WHAT A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW. I am no "seasoned gardener" but an allotmenteer, which involves a very different sort of gardening. Think mud and pioneering spirit. Think very old clothes and very good food. No phone, no e-mail and no-one to tell you that there are mud streaks down your face and twigs in your hair. Allotments - in a stressed-out world, everyone should have one.
Forget the old stereotype of ferrets and flat caps, for allotments nowadays teem with people of all ages and nationalities keen to grow organic food: from students and green-fingered families to pensioners and groups of friends sharing plots for fun. When my nine-year-old daughter and I collected the keys three years ago, we faced not only an overgrown plot full of couch grass and mares? tails, but also our own ignorance. Yet we were given lots of advice, and found a rare kindliness and sense of community. This is a very special sort of urban living.
At weekends, the winter allotment is alive with the sound of hammering, as allotmenteers weatherproof sheds and cold frames before getting stuck in to the weekly bonfire. Then comes the real joy of sharing tales of triumphs and disasters over hot chocolate. My top crops this year were rhubarb, mange tout and onions, but the carrots flatly refused to germinate and my Caribbean sweet potatoes were a knobbly joke. However, this week, I am making fertiliser, soaking comfrey and nettle leaves in rainwater, and planting garlic which loves cold weather and is great for home cooking and giving as presents. Just separate into cloves and push down into holes around six to eight inches apart and cover thickly with mulch, the colder the weather the thicker the layer.
On an allotment, seasons become sharply distinctive. Early winter brings a feeling of peace as experienced allotmenteers call a truce with the birds and leave berries and seedheads for food. Perhaps I?m too much of a soft touch, for I?ve been adopted by a gang of crows who appear to consider flying South for the winter for sissies, and yell "cor!" at me from a nearby tree.
Despite the cold, there is still lots to pick: tasty leeks and Brussels sprouts, which, miraculously, my kids actually eat without bribery. Celery for soup, brambles and, best of all, fat, juicy Autumn Bliss raspberries. The canes now lean drunkenly in the wind, but are still laden with fruit. There?s just not quite enough to take home so, naturally, with the morning sun on my face, I have to polish them off there and then. Tough job, but someone has to do it.
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