It’s warm! So, yesterday, like the softcore gardeners we are, we pootled sheepishly down to our allotment for the first time in 4 months. The last time we had been there was for Bonfire night, when we had waved sparklers, eaten homemade, homegrown soup and left our patch to fend for itself all winter.
We should have returned over those months to enrich the soil with manure, plant stuff which grows over winter, done other mysterious winter jobs and generally put in an appearance to show willing. But we didn’t, because whenever I half-heartedly suggested it the kids moaned loudly, and so did the hubby. By the time the months had gone by I was then too scared to go back on my own. ‘We ALL have to go’ I insisted. Because an allotment is like a little country. A little country very like East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are spies everywhere.
I had had previous experience of the foolproof spy ring that encircled the innocent-looking patchwork of plots. Once, when I went with a friend and our 4 year old daughters, they skipped onto another allotment for all of 2 seconds. That was enough. Next time I was reprimanded by one of the ‘guards’ for letting the children trespass onto another plot. Following a picnic lunch when we had left a few telltale crisp crumbs behind, I was sent a stern email saying that ‘any waste food left on the plots can attract pests to the allotment’.
But once you’ve got past the secret police, and jibes about how ragged your path edges are, just being on a little bit of earth is magical. Occasionally I tune into ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ by mistake and am utterly terrified, as they seem to have a list of dos and don’ts as long as your arm on each plant – ‘it likes alkaline soil, don’t overwater, plant at midnight on a leap year’ etc. But the truth is that growing is real magic. You don’t have to know anything. Just dig in the earth, make a hole, stick a seed in, water it.
This magic works on the children too. Moan, moan, moan, moan they go when we get there. “I need a wee!” “This is booooring.” “What can I do?” “I want that spade – NOT this one.” “Mummy I want to use the big fork!” “I’m hungry, I want a snack.” On and on it goes, so hubby and I ignore it and get stuck in, eyes down on the soil, forking it up, pulling out the weeds and their root fronds, and the children mysteriously quieten down. After a while we look to see what they’re up to and they are ‘fishing’ in the water butt, with canes, pulling up sheets of maiden hair algae. Then, still quiet, and they are building a ‘trap’ for marauders onto our patch, by digging a miniscule hole, covering it with broken bits of cane and then ‘disguising’ it by covering it with a mountain of ripped up grass.
The sun comes out – more magic. Mummy has a lie down.
Finally the soil beds are ready for their first seeds of the year: broad beans – a couple of months late. Daughter and I go off to the inherited shed with inherited stuff in it, to collect the inherited stakes-with-string-attached, to mark out two lines. Daughter, with ruthless efficiency, plants half a dozen seeds with millimetre gaps, which then have to be dug up again. So, the whole family joins in. Mummy digs the hole. Daddy tells her the hole is too deep. Daddy digs the hole. Son and daughter take turns throwing the seeds into the holes like a fairground attraction, with accompanying whoops. Then it all falls apart a bit when Mummy gets a teeny bit exasperated with the excruciatingly slow pace of proceedings and waters and pats down without letting son and daughter help, which leads to tears of anguish – oops.
Luckily the anguish is swiftly assuaged by beginning a ‘treasure’ hunt. Armed with a bucket, we scan the ground for precious pebbles, broken fragments of bright crockery, dulled glass and tiny blue flowers – later identified as Persian Speedwell. The ‘family treasure’ swells until the bucket is almost too heavy to carry about, at which point parts of the treasure are re-buried for later ecstatic re-discovery.
Four hours after we arrived we close the padlocked gate behind us, securely (in case we get in trouble). We are all covered in mud – the children seem to have it all round their mouths, but deny eating earth. We have all tended to the earth and the earth has tenderly tended to us.