It was around late April of 2008, I’d moved to the tiny city of Ely from nearby Cambridge, 6 months before. My new house – a classic Victorian terraced cottage – had a long and narrow strip of garden at the back. Compared to other houses I had viewed (being near the city centre) it was quite substantial, and definitely the selling point for me, but it wasn’t big enough for growing fruit and vegetables, at least not on the scale I wanted to. I’d had a couple of small raised beds in my Cambridge garden, and had been firmly bitten by the bug of growing food. Now I wanted more. I didn’t want to grow potatoes in large pots or bags, I wanted long rows of them, neatly earthed up. I didn’t want a few heads of garlic, I wanted to make long plaited strings of them. I wanted enough fruit trees and bushes to make my own jam, and enough space for tall spires of sweetcorn and for courgettes and squash plants to sprawl themselves out.
So I put an enquiry in for a vacant allotment, and received an enthusiastic reply, asking when I’d be free to view what was available. Somehow I’d imagined I’d have to join a waiting list, as allotments were just starting to become popular and quite sought after in Cambridge, but Ely wasn’t quite there yet, and the site I arrived at had only a small number of plots being actively cultivated. The site was in danger of being lost to the adjacent cemetery who were keen to expand, so I was almost pleaded with to take on a plot. As I stood on the central path looking down the full 50m length of a plot, which was covered in couch grass and bindweed, but was the best option for it’s rhubarb patch, I felt an enormous sense of trepidation. It was bigger than any garden I’d ever had, could I manage it? Was I biting off more than I could chew? Do I really get ALL of this? But taking a half plot wasn’t an option back then. A set of keys were swiftly produced, and I was cajoled (very nicely) into accepting them, so that my name could be added to the list and I was committed. To be fair, it was a nudge that I needed.
For a while, I procrastinated. I didn’t really know where to start, and every time I looked at the gate keys, I saw them weighted with responsibility. I had expected to be tackling the plot on my own, and typically I started by doing a bit of research in books, and attempting to draw up a few plans. But then my partner John came with me to look at it, and announced, ‘right, we’d better go and buy me a fork and make a start.’ Which is what we did. It transpired that his parents had owned an allotment back in the 70’s in their attempt to live the Good Life, and he’d been responsible for digging up the potatoes for dinner on his way home from school (or so he told me) and was no stranger to an allotment.
So we dug, cleared grass and weeds as best we could, and planted as we went. We visited an old friend who, on our announcement of our new plot, told us he had a few spare seed potatoes if we wanted them. It turned out he also had spare onion sets, and leek seedlings that were heading to the compost bin because he didn’t have the space for them. We came home with a cardboard box full of goodies to plant. Carrot seeds went in, marigolds, some dwarf beans. The first casserole we made from our produce that autumn was the best thing we’d eaten in a long time.
Fast forward 10 years, I’m now a pro. Yep, know it all, got it all down to a fine art. Nah, I’m kidding, not at all. Still learning, still making mistakes. Learning from some of them, making some of them every year and never learning. Still moaning about the weather, it’s too hot, oh, now it’s too wet. Still standing and staring down that 50m length and wondering how I’m going to fill it, and then frantically trying to fit it all in.
It’s been a journey, and like any journey I have at least learnt a few things along the way. For my 10 years, here are 10 of those things:
1. Mother Nature will always have the upper hand. I swear she has a wicked sense of humour and just watches us gardeners with glee. We are but helpers towards the wondrous spectacle of nature, but what a lovely thing to volunteer our time in. I still get a thrill from seeing a seed germinate, a satisfaction in watching it grow, and an enormous sense of pride in harvesting the final produce, and knowing that it wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t planted that seed. I see myself as an assistant, a PA if you like, to nature, rather than a director.
2. Wildlife, whether animals, birds or insects, are part of the journey, they each play a role in the ecosystem, and they all deserve our utmost respect. Yes, even the slugs and pesky pigeons. Plants can be protected, but I don’t believe in fighting a chemical warfare. It’s really not the end of the world if my plants get a bit nibbled, or even completely stripped, but it might be if we kill off all the bees with pesticides.
3. Every year is different. I no longer take it personally if a crop fails, as there are many reasons why it might have. If it was down to something I know I did wrong, then I take it as a lesson for the following year. But sometimes it’s just bad luck, the wrong weather conditions, wrong timing, wrong place etc. I sometimes decide something isn’t worth persevering with, but often I’ll give it another shot and get a different result.
4. The plot will never be perfect, but I won’t stop striving for that elusive perfection.
5. It’s better to water and feed the soil, rather than the plants. Get some goodness into the soil to begin with, and use upturned plastic bottles (with their bottoms removed) to water into. I’ve learnt to do this for all crops that drink a lot (cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, squashes, beans) so that the water gets down into the soil near the roots, rather than evaporating off the surface of the soil.
6. On seed trays, a sprinkling of vermiculite on top acts like a little spongy duvet, it soaks up excess water and releases it back when needed, while keeping the seeds warm. And on the veg beds a good mulch keeps the soil beneath it moist and suppresses the weeds.
7. More recently I’ve learnt that chillies grow fine outdoors so long as you start them early, slugs and snails prefer green lettuce to red, and frogs love to hide out under the leaves of nasturtiums. Also, that bicarbonate of soda works astonishingly well against tomato blight, if you catch it early enough.
8. One courgette plant per person is plenty (even then, you can’t avoid a glut) and the more space you can give the plants, the more productive they will be.
9. I’ve learnt to make jams, jellies and marmalades, pasta sauce and ketchup from fresh tomatoes, and copious amounts of chutney. I’ve learnt to use chive flowers to flavour vinegar, and raspberries to flavour vodka. I’ve used courgettes in pretty much everything from bread to bhajis. I’ve dried my own herbs, made hot chilli powder, and attempted to make sauerkraut (which attempted to take over the fridge).
10. I’ve learnt to be flexible with plans, grateful for whatever flourishes and provides, and patience … patience in waiting for seeds that are slow to germinate, in waiting for the weather to improve, and waiting for fruit to fully ripen. As a gardener, you need the patience of a saint, and then some.
All in all, the allotment has been a big part of my life over the past 10 years. Along with learning lots, I have made some good friends, been able to give excess produce to friends and family, documented my trials in this blog, on Instagram and Twitter, and through a hand drawn journal, which in turn led me to opening a shop on Etsy selling illustrated prints and stationery.
I’m certain that none of these things would have happened if I hadn’t held out my hand and accepted those keys. So here’s to the next 10 years.