping for - that one day that plot would be mine, and I wouldn't have to start all over again on another plot from scratch. When I told John, though, he said, "We've heard it all before though." And although Emma hasn't offered to do anything before, because she's relatively new in the job, and didn't really know about the situation till I told her about it in one of my innumerable emails a month or two ago, I find it hard to hope that she will find the time to sort out the situation. But she had noticed the state of the top half of the plot before I showed her it, so there is hope that it's registered with her and something may come of this meeting. I know what she's up against, though - not just the Salvation Army Enterprise Officer refusing to admit defeat, but other Salvationists wanting to turn it into raised beds (aaargh, not the dreaded raised beds! Lord preserve my allotment from raised beds!)

Garlic and wine

The Italians are planting their garlic, so I must buy some to plant this weekend. They have also brought their grape boxes down and are burning them.

Every year, they get a consignment of grapes from Italy and make their own wine from them. I was there once in Beatrice Street when the lorry arrived in the middle of the night - out of the doorways came dozens of Italians to unload and take the boxes of grapes back indoors.

I'd like to see how they make the wine - it's very simple, I think, no fancy equipment or ingredients like I used to use when I made wine. I have tasted their wine, and it is gorgeous - very sweet like Marsala, which of course is virtually what it is.


I was digging on the Cat allotment today, when Manger walked past (that's not as in little baby Jesus, but with a hard 'g', and a definite 'r' on the end). He commented on me digging, and as he works for Parks & Gardens, I said, "Why don't one of your lot come down and rotovate it for me then?" He replied that they don't do it any more - rotovate allotments. They used to, a few years back, but now they only put down weedkiller - Round-up. I don't really want Round-up on my allotment. I said someone had offered to lend me their rotovator, and he said, "Ah, you won't rotovate that. You'd need a tractor plough to turn that over!" (I'm doing the work of a plough, I thought). I was glad he'd said that though, because it was what I'd just been thinking anyway, and although [Noddy] had said he'd bring the key to the shed down later on so I could have a go with the rotovator, I had no great hopes of being able to achieve anything.

Manger stopped long enough to discuss his abundance of runner beans. Mine have all but finished - maybe I sowed them too early, or maybe his garden is more sheltered than the allotment, and better protected from the rain. Because it was about three or four weeks ago, when the rain set in in earnest, that bean production fell off. I'd just - like him - been cursing the fact that I had too many beans to deal with myself, but now I wish I had more, because now it's back to brassicas until next July, when the broad beans become available.

Sempre rain

Joe turned up while I was digging the Cat allotment, and I asked him what he thought about the idea of rotovating it. He said he didnt't think it was too wet, and that I should have a go. Joe - who lent me the sickle and told me how to slash-and-burn - is my mentor now - I will do whatever he tells me.

His tomatoes were suffering. He showed me some that were turning black, but he was picking all the ripe ones, to take home to bottle. He has dozens of rows of tomatoes which he bottles every year. He says he has a special machine to pulp them and strain them once they are boiled, then he puts a basil leaf in each jar and seals it, and he has beautiful tomatoes for the rest of the year. He says they are much sweeter than tinned tomatoes. (Most tinned tomatoes have citric acid in nowadays, which makes them sharp - I always try to find tinned tomatoes without it in, but it's not easy).

I dug my regulation two rows, then went back to my other allotment, and did a bit of digging there too. I dug in the leeks I had sown and planted out too early - they had succumbed to some kind of creature or rust, and the leaves were rotting. Fortunately, Big John gave me some of his plants about a month ago, so I have a couple of rows back-up.

On my way home, the little Italian lady asked me what time it was. "Just gone five," I said, "cinque". She smiled at my feeble attempt to speak her language. Herself, she speaks hardly any English, and you can pick out the odd word like "rain" amongst all the mas, and sempres. "Sempre rain" is what she usually says. I like her though - she is my favourite. I would like one day to be able to say more than one word in Italian to her. I'm starting my second year of Italian classes on Thursday, so this year I might pluck up enough courage to do so.

The Cat allotment

I won't go into how long it took me to get my own allotment, nor what methods I had to resort to to actually get through to the Allotments Officer, because I haven't got all day. But now, as far as I know (she hasn't sent me a contract yet, or a bill), no. 59 is mine.

The least worst option - it has been cultivated within the past two years, unlike the other 20 allotments she said were available - it is still completely overgrown, and the surface has hardened, so it needs turning over before you can do anything with it.

I call it the Cat allotment because I found a dead cat on it; also because a previous owner has written his name on the shed, and it looks like "Mr. Cat", although I think it actually says "Mr Capart". There is solid clay only six inches below the surface, which now I have started digging it, is beginning to come up on the spade.

Joe on the next allotment (Angelo's brother), saw me struggling to pull up the weeds when I first moved on to the plot about a month ago, and lent me his scythe. I felt like a true Italian then, or a Linearbandkeramik farmer arriving in my new piece of virgin land and having to clear it by slashing and burning. I slashed and burned for about seven days in all, building three or four bonfires per day, as instructed by Joe. To my surprise, no-one complained, not the Advertiser couple on the next allotment, who seemed to be very middle-class and whom I assumed would have heard that bonfires are not good for the planet, nor the Family from Hell, who live across the fence.

It's a good time to get an allotment, because the weeds are dying back. Had I cleared this in the Spring, I would have to clear it again and again throughout the summer as my digging progressed. But now I'm confident that I won't have to do much more slashing and burning. I've just set myself the goal of digging two rows per day, merely turning it over, and digging in whatever organic material comes to hand - spent spinach plants from my other allotment, mown grass from outside my flat, discarded bolted radish plants from the next-door allotment - anything to bulk up the soil.

The rough spadefulls of turned-over earth will lie there till next spring, the winter rain and frost doing its work of softening them, the turf rotting and being turned in by the worms, till in February or March, I can begin to dig it over again, this time taking out the worst of the weed roots. Of course, if I can rotovate the plot now, so much the better - it will save me six months' initial breaking of new ground. But I don't really mind if I have to dig the lot. Digging is ideal for working off any anxieties as well as the extra pounds: it's what keeps me relatively mentally and physically fit. Though, by Jove, I know it the next day if I overdo it!


Well, I've successfully wasted two hours writing my new blog, when I should have been doing something else. It's now 11 o'clock, and only one hour to go till lunch, so I may as well continue, since I want to finish writing about yesterday before I go down the allotment today.

I made my way to the Cat allotment, but not before two more Italians had passed me on their way home, and had commented on the state of my "broccoli" (brussels sprouts and purple sprouting). "Have you sprayed them?" asked one (I think he is called John, for Giovanni). "Um, no," I said - I had in fact tried spraying them much too late with diluted Fairy Liquid, but it didn't touch the beasties, which just crawled away from the wet parts as quickly as their stumpy little legs would let them, then settled down happily to munch away on the parts I hadn't sprayed. I didn't want to admit that I couldn't afford to buy the soft soap I needed to spray them with, so I said I had picked all the caterpillars off. I had, and had done a good job, but already I had spotted about 8 which had escaped my purge.

"Oh, don't worry," said the other Italian, after exchanging a few words in his own language with his companion. "I'll spray them for you tomorrow morning."

I thanked him, somewhat moved by this gesture, and turned away to get my spade. I like to think of myself as an organic gardener, but this is the second year in a row that another allotmenteer has offered to spray my brassicas for me, with goodness knows what chemical. Last year it was Andy, the policeman, who lent me his sprayer - that time, it was whitefly, which were at least kept down for the rest of the year. This time, although there are clouds of whitefly, it is the caterpillars that are plaguing everybody's greens. They seem to love the wet, cool weather we've had for the whole of July and August, and have arrived in plague proportions. The leaves of my plants are in ribbons, despite having covered the plants with netting. I have watched the butterflies go through the mesh - their wings actually bend like cloth - you wouldn't think it - but their urge to survive is much stronger than a piddling bit of plastic mesh, only £3.50 from Wilkinson. I should have gone for the much more expensive netting available in the allotment shop.

The Salvation Army allotment

I was just picking the few runner beans that remained, when the old Italian couple passed by. I hadn't seen them for a couple of weeks, and had noticed that their allotment was getting overgrown, and I had been worried that one of them might be ill - the woman has a bad limp and walks with a stick.

Oh no, they said, they'd been on holiday. "To Italy - to my country," said the old man. Of course, I thought, why didn't I think of that? Although I got the impression that most of them went to Italy in November, after work on the allotments was finished for the year. They were both okay, but they were upset about the fact they'd lost nearly all their tomatoes to blight. "You go away for two days..." he said, and she added, "Waste of time! Complete waste of time!"

I looked at my tomatoes, and saw that the blight had so engulfed them within the last week that there was no option but to pull them up and bring home what green tomatoes remained untouched. They would succumb to the blight indoors, but some might ripen before that. (I meant to go back down after six pm and burn the haulms, but I got distracted).

John came out from his house while I was doing this, and began to dig over his runner bean patch. He grows his runners in the same place every year, and has metal posts driven into the ground on which he mounts the frame for bean sticks. He digs with a long handled fork, and seems to dig with ease, despite his 80+ years. "Occupational therapy, I calls it," he began, and we had a little chat as I was pulling up the last of my tomatoes.

"What are they doing up the end?" he asked. He meant the other half of my allotment - for it isn't mine, but belongs to the Salvation Army."What are they doing up the end?" he asked. He meant the other half of my allotment - for it isn't really mine, but belongs to the Salvation Army. I lived in the Salvation Army hostel up until April last year, and I took on the allotment, which was neglected in the January of that year. I'd got three-quarters of it up together, when they decided to try to make their residents work for their keep, and took back half the allotment this Spring.

It was disastrous. Their half is now in a worse state than when I handed it over to them. I had half of it clean of weed roots and I had dug the other half over three times. They must have been down about a dozen times, no more, over the course of the summer, with only one or two of the same people coming more than once, and they hadn't a clue. One lot would decide to dig it over, and they did this a further three times, not bothering to bend down and take out a single bindweed or couch grass root, so they just grew back. They planted a few rows of this and that, but it all failed through lack of attention. The residents weren't allowed to make any decisions, so had no real motivation to care about what happened. Things were sown or planted too late (including two rows of potatoes in August, would you believe!). And they didn't even bother harvesting anything: I had donated one row of strawberries, the two rows I had planted last year marking the dividing line between the two halves of the plot - but they didn't even bother eating them, and now their potatoes are being eaten by the slugs.

I told John I hadn't seen anyone on the plot for five or six weeks. He seems to think they'll see sense sooner or later and hand it over to me, but I don't think that'll happen any time soon. I know how things work up there. I know the Enterprise Officer, and I've emailed her in the past on the subject. She is obstinate that they will make a go of it. Hah! But I think she's beginning to see what she's taken on in the job now, and is beginning to have her doubts. Because every time she gets a resident who shows any interest and learns anything, they leave: that's in the nature of things - the best ones are the first to leave. It's only the real dossers or the hopeless alcoholics who stay there for years.

Anyway, we both sighed and threw up our hands, and I returned to my tomatoes, thinking, il faut cultiver notre jardin, and when they were done, decamped to the Cat allotment to dig my regulation two rows for the day.

Walking along the track...

I had spoken to three people before I reached my allotment yesterday.

Angelo stopped while pushing his bike towards his allotment to comment on the fact that it was dry for the first time in weeks. He said a few more days like this would do his tomatoes good. They are hanging on by the skin of their skins - resisting the blight which has finished mine off, and is wreaking havoc amongst everyone else's, including those of the most expert Italian tomato growers on the site - resisting it by dint of three sprayings of "green stuff" brought back from Italy (presumably Bordeaux mixture), and by each individual plant having been wrapped in clear polythene. Still, black patches are appearing...

I stopped to speak to Jack to ask about the rotovator. He said it wasn't his, but Frank's, the old man on the next allotment. I couldn't picture Frank, but I'm sure I know him by sight. Anyway, Big John (as opposed to the other John, who is my neighbour on the Salvation Army allotment) phoned Frank for me on Friday and asked if he would let me use his rotovator to break up my new allotment, the Cat allotment, and as Frank had said yes, I needed to thank Frank. So, thinking that Jack might be Frank, I had to go up to him and broach the subject.

He wasn't Frank, but he stopped digging his potatoes for a few minutes to discuss the subject of rotovating with me. He has a key to Big John's shed, where the rotovator is stored, and he said he would bring it down next time he came, and I could have a go. He would show me how to start it. I don't even know if it's got any petrol in it. Even though he's pretty hefty (he was digging with his shirt off, and I could see he was no weakling), he said whenever he used the rotovator, it ran away with him. It's a knack, apparently. We agreed my plot might be a bit wet after weeks and weeks of rain, but there's only one way to find out.

There seems to be a tacit club using this rotovator, whose existence I hadn't suspected. I know the Italians gang together to share their rotovators, but I had no inkling of an English-owned rotovator in such close proximity to me (Big John's allotment is the other side of other John's, two down from me). Well, you don't want to boast about the fact you've got an expensive piece of machinery in your shed when there have been thefts from the allotments. But to be invited into this club was an honour - it meant that after two seasons on the site, I was becoming accepted.

The third person I spoke to was Franco, who has the plot the other side of mine. He'd told me before the weekend that They (i.e. the Council) were going to bring some gravel down on Monday morning at 9 o' clock to mend the track. I'd said at the time I'd believe it when I saw it, and it hadn't transpired: the track at the bottom of our plots is still riddled with puddles and slimy with mud. He said he would phone them up again, but "you have to phone them between 9 and five past nine in the morning, because that's the only time they're there." Having tried to contact the Allotments Officer many times, I know he's not joking.

Virgil's Georgics Book IV

And I myself, were I not even now Furling my sails, and, nigh the journey's end, Eager to turn my vessel's prow to shore, Perchance would sing what careful husbandry Makes the trim garden smile; of Paestum too, Whose roses bloom and fade and bloom again; How endives glory in the streams they drink, And green banks in their parsley, and how the gourd Twists through the grass and rounds him to paunch; Nor of Narcissus had my lips been dumb, That loiterer of the flowers, nor supple-stemmed Acanthus, with the praise of ivies pale, And myrtles clinging to the shores they love. For 'neath the shade of tall Oebalia's towers, Where dark Galaesus laves the yellowing fields, An old man once I mind me to have seen- From Corycus he came- to whom had fallen Some few poor acres of neglected land, And they nor fruitful' neath the plodding steer, Meet for the grazing herd, nor good for vines. Yet he, the while his meagre garden-herbs Among the thorns he planted, and all round White lilies, vervains, and lean poppy set, In pride of spirit matched the wealth of kings, And home returning not till night was late, With unbought plenty heaped his board on high. He was the first to cull the rose in spring, He the ripe fruits in autumn; and ere yet Winter had ceased in sullen ire to rive The rocks with frost, and with her icy bit Curb in the running waters, there was he Plucking the rathe faint hyacinth, while he chid Summer's slow footsteps and the lagging West. Therefore he too with earliest brooding bees And their full swarms o'erflowed, and first was he To press the bubbling honey from the comb; Lime-trees were his, and many a branching pine; And all the fruits wherewith in early bloom The orchard-tree had clothed her, in full tale Hung there, by mellowing autumn perfected. He too transplanted tall-grown elms a-row, Time-toughened pear, thorns bursting with the plum And plane now yielding serviceable shade For dry lips to drink under: but these things, Shut off by rigorous limits, I pass by, And leave for others to sing after me. http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/georgics.4.iv.html