5.30am. Unable to get back to sleep (it’s light, birds howling/something howling, not sure if it’s a bird/lots of waking up noises in the undergrowth outside) so I get dressed and cycle to the allotment. I know because of the lowering sky I’ll be alone. So I am not surprised by the emptiness, no cars, just the slowly falling mass of rubbish, like an installation that the council are reducing, like a toppling cake. The first and last time, we’ve been warned. My mood matches the air, sky, temperature. Stormy, flat, tearful. I hack away at the rosemary bush which is so overgrown the weight of it is flattening the flowers and hanks of it cover the path, so that every time I pass it grips me in its resiny hands. I’ve decided it needs to be tamed, as do I. It’s something to do at 5.30am.
S from a few plots over waves in a sheepish manner, and disappears inside his poly tunnel. I lop off more wizened rosemary hands and arms. A young robin, its breast still tufty and slightly marbled hops near me, then hops on to one of the hacked off rosemary branches and watches me. I love the smell but even more it’s the silvery needles, deep green and surprisingly soft. I feel bad cutting it all off and it looks like an awful haircut, like the ones I used to give myself as a child, serrated fringes and lopsided ends, the hairdresser startled and silent, trying to figure it all out.
Monty Don says you should replace old rosemary bushes after a while as they grow so rangy and chaotic but I love the fact this rosemary has grown into a gnarled tree, like a mulberry or a wisteria, its knitted branches hiding couch grass, convolvulus, marjoram, a little posy of forgotten geraniums. I rip up the grass by the roots and start to clear the area feeling both decisive and desolate because it is neater but less interesting, less organic. The sides of the rosemary still hang over the path, long silver fingers, arms outstretched. It takes me two hours by which time K arrives on his bike.
While I am working I imagine that one day I will have to give this plot up. We will move. We are already planning it, we can’t afford to buy in this area, don’t want to; no sea, no massive skies etc. It is not just the rosemary bush, which I bought from a nursery as a small plant, and which has grown into itself, it is the DNA of the place, which is now mine. It feels unthinkable to let it go. I wonder if it will be like the moment when you move from a house, the paintings lifted, the sofa and all the stuff gone and revealed is the dead space, no longer yours. Will it be like that at plot 10? I wonder. The quince tree, the mulberry, the dwarf apple tree. The rows of dusty gooseberries, the sorrel I grow pretty much for the compost heap. I am there in little filaments, bits of me everywhere. Even, or especially, the ground, which for six years I have fed, over fed, burdened with compost, manure, comfrey. It’s probably exhausted by me.
K approaches with a small pot filled with strawberries and upends them into a bag for me. I’ve already had a couple of my own, dipped in the watering can for a quick clean. But these are bigger and better than mine. We have a laugh about the fact that I can’t give him anything in return except piles of rosemary which he wouldn’t know what to do with. Actually, if we could cook outside, if we could make a fire (we can’t), we could dip a branch of rosemary into olive oil and brush some fish with it.
It’s easy to overdo it. The oil from the leaves can overpower. Elizabeth David called it a treacherous herb. And she doesn’t like eating the spikes. And she thinks too much of it can kill the taste of meat. Oh well. They take as cuttings very easily, and I have a line of them growing in pots in the greenhouse. I think I needed it, the oil on my hands, the strength of the smell in the air, the scale of the branches, and it was good to find space and the robin enjoyed it too. It walked up and down the new-made path, and found the different levels interesting. On my way out of the allotment I passed C in his plot who was admiring a ladybird and I had one accidentally in the side pocket of my bag which I handed over because he said he was collecting them for their beneficial effects on his broad beans. It crawled from my hand to his. He walked off with my ladybird. My allotted time over, I leave. Generally better than before.
Alys Fowler on how to take softwood cuttings of rosemary and other perennials here. I have written about lamb and rosemary and apple and rosemary cake and there is also elsewhere on the blog a recipe for labneh with lemon zest and rosemary. There is a very good rosemary and chocolate brownie recipe by Ben Tish here.