In 2010 my wife, Jenny, and I took on our first allotment. It was in the beautiful village of Amberley. Like most beginners we had our successes, failures and out-and-out disasters. But we had a lot of fun doing it and we laughed a lot, so much that I started to write up bits and pieces of what happened. I am not sure at what precise moment this happened but we decided to write a book about it all and throw in some recipes for the produce that the birds and slugs didn't eat. The result was Spade, Seed & Supper: An Allotment Year, our first self-publishing venture, for which Mel Narongchai did the wonderful illustrations. We were also extremely lucky to find someone to proof read and design the book for us and it was professionally printed. We had great fun selling it at farmers' markets, Waterstones agreed to take it and it was not long before the first print run of 500 sold out. We decided to re-print and that sold out as well.

The book is still available on Amazon as a Kindle. 

Scroll down the page for two taster extracts...

Just a little micro-weeding, dear!

Just a little micro-weeding, dear!

Of Mice and Toilet Rolls...

Dai proved, as expected, to be a great source of allotment wisdom. His favourite story was that the mice would be extremely grateful to us for planting our peas and beans in a straight line because they would know exactly where the next meal was waiting – eyes down and straight ahead! The remedy for this unsporting behaviour was to start off the seeds at home in a toilet roll and then plant them out, toilet roll and all, once they were sprouting healthily.

Afterwards this induced panic at home. Where were all the toilet rolls to come from? How many beans are there in a row? How many peas? How many toilet rolls did we NEED? It proved an excellent family rallying cry. Without exactly demanding that our offspring ‘shit for Britain’ we made it quite clear that there was a moral duty here to beat the mice. I can fondly report that the rallying cry was heeded. From Nailsworth and Bristol toilet rolls rained in on us until our utility room was bulging. Equipped with mushroom boxes filched from the local greengrocer we soon had trays of neatly arranged cardboard tubes awaiting their beans and potting compost when the weather warmed up. Whether our suppliers had extra sore bottoms from over-wiping I am unable to say but they rose to the challenge magnificently and selflessly.

Dai also gave us a quick potted biography of some of our fellow allotmenteers, advised us that netting against the birds was essential and promised us a crown of rhubarb as he was in the process of splitting some in his garden. He was as good as his word and we received two crowns a couple of weeks later that we promptly bedded in with some well-rotted manure and a prayer that the rhubarb futures market was vibrant.

There was only one flaw in our handing over ceremony and it occurred when Dai said that we should not be surprised if one day we found him at our allotment weeding - for old time’s sake. We assured him that he was welcome at the allotment at any time – but I had to bite my tongue and resist saying that no weed would be suffered to live on our plot and if that was the purpose of his visit it would be utterly futile.  Ah, the confidence of ignorance.

The book is still available on Amazon as a Kindle

Not so much a bean as a lifestyle

Back home, the windowsill plantation was flourishing. Immediately after we had planted out the first round of seedlings at the allotment, we had sown a whole set of replacements to ensure staggered cropping throughout the summer and also as a precaution against a late frost. As we were now getting towards the end of April, this batch included the seeds that needed greater warmth, like tomatoes, (and even more optimistically, aubergines) together with the heavyweight brigade – the dwarf and climbing beans and courgettes. Now whilst there is something miraculous about something the size of a cabbage growing from a seed that you can barely see on the tip of your finger, I find there is something infinitely reassuring about the size and weight of a bean. They are also much easier to sow. Having learned from our earlier attempts to turn the kitchen into Felix’s litter tray, we had now developed a system where I did the really macho work (ladling the compost out of the sack) whilst Jenny did the girly stuff (pushing the seeds into the compost) and I tackled the seriously intellectual stuff (writing out the names of the seeds on the plastic markers). This worked well. Henry Ford would have been proud of us and there was far less muddy stuff ground into the kitchen floor.

A few days later the salad leaves had germinated pretty much as expected but the beans were a true revelation. Contained two to a toilet roll holder, they did not so much appear as erupt. One day there was a neat cylindrical tube with a flat layer of compost on top and the next there was a shower of molten ash and a clear indication that the Day of the Triffids had actually arrived. And once out of the blocks, they sprinted. It’s the only word for it. Leave the house for an hour to go up to the allotment and they would double in size. I could forsee a day when we would arrive back to find the spare bedroom a tangle of drunken undergrowth.

It became quite normal that our first words to each other on waking were, “I wonder how much the beans have grown.” The first thing that Jenny did on getting out of bed was cross the corridor and report on their progress - even before making the tea.  These beans were not so much a vegetable as a lifestyle.

So it was no surprise that there were howls of protest from Jenny when I announced that it was time for these seedlings to move up the road and start to harden off under the cloche. “These are my babies,” she said. “They are not ready for the cruel outside world.” She may have been right (about the second bit anyway) but I was anxious not to let them get leggy and overstretched. They needed to grow sideways as well as upwards and I feared they would become too focused on reaching sunlight if they were left where they were. So amidst wails from the wife, they were packed into trays in the car, exposed briefly to the open air and then tucked under the cloche at the allotment.

The extraordinary thing was that on our return, the flat felt empty. Even I felt their absence. And as for going to bed that night, it was hard to look into the spare bedroom and its empty windowsill without a sense of loss. It was small consolation that they were shivering up the hill. “Poor little babies,” said Jenny, “they will be cold up there.”

“Yes,” I said, “but they will be getting tough and strong and ready to face the full brunt of the outside world when they are planted out with their own sticks to climb on mission ‘feed Jenny and Martin’.

There was a silence. I melted. “If you miss them that much,” I said, “we could always grow a few more.”

We went to bed with a smile.  

The book is still available on Amazon as a Kindle. 

Saviours of the soil...

Saviours of the soil...