Losing the plot

Losing the plot

Losing the plotCompared 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.

8 comments on “Losing the plot
  1. Rob Pigott says:

    Dear Joe: you took me through the wooden gate to the allotment in high summer a few years ago. I felt privileged. It felt like entering a private world, with its own pleasures and observances, and with the possibility of striking with the spade something discarded from the palace of Henry VIII. It will be like saying good-bye to a part of your life as you hand back the key.

  2. Della Mae Johnston says:

    Mr. Collier, I am not suggesting that a ‘means test’ be applied to all potential garden-plot applicants. But one can be certain that those with second homes- and the means to spend time away in them- are not in need of a garden plot. The committee could simply limit application to those who are full-time residents (as many co-operative gardens do). Has it never occurred to you that by holding on to that plot you were denying to others the experiences that you’re bemoaning the loss of in your article?

  3. Carolyn D says:

    What a shame Joe, I only ventured down the lane and through the gate a few times, but I remember the first time when I was rather sad and Rohan invited me to build trenches up and around your potatoes… it was quiet, basic, hard work but being there allowed me to just be… without thought other that to shovel the dirt and make perfect mounds to make the little spuds warm and grow.

  4. Della Mae Johnston says:

    Your post made me angry. Talk about entitlement! You have the money to live in France and to travel back and forth between Europe and North America yet you feel that you deserve to hold onto a garden plot that could well mean the difference between a poor person or family being able to eat fresh produce or subsisting on craft dinner. And you have ‘shared’ your plot with friends, thereby allowing them to jump the queue of folks on a waiting list hoping for the chance at an allotment of their own. How very sad for you to have to be restricted to only doing your weeding in Brittany.

    • Joe Collier says:

      Dear Della Mae, I understand where you are coming from but feel I should take up some of the issues you raise. First, around our particurly allotment many of the residents will spend time away in second homes, so we are not, in that sense, exceptional. Moreover, it was the former Chair of the Allotment Committee who suggested several years ago that we co-opted friends to help – after all, that was what she did. But with the new Committee things have changed. Second, if one takes your suggestions to their natural conclusion, you seem to be suggesting that a means test shoud be used to determine whether one might be a plot holder. I do not knw of that arrangement being used elsewhere. Have I got it right? Joe (Collier)

      • Carolyn D says:

        I wonder about the one of the above contributors comments…. maybe they ate something bitter and distasteful?

      • Della Mae Johnston says:

        Cute, Carolyn. Obviously you have had the privilege of enjoying the benefits of a c-operative garden plot, presumably an urban one and so know from experience that they provide nourishment body and soul. As an avid gardener myself with my own (now small) garden, I applaud the efforts being made to make that experience available to those to whom it would otherwise be inaccessible- especially to those in need of the yield of that garden- spiritually, mentally and nutritionally. So, yes, I do find it bitter and distasteful that with co-operative garden areas being so very scarce this one has been withheld from those who could really make use of it- year round- seemingly from a sense of nostalgia or entitlement. These people are affluent enough to be able to buy good-quality organic produce. Others are not.

        It sounds as thought the new committee is on the right track. Let the allotments go to those who will actually use them, not just to absentee dabblers who want to retain them for the occasional pleasure of mulling over life’s tender moments. Of course that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is not necessary to retain what could be a viably productive piece of land in order to do that. Where is the generosity of spirit, the willingness to pass on to someone all the healing and health-giving that digging in the dirt and watching the product of one’s labour grow to fruition.? No- for 19 years, even though ‘increasingly we spend time away in France and working on the allotment year-round has become impossible’ they have chosen to keep their plot even though they have a garden of their own in Brittany.

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