NEGLECTING THE PLOT

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At times plots can get neglected, which may prove to become a continual state of affairs if it’s left to get out of hand. However, whilst the lack of time or bad weather is a common factor, for some plot holders there are other considerations that leave them to consider hanging up the hoe and letting it pass on to someone else. Whilst many slope off seeing themselves as a gardening failure, perhaps it is time to air this issue, as supportive committees or understanding neighbours can make all the difference in preventing that final decision to be made. Below are two field notebook entries detailing such moments for me as a new plot holder, would my gardening strife see me walking away from the plot?

23rd October 2011:

“I had almost dreaded coming up to the plots because of weeds on two counts. Firstly the ones that got away, refusing to be vanquished through my attempts to defeat them. These are entrenched down the path and through the front right section, where even covering them failed to impede them. Even though they are mostly brown, dead looking things now, they dislike being pulled up, resisting strongly.

 

Then there are those more singly, spaced ordinary weeds that are removed easily enough through hoeing but can grow tall and flower, spreading seeds- the cardinal sin of allotment gardening. These are in place, growing sequentially on the paths around the veg beds as well as on the beds themselves where the earth is bare. However, having no compost bin at the plot and having my tough ‘compost’ bag being full, I have been hoeing and leaving the weeds in-situ, albeit weighted down. This action brings guilt attached, as I know proper allotmenteers worry about dead weeds blowing onto their plots. In fact Shirley who is to the north of me, in the past month, has erected a substantial mesh fence at soil height between her plot and mine. My first reaction was guilt, thinking it was precisely due to prevent weeds blowing from mine.

 

I’ve been thinking about this situation, planning to remedy it through the winter. Firstly by rotavating the entrenched weed area and secondly by installing a compost bin for weedings. Then the thoughts turn to: how am I going to get the plot rotavated? By whom, when etc? Can I dismantle the old, unused compost bin at home, made over 10 years ago to bring up here? Am I skilled enough to do that myself? Probably not. Can I afford to buy a compost bin? At another level- what about the desire to avoid such machinery, trying the no-dig method? Unfortunately, that takes time, commitment and strategic working – most of which I don’t seem able to give my plot. I started off sharing this space, but now am in sole charge and although the cropping has done well, so too have the weeds. Frustration and despondency abound, even though this first season has kept me in veg from August through to mid-December.

 

However, these semi-paranoid thoughts were soon transformed after arriving at the site. Not only did I discover that my crown prince squashes were looking ready to pick and my struggling butternuts had recovered sufficiently to produce 6 pint sized gourds. But very importantly for a guilty, neglectful plot holder, I was met by several friendly faces who empathised with me on trying to keep on top of the plot. One man said, that for him, it was the veg that mattered, the harvest, not the aesthetics. In fact I had a long and friendly chat with a couple who I hadn’t seen for awhile who were also trying to get on top of the weeds.”

Of course the amount I managed to achieve over the winter didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but I did get stuck in once the days got a little longer, laying plastic down on the path with the extracted stones on top. So with a large seed order done, in the early spring I got stuck into the weeding, preparing the site and planting potatoes, onions, garlic and parsnips. Then a catalogue of catastrophes began with a severely pulled back when trying to lift bags of sodden weeds into the car to take to the dump. So firstly 4-6 weeks out at the most crucial planting and maintaining time was followed by a series of further impediments (that are too dull to go into)…resulting in basically an abandoned plot for several months leading to the following field notebook entry.

4-6th October 2012:

“Here I am, closing down my plot having tried and failed to get back on top, in the last few months I’ve decided to try and share the space. I kept expecting a nasty letter from the committee complaining about my failures, but I had kept in touch explaining what was going on, which I think helped. Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to swallow my shame and face the plot. It’s both crazy and totally expected but after unavoidably neglecting the plot for several months, I developed a feeling that I couldn’t show my face there. It was a sticking my head in the ground moment, which I finally conquered after speaking to a plot holder friend who claimed that many plots were very neglected following the combination of a sodden but warm summer. So loading up the car with all the tools I own and two reluctant helpers (persuaded sons used as moral support), we arrived. Fortunately I had picked a quiet moment and of particular importance to my fragile gardening ego, was that my sharply observing neighbour wasn’t there. The unflappable and ever pleasant chair of the committee was there and welcomed me back, noting how well prepared I was in bringing shears [A positive comment! What a relief!].

 

We began. I’ve set the differently sized and aged boys a quarter of the plot each. Last time my older teenage son had the physical ummph to get stuck in, weeding and digging, a real help. Today he looked wan, uninspired and as if he’d left his muscles somewhere he couldn’t remember -great! My younger son had helped a lot when we began plot life, helping to set it up. This had led to a rejection of further involvement, which had been apparent last time I’d persuaded him here. Today however, he had taken on board that this was a big deal for me, bringing a can-do attitude. We worked fairly well, except that my older son finally told me that he was suffering with a bad back after a skateboard fall. So with weeding being unpopular, I set him to digging up the potatoes planted all that time ago. Between us we did make a difference, and filled up several large plastic dumpy bags with weeds. However, the involvement of my sons was on a strictly time limited basis and we soon had to leave. As we were packing up, the secretary of the committee came up to talk. I spoke again about how bad it was I hadn’t been on top of the plot etc. and that I would like to share the space, otherwise I would have to give it up.

 

Within the week, this secretary emailed me to ask if I would move off my plot to take a half plot over the other side of the path. This vacancy was due to another female plot-holder wanting to downsize her gardening commitments.

 

Fast forward to the 4th October, where I am closing down my plot after being asked to vacate, as someone on the waiting list wanted my plot. I have a few tools at the plot, which needed retrieving- my spade, fork and wheelbarrow, as well as digging up a proportion of my strawberry plants to transfer to my new space. I decide to take another look at the beds I planted and discover another load of potatoes – Jerseys this time. I’m not going to leave them behind as I had especially chosen the variety for flavour, so get stuck into forking them up. They haven’t grown spectacularly with only one or two here and there, but eventually, after turning the bed, I’ve gone from hoping to harvest enough for a meal to packing a plastic bag’s worth. Muddily I turn to the onion bed; here the results are more disappointing with the bulbs barely grown. I consider leaving them, but most are large enough to pass for a shallot and being easy to pull, I decide to harvest these too. Having never grown garlic before, I take a look at this crop. Swathing back the weeds massing in a roll over the bed, I take a look. Oh they don’t pull well and the dry upper stalks disappear as the weeds are pulled back, leaving me to carefully hunt through the bed for the variously sized bulbs. Again, I had planted a specific recommended variety and had a huge urge to try them, so work slowly and carefully through the bed. Whilst working this way, I also inspect the parsnips that have miraculously grown here with no care, thinning out or other attention. Some are thin long-tailed whips but others have a hearty girth, suggesting good growth. I retrieve a mixed bag of garlic – approximately two good-sized bulbs and a handful of diddy ones and decide to come back for the parsnips another day.

 

It seems that my new growing space is in an unofficial women’s quarter. I talk to the friendly new neighbour who had shared the space I’m taking with the woman growing in from of it. They had planted a variety of fruit trees, which she was in the process of extracting. We talk and she too displays that plot-holders guilt, worrying about the neglect of her plot (which was hard to spot, being well organised in my eyes). The soil where a fruit tree had been removed, looks lovely and rich and I say so. She tells me that it had all been dug originally but that it was terribly stony. After extracting enough stone on my old plot to crazy pave a large garden, it looks ok to me. I lovingly plant my strawberries – several large heads and a number of runners in this new space. It has only a thin covering of weed that looks easily removable and on having to weed out forget-me-nots to plant the strawberries, I suddenly feel that I’m in an altogether more genteel space. Next to this new strawberry bed I notice that a neighbouring plot to the east has raspberry runners encroaching onto my space, better and better!

 

On the 6th October I return for the much-desired parsnips. I had wanted to leave them insitu until after the first frost, but am told that the plot is required immediately. Therefore I return to harvest these roots and to remove the large rectangle of thick plastic sheeting that had protected a portion of the plot from weeds. The rain the night before had been relentless, leaving several parts of the site and my plot flooded, so it wasn’t a good day to garden but there was no choice. So each time I dug the fork in, it came out weightily engulfed in thick mud. Each time, I had to pull, with my gloved hands, the mud off as other attempts of removal left it squishing into a more compact brick. This all takes more time and muscle power than it would in dry conditions, as when I simply pulled by the long stemmed leaves several roots snap off. So I have to systematically fork each one, before the pull and then attempt to remove a modicum of mud.

 

There is only one other grower here, Tasha, busily preparing her empty beds for the winter. I wonder at any one doing such work in these conditions, but know that she works full time, leaving the weekend her only free blocks of growing time. Tasha, and her neighbour Elaine, counter the picture this post may be making, of women struggling to manage their plots. Tasha has a double plot and lovingly tends it, resulting in her winning the runners up allotment prize this season. It is a picture of allotment order and care. Elaine, her neighbour has been even more successful, winning for two years in a row the main allotment prize for her fabulously kept plot with a huge variety of produce grown. She has admitted to me that she may spend 14hours at the plot in one sitting, to keep it such a model of allotment bounty.”

 

At last, I can walk away from this plot that I haven’t succeeded in maintaining, not with my head held high, as it is still a mess. In the beginning I started off sharing it, before I took it on alone. Last season I was researching at the sites enabling me to spend time there, this year I am working hard to get my thesis written, creating a hierarchy of competing priorities. However, without a sympathetic and realistic committee I would have had to totally walk away. This post shows how the community support at the site can work in many ways. Now I can look forward to a manageable plot that should be easily bedded down for the winter. What this closing down process has shown, is that whilst this neglect is not a plan to be advocated, it is surprising how much the vegetable crops can survive under such conditions. We are left with some tasty harvest at home, the main crop potatoes providing delicious roasted wedges, the onions and garlic offering a wealth of meal possibilities. Not to mention the impressive looking parsnips…