I start on a bit at the allotment and clear it: along the border that separates my plot from next door’s, around the rhubarb, thick with last season’s nigella and bindweed, the rhubarb itself trampled by a fox or the man behind’s bulldog – a sweet, lolloping animal that often lies down beside me and falls asleep in the sun.
I edge. Then I collect stones. The earth is thick with them, almost like shingle or scree. I pile them up in flower pots as I go and the idea is that I will eventually pull up the central path that divides one side of the plot from the other and which consists mainly of couch grass and dandelions and fill it with the stones that I find. A crunchy path which will block out the light and suffocate all the weeds, so to speak. Other neighbours have done this and I know it works, and I love the crunch and sharpness underfoot. I am forever figuring out how long I can live with the path looking as it does.
The clearing starts to infect every area of my life – and the shed. The shed with its tiny mouse carcass and debris from two years back. Now it is clean and clear and in order – I have mugs and a gas ring and a kettle and tea. Otherwise known as ‘facilities’.
The shed is a small wooden room and makes me feel child-like when I go in. It’s also a good place to wee and spy on people. I wish I could sit at the table – above, under the kettle – and write and potter about, but the plot exerts a tyranny over me whenever I go because there is always far too much to do. I spend my days longing to be there, And then when I’m there I go at it with such force it’s as if there’s a teacher standing by taking the register and holding a stopwatch.
Today I followed a nice New Zealander to a fallow plot one over from me because it was full of disused timber and it needed to be cleared so it could be offered up to a newcomer. The discovery of wood – branches, planks, logs – has become a source of intense pleasure since I began at the allotment. I scour fields and woodland and skips for wood I can use on the plot. I prefer this to bricks but bricks will do or tiles at a pinch.
I clear in order to fill the spaces again; I pulled up a small carpet of nigella, as I said, because it had become so wild, and then sowed other flowers – calendula, cornflowers – in its place. What was wrong with the nigella? It is an endless cycle of clearing and filling space and sometimes you have to stop; today I made myself stand up and watch as two butterflies with amazing black and red markings hovered over the herb bed, noticed bees alighting on the flowering angelica. A white moth. A single magpie. Sweet peas like huge green hands full of colour grasping at nothing. That kind of thing. And when it rains – always weirdly a relief – there’s the shed and the respite from going at it, a reprieve from clearing for a time.
Despite once being illegal to grow flowers on allotments, most plot holders now have an area given over to a swathe of nigella, dahlias, a drift of poached egg plants or nasturtium etc. I would just have herbs and edible flowers if I had my way but that’s not allowed. It’s easy and cheap to grow any of these from seed, and do it now: calendula, nigella, borage, sweet marjoram, parsley. They can all be sown direct into previously watered soil. Calendula goes very nicely in salads; scatter the petals, leaving behind the thick bits.