Last summer I had a massive spurt of activity up at the allotment, sticking to a regimented routine of 5 hours a week and I stuck to it, I managed to clear and plant about three quarters of the plot, I had been growing plants from seed this time, as I had become sick of the expense of buying seedlings only for them to get eaten in a blink of an eye and they weren’t doing too bad. Then I got to the last quarter of the plot, this quarter had always haunted me, the part of the plot next to the fence that separated the allotments from a large rambling gardens of an extremely posh house next door (when I say rambling gardens, I actually mean wood, at least the part of the garden near the fence) and it had been a constant battle with the brambles that kept getting in under the fence. I fought them bravely again, cleared the area (this was all in my strict 5 hours a week) and got down to starting to dig and the ground was rock solid (not that surprising as it was summer, although not a particularly dry summer), in all the many many times I’d dug over my plot I had only dug over just a part of that last quarter, so it was suffering from not only my 3 years of neglect but the 4 years of neglect from the previous owner.
By this time I had been doing my 5 hours a week for well over a month and well, writing this, 5 hours a week doesn’t sound like that much does it? But it is if you’re combining it with raising a young family, you work irregular hours and if you’d like other interests in your life! Any mum who works from home (as I do) will tell you that although the school day seemed plenty long enough when you were a kid, it goes in the blink of an eye if you’re trying to fit in all the things you’ve got to do between drop off and pick up and the getting ready to go to the allotment, walking to the allotment, an hour doing hard physical gardening, followed by walking / staggering back from the allotment, recovering / having a much needed shower, it really eats into your day. And I was beginning to think wistfully of all the things I wasn’t doing whilst at the allotment, like going for walks in the park or going to the gym*. Don’t get me wrong about the allotment, there is not much that can beat the amazing buzz you can get after a successful hour up at the allotment, you’ve got that lovely tingle where you feel that you’ve had a really good work out, the sun’s shining and you’ve got the satisfaction of having got something done. However I was beginning to think that I would get the same from a good long walk in the park (the satisfaction part would come from having done the walk, I keep track of distances covered on an app on my phone plus the added bonus of any good photos I managed to take) and I would also get something similar (minus the sunshine) from going down the gym. There were also the added bonuses for the gym / park options in that if I didn’t go to the gym or the park nothing was going to die. That was the thing that got me about the allotment (and to be honest gardening in general), there is (other than perhaps winter) no off time, if I for whatever reason couldn’t get down to the allotment for a while to water / weed / feed, well when I could go back, I was stuffed, hello dead plants and 10x more weeding than normal.
The cost ineffectiveness of the allotment was also beginning to get to me, I know there’s this ideal of growing all your own veg, eating food with zero food miles, pickling everything etc etc etc, this probably works really well if you’re Alys Fowler, who it goes without saying is a really good gardener but if you’re still a bit of a newbie, it is honestly a lot lot cheaper to go and buy your carrots down the supermarket, trust me on that. Yes a packet of seeds costs probably about the same as maybe a packet of carrots or possibly less and from that packet you can grow many many more carrots, but are they going to grow? Are they all going to get eaten by the bloody rabbits if they do? (Very likely). Are you going to be able to reliably grow carrots in time and in the amounts you need them, i.e. not too many carrots, not too few? Some people can I guess, but not me. Farmers have the economy of scale, they presumably have losses but they also presumably know what they’re doing, so will have less losses. I realise the big bad supermarkets try and get their carrots for the cheapest possible prices from the poor farmer and ship them from god knows where in something that is very carbon guzzling but you can ease your guilt about that by being picky about who you shop with (i.e. don’t just blindly go to Tescos). And of course you don’t just have the cost of the carrot seed (or whatever), you’ve got the cost of the fertilisers and the protection against the bloody rabbits.
So I was there, last summer, with my spade barely penetrating the rock hard soil of the last quarter of my allotment, missing the gym / park and begrudging the money that was being poured into the damn weedy plot of ground and it occurred to me that I already knew that there was a list of conditions where I would have to give up the allotment; if we moved away and/or if I got a job with more conventional hours. Either of those things are likely to happen within the next few years, so it occurred to me if I was going to have to give up the allotment within a few years, why carry on sacrificing my time to it? Time is precious, my current irregularly houred job can be exhausting, due to late night or early morning working, but it allows me to be there for my kids, it allows me to cook and sew, have the park with what feels like virtually all to myself, to an extent which I wouldn’t be able to have if I worked 9 to 5 and instead I was using that time on something that although at times was incredibly rewarding, it was also at other times, cold, exhausting, expensive and in a way stressful, because it was something I ‘had’ to do, in that if I didn’t keep it up regularly, like I said, things would die and I’d have even more weeding than normal and I’m sure like a lot of people, I have a lot of things in my life I ‘have’ to do, if I could remove something from the ‘have’ to do list, I should, so I did. This period of my life is short, we may very well have to move, so no more park and I will probably one day go back to the 9 to 5, so again no more park (well, less park), I want to enjoy it whilst I can. There are also things that I’d like to do, that I wasn’t doing in part because I had too much on my plate, well there’s one less thing now.
So I decided to give up the allotment last summer, but I have not formally given it up till now because I wanted to wait and do one last harvest, not that I had much of a harvest. You should have seen the size of my (grown from seed, I am quite proud of that) courgette plants compared to my neighbour’s, mine were about a third of the size and indicative that I really needed to do something quite serious about the quality of the soil on my plot (and my dad said I probably wasn’t watering enough, which is also probably true). I also had pumpkin and squash (also grown from seed), which both managed to produce some ridiculously tiny fruit and I attempted to grow some cut flowers, which was sort of successful. The thing I was really waiting for though was Boy Lacer’s apple tree, it had flowered and fruited for the first time this year and I couldn’t bear to part with it. So I’ve been waiting for the apples to grow full size before transplanting it into a large pot in my back garden, which I did today. I am not totally convinced I haven’t just killed it but if I’d left it up at the allotment it would have definitely been out of our lives, so attempting to transplant it, well there’s a chance. I also dug up and replanted a small bay plant because that is one hardy herb that’s missing from my herb collection in my back garden (which is doing very well by the way).
I will miss the allotment, I wish I could have some sort of fairy wand to wave over my life so that I could have combined the allotment with all the other things I want / need to do but obviously I can’t do that. I will continue to (attempt) to grow veg, since the garden redesign last winter we have a lot more space in our garden now and I will go back to container veg gardening (at least that way I’ve got a lot more control over the soil). I will also have more time to work on other aspects of the garden to. If by some miracle our next place has a bigger garden (it’s actually debatable about whether we’ll have a garden at all), I definitely want a veg plot, I think veg growing would be a lot lot easier when you can see what’s going on and what needs doing from your back door. I think with that allotment I was pretty much doomed from the start; the allotment had apparently been barely touched for four years prior to me taking it over and it was too much for a beginner gardener (with a life) to handle on her own. I think if I had had a different plot, maybe one in the middle instead of one next to the fence and those bloody brambles and one where the previous owner hadn’t been quite so keen on bloody raspberries (never ever plant raspberries in your garden / plot, they’re worse than weeds), I might still be a happy allotment gardener today and eating far more of my own produce. I can at least say that whoever inherits that plot from me, yes they’ve still got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I’ve left it in a slightly better state than when I inherited it and that’s a good thing to try for in anything with life.
To anyone thinking of getting an allotment I have one piece of advice, do not do it alone, make it a joint project with your partner, family or a group of friends, someone working with you, to take up the slack if you’re ill / busy at work / busy with family, would make it much more easy to handle.
Now does anyone want to volunteer their plots for me to hover round and photograph? I’m going to really miss that particular part of allotment gardening, allotments, even run down ones like my plots, are such pretty places.
*Ironically due to my irregular hours and therefore irregular income, I’ve recently had to give up on my gym membership, just as I now would have had more time to go……