OK, so ‘Allotment’ maybe over-stating things; in reality I’ve got just courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries growing, as well as my usual tubs of fresh herbs that sit just outside my kitchen door to the garden, in a sunny sheltered spot they – and I! – love. But like many others at the beginning of Lockdown back in March, when it was difficult to get hold of a lot of foods, including fresh veg and fruit, I decided to grow some myself.
At first I sought seeds online. On reflection, as a bit of an amateur in this home-growing business, it’s probably as well that it was impossible to buy any. Even the Royal Horticultural Society was saying they’d have no more seeds this season. And having a small London garden, with only a dilapidated shed at the far end, and a small kitchen that doesn’t offer convenient windowsills for nursing seedlings, I wasn’t really set up to give birth to plants … I needed to adopt some from the garden centre instead.
A friend told me that Squires in Twickenham was closed but delivering (they’ve since reopened). It’s the garden centre I usually go to. I sent a message, as requested on their website as phone lines were closed, and it took a couple of days to get a reply. But when they rang me they were wonderfully helpful; absolute gardening heroes. Apart from veg, I was trying to get a few plants for window boxes and pots, and saying things like, ‘Well last year I bought this lovely trailing plant with little round, waxy looking green leaves …’ And rather than obviously despairing at my minimal knowledge, I was passed to the woman working outside amongst the plants and she helped me sort out my order with patience and friendliness.
I’m not a total novice in the garden. I’ve had my own garden for 40 years and love it. They’ve always been small London gardens though, so rather limited in terms of horticultural aspirations. When children arrived I had to give them priority – a large climbing frame; footballs (and then rugby balls when we moved to Twickenham!) were kicked and thrown around, so there was no point in any serious gardening; in spending a lot of money. It was when I went to my first Chelsea Flower Show – sometime in the 1990s – that I was truly inspired. I came back and starting claiming more land; cutting away parts of the small lawn and planting shrubs, herbaceous borders. My son, about 10 at the time, challenged me: What was I doing!! I had to offer to take him to the local park – Marble Hill Park – and thankfully less than 5-minutes walk away from my old house, instead. My son has now grown into a keen gardener himself and the last two years we’ve been to the Chelsea Flower Show together, which is a real highlight of my year. We had tickets for this year – in fact, yesterday – and I’ve swapped them for tickets on the same day in 2021.
I’m not a planner in the garden. I’m more a stream-of-consciousness gardener much in the way I write things like this blog as words and thoughts come into my head, without much prior planning. And then I press the ‘Publish’ button; I don’t do drafts. In the case of gardening, I walk slowly round the garden centre and grab things I like the look of and into the trolley they go. I’ll find somewhere for them, I decide. Occasionally I try to be organised enough to sketch out a little plan showing where I have gaps … I take it with me … it partially works but when some gorgeous plant takes my eye, the plan may be thrown aside and I’m determined I will find a place for it. I’m sure all those lovely gardeners on BBC TV’s Gardeners’ World (which I’m addicted to) would be horrified that when I decide a plant is in the wrong place – I move it! Regardless of the time of year. To be fair to myself, plants and shrubs rarely die on me so I must have fairly green fingers. My dad was a keen gardener and as a small child I used to follow our gardener, Old Tom, around, learning lots from him as he patiently gave me little jobs and gently taught me about plants. I still have a vivid memory of being shown how to look after our blackcurrant bushes by him and being told that worms are a gardener’s friend as we looked at a few wriggling out of the earth as we turned it over – I could have only been about 6 or 7.
I always have lots of fresh herbs growing – a huge rosemary bush I grew from a cutting when I moved into my current house 14 years ago; different varieties of thyme; flat-leaf parsley; oregano; garden mint and Moroccan mint; chives and fennel. I’ve occasionally grown tomatoes and did last year, buying a special ‘patio’ plant from Squires which grew cherry tomatoes. This was mainly for my grandson Freddie’s benefit as at 5 he already loves gardening. I’d promised him that this year we’d grow strawberries too and so when I gave my order to Squires that had to be on the list.
When my plants arrived back in early April, they were very small … little plugs … clearly in need of some TLC – tender loving care. And indeed I’ve given them just that!
Apart from the lettuces, it’s too soon to harvest much but the tiny courgette plant has sprouted flowers and tiny courgettes, slightly hidden by its large leaves. My daughter Nicola – a more expert gardener than me who has a large vegetable garden with her wife – told me one courgette plant would be plenty for one person!
I like to water my plants by hand with a watering can. I find this soothing; a touch of ‘mindfulness meditation’ at the end of the day. And it means I do take special notice of what’s happening in the garden. Of course, it’s only really possible because the garden is small!
The leaves on the courgette plant were growing fairly fast. Then yesterday I saw the first flower and the tiniest little courgette at its stem.
This morning when I came down and went outside to check on them, as I do, I was almost overwhelmed with delight on this sunny morning to be greeted by the sight of a beautiful sunny flower, fully open to start the day.
Really, even if you didn’t have the bonus of a courgette growing, it would be beautiful enough to earn a place in your garden.
I’ve got two ‘tumbling’ tomato plants. It’s too early for actual tomatoes but they both have a healthy display of little yellow flowers promising the fruit to come.
I ordered a selection of salad leaves that went altogether in one big pot. I was slightly wary. I tried growing salad leaves 4 or 5 years ago and they got eaten by snails and slugs too quickly to harvest enough to eat. My daughter helped out again – they’d had success with copper tape. I thus ordered some and put it round the pots; I also rose the pots from the ground, standing them on other large pots turned upside down or, in the case of the lettuces, on a metal garden chair. Whatever trick worked my lettuces have survived, despite there being quite a few slugs and snails about. I now have enough to pick to make a green salad and of course they will just keep growing through the summer.
The strawberries! By chance I had an old strawberry pot and so planted my two plants in it. The pretty little white flowers are slowly giving way to the budding of plump strawberries; not ripe enough to pick yet but full of promise and the first small sight of red in them.
I’ve got a few pots of herbs and love being able to pick a bunch of parsley; make fresh mint tea with the Moroccan mint; chop chives into omelettes or scrambled eggs; sprinkle little oregano leaves into a Greek salad. The chives have beautiful lilac flowers at the moment and, like the courgette, are almost worth growing just for the pretty flowers.
It’s a very small ‘allotment’ but full of my favourite things. In the difficult days of the pandemic and lockdown, growing them has brought huge pleasure and – as I watch them grow and flower and fruit – they are such a glorious sign of hope and promise of good things to come.