The first allotment dahlia - an off-brand 'Edinburgh' - looks set to burst open any minute now and I've had a couple of vinho verdes out of a plastic cup. It's evening on the last weekend in July and the allotment is becoming somewhere it feels good to hang out.
I keep thinking progress has been slow, and the incessant rain and meanest rations of sunshine may have held things back, but it was less than two months ago when the first plants went into the ground. I ended up putting off sowing anything until the beginning of May, by which point I must have seen a glimmer of light at the end of the soil preparation tunnel. Nearly everything has been sown under cover at home then planted out in the field when it seems sturdy enough to have a fighting chance against the ravenous slugs. Obviously it's easier to check on seedlings daily at home too. I can’t lie - at times the allotment's been way down my list of priorities and there have been two week periods when I haven’t set foot in the place.
My motivation reached a low a couple of weeks after first getting things planted out, when I turned up to discover someone had snapped dahlias at the base, bent my metal supports and rooted out plants with a hand fork, the piece of evidence that made me realise it wasn't just an excitable fox. I've alluded to the neglected feel about the site, and this has become more apparent as the summer's progressed, to the point that the past several times I've been there (discounting visits from stoic pals and family) I've been entirely alone all but one. The place is in large part reverting to wilderness, which kind of suits my temperament but may not be ideal in terms of deterring vandals.
Anyway, with trays of otherwise homeless seedlings and a newly erected shed (my dad and I spent Father's Day in heavy rain cursing Homebase and each other to the strains of a passing Orange walk), there was little option but to plough on regardless. Touch wood, things have been fine on the human front since, though big holes dug by mystery creatures appear regularly and even impressively girthy (I'm talking 1-1.5cm diameter here) cosmos have been felled by what I think must be pigeons pecking at them. Much more welcome is the big increase in worm numbers since planting, and today I narrowly avoided hoeing a good number of ladybirds.
My planting approach has been less than single-minded. As I mentioned at the outset, I was interested in creating something beautiful rather than strictly utilitarian or about maximum productivity. This informed my enthusiastic earliest seed orders from Marshall’s and Sarah Raven back in March, of marbled borlotti beans, runner beans with white flowers rather than orange, purple French beans, fantastically architectural kale and rainbow radishes, along with some dahlia tubers. Although the majority of crops have been grown from seed, I have bought a few plants too; a birthday present of garden centre vouchers from my brother was impeccably timed and along with sundries allowed me to pick up some fennel, courgette and artichoke plants 'guilt-free'. Any preciousness in terms of colour scheme and variety has inevitably been diluted as I've gratefully accepted donations, including some onions, a butternut squash and Brussells sprouts from a colleague. My biggest regret so far is not picking up a healthy 6 foot 'Doyenne du Comice' pear tree for a pound from B&M on my lunch break, back when I was still worried there may be allotment regulations to be stuck to.
The textbook crop rotation scheme my four main beds lent themselves to has rather fallen by the wayside, due to varying amounts of each crop group and compositional considerations. Having said that, placing my steel rod bean pyramids off-centre in each square wasn’t purely an aesthetic move; it means they can shuffle round the bed each year so beans won’t be grown in the same spot twice. The beans themselves have been a learning curve; most of those I sowed initially rotted in their pots and I think I imagined them sprawling more like sweet peas so the overall effect is slightly scant. Speaking of sweet peas, I realised far too late I had none of these essentials and I could only find pots of dwarf seedlings for sale, so in desperation I paid a princely £5.95 for 4 carefully selected 'Blue Velvet' plugs which are just starting to flower - in cerise and white.
Although most flowers I have planted have at least a nod to culinary use- borage, nasturtiums, marigolds, sunflowers even – those that don’t – dahlias (yeah you can eat the tubers but that seems mad extravagant), cosmos and tobacco plants – are cutting garden flowers and seem to fit with the nebulous idea of a potager. Certainly sticking in pots of perennials from the garden centre would, as well as being profligate, feel somehow wrong. My planting approach has been haphazard, but I’ve generally stuck to rows and blocks, rather than the naturalistic drifts I would go for by default when planting a domestic garden border. I need to get my hands on a drone to see if the plot resembles a fully fleshed out Mondrian by the end of the summer.
I thought I half-remembered a gardening aphorism from a book - along the lines of Promise me you'll never say/You should have seen my garden yesterday - but googling only turns up Drake lyrics that I can't see even 1980s Rosemary Verey dropping. My feeling at the moment is that you should see my garden next week, or in a month's time; things are burgeoning and it feels good.
Plant list to date (some specific varieties unknown)
Artichoke ‘Green Globe’
Borlotti bean ‘Lingua di Fuoco 2’
Calendula officinalis ‘Sunset Buff’
Cosmos ‘Click Cranberries’
Dahlia ‘American Dawn’
Dahlia ‘Thomas A Edison’
Dahlia ‘Twinings After Eight’
French bean ‘Purple Cascade’
Lettuce ‘Italian Mixed’
Pelargonium scented leaf white
Radish ‘Marshall’s Mix’
Raspberry 'Autumn Bliss'
Rose miniature white
Runner bean ‘White Lady’
Sweet pea ‘Blue Velvet’ (except not)