Friday 30 October 2020

Virtual National Allotment AGM and New Job


On Saturday we sat patiently waiting looking at our laptop waiting for the National Allotment Society’s (NAS) AGM to Zoom into action.

‘Time for walkies,’ said Lottie as she sat by my side, staring wantonly up at me.

‘Not today. Mummy is taking you out this morning. I’ve got an AGM to attend’ I replied.

She gave me a whippet lost look and ambled back to her bed, flopped down inside and stared back at me with a disappointed look written all over her face.

I click back to the screen which says, ‘Please wait, your host will let you in soon.’ How does the host know Iam here? Why can’t they just ping me and say ‘Hello Martyn, hang on in there we have you logged in to join.’  

For someone who made a living exploiting technology often at the cutting edge and was one of the first to use Skype to communicate with colleagues in US, Australia and then India, I find Zoom frustrating and awkward. I realise it has fast become the conferencing platform of choice. Nodding heads, folk shuffling around and poking their nose not realising we can see them and then the doorbell rings and Zoom hands them the mike!

Another glance at the screen tab and the same, but only 15 minutes to go before 100 nodding heads become exposed and business starts. As we ponder whether to have Zoom, up it pops, and before we know it we have three galleries of 25 mug shots.

The meeting went remarkably well and cleared the agenda and closed promptly on time and was a credit to NAS in their organising. You can certainly hold an AGM if the majority of members are connected and the agenda is kept basic and open discussions are minimised.

So I am now London Region’s Regional Representative as elected by a flurry of waving red cards.

This will change my focus, time and engaging with and learning from as well as representing the London members. Should be demanding and rewarding, but more of that in days and weeks to come. The big question is whether I can continue to write these articles. Again, for tomorrow not today.

However, about these articles. We now have published 100 articles on a wide range of allotment matters and life which have attracted over 22,000 links through to be read, hundreds of Facebook discussions and reactions.

Lottie returns from her walk and runs up to see what I have been up to. Where are all the folk you were meeting with?’ she says looking confusingly round the room.

I reply pointing to the laptop, ‘In there.’

She looks at me and then at the laptop, @You can’t smell them,’ she says and walks away.

A dog’s life thankfully remains devoid of technology and AGMs.

Saturday 24 October 2020

Allotment Community Outreach: 3 From Plot to Community Pot


We often forget that the land that most allotments are on is owned not by the Society, or its plot holders, or in fact by the local authority, but by the community. It may be the local parish council, a local council, or a metropolitan borough whose name is on the freehold, but it remains community land and open space.

So how do allotments integrate and work with the community? In this short series of articles, we look at some of those communities and opportunities. There is no right or wrong approach, just opportunities.

3 Sharing from plot to pot

‘We all grew up in communities with grandmothers who cooked two or three vegetables that you had to eat. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. But that’s because many of our grandparents, they had community gardens; there was a vegetable man that came around. There were many other resources that allowed them to have access. So it’s not that people don’t know or don’t want to do the right thing: they just have to have access to the foods that they know will make their families healthier’.  - Michelle Obama

We may not have grown up in the same community as Michelle Obama but the words ring true of all communities.

We today all have gluts of produce from our allotments which we seek advice on how to preserve, freeze, pickle and make into cordials, wine or spirits. The allotment statute prohibits the sale or commercial gain from the produce we grow. So how much can we produce and how much do we give away to friends, family and neighbours?

Unfortunately collecting excess produce and giving it to needy causes is not easy. First the vegetables must be those wanted or that can be used. It’s little use giving a food bank Patti pans or romesco cauliflowers or even more exotic and ethnic produce - they want basics and things people know how to cook. Equally they need a constant flow of produce and not one week feast the next famine. Finally, the want produce that still has a chance of making it to the plate before it has to be thrown. The logistics of collecting, consolidating, and distributing fresh food is a lot harder than tins and packets but can be far more nutritious.

Our site has a very diverse ethnic mix which reflects the community in which we live. Other sites have a different diversity which reflects their area. The food grown by these diverse groups can be very different and knowing what to do with it or even naming some of it can be challenging. I can safely say that those traditional allotment staples of spuds, beans, carrots leeks cabbage etc are only grown on probably half our plots.

So maybe there are two challenges in sharing excess with the community. Firstly, that of the right produce to the right people at the right time. Secondly educating people about the produce they have probably never seen let alone cooked or consumed. This second opportunity is about plot to pot.

‘We estimate city-wide allotment production of >1200 t of fruit and vegetables and 200 t of potatoes per annum, equivalent to feeding >8500 people. If the 13% of plots that are completely uncultivated were used this could increase production to >1400 t per annum, feeding ~10,000 people, however this production may not be located in areas where there is greatest need for increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables.’ Feb 2020: Feeding a city – Leicester as a case study of the importance of allotments for horticultural production in the UK published by Elsevier Science.

Imagine not only providing the excess produce but teaching groups how to cook it and then serving it up to the homeless, the needy and the community. There are initiatives to do this but they need the produce, and they themselves may need to understand how to prepare and cook it and it has to be served either in a kitchen or taken to folk on wheels.

It would be amazing if sites worked together across a borough or even across a whole city to collect the produce and then with a body, or charity, who could distribute it to the needy. By working together sites could ensure a more consistent flow of fresh produce in sufficient quantities.

It would be amazing if the young unemployed could learn to cook using the excess produce along with other foodstuffs and providing the resultant meals to where they are needed.

When you next put that extra pumpkin, squash, courgette, beans into the compost bins, or you look at the green tomatoes on the window sill, or you look at the freezer crammed with frozen vegetables from the plot ask, if they could be used in the community and how that could happen. 

‘There is enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.’ Mohandas Gandhi.

Friday 23 October 2020

Allotment Community Outreach: 2 Community Land


We often forget that the land that most allotments are on is owned not by the Society, or its plot holders, or in fact by the local authority, but by the community. It may be the local parish council, a local council, or a metropolitan borough whose name is on the freehold, but it remains community land and open space.

So how do allotments integrate and work with the community? In this short series of articles, we look at some of those communities and opportunities. There is no right or wrong approach, just opportunities.

2. Community Land

The allotment acts were set in statue at the beginning of the 20th century to encourage, protect and give impetus to the development of allotments for communities grappling with urban sprawl, industrial pollution, an unhealthy lifestyle, no land on which to grow and general polarisation of society. Today we can change the labels, but the messages are similar. The laws as set out intended that allotments were to be available for a percentage of the population has long gone. The allotment movement went in and out of fashion during the 20th century and the space within urban areas disappeared rarely to return. The Thorpe Report in 1969 put forward the case again, but got short shrift against the materialism, consumerism and social change of the day and the decline in allotment demand continued until the 21st century.

'We also believe that boroughs that have unmet demand for allotments should consider using s106 agreements to compel the developers of high density housing to allocate a portion of land for use as allotments.'  -London Assembly report: A Lot to Loose: London's Disappearing Allotments, Oct 2006.

Today many now seek a return to the health and well being on offer through allotments. The environment, biodiversity, and all things green and healthy may be spoken of by all, but the reality is that concrete and glass development still dominate in a world of exploding population growth. Perfect supermarket vegetables with ‘sell by dates’ are deemed to be better than ‘wonky veg’ and no so perfect vegetables. Allotments continue to be low in the prioritises of local authorities. 

‘The lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives.’ Gertrude Jekyll.

How do we accommodate the children, their parents, community social groups, those less able and effectively create a virtual circle of opportunity to grow? Allotments are only part of the answer and they can help encourage and educate, but they are not the solution but merely part of it.

‘…it must be capable of being applied equally to land used for all forms of recreation, since the only land use criterion distinguishing the allotment from the playing field and the park is the number of people who can be accommodated on it. Those who use this argument – and they include many local councillors – are thinking of ‘value’ purely in commercial terms, whereas the planner, values cannot always be stated in such terms…’ item 654 page 261 section 7 Thorpe Report 1969.

Community gardens are often sighted as the answer, but these often have little protection in the law, are heavily dependent on a small handful of enthusiasts and often are torn between being fully voluntary and requiring funding. Again, they are only part of the solution and not the solution.

Housing Associations (HSA) could provide extremely useful and productive areas within their estates. The major drawback here is that they often can only allocate land to the specific estate’s residents, so again are highly dependent on individuals. Here the HSA will often also require a visually acceptable and managed area which sounds easy but may not be so easy to maintain.

The bottom line is that the land is often owned by a body whose interest may be long term and in conflict with those of those seeking to work it.

'At a time of acute land scarcity, it is not surprising that envious eyes have been cast on urban allotment sites. They are almost invariably to be found within the perimeter of the town, where land is most urgently required. They often lie close to heavily built up areas, where the need for ancillary services is the greatest. As little or no demolition is necessary, they are usually simple to develop. Since the closure of an allotment site affects the lives of only a small minority of the town's inhabitants (and electorate) no great clamour of protest occurs. Finally, many sites, because of their untidiness and neglect, are looked upon by the public primarily as horticultural slums, whose disappearance would add to the attractiveness of the town and would provide space for more homes, schools or playing fields. It follows that if a planner proposes that a site should be developed, he is usually assured of the support both of the local authority and the majority of its ratepayers...' - item 88 page 32 section 1 Thorpe Report 1969.

‘I could put up a nice block of flats there and help meet the housing demand and targets,’ says the developer to the local authority who has steep targets to meet and little land and money to achieve them.

Should planners look to the provision of allotments and community gardens in the same way they look at schools, medical centres, parks, playgrounds? After all, allotments aid education, they can provide prescriptive medicine and health and wellbeing, are the best ‘five a day ’promotion and assist both physical and mental health.

For many allotments are still seen as shanty towns, overgrown wastelands and day care centres for the old.

Is this where we have to think seriously about rooftop gardens, sky gardens, urban growing on industrial sites? 

It is all about balance and as land scarcity increases and housing demand continues to grow, there is perhaps a need for a different approach to planning and provision of open space.

‘I support Alice Waters in her desire that there be a vegetable garden at the White House. I don’t think they should rip up the Rose Garden, because that’s something that I love. They should probably grow some vegetables there.’ - Martha Stewart.

The allotments also need to look beyond their fences and outreach to their communities and engage with them and perhaps alter their food supply and perception of growing and their perception.

Thursday 22 October 2020

Allotment Community Outreach: 1 People and Groups


John F Kennedy once said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ If we substitute community for country, then we have an interesting question to answer.

We often forget that the land that most allotments are on is owned not by the Society or in fact by the local authority but by the community. It may be the local parish council, a local council, or a metropolitan borough name on the freehold, but it remains community land. So how do allotments integrate and work with the community? In this short series of articles, we look at some of those communities and opportunities. There is no right or wrong approach, just opportunities.

1.       People and Groups

Many allotments accommodate a local school; a plot where those lucky enough to work it are taught into potentially becoming tomorrow’s allotment and leisure gardeners. They also can benefit from environmental studies and awareness about recycling, soil management, the impact of weather changes and an understanding of horticulture, nature, and biodiversity are on offer. An exposure to all aspects of health and wellbeing be it fresh food, physical exercise, mental, biodiversity, wildlife, as well as the basic relationship between growing produce and domestic science are also there for the schoolchildren to appreciate.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. I would not limit to seven and an child engaged in an allotment will influence others and could even teach their own parents and enthuse them. The skills learnt will never be forgotten and are practical ones that can be used later in life.

We have a plot run by the caretaker of the local school who has a group of children who are engaged in the plot and we would love to have more but we don’t have the space. Perhaps this is where allotments. can go now, into the schools to help establish plots and start them on their journeys of discovery? 

Last year the schoolchildren who work the plot won a London award presented by Alan Titchmarsh.  

In today’s inner cities ‘house with garden’ is being displaced by the ‘flat with balcony’ and in many cases without balcony. Space is shrinking and so skyscraper towers are starting to dominate the landscape. Here in Docklands we have the highest density of residential housing in Western Europe and an area in Canary Wharf with a population greater than the largest of UK cities. This means the young never experience growing off the land and the older community must confine it to memory. Today our site is over 250% oversubscribed and that means you would be lucky to get a plot in 25 years. But they still join our waiting list which is growing by the month.

The allotment can’t accommodate more; we have already cut many plots in half and all new starters must start on a half plot which in real terms is actually a quarter plot. Perhaps we should take the allotments to the people? We have one initiative with a housing association to create community garden plots within the estate land which is often grassed and planted for low maintenance. We are getting those in the estate and on the waiting list engaged and, if it works, aim to push it further.     

Then there are those less fortunate than us who have physical and mental challenges and could not work a plot without supervision, help and care. It is not easy finding the right group and even harder to find the right space, but it can be extremely rewarding all round. It is not a case of building disabled beds and looking for the group, but perhaps working with a group to meet their special needs. Again, the space does not have to be within the allotments, it is about sharing time and experience to help other less fortunate enjoy what we take for granted.

There are also prescriptive plots or gardens where those suffering from long term illness or recovering from major problems can build back their lives in a social space and with an interest in growing and with a purpose to broadening education.

Finally, a doctor started to bring a few of their hospital co-workers to their plot. We had to check who the visitors were and authorise it during Covid but suddenly the plot was transformed in a season and you realised that key workers need a break, need to unwind and allotments are the perfect tonic for many. It certainly makes you think about the wider community.   

Winston Churchill once said, ‘The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.’ You cannot cover all the community opportunities, neither can you always get them right, but in today’s space poor environment we perhaps should share more.  

Wednesday 21 October 2020

The Return of the Plot Inspection?


Like many sites we suspended plot inspections back in March and put in measures to support those isolating, shielded and with problems. Plot buddies helped maintained a small number of the plots to ensure when the plot holder returned, they didn’t face a jungle and a mountain of a task. The site always remained open albeit with several new rules to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

Today we continue to now face a winter of new tiered uncertainty and challenges. We have dealt with changing the site locks and reissuing key and collecting rent and issuing shares and are preparing to hold our first committee meeting. But is it now time to reintroduce plot inspections?

A small number of plots remain on support, but many have returned to their owner’s hands. However, of the plots who did not request support or want it, not all have been attended or continually maintained. So, we have a decision to make, and one probably facing other sites too. Do we resume plot inspections now, as we normally would, or leave it till Spring? If we leave it till Spring are we sure that the situation will be back to normal by March?

If we inspect today, we can ensure all plots are ready for winter, waste is composted, the plots are weed free and all are awaiting Spring sowing and planting? There are obviously winter crops and those over wintering, but the rest should be cleared. Some will cover the unused areas in tarpaulin, others with manure and some just dug over all ready for Spring.

The question is do we, or do we not, have inspections?

If we don’t a small number of plots will remain as they are today and will be even harder to get into shape in the Spring. A small number of plots today are in an unacceptable state. Some covered in  rampant bindweed and couch grass and their paths have been neglected. These will certainly be harder to clear when those weeds become reinvigorated. Some who have failed to get on top of their plots this year face a real task next year if they do not clear the plot today. Some would question if they should retain the plot when we have a 250% over subscribed waiting list today?

I do not have the answer, it is up to the committee to decide. Allowance can always be made for the genuine case and we have a couple of those. However, if some want to work the plot as a patchwork quilt (a small square a season) perhaps it is time for them to downsize or move on. Those who do not have the time will probably never have the time. We have already reached 10% allocation of half plots and this looks likely to increase.  

However, it’s ironic that several plots have again attracted my eye this year. Four are worked by octogenarians who have continued to turn up regularly in all weathers and whose work ethic and plots are a joy to witness. I hope I can show the same commitment when I reach that age. The schoolchildren’s plot which was maintained by the caretaker during the school closure has once again seen the return of the kids. The doctor’s plot which has been shared with her NHS key worker colleagues as a respite from their constant pressures is looking the best it has in years. In fact many plots are now looking the best they have for some time and have certainly been productive this year.

Plot inspections are always hard as we are not always aware of the circumstances as to why the plot has not been fully worked. We also have to acknowledge that different ethnic groups not only grow different produce but maintain their plots differently. But all plots should be cleared at the end of the season.

Normally plot inspections cover the plot’s total growing area, the maintenance of adjacent path, the storage at the back of the plot or lack of rubbish collected.

We normally give a failed plot 14 days to fix it or appeal against it. If the failure remains and no appeal is upheld then the plot holder is given 14 days notice. However, if we decide to fail a plot this late in the year it would appear only fair to give them say six weeks to fix the issue. This extension is needed due to the shorter days, more volatile weather and the fact that rubbish has to be cleared also.

Whatever is decided I am sure the message will get out that inspections are on the agenda again and that is enough to motivate some.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Water Bill Shock


It was a shock to read our water meter and discover that our consumption had almost doubled this year.

How much water have you used this long hot summer?

The bill was certainly is a wakeup call, but what can we do, or should we do about it? After all it was extremely hot and dry for a long period and many were forced to water their plots more regularly than normal. So, will our usage return to normal next year? However, due to increased demand we increased the water charge element only a couple of years ago.

Many take the provision of water as a given and because they pay a universal charge for it in with their rent assume it will continue to flow and we can afford it. This assumes all summers are the same which they are not and that the current charge covers costs which some years it does and others it does not.

I now look at a row of sheds below my plot and see that none of them are capturing any rain runoff. I look at rainwater butts on some plots which have not been used and wonder why? Perhaps it is too easy to draw water from the many mains fed water tanks we have instead.

The mains tanks are only a couple of plots away from any plot which begs the question on both their numbers and the convenance of access. In one area there are three half plots and two full size plots being served by 4 tanks which is surely questionable. They are old lead tanks and are refilled by ballcocks, so water does not overflow and refilling is controlled.

Water also remains switched on all year round. Is this wise given it is hardly needed between October and March? Should we close off half or all tanks over Winter and if we did, would it make much difference? We could cover the tanks and lock them, so no access is possible. Should we reduce the mains pressure such that refilling takes a lot longer and so prompts less being drawn?

Should we insist on rainwater collection on all new sheds and encourage its adoption on all existing ones? Some may argue that the cost of guttering and fixtures plus a butt is too much and they are better off with even a higher universal charge, but is this sustainable and wise? But if mains water were further away or pressure reduced would this encourage a different viewpoint?

Then there are those who simply fill an old 10 litre old paint bucket which can only be applied by literally tipping it all out and flooding areas and not selective watering plants. We already ban hose pipes and water irrigation systems that tap into mains water, but should we ban plot flooding and enforce using watering cans?

Last year as part of refurbishing the trading shed we installed a spare tank to collect rain water and this water is now used to water the new community greenhouse and plants and those around the pavilion. This year we can do the same with the pavilion and this should provide significant water but in the wrong place for many plots and only service one site. However, this could be a winter supply but again only applicable to one site.  

There is then the issue of soil improvement to retain moisture. Should we educate and expect everyone to fully or take a more active engagement in composting, adding manure and other bulking materials? As we now have the wide adoption of raised beds we must recognise these may dry out quicker and need more water and so potentially add to the issue of demand.

There are certainly no quick answers.

It is only correct that we pay for what we use. It is impossible to police the use of mains water and impractical and illogical to meter individual tanks. So how do we reduce the use of mains water and promote rainwater collection and more sparing use of water altogether?

Thursday 8 October 2020

Raising the Bed Day 1 and 2


‘Who painted those bits of timber?’ asks Robin staring down at his feet.

I reply, ‘I did of course. Nice colour, it’s Forest Green.’

‘I know it is green. I have it all over my feet!’ exclaims Robin pointing the tips of his wings towards two green feet’.

‘Sorry, but it will wash off.’

‘If it will wash off why did you put it on?’ answers a bemused Robin.

I’ll have to think about that one as watch him hop off to a new perch with his new green undercarriage.

The debate over raised beds and whether they are fashion or the true and only way to grow will continue and many will dig in and remain rooted in their viewpoint. Like dig versus no dig opinions are often fixed and aligned to one side of the fence or the other.

On day one we started our raised bed venture. Would we have started if we had not been given a load of timber decking? I doubt it.

In response to the post Grenfell building and insurance licence needs, our estate has had to ban timber decking from balconies and any installed have had to be removed. So, armed with good timber reclaimed from just a couple of balconies and which was destined for the skip, we decided to build some raised beds.

Like many gardeners one skims the hundreds of ‘how to’ and ‘best approach’ information that litter the internet and then decide to do it our own way. Many will say, ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘good idea’, but…

So first the decision was taken not to do the whole plot but one area some 18 feet by 16 feet and to leave the rest as is. The area is relatively flat and has good soil.

The second decision was the size and layout of the beds. I did not want to create loads of unproductive paths but equally I didn’t want huge beds I could not lean over and touch all within. The timber dictated both length and width and even height. So they were to be two metres long and one metre wide with four beds across the back and three at the front. As for the height two planks or just shy of a foot.

I know some say it’s not a raised bed unless its 2-foot-high, others have different heights but as I said, timber dictates and frankly there is no right or wrong answer just opinion.

The next exercise was to level the area which sounds easy but is not and it’s interesting to find a slope you never knew. Then we laid a sheet of tarpaulin across. The tarp eventually would sit under the paths and the edges of the beds and be cut inside the beds and rolled back and up inside the timbers to offer some protection. But for now, it protected the soil and hopefully deterred Mr. Fox.

As AstroTurf was also coming off balconies and going to land fill I collected enough to lay on top of the tarp to make the paths. Some may argue that Astro Turf is not environmentally friendly and I would agree but it is better to be used here than be dumped in landfill and some would say it is effective recycling and best of all, it’s hated by slugs.

Halfway into making the frames it started to rain and I was running out of screws, so rain stopped play on day one.

Day two I discovered Foxy had proudly examined my work and left a huge sloppy mess on the planks. Was that his endorsement of the work or what he thought of it?

Today I quickly finish off the fourth of the raised beds and line them up for painting.

I think it better to get the back beds tucked in and asleep than build more and find problems.

The work is interrupted by some nice rotted manure coving available at the farm. So armed with wheelbarrow and bags, eight large sacks are collected and piled onto the plot. Muck is heavy and an old man’s back aches with the loads, so it is back to painting.

I have a crowd of spectators gathered around to see what is happening. Squirrel sits on top of the last sunflower busy scoffing the seeds and pretending he is at some sporting event and sitting back watching the action. Lottie is on her bench and has one eye on me and one on the squirrel and dreaming of the chase. The black and white moggy from the farm is creeping around the back of the plot watching me. The Robin is perched on the bee house.

This is where the sloppy fence paint ends up on your hands, on the floor and all over your clothes and shoes and if you are lucky, the frames. It’s a good job I’ve got a green tarpaulin as it hides the drips and splodges of paint.

I finish off two frames and then take a break before swapping them over to paint the other two. The paint may look dry, it may be touch dry, but you end up with paint lines all over and hoots of laughter from the audience. That is except for Robin who is now puzzled by the green footprints he is leaving behind him and uttering expletives at me under his red breast.

‘I heard that!’ I shout across at him.

‘Good, I ment it!’ he replies.

Finally, job done and time to go home and I look proudly over my paintwork and think tomorrow they will be lined up and filled.

Just then a pigeon who must have been on a recce deposits a nice white dollop on one of the frames. Are they trying to tell me something these neighbours of mine?

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Another Day Another Garden


When your daughter requests you to help clear a garden, how can you refuse? However, this was no ordinary garden and it was not even her garden.

My daughter is Chair of Hackney Women’s Night Shelter and they have taken on a house in Hackney to provide shelter for some 9 women and are in the process of decorating and getting it ready for occupying this month. The house has a fair size back garden full of mature planting and is somewhat neglected and overgrown. So, they wanted it tiding up and cleared so all could enjoy it and its sanctuary.

I enrolled my allotment buddy and neighbour Anna and together we went last week to visit the house, its garden and size up the job. We decided a one day blitz would do it and so yesterday we went armed with tree loppers, rachet extending secateurs, hand secateurs, saws, trowels, and a big roll of heavy-duty black bags.

Strange but viewing a garden and starting to work one are two different experiences. When you view it nothing seems a problem? Pollard that tree, reshape those bushes, cut back that under growth, provide light to the pond, but you forget the branches all need to be chopped up and bagged, the cuttings need bagging and that you will spend more time bagging than pollarding.

Anna started at the back on the bushes whilst I got the saw to some serious overgrown bushes hanging over the pond. The fishes put on the shades as it must have been a shock for them to see bright sunlight, even if it were October, but they soon dived to the bottom as the debris started to disturb their peace.

The other thing you forget is that you see the branch you want to remove, but once removed, you see another half dozen others that now have to go.

The garden is very balanced with two of everything. Like a Noah’s ark of planting. At the back two large sycamore trees on either side. Then there are two straight yews and inside these two heavily laden apple trees with two bushes under them. At the other end there are two large trees and inside them two large rose bushes.

The lawn needs attention, but not today and it looks like the local foxes have been trying to do some tiding up of their own and they have left their trademark diggings. To the side is a huge Lilac desperate for a pollard and reshape and then several flowering bushes and a rampant jasmine.

The best part of cutting back the bushes is discovering and exposing little gems hiding underneath. In one area there were a mass of little cyclamen all of whom stood to attention when exposed and their flowers suddenly lit up the area. In another you discover a mass of lilies now seeding but clearly thriving.

You start to imagine what it once looked like and wonder what hidden bulbs are waiting to shoot up in the Spring. I cannot imagine whoever planted this garden not having planted daffodils and tulips and crocuses and other bulbs.   

The discovery of the day was an area near the house where ivy was spreading over something and literally taking over the patio paving. As I started to hack it back I sensed it was not a solid bench or table or rock it was taking over. I soon discovered it was a lattice fence! The weight of the ivy plus a rotten post at one end had brought the fence to its knees and the ivy was engulfing the stricken timber. The fence is now back in position the ivy remains, albeit cut back and a once-hidden flower bed is now reclaimed.

After some five hours we called it a day and looked at the 18 large bags of cuttings, rubbish, and admired the garden and our work.

‘I hope I can get this lot in the car,’ I remark.

Anna replies, ‘We can leave those four brown bags for the council.’

‘I wasn’t even counting them.’

I think I will write to the Guinness book of Records to see if I qualify for a world record for the most black bags of garden waste in a car. When I set off all seats were fully occupied up to the roof, the boot just shut with a push and there was no rear view mirror and I had to crane my neck to see half a side mirror on the passenger side. Driving with care I made it to the refuse depot and what was a empty half skip for green waste soon became full.

When I got back into the car, both the car and I gave a huge sigh of relief and set off home.

Two quite different gardens this week and two different sets of plants. It is strange but an allotment is vastly different from a garden in its demands and maintenance. However, all gardening is rewarding, and my body now needs a good hot soak and to relax. I bet I go to sleep tonight not counting sheep but black bags going into a car!

Monday 5 October 2020

Allotment Life - Foxes, Manure and Wood Chippings


As we walk through the top plots, both Lottie and I sense someone is watching us. Is it Sidney squirrel? Is a plot holder hiding behind their runner beans? No, we see two fox cubs sunning themselves on Howard’s box outside his shed.

They sit there looking at us as we stare at them. Is it a game of who blinks first?

Have you ever tried to get the phone out of your pocket switch it on, curse as you get the security number wrong then open the photo app to find the picture you want has gone, the animals have gone, birds flown or the squirrels given up waiting for you. Then you must focus and find it is set to video not photo.

This pair are still there as bold as brass. I quickly take a photo of them as they pose and pretend, they own the plot?

Lottie the whippet is frozen eyes transfixed on the pair, nose sniffing and ear turned to alert and her two eyes are trying to outstare their four. It is like a scene out of High Noon or a Fistful of Dollars.

Click, I capture the foxes and as if on que Lottie lets out a single bark and they drop slowly oof the box and sulk off behind the shed.

I think they knew Lottie was on her lead and no real danger and the exit was more of a statement and as if they were quietly sticking two claws at Lottie up on the leaving. Not nice but after al they are not house trained and live on the wild side.

They are gone.

As we leave the top plots and pass the farm’s yard there are a couple of plot holders sweating over a big pile of cow manure. It’s questionable if the steam from the manure is greater than that emanating from the two of them busy forking the muck into their wheelbarrow?

You would think that being next to a farm we would be awash, or knee deep in rotten muck, but such are health and safety or environmental rules today it is easier for them to hire a huge skip, fill it every day with the slop outs from the various stables and have it transported away each month than donate it to the allotments. It’s a crazy world where rules force muck to be shipped in large containers each month to probably end up in a dump, recycling area or landfill at a financial cost to all and that’s without all the transport miles. All we need is an area to store the manure and allow it to rot down, and then an army of plot holders with wheelbarrows will do the rest. However, the rules dictate any area must be fully fenced off, have a concrete base, runaways and access and movement controls. It is only manure!

Never mind, we will all just spend more money buying compost and the farm paying to have their manure taken away instead.

It’s like the wood chippings. The farm buys in chippings or gets them delivered from local tree cutters who probably wish to avoid having to dispose of them via recycling dumps. We are surrounded by trees and every year the farm and ourselves pollard and the majority of the off curs end up being burnt which is both harmful, environmentally wrong and a waste of recyclable material.

The good news is that the farm have made a bid to get an industrial chipper  which will dramatically cut back on the burning, encourage more pollarding and provide a mountain of chippings they and we can make use of. As a gesture I tentatively offered to contribute financially as it not only makes environmental sense but is good all round. Let’s hope it works out and we have an endless supply of chippings for mulch, to add to compost and to use on paths.

It strange that we all too often fail to embrace that which is around us. The foxes are more frightened of us than we of them and we do not have any rodents when they are on patrol. The farm animals all produce manure which when rotted down improves soil and adds the richest nutrients and trucking it away just is senseless. Chipping the tree off cut branches makes more sense than.

Learning to live with wildlife, to use material resources such as manure and tree cuttings sensibly All maybe obvious to many but not always to those who make the rules.

Friday 2 October 2020

Rent Weekend


The one weekend or time many officers do not look forward to is rent weekend. My wife hates it, as she sees even less of me and becomes an allotment widow which is not her first-choice occupation on the two days of the week she has free. But rents must be collected, addresses and details validated, and it is a chance to see all plot holders.

This year is quite different as we have restricted collections to one weekend, we have postponed our AGM and await guidance from the FCA on our options. We have also stopped accepting cash and we must accommodate social distancing and other restrictions and finally we must issue shares to all members.

The big change is no AGM which was always a good timing opportunity to ensure money was forthcoming. On that issue we have stopped taking cash payments which must now be by bank transfer, card or cheque. Some argue we must take cash, but this is stopped for a host of reasons. Firstly we don’t want to be handling mountains of potentially dirty coins and notes. Next it isn’t easy to reconcile and frankly can be a nightmare. Thirdly, virtually everyone today has a bank account and card and those who don’t have access to a Post Office so using a more auditable and secure system makes sense and why should the Treasurer trudge home with their pockets bulging with cash? However, not everyone is internet connected or savvy to do the simple bank transfer but could if they wish they can do it over the counter in the bank. Those who have a card can pay on the day and get a phone text receipt Those who have a chequebook or Postal Order can pay that way. All transactions are simple to reconcile and most will be in the bank on the day with no needless trips to the bank to deposit cash.

The great news is we are already some 45% paid via bank transfer which bodes well for speeding folk through and for the future. It should also help increase our email penetration.

Our rules state that late payments carry a small fine which to date has never been raised but if the rent is not paid within the month tenancy notice is given. It’s surprising that this is the time of year when one or teo plot holders decide to call it a day. Unfortunately we often only find this out after chasing them for non-payment.

This year shares are to be distributed to each plot along with a comprehensive Tenancy pack which contains; Constitutional rules, Tenancy rules, GDPR policy, Issues and grievance process, and Code of conduct. This pack together with the share certificate must be handed back on leaving the Society but ensures everyone has full details of all rules and a legal share in the coop.  We must issue shares now we are an incorporated Cooperative and have a 99-year lease.

Social distancing is a moving target in that we have a large pavilion, but the rules do not help and then there is the weather which no government can control or legislate for. We have created a walkway, a snake around the pavilion made with chairs and tables such that everyone goes to the Secretary to validate details, collect shares, and confirm payment and if already done by bank transfer they leave via the back door. If they still must pay, they go a different route to the payment desk before leaving. If the weather is fine, we have the space to queue inside and out, if not we have to play it by ear and hope everyone doesn’t come at once! It’s a safe bet that many will turn up just as we a shutting up.

Some turn up without their invoice or any identification and simply ask, ‘how much?’

Some turn up with the whole family, plus interpreter neighbour, dog and trying to work out who is who can be a challenge.

Then you have the few who want to debate the cost and say, ‘It wasn’t what they paid last year’. We do get some wrong especially as they become state pensioners and are entitled to a discount. How do we know they had become pensioners, we don’t ask for date of birth but when you ask for documentation they often have not brought it and the concession is only for state pensioners not those who elect to retire early.

We have those who wish to raise issues over their plot, their neighbours plot, the lack of this or that and how their crops have performed this year. What are you doing about the manure? When can we go through the farm? This year’s favourite topic is going to be asking why they cannot have fires? You look over their shoulder to those queuing up behind and take a judgement on how long and detailed the conversation is and mostly ask them to contact you or the Secretary next week. In 99% of the cases you never hear from them again and end up having to chase them for a follow-up, but such is life.

It is however great to see folk even if only for a short moment, but it is even nicer when the day is over, and you can relax. Collecting rent can be a thankless task.

Thursday 1 October 2020

Tidy up at the Station

Strange to be working a plot without my whippet Lottie keeping a watchful eye and guard and napping through my every move. Dogs and even whippets are not allowed at Canary Wharf let alone within the Crossrail Rooftop garden and our small allotment plot there.

To work on our plot, you need an individual license for the day, high viz jackets, proper garden gloves and to be a member of our allotments or on our long waiting list. The equipment, jackets, gloves are all stored in our own locker on site and the extras provided by the Canary Wharf Group gardeners on request.

I arrive to find the Cape Gooseberries have spread their branches and need a serious haircut. Their little orange fruit are hidden within their thin jackets and one cannot help but eat one of these sweet and refreshing fruits before the secateurs reshape the plants and bring them under control.

Next, it is the strawberries whose runners seemed to have spread all over and taken root. Some are left to transplant and maybe take back to the allotments others just need thinning out and with it a huge collective thank you is received from the neighbouring plants.

Rhubarb is tied up, herbs cut back, tomatoes tidied up and chillies admired but left. The squash seems to like the patch to explore but not to produce so has the be encouraged and given one more chance to turn the flowers into crops.

With half the industrial bins full and the plot tidied I move into the main garden and the jobs I like best.

We are helping the gardeners keep on top of the gardens during these difficult times and today its time to cut back the ground ferns, cut down the dead fronds of the huge tree ferns and as well as tidy up the ground plants and cut back any branches that are over hanging onto the paths. You can only do a small section of the gardens at a time and its amazing just how much attention is required.

Today the main task is to reshape three 3-metre-high holly tress, or are they bushes? They are shaped like giant mushrooms. We all know that if you give Holly the right conditions it takes off and these looked like they were trying to compete with the 70s punks hairstyles with new branches breaking free of their shape and reaching out in all direction,

The shears soon dealt with the lower branches and the loppers painfully selected individuals out and cut them back into shape.

Its nice to get the compliments from the garden's many visitors. Whether they are office workers taking a break, shoppers looking to rest their credit cards or just a visitor looking for peace they all appreciate this oasis in the heart of the modern and thriving Canary Wharf.

Three hours after arriving I put away the tools looked at the bin now over brimming with cuttings and headed home. It strange that you feel you haven’t done much but your body tells you differently but that is often the case with gardening.