I have an allotment. It’s ‘five rod’ which is 125 square metres and it has known better days. Waving weeds, a broken greenhouse, a shed, three pairs of Wellington boots that are sprouting wild flowers or hold stagnant pools of rainwater. The wellies start from small, a three year old I’d say, to adult. And there is something sad about them, the way they are standing to attention against the shed wall. As if something happened that I’d rather not know about. Whoever she is, she left me some tomato fertilizer, a book on allotments, a watering can and a small parcel of the blackest soil replete with worms. There is also a gooseberry bush, some errant raspberry canes, a flattened bombed-looking mass of rhubarb. A barbeque. It’s almost a friendship. And some bolting tomatoes.
Nothing more is known. Of course I said yes. We’ve been here eight months! I had put my name down, and then forgotten all about it; no one now gets an allotment. There’s a waiting list. It’s like that scene in The Kids Are Alright, where a gorgeous gamine woman carries a basket of freshly mown sprouts from the vegetable garden to a lopsided trestle table to be turned into some kind of micro feast for the bistro where she’s shagging the owner. But here I am shaking hands with a tall, white-haired man, and he’s telling me about cherry trees. About the trio of fruit trees behind the plot I’ve chosen which has similarly been left to grow wild. They wouldn’t belong to me, and there’d be no point transplanting them, because they’re damaged in some way he can’t quite explain; they’ve been left to range, to grow too high, one has been inexpertly ravaged with a saw or some cutting implement and stands dwarfed.
There’s something incredibly exciting about a fruit tree. It implies permanence in a way that a line of onions or potatoes doesn’t. Also a tree is beautiful, its blossom giving way to the fruit. Every year it will come back. Fruit that can be pilfered and pocketed, guzzled round the back of the shed, or turned into a clafoutis, or tipped into an almond cake. You can sit under a fruit tree and drink tea and read a book.
I threw some netting over part of the cherry tree I could reach, so that there might be some left after the birds and started pulling up weeds with my hands. I can’t yet draw up a plan. If I had a plan, then it would be a job, a task. And already with allotments, there is that whiff of slight tyranny. You have to maintain ‘your’ path which is always to the right of your plot. You need to decide whether to go down the route of mesh and bark chippings, or cutting it like a lawn. This made me sweat a bit, and so did their pack of instructions for planting from north to south, to dig or not to dig, rotovating, the price of manure. I was to look out for prehistoric flint tools. I was advised to plant spuds the first year. There is a man near me whose plot is all potatoes; they ride over hills of earth looking wholesome and uniform.
I was thinking more along the lines of thyme and lavender and nasturtium because it reminds me of those slopes in LA rampant with their dusty colour and floppy leaves. Sorrel. What else: fruit that can be picked when ripe (blackcurrants!), a swathe of colourful Califormian poppies for ease and because they like neglect and a dusty ditch. Tomatoes that can feel the sun. Basically I’d like a mulberry tree.
But first it’s a place to come. At the moment there is a wicker chair which when you sit on it gradually subsides so you are actually just sitting on the earth – from here I can be quite invisible and watch the woman mowing her path, the (possibly lesbian?) couple bending over their plants. The train rattles by. The man who said something disparaging about my grass is hiding behind a wigwam of sweet peas. I am using a child’s digging fork at the moment; it’s pink and sits jauntily in the earth in front of me. I may or may not get back to work.
This is from Mark Diacono’s book A Taste of the Unexpected. He’s the one who tells you to plant Szechuan Pepper and quince and something called Oca. His books are glorious and so are his recipes. He also says ‘you can be a neglectful, even abusive, carer of rhubarb. It is quite hard to kill off.’ Result.
500g rhubarb (trimmed & cut into 5cm pieces)
65g caster sugar
Zest and juice of a small orange
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Put the trimmed and chopped rhubarb into a roasting tin, toss with the caster sugar and the finely grated zest of the orange. Arrange in a single layer and then pour over the orange juice. Cover the dish with foil and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Then remove the foil, give it all a good stir and put back in the oven (sans foil) for another 15 ish minutes until tender and syrupy and starting to disintegrate. Lovely with Greek yoghurt or cream or ice cream and an ‘independent crumble’ – see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for this.