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It looks good and it sounds

easy – but it wasn’t! by Hilary Forster


Visiting our allotment today you’ll be able to see narrow carpet paths dividing rows and blocks of vegetables, a row of runner beans growing happily up canes entwined with climbing French beans. We grow brassicas, carrots, onions and leeks in tunnels covered by fine nylon mesh. Midway down are sprawling butternut squashes staking territories among the courgettes, gourds and a mystery plant from the pumpkin family growing larger by the day, awaiting the allotment largest pumpkin competition later in the year.

Allotment gardening is fashionable but it wasn’t like that for Hilary Forster when she started her allotment 27 years ago, wheeling her children there in a builder’s wheelbarrow

Stan the scarecrow stands guard over a busy allotment

take on a plot with our young family. There were no sheds on the site, cattle troughs provided the water supply, social events non existent.

Harvest time - a colourful collection of the rewards from Hilary’s allotment

Stan the scarecrow stands guard but rather ineffectively when badgers come at night and target their favourite crops, leaving crushed and shredded plants in their wake. We enjoy an expansive view over the water meadows beside the River Wye, towards the Severn Bridge, our plot bordered at the back by Offa’s Dyke.

A sharp hoe used regularly keeps the weeds under control, we use slug pellets only at the start of the season when plants are at their most vulnerable, aiming to grow without the use of chemical sprays. Garlic, nettle and comfrey ‘teas’ are watered onto crops and the plot has a large dose of manure each year that with the addition of compost keeps the heavy clay soil in good heart and hopefully we reap the rewards with healthy crops in return.

It sounds easy but it wasn’t like that 27 years ago when we made the unlikely decision to sign up for one of the many overgrown vacant plots.

Allotment gardening was unfashionable then and many adverts were placed in the local paper but there was little interest.

On visiting the site, people were usually discouraged by the perennial weeds, heavy clay soil and sheer number of untended plots. Those that were under cultivation were mainly gardened by retired men so we were very unusual to

We greatly underestimated the task we were undertaking. We thought skimming off the weeds would be fairly easy then we would turn over the soil and plant up, the season would soon be underway. Friends suggested speeding things up by spraying glyphosphate or sodium chlorate or how about a flame gun! Others recommended planting potatoes to clean the soil, or covering part with a carpet mulch to suppress weeds, and cultivating the rest.

Abundant advice but in the end it’s hard work, determination, persistence, trial and error, backache and blisters!

Our children enjoyed allotment life, travelling in a sturdy builder’s wheelbarrow that also held our tools, independently exploring the jungle of overgrown plots discovering where the biggest blackberries and wild raspberries grew, identifying the insects and wild flowers, and cutting a maze of paths through this secret world. Later on joining us to help work the plot and garden patches of their own. We discovered tender fat hen and young nettle tops could flavour delicious soups and risottos, and even learnt how to make nettle fibre twine!

Today, all plots are cultivated, we have sheds and stand pipes for hoses, plus a long waiting list. Thanks to TV, allotment gardening is now fashionable! Allotments are referred to as ‘Green gyms’. Crops are grown that would have previously commanded suspicion and mystification. Nowadays female gardeners and families frequently take on plots. Plants, recipes, know-how and jovial banter are exchanged. It’s a happy, sociable, productive and fun place to be. Organic gardening is common and we share our delights and disasters, successes and failures with the knowledge that ‘come rain or shine the weeds will always grow’!

Country Gardener 27

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