Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
Dancing in the Street // Martha and the Vandellas
I head up to the plots, with my work and my collapsable garden table in the back of the car as today is the annual allotment barbecue. Last year I’d just started my residency as this event happened. I was nervous of the people I’d meet, not sure how they’d accept me or if they would allow me onto their plots. Not sure if I’d feel welcome.
How much I have learnt since then, how many lovely people I have met, how completely welcomed I have been.
It feels like a half way celebration of the residency. With a year under my belt and another to go I’m trying to focus on how to bring the work of the next year together so that I have an exhibition which binds all the elements of the allotments. I plan to use more of my lettering arts skills into the pieces, to echo some of the words I have heard without attributing them to a specific person or plot. I am not here to represent the plot holders, I see my role as one to celebrate and cherish the diversity of plants and produce which will then naturally reflect that in the growers. I’m slightly nervous because this is quite a challenge I’m setting myself, in a year that is proving to be quite demanding from the other creative work that I do. If I had the funds I would love to just be at the allotments every day and record them, that would make a fantastic record of the growing year, but realistically this is still a self funded project so it has to be done in my ‘spare’ time.
As I start to lay my table out with all the drawings, cards, artist’s books, jam labels, bookmarks, bookplates and prints I realise just how much work I have managed to do this last year.
The day starts off wet and threatens drizzle sporadically throughout the afternoon, but it holds off and the sun shines so we have perfect weather.
With the vegetarian and meat barbecues alight people start to trickle in. Tables are set out, sun umbrellas opened, bunting happily floats above. Plants are delivered to the sale table, homemade jam on another, proceeds from these sales raise money both for the allotments but also the Harington Scheme which the allotment association supports.
Home made wine comes forward but as I have so much with me I’ve had to drive so I hold back, however I can’t help but have a taster of some homemade cider made from apples harvested on one of the plots, how wonderful to be drinking such nectar.
And the food starts to arrive, most of the dishes have been made with produce from the plots. Someone has a glut of broad beans and has made the most delicious dip spread on bread.
As the barbecue gets into full swing one of the plot holders turns up with a salad. But this isn’t just any salad, this is made with broad beans that have literally just been picked and then cooked on a little gas stove on their plot. The salad contains broad beans, redcurrants, rocket, garlic, sorrel, and basil which is all plot grown and picked minutes before. A little salt and pepper and oil are added and the freshest salad we are likely to eat is fabulous.
As the afternoon passes, conversations flow across the tables, advice is readily given, the entomologist plot holder advises on the little critters causing havoc to plot Y2B’s cherries.
You can chose to be quite solitary when you have an allotment, chosing to use the space as a refuge from a stressful job, or just as a space to find solace in. It can also be a very friendly place, good friendships are formed and lifelong bonds are made with like minded growers. It’s totally up to you how you chose to use an allotment, how much you chose to engage. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to meet other plots holders away from your own, everyone comes at different times of the day and week, so the barbecue is a lovely way of making some connections.
My jam labels and gardening bookmarks go down very well with the plot holders and it’s nice to meet some new people that I haven’t come across in the year while I’ve been wondering around this site. Next year’s barbecue may be the finishing flourish to my residency.
5:30pm, it’s warm, the sun is on my back, and although there’s a blustering wind that whoops and plays round the plots I am protected at this table by espalier pear trees. They make a gentle fence and it feels calm and relaxed in this lovely hidden space. Listening to the wind moving through the poplars is a specific sound I now recognise. The plot holder is sorting out their seeds, looking at the plot plan and working out what can be planted and where. At the moment there isn’t room for beetroot so that will have to wait and no garlic or onions to be planted later in the year, they didn’t work last year. Next to me some teasels heads that have been cut are in a jug in water. Covered by bumble bees who dive head first into these flowers unaware that I am getting close to photograph them. Butterflies land and quickly take off, far more self conscious than the bees who are now covered in nectar!
As the allotmenteer goes around their tasks I’m a delivered a fresh pea pod and tomato which warmed by the sun taste, heavenly.
Peaches are picked, potatoes are dug and the hot compost which has reached a heady temperature is taken out and laid on the plot for digging in tomorrow. The wonderful remembered smell of farming wafts over, earthy and rich, the land feeding the land.
Everyone is missing the green compost deliveries that no longer happen at the site, it’s much harder to produce enough compost for a plot now.
Another plot holder drops in to say their spinach is being eaten by grasshoppers, they’ve just watched them feasting. There are all sorts of things to challenge a plotter, from the usual slugs and caterpillars to the Mare’s Tail, on the lower half of the site. This invasive weed will often crowd out the other plants growing. Part of the problem is that the rhizomes of this weed can be up to 7ft (2 metres) below the surface of the soil level so not only is it hard to dig out but it’s also very good at invading sideways and travelling from plot to plot. Many of the allotment plot holders grow organically so they have no choice other than to try to keep on top of pulling the Mare’s Tail out. Once that’s done the weeds need to be left out to dry rather than put straight into the compost otherwise the risk of spreading the weed in the compost will exacerbate the problem.
Foxes, rats and slugs will all decapitate young seedlings, I see broken egg shells and organic slug pellets dotted around on in the fight against slugs and snails.
However these threats don’t get everything and I head home with my gifts of Charlottes and Sarpo Unas, sweet peas, and globe artichokes.
After a quick rain drop, I manage a visit.
Marigolds glisten with a backdrop of orange nasturtiums. Sweet peas in glorious scented colour sidle up to the vibrant pink dahlias. Yellow courgette flowers top off the young courgettes growing up from the ground, their leaves stretching far and wide across the bed.
I can hear the hum of the A1 in the background so the wind must be blowing from that direction. I don’t know if there are any people here, I can’t see from plot to plot they are all growing so high. An owl hoots from the poplars but the frenetic birdsong of spring has rested. The mad rush of planting in spring is settling too, this is the time to harvest and save the food for winter. Frozen soft fruit when opened in winter, can immediately bring back the smell of a summer’s day on the allotments.
For now I’m very content to look at the glorious array of flowers.
I’m having a coffee break at home on my patio. Although I’m hidden from the street the sound easily permeates into the space. People are yelling, buses and cars drive by, a digger is carving up the tarmac as yet another burst water pipe is found and I yearn for the peace and quiet that I could get from an allotment visit. But today the temperatures are rising and tomorrow it’s due to peak at 37°C yet feel like 43°C. I know that I can’t cope with that heat, let alone on an exposed plot or in a hot shed. I will close myself away into my studio with a fan on, the blinds drawn down, hibernating in summer. My evenings are spent trying to stop the plants in the garden from dying, watering while being bitten by insects. Sleeping is difficult with the window open but too hot with them closed, so I’m very tired and don’t sleep at all well. Emergency vehicles leap over the sleeping policeman outside our home throughout the night and people become noisier. My romantic idea of visiting the plots at 5:30am goes out of the window along with my sleep. I look forward to the weather breaking so I can visit my oasis again. In the meantime I play around with leaf shapes inspired by the allotments.