You are kidding, right?
I am about to become an allotment gardener in London again. This is utterly crazy and I need to explain. Make yourself a cup of tea, roll your eyes in exasperation and let me talk you through.
Back in my youth – 16 years ago – I put my name down on the waiting list for a plot in this tiny allotment site close to Primrose Hill where I lived in London. I was despairing of ever getting a garden of my own as I assumed that this capital city would be my home.
We had a lovely apartment with a roof terrace and a balcony. But it was obviously too small to contain my ambitions to grow my own fruit, vegetables, flowers and become a proper grown up gardener.
The local Council has quite a few of these community gardens dotted in spots around the very densely populated central London area. I yearned for a plot of my own.
So I went and visited every single one and thought the Antrim Grove ones would be perfect for me.
It was tiny, only about 20 plots in a space the size of a few acres (a baseball diamond? five tennis courts? I have no idea of measuring this) and was surrounded by gardens, very peaceful and convivial and I stupidly assumed that yearning and dead keen garden genes would suffice to get me through the tall forbidding gates tucked up a very narrow path in Belsize Park.
I waited. And waited. And the kindly Council officer suggested that as it was ‘taking a bit of time – gardeners live forever you know and are annoyingly healthy what with the fresh fruit and veg and exercise, why not rent a plot in an area a bit further out of London and garden there?’
I just looked up my records. I took possession of that very large community garden back in January 2006. It was a mess. It was chaotic. It was crowded, right next to a very busy highway, and I had to drive to the site to grow my veg.
This felt like the very antithesis of what it is to grow vegetables. Take a petrol vehicle to your crops. A forty minute round trip in heavy polluting traffic. The only advantage was I could keep my tools in the boot of the car and not worry about them being stolen from my allotment shed.
It was a challenging place. And not just trying to avoid the octogenarian Oswaldo, a randy mad Italian who was forever inviting me into his greenhouse to admire his long cucumber.
I learned how to grow everything. I did a brilliant job. I tamed that damn plot. I took advice. I harvested my first ever broad beans and potatoes and marvelled at the flavour.
But I can’t say it was a joy. There was no privacy. People dosed everything in chemicals. Rats ran amok. People fought and bickered over sheds. There was always the background din of traffic. And I realized that most of the pleasure for me in gardening was the solitude. That deep abiding pleasure in being in nature.
After two years I gladly handed it back. There was that small matter of having the huge garden in France after all.
But a few months ago the Council contacted me with the congratulatory email – your name has finally come to the top of the list at Antrim Grove. Take an allotment now, or lose it.
Argggghhh. Sixteen years of waiting and my time had come.
What to do? I had thought that I could always share with my old neighbours back in Primrose Hill until I really needed a garden here in the capital again. I was the only person who had put her name on the waiting list.
We are renting a home with a garden right now and I could easily embrace it as a place to grow my flowers and vegetables. But we aren’t here forever. And it isn’t mine. So in the smart planning and future proofing of our later lives we may need a garden for when we live in an apartment with no outside space.
All these anxieties and ruminations ended today when I went to meet Ruth at the forbidding gates.
Meet the new London garden.
See all that nicely worked and improved earth. Weed-free and inviting just to the left of the main entrance path?
That isn’t it.
Mine is the second half of this plot. To the left again.And what a surprise. It’s a bloody mess. No one gives up an allotment that is nurtured and worked and a weed-free joy.
Here it is.
Yep. That bad. There used to be 20 decent sized plots for people to work up here. To grow enough fruit and vegetables to be self-sufficient and feeding a family in war-time Britain all year round. Now they have been divided in two – giving more people a chance to grow. 40 gardens.
And I think the one I have been offered has been utterly neglected for about two lush growing seasons.
It’s a bloody mess.
It measures about nine metres by seven (29 feet by 22.) The size of our living room. A small-ish space that has managed to pack in the most interesting array of weeds. Pernicious and annual. And all of it has to go.
It has been a dumping ground. And as I poked in among the mess I even found the kitchen sink.
Brambles, nettles, bindweed. No couch grass that I could see. But lots and lots of annual weeds. A huge crop of unwanted Spanish bluebells. Spinach gone to seed, a pond sunken in the dip. And the bergenias that you can see above. That looked like the only plant I went ‘ooh good, I like those’.
The rest is a mess. And for £120 a year that mess will be mine.
It will be another six weeks of admin and vetting to get the final approval. Plenty of time for me to order another Bulldog garden fork for levering out that enormous dead rosemary. And from now on I shall be haunting the professional gardeners in the area for sacks and sacks of mulch. And builders skips for bricks to line the paths.
One thing I can say after the gap between my first allotment and this second is that I have become a very experienced gardener. I’m not alarmed by all the work that lies ahead. Or that much excited. This is just a working little garden where I may be able to grow my bulbs, flowers, spuds and veg.
I will join the ranks of nice middle class middle-aged ladies who seem to inhabit this site. I met three today and they were lovely. All very welcoming and friendly.
I will keep my head down (no one needs to know about the secret life in France) and get on with the work that looks insurmountable right now. Especially as the mild wet climate of London means that everything is heading thigh high and beyond. And who knows what else I will unearth when I clear those weeds.
At least the chairs outside the community shed might give me welcome relief.