23 January 2016

The allotment in winter

At the first frost, all the rampant autumn growth stops, lush nasturtium beds and late potato plants turn to green slime and all that’s left of last year’s crops is dry stalks. But not everything is dead. The daffodils are already flowering and other bulbs are pushing up green shoots. Cabbages, brussels sprouts, broad beans and onions grow slowly right through the winter. Last year’s weeds rot away, generating heat in the process. Bright green parrots visit occasionally, checking the fruit trees for leftovers and bird feeders, and foxes trot nonchalantly around the site, unafraid of humans but keeping a sensible distance just in case.

It’s not an inspiring scene. Wet grass and soggy soil, bare trees and crappy sheds looking their very worst in the cold winter light. The sheds look reasonably picturesque in summer, but now they are more like rectangular piles of rubbish. Weathered wood patched up with rusty metal and faded plastic, wire mesh and roofing felt, the windows furred up with cobwebs, and often enough junk piled up on the roof. There are just a few brand new ones, stained with tasteful shades of woodstain.

But on a bright Saturday morning, an enthusiastic group of volunteers is cleaning up the communal entrance areas and carting wheelbarrow-loads of wood chippings over to the nature area to combat the muddy paths. Other plotholders are getting stuck into some digging, despite the heavy water-sodden clay-ish soil, or just standing around chatting. A family, newcomers to the site, are tackling their new but long-neglected plot, digging out the grass and piling it up leaving a promising expanse of freshly-turned earth. It’s all about potential at this time of year. Summer is a busy time with weeding and collecting crops, so some down time is valuable. With plenty of time to get ready before the growing season begins in spring, it’s an opportunity to get stuck into digging, getting rid of weeds and cutting off dead stalks, spreading rotted compost from last year, and getting everything tidy and ready for what lies ahead. Time to organise a compost bin (not just a pile), make proper paths and sweep out the accumulated dirt in the shed. All that’s missing is the smell of bonfires, but sadly those are not allowed in London.

Properly, every plot should have a shed, not just to keep tools in but as a retreat, somewhere to shelter from the rain or get warmed up, with some folding chairs and a kettle and camping stove to make tea. Generally, nearly every plot does have a shed, but the council lets out half plots, so a lot of people have the half without a shed. It’s a test of commitment, having to buy your own and put it up. Some of the newcomers make do, taking their tools home with them each time they visit, while others bring or build a shed first and then think about gardening. There is a particular pleasure in sitting with the door open, sipping hot tea and listening to the rain drumming on a tin roof, a calmness that’s more conducive to reflection than texting and checking Facebook on your iPhone. Which is what it’s all about really. Roll on spring though: this wouldn’t work without the cycle of planting and watching things grow.