Compared to moving house or getting a divorce, losing one’s allotment is way down on the major life-event scale. But nevertheless it is sad and is happening to us. Plot 8 has been ours since 1994, and in November we will stop paying our subs to the Management Committee and will hand back the key to the front gate with its infuriatingly temperamental lock.
The decision is not ours but the result of a process akin to constructive dismissal after 19 years service. Increasingly we spend time away in France and working on the allotment year-round has become impossible. To fill the gaps, for the last few years we have shared the gardening (and its produce) with two close friends. With this arrangement the plot, which measures 4.6 rods – allotments are still measured in rods – or in metric terms just less than 100 square metres, has remained weed-free and productive. It has also given happiness to four people rather than two. But last Christmas, new council bye-laws were introduced which forbade such collaboration and we will all have to leave.
Initially, the allotment was very much my wife Rohan’s project; my job was to do the occasional hard labour. Gradually I have become more involved and while we usually work on it together she remains the manager and I the navvy. As a pair, we have always been more jobbing gardeners than professionals. We were never likely to create the perfect vegetable patch, and indeed, sometimes we failed miserably. Whilst over the years the Committee twice awarded us accolades – one for the greatest improvement, one for the most original fencing – on two occasions there were reprimands for letting the plot become overgrown, and for failing to keep our part of the common path clear.
But regardless of the accolades or reprimands, it was the produce itself that remained our priority and in the main, this has not disappointed. The stalwart providers have been several sturdy perennials; an old apple tree, two rhubarb plants, three gooseberry bushes, as well as redcurrants and blackcurrants. Potatoes, parsnips, and radishes have usually delivered too. Les reliable have been leeks, corn-on-the-cob, strawberries and sweet potatoes. Tomatoes always failed and were given up years ago.
We have never really won our battles with aphids, slugs, mice or birds, and on occasion some produce has been taken by larger animals with suspects including a dog, a fox, and a mischievous neighbour. In addition to our vegetable harvest, we have also gathered various historical artefacts. The allotment sits on the site of a tip of the old Palace of Richmond, and amongst our finds have been fragments of tiles, pottery, clay pipes, a small porcelain head, and part of a long metal blade.
In some ways last week was the start of a long farewell as I dug up our last crop of garlic and some of this year’s potatoes, and as always there was time to ponder. Although a lot of chatting goes on when gardening, there can also be long periods spent in silence when, for example, one is bent over the weeds or nose-deep in the raspberry canes. The opportunity to quietly mull over whatever comes to mind is one of gardening’s great pleasures.
And this week my mulling was mainly over the allotment itself. How the apple tree, with its deliciously firm fruit now defies me. Once I would eat apples straight off the branches, now, with my ageing teeth that would be foolhardy. How cuttings from the rhubarb and the gooseberries have been successfully transplanted to other gardens both in London and Brittany. How, after long gardening stints for a decade we have rested our limbs by sitting on a quirky bench labelled ‘R and J’. It was made from scraps of wood by my then penniless son and given to us one Christmas. And how, one year, we had to argue with another son that while cultivating marijuana was an interesting idea we felt it was not exactly appropriate for a public allotment.
But we will not lose the plot entirely. We have already planned ways for it to live on. Our last act will be to dig up and remove bits to our garden in France – some strawberry plants, some garden tools that would have used by my father in the 60s, a small apple tree given by my late sister, and the quirky garden bench.
And of course we will take our memories too, no doubt mulling over them when weeding in Brittany.