Thursday, 11 August 2011

Could this be my future? (part 3)

A little more exotic: a bed of netted cavolo nero kale, perfect, dark, inviting. For hearty Tuscan-style soups and stews, or maybe pasta dishes.

Am I that easily swayed? Half an hour in the allotments, and I was thinking about applying for one? Apparently so. It's that I've never thought about it though. I have considered it, and rejected it, for complex reasons. But they all seemed irrelevant when I was there - it was a transformational experience. That so close to home, hidden away, was this other world, where normal, local people were producing so much wonderful food. The plots were big, but not unmanageably so, they were pleasant - even joyous - places to spend time, not places of work, but spaces created by their owners, where nature was corralled, chivvied, encouraged to do what they wanted, but not without allowing space for its own preferences. Birds, insects, wild flowers, were all around, no doubt helping as much as they hindered - predating pests as well as crops, attracting pollinators as much as competing with the cultivated plants.

I'm not sure if these celery were being grown for a competition - but they would certainly be worthy of a prize. Fascinating to see how they've blanched them with metallic insulation, keeping them clean and white.

Here and there, was a sign of the "traditional" allotment culture that had repelled me in advance. Show vegetables: those grown for their appearance, size, regularity, in order to win prizes, rather than primarily for eating. One large greenhouse contained a couple of dozen onions and leeks, the former as large as my head, the latter as thick as my arm. They were incredible - but thankfully in the minority, outnumbered by more realistic examples. The celery above, I suspect, was also grown for this purpose - there was other celery, not even earthed up, in other plots. Actually, apart from the size and spacing, this method, wrapping the stems in foil, seems very sensible, and worth doing generally - a reminder that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the plots seemed geared towards producing as much tasty, fresh veg as possible - which I suppose is their purpose.

A view across the heart of the site. Onions of some kind are flowering in the foreground - vegetables are often as pretty as ornamental plants. Look how many greenhouses there are!

In fact, it was amazing how much people were getting from the space. The soil here is fertile. It's heavy - clay where I live, and probably a mixture of clay and peat on the allotment site (as I've mentioned, it was once a glacial lake bed). But even so, it takes extraordinary management of nutrients and space to get so many plants to grow this large, produce this much fruit, in a patch not much bigger than a suburban garden. Without exaggeration, I can say if I had such a plot (assuming I did as well as these folks), I could produce all the vegetables (and eggs, and non-exotic fruit) I would need - what an exciting prospect. It would be a lot of work, but everything in life is work, and at present, this option - producing as much as I can myself, so my overheads are as low as possible - attracts me the most.

A comfortable corner: massive columns of runner beans either side of a path, leading to a cosy blue shed. Not too neat or fussy, neither drab nor unkempt - a perfect allotment.

I can imagine myself there, the radio on in the shed, doing a few hours' work every couple of days. Taking myself away from the intensely urban environment in which I currently spend all my time. Not being limited by space - having the room to grow everything I want. Having a space that I can be proud of. Not instead of my garden here - but that will never be quite what I want, and there's nothing I can do to change that. Rather, a sanctuary, all my own. Running away without having to go anywhere very far. And of course, a source of so much more food.

I bought a few things from a stall they had set up (actually, there was a cafe, a raffle tent, a stand selling cakes, and a barbecue). An enormous marrow, bright yellow, the size of a baby - more than 4.5kg. A punnet of black grapes - yes, black grapes, ripe in August, here in northern England - small, but tasty. A bunch of beetroot, a couple of corn cobs, and some cucumbers.

And I sent an email enquiry about applying for an allotment myself. Next weekend it's the open day for the closest site to my house, where I'd always dreamed of having a plot - but it's on the largest road junction in town, so I suspect I'll like it less. Either way, I have a plan now. Given the waiting lists, I may have to be patient. But that will give me time to finish my garden here - no point in starting a new project until this one is complete. I can wait.

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