Written by Dotty Winters

Lifestyle

Dig for victory

From badger awareness to executive courgette management, veteran allotment owner Dotty Winters shares the stuff she learned during a decade of mud and misadventure.

Woman surounded by gardening tools

Illustration by Claire Jones.

It takes a long time to get an allotment where we live: there is a waiting list, and you need to wait for someone to die in a horrible giant-vegetable related accident. I prepared for the first day on my new allotment by purchasing all the supplies I thought I’d need: stylish headscarf, vintage thermos, wicker trug and a Cath Kidston trowel.

With the benefit of several years’ hindsight I now know that what I should have invested in was blister plasters, a hip flask, waterproofs and a hillock of £50 notes for the swear jar.

I should also have bought vegetables, lots and lots of vegetables, as it turned out we weren’t going to grow any for quite some time. In fact, in year one of our allotment career, there was a serious risk of my husband and I expiring from inept-allotmenter-scurvy and subsequently reducing the waiting list.

The allotment committee had removed our allotment from its previous owner on the grounds of severe neglect. It was covered in prehistoric-looking horsetail plants and ground elder. We diligently pulled the weeds up and rotovated the ground. We knew we had to rotovate because we’d watched Ground Force: Tommy Walsh was always rotovating. The allotment looked beautiful, all expectant and full of possibility. We returned a week later to find it looking exactly the same as it had when we inherited it. Every teeny scrap of root that had been chopped and shredded by the rotovator had regenerated twice over, like evil Triffid-hydra hybrids intent on my destruction.

“Any allotment will revert to complete wildness if left unattended for a week or more. It’s like a bikini line, but with more welly-clad visitors.”

We got better at allotmenting as time went on. Occasionally we even listened to some of the endless unsolicited advice that other allotmenters gave us. Over the course of several years we learnt some valuable lessons:

• There is no appropriate level of courgette plants. Every year we halved the number of courgettes we planted and simultaneously doubled the number we intended to eat/freeze/gift/carve/wear. And still, eventually, we were forced to concede, like so many before us, that courgettes are a digital proposition: you can either have zero courgettes, or ALL the courgettes.

• You aren’t haemorrhaging internally; that is what happens when you eat that much beetroot.

• Beware of invaders. The allotmenters were in uproar when they turned up one morning to find courgettes trampled, fences broken and raised beds sunk. Several lengthy, shouty meetings later and still no agreement was reached on the cause or solution. Several competing factions set about wiring up CCTV cameras, creating observation hides and filling super-soakers from the water butt. I’m not sure which team eventually caught the culprit (I went home to watch X Factor), but apparently the villain was a badger. This surprised us all. No one expects a rampaging badger.

• Any allotment will revert to complete wildness if left unattended for a week or more. It’s like a bikini line, but with more welly-clad visitors.

• Allotment parties are a thing: you are expected to attend and contribute vegetables for swapping. Everyone will bring courgettes.

• Learn to love opaque nail varnish. Your nails will never be clean again.

• There are days when you are allowed to use the water taps at the allotment, and days when attempts to switch them on will be met with hostile stares from other allotmenters. Nobody will tell you these rules.

• People have sheds on their allotments because other allotmenters are unfeasibly chatty and keen to give advice on everything from pesticides to parenting. You’ll need somewhere to hide.

We don’t have the allotment anymore. After nine years of inexpert pottering we discovered Netflix. At around the same time we learned that vegetables are available from a large range of local retail outlets. Someone else is now responsible for stewardship of that patch of land and for manning the badger defences. Godspeed, brave allotmenter.

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.