Thursday, 30 April 2020

Its Not a Clew of Worms its Bindweed?

‘Can you hear that noise?’ my little feathered Robin asks with his head tilted as he listens to the soil beneath him.

‘What noise?’ I ask, knowing full well it’s a dumb question and I will only now be lectured on the remarkable hearing and sensory perceptions of birds such as Robins.

‘I don’t know what you would do without us,’ he proudly boasts, puffing up his chest to show off his red plumage.

‘Get a lot work done on the plot,’ I reply in jest.

‘Listen, there it is again’ he says cocking his head to the left. ‘It’s drowning out the worm noises and disturbing my digging.’

‘What are you on about?’ I ask, completely at a loss as to what my little friend is trying to tell me.

‘They’re digging those bloody tunnels again and they can shift earth faster than a clew of worms.’

‘A clew of worms?’

‘Didn’t they teach you nowt at that school up North?’ he asks accentuating his take on a northern accent. ‘You can call it a bed, or bunch, but I like clew.’

Robin then in one sharp stab jabs the soil and retrieves a piece of bindweed, white and stringy and faintly resembling a very large worm.

‘I told you that you have to dig this stuff out! It’s disturbing my foraging and I bet the worms don’t like it either.’ Robin says spitting the offensive string of bindweed to the ground. ‘It’s like spaghetti junction down there. Over by the path it’s surfacing!’ he proclaims pointing with his little wing to the corner of the plot where the path and bushes meet.

I get up off my bench and go the shed. Moments later I return with my fork. Robin has flown off probably thinking I was ignoring him and in search of some easier pickings.   

I set about digging over the area he had been picking over. I quickly expose what could be best described as a bowl of spaghetti. I realise this isn’t going to be a five-minute challenge, but more likely a full half hour one and retreat to get my waste bucket so I can collect this exposed motorway from hell.

Bindweed can be dealt with by chemicals. These travel back through the roots and kill the plant, but I am wary of spraying other plants and it has to be ideally done as they surface and then taken in through their leaves. You can treat the area to a good dose of diluted vinegar or Epsom Salts and even boiling water also does the trick. Better still, why not mix them all together? But again, all these mixes may not help all the others who occupy the soil.

When I first got my plot, or should I say overgrown wasteland, I spotted the tentacles and unmistakable leaves of this old foe.

‘We can rotovate the soil over once the top is cleared,’ was the offer made by the Site Manager who obvious was keen to use his rotovator on anything he could.

‘No, it’s fine I can dig it all out,’ I replied.

The thought of the roots being chopped into hundreds of individual bindweed plants filled me with horror. Bindweed has this defence mechanism inherent within all bad weeds which are deep rooted or invasively spread their roots - they don’t want to come out easily. As soon as you give bindweed a tug it snaps, says goodbye to the piece left behind, and asks it to carry on the fight and keep tunnelling.

The only way to have any chance is to dig it out, and keep digging it out, and keep digging it out.
Does bindweed offer us anything? Not really, as its seeds are toxic and alkaloids are present throughout the plant.

Bindweed is one allotment challenge faced by many plot holders. Like the Forth Road Bridge it needs constant attention and maintenance. Turn your back for a few weeks and it spreads its roots and once it surfaces it binds itself to anything and everything vertical in its sprint and quest to reach the sky. The basic difference between it and Japanese Knotweed is that it must be supported in its upward quest. If left for a season it can create a blanket over whatever it found to climb and unravelling it often becomes impossible. It does have attractive white bell-shaped flowers but these merely hide the sinister weaving tentacles behind. It is said that its flowers can be made into a cold tea and when drunk it can act as a laxative, well that is somewhat appropriate!

‘Lovely climbing flower over there,’ say the novice gardener.

‘That’s bindweed!’ comes the voice of gardening experience.

Finally, there is the problem of disposing of the dug-up bowl of spaghetti. There are many alternatives with some advocating burning, but that’s not altogether acceptable today. Some advocate bagging it for green waste, but that’s hoping that the refuse collectors can treat it. Some bag it and then apply the chemical killers. However, the one thing is certain, it doesn’t go on the compost heap.  
Mind you, we gardeners do like a good challenge.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

How do we Water the Plot?

Today the blue skies have turned to grey and heat and sunshine to cold and rain. One month we have the highest rainfall on record, floods and many find the soil just too waterlogged and heavy to do anything. Then a couple of months later we are basking in the heat and days go by without any rain and we find the soil has baked hard and dry. Such is the allotment plot holder’s lot.

If only we could have stored all that excess water into some enormous water tank to see us through the dry period.

Some allotments have water troughs which work brilliantly when they are next your plot but can be trying when they are expected to serve a dozen or more plots. My daughter had a plot where the end of the plot was some sixty feet away from the trough, but the other end of the plot was a further long and especially gruelling hike in the heat of summer when carrying two cans. Then when everyone was around and the water demand emptied the trough, a further hike was needed to the next trough. I called the game ‘chasing the water’ as all the troughs emptied in unison and queues formed to grab fresh water as soon as it started to fill in the trough.

I am aware of several sites who are lucky enough to have their own underground source via established wells or new bore holes. This is a great way forward but is only available to the few.

At our site we have lots of mains-fed troughs and everyone can take as little or as much as required. This however can have its own problems. Some plot holders elect to use an old big paint bucket not a can. In goes the bucket into the trough and like those large dredger buckets, water is instantly scooped up. It’s hard to direct buckets and water is often poured indiscriminately straight over the plot. For a brief moment the plot can resembles a paddy field. No sooner has the soil absorbed one bucket than another lands.

At our site we ban the use of hose pipes and siphoning water. We do have several additional mains taps available for washing, drinking or to aid taking tablets. It’s interesting that these are rarely used for filling cans as it take too long.

As a Society we all universally share the water bill, which is also highlighted, along with insurance and sink fund within the annual rent. Currently the water element is £10 per year. That equates to 12p a week, or 83p a month, and may be regarded as cheap. We do not switch off the water at any time during the winter or meter individual troughs.  

But in today’s environmental climate we all must constantly ask ourselves, are we doing enough? Do we, or should we incentivise plot holders to do more to collect rainwater and reuse it and for others to use less mains water?

The problem does not have a simple solution and sites will vary by location, topography and structure, size and layout and diversity of plot holders and habits.

It cost me over £50 to gutter my shed and install a water butt. The shed is 7x5 and frankly it collects some water albeit slowly and can soon be emptied just by the hungry greenhouse next door. Some sheds are larger and will collect more and quicker, but do we want larger sheds at the expense of land and as they are larger, they will also incur higher set up costs? Two plots have water irrigation from their rainwater collections. One has built a large loggia whose roof collects the rainwater and the other has a solar panelled pump attached to their butt. However, can we, or should we permit loggia type extensions to offset mains water and expect all to expend this amount of money? After all some would argue these systems can take up growing space, are clearly expensive and can only distribute what is collected and when empty need to be topped up.

So how do we move forward responsibly? How do we exercise some sort of collective responsibility?
When drought orders are imposed, allotments tend to be excluded.

Should we ration water to all and how would this work? Should we increase the revenue collected and offer cost incentives if water usage drops? Should we look at opportunities to collect soakaway and is it even practical? Should we insist that all new sheds, greenhouses, even polytunnels collect rainwater in order to get approval?

Our redeveloped Trading shed collects rainwater and we have plans now to collect rainwater and provide storage from our pavilion roof as part of a disabled beds project. These commendable incentives only tackle a small part of the overall issue and again only apply to ourselves.

Perhaps there should be a central sprinkler system which comes on automatically and covers all plots as if they were agricultural land? Any additional water needs would be down to the individual and yes, greenhouses and polytunnels could collect their own rainwater.

Perhaps the issue is that mains water is too cheap and while ever that remains the case, there is little incentive to seek alternative solutions.

We all have different issues, opportunities and challenges but perhaps it’s time to start a serious debate and a national, regional or civic research programme and initiatives on water at the allotments…

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Do Allotment Widows Still Exist?

Mention the word ‘allotment’ to many and they instantly picture a Monty Don character busy digging their plot out in the fresh air. They think about huge onions, pumpkins and long straight beans. But is this a true picture of allotments today or just a perception nurtured over time? Do we ever see Mrs Don? Is there a Mrs Don? Why is he portrayed as an image of a solitary figure working the soil in all weathers with his two faithful dogs? Why do we always see one person in front of camera? Do they all live alone?

Who is the man or woman behind the Allotment plot holder, and do they spend their time elsewhere as an Allotment Widow or Widower?

A round of golf, a social drink at the 19th hole and getting to and from the Golf Club can all take the best part of half a day. If like me, you hit plenty of balls into the rough, or even further afield, you can be on the course a long time and often to the frustration of those behind and alongside you on the fairway. Hence I never really took to golf, or it didn’t take to me. However, cast a thought for the loved one left behind and hardly seen all week as you throw yourself into your work morning, noon and night then at the weekend turn them into a Golf widow or widower.

Then there is the Fishing widow or widower. The angler often heads off at some unearthly hour with their tackle, maggots, sandwiches, flask, folding chair and good book to read. They leave their other half asleep, dreaming of all the things they could have done together. The car is also seconded into the expedition and taken to sit all day parked by itself. It’s not an excuse to spend the day half asleep watching the river flow, reading a book and occasionally hooking some poor unsuspecting fish. No, it is a personal challenge between man and fish. Fishing is a serious pastime and was said to be the UK’s favourite sport. The angler returns home to proudly show the other half mug shots of fish that were released back into the river, panoramic pictures which fully capture the whole fish and outstretched arms, but everyone gets to enjoy preparing the fish, gutting, descaling it and then cooking dinner and listening to endless tales of how it was landed.

Instead of stories about that perfect drive down the fairway or that 30 foot putt, or the one that got away, do allotment holders go home with endless stories of the aphids who have descended on the Broad Beans, or the new seedlings that have just emerged and stuck their heads above the soil?

There is then the Sporting widow or widower. Whether its watching or playing this pastime is becoming more inclusive of the family. Men and women play and enjoy watching all sports even the macho ones like rugby and boxing. The terraces that once were male domain are no longer single sex and welcome all, maybe sometimes under duress and with little understanding of the rules.

Do allotments promote the Allotment Widow, or Widower? Are allotments solitary or family orientated?

Today the allotments are changing and starting to see a resurgence of interest from all quarters. They are not so much about growing those specimen and traditional vegetables and more about environment, community outreach, providing a wide variety of food and of course mental and physical exercise for all.

Today 60% of our allotment plots are still classed as single use leaving the remainder double use. However, the trend toward family participation and interest is growing and this is changing and challenging perceptions for the good.  The ethnic divergence is clearly widening and with it the insights and understanding of different methods of growing and many different varieties of produce.

We may finally start to bury those exhibition vegetables and prizes.

The social and age demographic is also changing and less than 30% of our plot holders are retired. Mind you those on today’s waiting list may be retired by the time they get a plot! The affluent openly mix with those not so affluent, as there is no social divide on the plots. 

The allotments are changing and are no longer an escape from others but a place for everyone to go and enjoy, and in doing so allotments are part of wider community not an escape from it.

Monday, 27 April 2020

How Big is your Shed?

As allotments increasingly engage the whole family and become more a social activity, then the demand for the perceived associated accessories grows.

‘We need a deck area. I’ve seen a great one at B&Q’ says one half of the plot.

‘I can’t grow stuff through a wooden floor’, replies the other half.

‘Who’s talking about growing stuff? I need somewhere to relax with my glass of wine.’

‘Glass of wine! You’ll be wanting loungers and a parasol and an artificial grass deck next.’

‘That’s a point. B&Q has some nice furniture on offer today and I saw one of those Mexican outdoor oven thingies. We could have a BBQ at the end of the day.’

‘Next you’ll be wanting a new shed.’

‘Well that thing is a disgrace. Have you seen the one opposite? Now that’s what I call a shed.’

They both look towards what best could be described as a shed with a conservatory extension, double gazing, sun loungers, big brick BBQ with chimney and a building fit for any gentrified suburban back garden.

Today the gulf of expectation between some old and new, affluent and not so affluent plot holders can be wide. Is this wrong, or right? Once a shed standard is set, is it set for ever, or open to change?

Historically the shed was often six by four and for keeping tools, seeds and other stuff in. It then started to get bigger, but its purpose remained largely the same. There was a space to sit out on but not a large area.

We went on Mediterranean holidays and saw vine covered balconies and verandas. We became more al fresco in our living, the outdoor indoor house become the conversion grail. No TV makeover was complete without the eating area, sitting space and loggia. These obviously had an influence on some plot holder’s expectations.

The cultural and ethnic mix within the sites also was changing and as they became more inclusive and diverse the family al fresco style increased. 

I remember being invited onto my then CEO’s new boat in Cowes. It was impressive and obviously he had a huge bonus that year and was taking the nautical life seriously. I looked at the cabin of this ‘gin palace’ and he caught me looking at the hanging plant baskets, the painting on the cabin wall and the ultra-modern furniture.

‘That’s all going tomorrow,’ he said double guessing my thoughts. ‘She did it when I wasn’t looking.’

‘I was only thinking how it would fair in the English Channel’,  I replied taking another sip of my G&T.

Having experienced some excessive ‘extensions’ and patio creep we have reiterated within our rules the shed and associated standards. We have been told one thing was being built, only to find something completely different and twice the size went up. We have now introduced a planning permission process whereby all ‘erections’ have to be submitted to the Site Manager and approved by Committee first. It’s not a case of being over bureaucratic, it’s a case of being fair to all and exercising some control. When some leave, the plot is reviewed and some existing ‘sheds’ maybe will have to come down.

The days of build first ask later no longer exist here.

The pictures were by kind permission of  B Bulcock and J Smith respectively. 

Friday, 24 April 2020

The Allotment Vacuum

This time of year you get the plot ready for the season ahead. This involves lifting the tarpaulin which has suppressed the weeds and kept the plot warm over winter and in doing so discover the host of little critters who have made it their home and shelter from those storms over Winter.

Worms, snails, slugs, some woodlice and the odd earwig all race for cover as the tarpaulin comes off and they are exposed to the bright Spring sunshine and blinded by the light. As they scurry off and dig for shade, they shout obscenities and curse you and your family.

I am a ‘dig the plot’ person and although I understand the ‘no dig’ approach it’s not for me. It was just how one is brought up to support one side of the city and not the other. Few cross the line from United to City, from Liverpool to Everton or Wednesday to United and the same applies to dig versus no dig.

The new stainless-steel fork prongs soon get stuck into the soil which was dug over in late autumn so now is relatively easy to work. I tend to get bored working from side to side or back to front, so after a quick stop to admire the dug earth, it’s often a change of direction and fresh impetus to the dig.

‘Can you quit stopping and changing direction and just get a move on!’ comes a cry from behind.

I turn and there sitting on the wheelbarrow sits Robin with his wings folded and tapping his right foot with obvious impatience. He has a half devoured little worm hanging like a piece of spaghetti from his beak and which is about to be sucked fully into his mouth.

‘Aren’t you supposed to leave the little ones and throw them back so they can grow a bit bigger?’ I ask, concerned for the worm who is now trying to wriggle free. ‘After all, the soil needs them too.’
I can’t repeat the response Robin gave me but I didn’t know where he picked up that sort of language. Perhaps it was when my neighbour was having difficulty putting up the bean supports last year. I remember he was sitting inspecting the work and was not impressed. I seem to recollect expletives clouded the air as the supports collapsed under the weight of the words screamed in frustration.

‘Can you take some of the snails and those wood lice?’ I ask pointing to a cluster of snails trying to hide within their houses and lice making a rush towards a scaffold plank.

‘Snails have a home on their little backs and a mortgage to pay on it, so that wouldn’t be nice,’ he replies.

‘What about the woodlice?’ I ask.

‘Have you ever tried eating those beasts? They are hard and take a long time to soften up enough for my little brood to be able to eat,’ he responds almost spitting out his words in disgust at the thought.
‘Fair point,’ I reply as I turn and start digging again. I do hope the little worms can make it, but fear Robin is like as good as any Dyson vacuum and can suck them out with little effort before they can dive down into the safe depths of the soil.  

I can feel those little eyes burning a hole in my back and can hear his little hops from one little morsel to another. A quick flight into the depths of climbing rose and back again to resume food patrol.

After a while I join my ever-faithful whippet Lottie on the bench for a hard earned rest.

‘Only a bit more to dig over’, I comment with an admiring glance over the dug plot.

Lottie has been lying on her pillows watching me with little interest but is quick to offer advice and keep me on my toes. She loves the pillows which she puffs up and sinks into every time she attends the plot. She will not go onto the bench without them and always waits patiently while I get them from the shed.

‘There’s a bit at the back I think you may need to do again’, she suggests pointing to where I had just stopped.

‘Forget that, I was thinking of packing in for today and going home’, I respond.

‘I agree, it’s my teatime and I am getting cold watching you and your mate over there.’
‘You mean Robin?’ I ask.

Yes, the thing thinks he shares the plot with you, and you are here just to feed him in worms. But he does very little in return.’

‘But he is cute,’ I responded.

‘You told me I was cute, but you had better not try and fob me off with worms! Come on, it’s time for my tea.’ She clearly was making a move and without being told had jumped off her pillows and the bench and was standing waiting and looking at the pillows and pointing her paws towards the shed.
I glance over to where I left my fork standing upright in the soil. There on top sits Robin eyeing the ground from his new perch. Failing to spy any new prey he turns his head towards me.

‘Ok, I get the message. You’re off and I’ve had my fill for today,’ Robin states. ‘Just make sure you are back early tomorrow. I’ve got a brood to feed.’

I pack up and I am a bit embarrassed to tell him I am not coming tomorrow. Do you think he will forgive me?

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Gardening is in the DNA

I was once asked, ‘How did you get into gardening?’

My answer was simple, ‘It’s in my DNA.’

I was brought up by generations of gardeners, all of whom were dedicated to their gardens and some who won accolades and prizes for their efforts.

The family originates for Birmingham and the Black Country. I have seen photos of my Great Granddad’s garden overflowing with plants and laid out to impress. My Granddad won awards for his garden and I still have the mantelpiece clock he was awarded in the 30s for his ‘Best Garden in Birmingham’. The clock no longer works but the inscription still stands proud. i recently was told that that gardening in our family goes even further back to the Victorian days and we even had a Head Gardener in our linage. 

Above is a waterclour painting I did of my Granddad debudding (  

When my Granddad moved to Sheffield in the 50s, he set about establishing his garden. Borders were soon stocked, there was a chrysanthemum bed and vegetable bed, a dahlia bed and of course a shed and greenhouse. His lawn was like a snooker table and with pockets could have hosted ‘Pot Black’.

Being the youngest of three and with my dad having died when i was very young, I spent lots of time with my granddad and inevitably in the garden. I think I was his little helper although at the time I

probably didn’t realise the impact his lessons would have on me.

I remember the ritual dusting down and splitting of the Dahlias, the dis-budding of the chrysanthemum and the endless mowing of the lawn. His tomatoes and cucumbers were never ending during the summer. He swore by his John Innes 2 and 3 and at the time it just looked like soil to me. There was also that pungent smell of the greenhouse winter wash down with Jeyes fluid. All this was done with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and Grandma just looking on.

Right is a portrait i painted of my Grandma in the garden (

He also looked after my Mum’s garden whilst she went back to work. I remember well the rockery he built across the front of the house and the many admires and comments it got from neighbours and passes by. No one ever asked where he got the rocks but I bet a quarry in Derbyshire is missing some.

Later my mum finally got time to tend her garden and show that she too had picked up the art of gardening. She taught me about growing fruit and vegetables. After all and with three kids to feed, she had to be practical. She could grow crops in the smallest of space and wasn’t into giving too much room for Granddad's chrysanthemums.

The only habit both had was to take cuttings and strong belief in ‘plants for free’. I think all keen gardeners love to split and divide, sow their own seeds and take hard and soft wood cuttings, but mum went that extra mile and always had a small plastic bag in her handbag when she went anywhere near a garden. When she got home out popped along the bag full of cuttings she appears to have acquired on her journey. The windowsills were permanently full of her 'experiments'.

Granddad helped me with my first garden. Of course, I did everything wrong, but he still encouraged me and I would find little parcels of plants by the back door together with instructions.

As I moved around the country and changed jobs and homes I always created a new garden, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Hampshire, Bath. I wonder what the are like now and how much remains. Some plants travelled with me and I still have some today that have lived either inside or outside multiple homes.

When I first came to London it was a shock to not have a garden. I still had Bath, but it wasn’t the same.

My daughter then got an allotment in Leyton and asked for help. One look at the plot and she needed it! I think the rubbish tip over the back had over spilled onto her plot and the previous tenant obviously like burning anything and everything and that was without the jungle that occupied the rest of the plot. Looking back, it was a great experience and hard work especially given the water trough was a good 100 yards from the plot. We learnt about poly tunnels and grew some great fruit, but it was a trek for both of us. She got married and I got my plot 10 minutes’ walk from home.

She now has a small back garden and raids my allotment at peak season but still grows lots in two small areas. Me, well I am spoilt and enjoying being Lost in the Plot.    

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Beware Pigeons on Allotments at Six O Clock

Following my bad experience with Purple Sprouting Broccoli last year, I decided to experiment this year. I left a couple of Purple Sprouting Broccoli and a Romanesco Broccoli outside a newly erected netted tent whilst the rest were all safe and tucked up inside the new tent. The objective was to establish which will survive best and make it to the dinner table?

Last year I had a bumper crop in the making and it was already to be harvested, but and there is always a 'but', every day I was greeted with, yet another plant stripped of sprouts. It like the monster fish that got away from the angler. The leaves were left but apart from Percy Pig on the Farm, who wants those? It was if a combine harvester had paid a midnight visit and systemically stripped the plan bare.

I thought at first it was down to those pesky vermin with furry tails. If it stands still and can be eaten Sidney Squirrel and his mates think if fair game. I am not sure if it’s down to what he can carry, what he can squirrel away in his many hiding places, or he is trying to fool everyone that he hasn’t been there? But Sidney’s modus operandi is to only take a bit at a time.

I did accused Freddie Fox and was told he didn’t like greens and even his cubs have been brought up on proper food. He was also adamant there were no rabbits or rats allowed on his plots, ‘So don’t bother looking there.’

A fellow plot holder then pointed to the skies and told me that it often resembled the night bombing raids over the East End. This time however it was the 6th Luftwaffe Pigeon Squadron. They have apparently got night vision goggles and detailed maps of all the plots and like the Baedeker raids of the Second World War know just were to strike hard and dampen allotment morale. I took this insight with a pinch of salt and thought it to be an overstated urban myth. After all Pigeons unlike Canadian Geese don’t fly in formation and in flight they resemble more a bunch of flying ill-disciplined Kelly’s Heroes.

I must find out who or what was stripping my Broccoli.

It would take an army of battle hardy slugs to get even close to this level of damage and they would probably get preoccupied on munching through the leaves. As they have little idea how to cover their tracks, they would also have left a trial of slimy DNA behind. Snails are even less likely to be able to carry their little houses on their backs to such dizzy heights and if they did carry them up how could they descend with a full stomach of Broccoli back down. Also they tend to set up estates with their tiny houses huddled together.

I decided to get up early to see who the night raiders were.

I arrived to find yet another plant stripped of its shoots.

Over my shoulder i could hear whispering but could only make out the odd ‘coo.’

I turned to face a line of pigeons. Yes, it was the 6th Luftwaffe Pigeon Squadron complete with leather jackets and Broccoli emblems painted of their 'kills' down their wings. Obviously they were very proud of their kills. They were chatting away to each other with the odd one or two keeping watch and staring straight at me. Suddenly the call of, ‘Bandits at 6am,’ went out and they took to the skies. A quick circle over my head and they were off.

This year I decided to start the experiment early. This meant that I also had a chance of outsmarting those white butterflies who appear from nowhere and deposit their baby caterpillars to munch through the leaves of the cabbage family.

When the harvest was ready to be picked and not day before, the plants on the outside of the tent suffered a blitzkrieg from the 6th Luftwaffe Pigeon Squadron but those inside the tent were left protected by the netting barrage that surrounded them.

Interestingly the one Romanesco Broccoli outside the tent was left untouched. Perhaps they haven’t acquired a taste for the Romanesco Broccoli yet, or fathomed out how to unlock its flower and just stick to the simple fare they grow up on.

I sometimes see the odd member of Squadron flying overhead during the day. I now know that his is busy taking aerial pictures for their next target, but i think they have moved onto new and untented target. 

Mind you they have now started dropping those big white bombs all over my greenhouse roof.

I wonder if I have upset them.   

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

You’re on Allotment TV ‘Tomorrow’ Lottie - Take 2

Having filmed all day at the allotments I started to get calls and emails from fellow plot holders, friends and Lottie’s fellow whippets. ‘When is it on TV? What show is it on? What time will it be on? Does Lottie get full credits?’

You feel it only proper to warn folk you are going to be on TV. Well you wouldn’t want them to miss such an informative piece, would you?

After informing everyone I ever knew, exhausting the Christmas list, befriended all those I  had previously unfriended and made sure all Lottie’s friends and those she occasionally sniffed knew, we sat down to watch the show. It was billed as featuring an allotment ‘hero’ and Lottie was rather taken by the title and had found a new air of confidence.

‘Did you tell Elm Tree?’ Lottie asks. ‘You know that was the last time is was on TV. Prime time you know on ‘The Apprentice’. I lied and said, ‘of course,’ and she had already demanded we watch it again last night to witness her 5 seconds of fame. But she did look good!

The show started.

It was one of these fast-moving magazine live shows which frankly was all over the place and featured Angela Rippon as a talking head stuck in isolation and Mr Motivator resurrected and looking like you would expect after all those years off screen. There was no mention of allotments, Lottie or anything about, ‘on the show tomorrow...’

We were deflated, Lottie’s agent rang and wasn’t happy, the extras from the allotments rang asking what had happened, and we received a stream of emails asking if we had dreamt the whole thing up. I started to wonder myself.

Next the BBC said they had a drop out at the last minute and things were being rescheduled for tomorrow.

This time the list of those told was somewhat smaller. After all they can watch it on catch up.

The next day came. Lottie and I went for our walk and rushed back to watch our new favourite TV show.

Just as we raced in to take our place on the sofa in front of the TV, Annie greeted us,  ‘BBC rang the piece has been shifted again, probably Thursday or Friday. Do you want to ring them?’

Lottie looked at me and sulked off to her bed. I picked up my book and the TV was switched off.

Thursday came, nothing. Friday again nothing. I emailed the BBC contact to be told it was being rescheduled for Tuesday next week. I didn’t bother to tell anyone, and Lottie hung her head the whole weekend.

There comes a point when you don’t believe it will happen so get on with everything else. So on the Monday I went off to the bank.

My phone rang whilst I was travelling, ‘You’re on the telly, right now.’ an excited Annie exclaimed.

‘Are you watching it?’ I asked 

‘Yes, mum rang to say Martyn is on the TV. So I switched it on and there you were.’

‘Is Lottie watching?’  

‘Yes but she hasn’t seen herself yet and is going on about Monty Don’s dogs not being cut out of shot. I’ve told her that they probably get paid and are on contract. She wasn’t impressed with your negotiating skills.’

Annie went on, ‘I’ve got most of it on camera so you can see it when you get home. It come across really well.’

The phone started to ring, and SMS messages started to arrive. It appears others had more faith than I did that it would be screened, or they had just switched on to watch Mr Motivator.

Anyway, Lottie was happy in the end as they did get her backside as she trotted in the allotments behind me. ‘Nice shots of the allotments,’ she remarked and then went off for her afternoon siesta.
At the end of the week they BBC canned the show. Lottie says she thought My Motivator was a bad idea.
A special thanks to all who were involved in the filming at the allotments and the hard work undertaken as all we continue to buddy up and support others.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Lottie is Going to be a Star on Allotment TV - Take 1

‘Can we do that again and put a bit more emphasis on….’.  Peter the film director from the BBC asks as he also suggests the sound man to move the boom mike closer.

‘Ok, look at my left ear, and when you are ready.’

I must have said the same words or similar several times now in several locations around the allotments, but these guys are professionals and they just keep going. Lottie is dozing, curled up on the bench. ‘Can I just get some rest here? I’ve been backwards and forwards all over the Farm and allotments today and Iam probably not going to be the star turn you promised me!’ she utters under her breath.

‘Come on Lottie one more time?’

Dogs, especially whippets, like to be filmed and get attention but are not that good at playing bit parts and extras. It’s just not what they were groomed to do.

When the BBC researcher rang and asked what was happening down on the allotments during the Contra virus lockdown and about the history of the allotments. I was more than happy to tell them. The next day they wanted to come and film for some new show. How could I say no? Lottie started to brush her teeth, demand extra brushing and started eyeing up her posh coat and collar.

They sent me a script outline the day before filming. It was about our buddying up with plot holders who were either in self-isolation or shielded. The objective was to prepare their plots, plant them up and maintain them whilst they were unable to work on them. Importantly to give them something to look forward to on their return. They had arranged my neighbour, whose plot I was looking after, also to be filmed via Skype.

‘Where does it mention me and my role?’ asked Lottie. ‘After all, Monty Don doesn’t go anywhere without the dogs.’

‘You’ll be the star once they see you,’ I replied and a questioning look usually reserved for food she has never seen before crosses Lottie’s face.

The day of the filming started early and went on and on and after lunchtime we both looked at each other and asked ourselves, ‘How much longer?’

‘I bet David Attenborough doesn’t have to take this long to create a few minutes of TV,’ Lottie moans quietly in my ear.

‘You’re going to be the talk of the Whippet MeetUp. The other whippets are going to be very envious of you being on TV.’

‘I bet they will never see it and it will be on at some obscene hour when all good whippets are curled up in bed.’ Lottie is now getting bored and thinking of her dinner.

Finally, after some 5 hours the statement is made, ‘Ok I think we’ve got it now. Just going to do some editing and take some GVs.’

I didn’t ask what GVs were. Well you don’t when you’ve been on film all day and have had an assortment of folk looking at you being filmed, do you?

The other plot holders who they captured on film some 3 hours ago have all long gone and Lottie and I now find ourselves held hostage whilst GVs are taken and editing is performed in the pavilion. I look around the door to see the sound man on his mobile whilst he is engrossed on his tablet. Technology has shrunk and communications is such that someone up in Salford is probably co- editing the film into the few minutes required.

‘I hope they got my good side?’ whispers Lottie.

‘Well they wouldn’t want your backside,’ I replied to a disgruntled look from Lottie.

Finally, and rather suddenly, they were off, ‘We’ll send over the consent forms and let you know when it will be screened.’

‘Do I have to sign a consent form too?’ asks Lottie. 
We now await the 5 minutes of Lottie’s fame and she is starting to get excited.

Tomorrow, the TV show.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Dig for Victory

Britain currently grows some 53% of the food its eats and imports around £11bn fruit and vegetables a year. This may surprise many today but more surprising is the fact that in 1939 only around 30% of the food was grown here and the vast majority came from the likes of, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, US and Argentina. This reliance on foreign food was one of the main drivers for the successful ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the Second World War and the introduction of rationing both to rebalance the reliance on imports and combat the queues for food.

In 1942 some 50% of the civilian population was actively engaged in Britain’s ‘Garden Front.’ By 1943 there were some 1.4 million allotment sites throughout Britain. Vegetables were grown on any piece of land and occupied the moat in the Tower of London, Kensington Gardens and the lawn in front of the Royal Crescent in Bath. Not something you would expect to see today.

Today we face different challenges as supermarkets have reduced shelf life and stock holdings. Some 30 years ago they held 12 days stock, today its 24 to 36 hours stock. Today global sourcing and transport has all but removed seasonality and we have a generation that expect everything fresh all year round, strawberries at Christmas, salads in the middle of winter and who wants tinned pineapple when you can get a ripe whole one cheaper off the shelf?

To ‘Dig for Victory’ against today’s virus may be laudable but not practicable as it takes weeks to grow and all produce is impacted by the seasonal weather. We all hope that the migrant pickers that much of the farming industry worldwide relies heavily on are in the right place at the right time.

As for allotments they have shrunk in number over the years but in this climate always enjoy a resurgence of interest. More people are recognising that they offer much more than just fresh healthy food and when land is increasingly being grabbed by the developers to build sky scraper homes in the sky they are part of the future social, environmental, educational, community health and well-being. They can literally tick all the boxes. But we all need to find new ways to provide land for growing as allotments themselves are not the answer but part of the answer. Town planners, developers, and legislators need to think again as this Corona virus has opened a door which needs to be opened wider.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Walking With Animals

 Being able to walk to and work the allotments during these difficult times is one thing, but to enjoy going past some of our neighbours and see their little faces in the sunshine is another.

The allotments are within the Mudchute Park and Farm, the largest urban farms in London and sitting just a short distance from the largest density of residential housing in Western Europe in Canary Wharf and the Docklands.

The skyscrapers reproduce faster than rabbits and what was once a lone tower some twenty years ago is now surrounded by some 30 towers all vying to be the tallest and all now often obscuring the pyramid of One Canada Place tower in the centre.

It can be strange to be working on the plots and having a vista of skyscrapers in the background,  Many are over 50 storeys high and look down on you like an eagle views its prey. It certainly makes you appreciate more the Mudchute oasis within the development spread down the Isle of Dogs.

The farm itself is in lockdown so you are unable to walk through it and miss many of its residents. The pigs are off the path so Peter and his friends are not busy chomping through the last broccoli and cauliflower leaves. Mind you they managed to devour the kale leftovers before the lockdown so have the iron inside them.

The ducks and geese continue to pack their huge enclosure and enjoy their daily exercise in their pool but they say that they miss the cheeky children's faces looking through the fence.

The horses are pleased not to have a dead weight on their backs and still get to trot unaided around the paddock. The donkeys are just donkeys and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Billy and the other goats are a bit put out and although their diet may be healthy and nutritious they tell me that they do miss those exotic delicacies they get from passers by.

We will ignore the cows; most people do!

Chickens may look cute and still race to the fence at the sight of every person they see. However, the expression bird brain is not far off. They may chatter a lot but say little and having a conversation with them is like talking to the cows but noisier.

Now Larry the llama and his adopted parents  -  Shush, no one has told him yet. Well they just amble around looking bored whilst their eyes and heads like submarine periscopes watch and observe. I used to think them very cute until Larry proudly showed me some dental work he had done and I saw the size of his molars!

But the stars of the show this time of year are the wee lambs, which thanks to the midwife Farmer Tom and his team are here and getting their first taste of green grass and mother's milk. Also enjoyinga chance to gamble around with only a few farmhands around.

They all wait until the lockdown is over and normal visiting hours are resumed and the families, school parties and visitors return!

Meanwhile Lottie and I walk quietly past our friends. We may throw a friendly wave and raise a hello and greeting to those we know but leave them to enjoy these peaceful moments in Spring as we walk on by to the plot.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Discussions with Freddie Fox

Today I catch Freddie Fox lying sunbathing on the plot. At first, he becomes aware of someone and potential danger. He sits up tries to out stare me. He then sees Lottie, my faithful whippet, besides me and the two dogs momentarily freeze. Who will blink first?

Lottie, suddenly has had enough of this trespasser and barks out, ‘Don’t mess with me and leave now!’  

Freddie leaps up and duly scurries off, briefly casting a glance over his shoulder and aware he has four eyes following him as he weaves across the plots and disappears behind some sheds at the far side. Lottie gets the pat she deserves and jumps appreciatively onto her bench for a rest.

‘How would i have coped without you?’ i ask mockingly.

‘Don’t mention it. It’s our plot not his.’ Lottie replies, ‘and can i have a treat now please?’ 

Foxes are a fixture at the allotments and only tend to see them early in the morning especially if its sunny and they want a quick warm-up. Rarely do you see them as a pack unless there are cubs and they are teaching them how to behave of the plots. It’s as if they can only go out as single foxes and they probably either draw lots or take it in turns to forage. They are far more scared of us than we of them and disappear at the slightest disturbance or sight of plot holders.

Freddie and his gang have an annoying habit of pooing everywhere. No point in leaving toilet paper or poo bags out as they do it on top of your best veg, on the path, where you have just sown your seeds, round your bench, no place is safe. Their diets are not always the best, so their poo is often, shall we say ‘loose’. I wish they could be plot trained.

Another annoying habit is the midnight walk. You rake your bed over, perhaps sow some seeds in it and the next morning it can look like a crime scene. Paw prints everywhere and never in straight lines! It’s as if they wanted to help and heel in the seeds and flatten the earth. I think they bring on the music and have a disco dance without the lights of course. When i ask Freddie if he did it he always says with a straight faced, ‘Not me guv,’ and waves his paw in the direction of some far-off lair of one of his relatives.

Then there is the redevelopment of your plot. You don’t get chance to see their plans before hand and i doubt they have any. They just start digging and excavating. The next day you are welcomed by a big hole and a mound of earth. Does the hole mean a den? Or, have they started, stopped and forgot to clear up and fill in the hole? They have more attempts than success and its hard to understand where they will start next. Yes, we have tried all the old wives’ recommendations, the fox deterrents but all fail. I didn’t realise that foxes can climb over fences 2 metres high and so our careful laying of large stones at the base of the fence was a fruitless exercise.

Freddie says its best to dig next to a shed as then he doesn’t have to worry about the roof and weather as he sleeps under your feet and can eavesdrop into your every shed move.

Some of the gang are not so clever and just tunnel anywhere and everywhere often creating sink holes. They never did watch those Second Wold War POW films and learn that you must shore up the tunnel otherwise it may just collapse. The other thing they would have learnt is to hide the entrance by removing the excavated soil. Mind you they don’t wear trousers to hide the soil in and disperse it quietly around the plot. They probably think we can use it on the plot!
I once asked Freddie why there was no stones or roots in their earth mounds. He just looked at me and said, ‘but i thought you didn’t want them so i got rid and just left fine soil for you.’ As he scurried off and my foot collapsed into the labyrinth of tunnelling beneath me, I shouted, ‘Thank you!’ 

He didn’t bother to turn around.

I suppose we often don’t appreciate that Freddie and his gang may look dangerous, may be disruptive, leave deposits everywhere but they do keep the vermin away. That’s apart from those with a grey furry tail. 

Now i must talk to Freddie about a squirrel cull.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

‘Come on down’ you have won a Starter Plot!

We all submit our application for a plot and wait. Like waiting to win the lottery it can take a very long time. Sometimes, we may get updates from the Society informing us where we are in the queue, sometime out of frustration we ask and are told, ‘our plots are very busy at this time, you are now fiftieth in the queue and we will be in touch when you get to the top of the list.’

You find yourself passing the allotments and peering in through the fence and dreaming of that smart looking plot full of vegetables with a freshly painted shed to boot. You avert your eyes from the one next to it that resembles Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’, knee high in nettles and an assortment of weeds and a shed that looks as it may collapse if you applied a coat of paint to its fragile surface. You dream of what you can grow and the exotic vegetables you will try to grow and of course the bumper harvests you will reap.

You can’t wait to be one of that select group ‘an allotment holder’ and wear it as a badge of honour and talking point at social gatherings.

The day comes and you receive that call to attend the site as you are now finally top of the list and a plot is now awaits. You have won the lottery; your long wait has been rewarded and you spend time trying on different gardening attire so you can make the right impression. That list of tools you have quietly been compiling comes out of the draw and the reality of the investment starts to sink in.

You arrive onsite to be greeted by the Secretary, Site Manager, Treasurer or whoever performs the induction course. First there is a quick tour and welcomes from those on the plots. Where is everyone you find yourself asking? I thought once you had a plot you would spend every daylight moment working the soil, having endless cups of tea with fellow plot holders, whilst you discuss, seeds, plants, composting and plots.

Most plots turn over either at the end of the season when the plots need putting to bed for winter, or the beginning of the season when they need preparing for the season ahead. These are often the periods of hardest work and least reward. On top of which starter plots often have become available for a reason, which often means that they haven’t been fully or consistently worked. If you are lucky you may get a plot where the current occupier is moving to another plot so it’s in relatively good shape, but this is more the exception than the norm. I remember my plot had been cleared but not dug over and the extension i was offered was waste high in brambles, weeds and even had a concrete pond hidden under the jungle.

Next the paperwork, the rules, the checks and the exchange of money. At this point you let it wash over your head. After all you can read it all when you get home and its cheap, or relatively cheap and how many rules can an allotment need?

The plot may not the one you admired through the fence but more often Tracy’s ‘Bed’. Your heart may sink a bit, but you have a plot and envisage little problems as you’ll soon get it in order. during those early days you keep reassuring yourself.

According to your experience and what the state of the plot you inherit, that first season can be hard. The effort together with the set-up costs is often underestimated. Many do appreciate the amount of effort and time needed.

At our allotments, we give new members half ‘starter’ plots and encourage them to work their way into it. After all you have to train to run a marathon and few can just turn up and run it. After a season and if they have worked it then they can apply to move to a full plot. Some are happy to remain on half plots, some just want a plot and to them size doesn’t matter!

Importantly, after that long wait you have finally joined and become an allotment holder   

Love to hear your starter experience and lessons learnt