I am an opsimath, apparently. Those who learn only late in life. I had to get to my middle years before I went outside, not just in the summer, which until I was 35 I believed outside was for, but all year, and even better in the winter months, because of all the space I could be alone in – so much more of it when it’s cold.
Spring is an extrovert’s time, busy, crowded with growing and incident. This time, it is magnified by the fact that suddenly all the shops are open. Clothes flap in the wind, installed outside charity shops, and lines form outside the library, each person with book in hand, barbeque coal heaped up outside the hardware store, men with newly shorn heads. Spring promises everything, it is the archetypal over-promiser…it promises renewal, hope, sun and warmth, and a trip to Marks and Sparks for fresh underwear.
But when snow fell, that day on April 12th, it was as if winter had come back. I went to the allotment very early, snow falling thick and silent, and the wheels of my bike made furrows showing up the dark beneath. I was alone there. I planted out some mangetout seedlings, hopeless as they later collapsed, limp with fatigue. I can’t think what possessed me to do it, except I was alone and felt demented with happiness about it and wanted to be productive.
I loved being there, even though the snow revealed my actions, my footsteps halted by the greenhouse, not a step behind, which is, to be clear, not ‘my land’. I was once asked, as if in a court of law, about a footprint found on the back plot; the plot holder was new, so hadn’t understood that we are free to walk around, as long as we stick to paths. He wasn’t new to passive aggression though. Or being a knob.
Later it was as if no snow had been. There is always a feeling of the fragility of the enterprise at the allotment, which works by tacit agreement; not to talk too much, not to intrude or nick things, not to bring up politics or go on a rant. It is communal without being in any sense shared.
I like the odd chat; I like how Richard, from one plot over, always sits with his back to me, his face to the sun, and sorts through his seeds. I feel his presence, which is kindly and calm. But my relationship is more with the place itself, an unprepossessing area next to a railway track, but which is still full of blossom; pear, plum, apple trees rampant with it and as I stood back from the peas, having tied them sadly to stakes, the blossom rained down like snow.
Peas, I have come late to you too, believing that you were difficult to grow. Advice is very mixed, depending on who you read. Nigel Slater (another one who loves winter – perhaps it’s the jumpers) is a fan and has written a very useful ‘pea diary’ in his book Tender (Vol.1)
In it he tests Douce Provence (‘a forgotten pea from a time when legumes were grown more for drying than for eating fresh’), which is said to withstand frost and Hurst Greenshaft which is a very popular variety (‘Long pods and good cropping from plant about 60cms high’) and which I have ordered along with Kelvedon Wonder (a heavy cropping dwarf variety). He also recommends Lincoln and Onward, ‘a delectably sweet pea that is probably widest grown’. Sarah Raven on the other hands gushes about Alderman and there is a video of her munching on the peas raw, furrowing her thumb through the pod, and eating them like sweets.
Another delight is to watch how the tendrils coil around pea sticks (they need something to scramble up). Hazel is traditional, but any prunings work, as long as they can stand upright. I fell off my bike transporting a bushel of branches for the purpose.
Definition of opsimath comes from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, a timely read, very short, and I think a miniature masterpiece. Top photo: rocket flowers. Green peas and ham recipe here.