When a friend said she had a rather neglected allotment, and asked if I would like to take it on with her, I thought, yippee. The waiting lists in some areas of the country are horrendous. No wonder everybody thinks they’re the preserve of old folk. You’re lucky to get one before you die.
So, lucky me. Except there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if you grow your own. Neglect was an understatement. I was confronted by a wasteland of weeds, brambles and nettles. The clay earth as solid and cracked as the African plains. There were none of the compost bins, water butts and various accoutrements I naively imagined would be in place.
Conveniently ignoring the fact that I know absolutely nothing about growing vegetables, I said yes, picked up a rusty old spade and stuck it into the earth. Or, I tried to, but even standing with my full weight on top of the spade’s rim, barely achieved a dent in the soil.
I am a gardener, passionately so, but the only thing I’ve ever grown is flowers. I looked at the desolate sight before me and then at the beautifully planted allotments surrounding us, burgeoning with broad beans, carrots, onions, potatoes and thought, can it be that difficult?
The answer is yes. You have either to be mad or slavishly devoted to take on an allotment, but there is something magical about the prospect of turning a run-down piece of land into a verdant paradise. Hence the increasing trend to grow your own. The bucolic dream of arriving home with baskets brimming with a summer harvest, eating new potatoes and tender carrots freshly dug from the earth, is irresistible. But, if like me, you are a complete novice, there are many lessons to be learned along the way.
The first is the importance of really good soil, unlike the clay we inherited, which becomes a sticky bog in winter and solid cement in summer. So that’s where we began. The soil was too poor to do much with so we built raised beds using discarded wooden pallets which we begged, borrowed and foraged (much of the point of an organic allotment is to recycle everything). We spent the summer lugging sacksful of compost and manure to make good the ground.
We were starting too late in the year to create those burgeoning harvests we had dreamed about but our pride and joy was two beds of sweetcorn, which ripened slowly due to the cool, wet summer (sweetcorn adores heat). Apparently, there is no taste as ambrosial as eating fresh corn, before the sugars have turned to starch.
The corn was very nearly ripe but we decided to leave it for a few days until it achieved its full magnificence. The day to harvest arrived and we turned up on our allotment only to discover a trail of husks and plants stripped bare. Badgers love sweetcorn too. Who knew? They also have an unerring sense of timing – unlike us.
According to the seasoned veterans on the allotment, where advice is plentiful and generously offered (and which we will be in much need of on our journey to bounty), badgers scarper at the first sound of human voices. They are particularly alarmed by Radio 4, so this summer there’ll be a battery operated radio, dressed in a plastic bag, tucked between the waving stalks. And this year, interspersed among my usual garden column, I’ll be reporting back on the mistakes and triumphs of being an allotment newbie.