The allotment plot
How to guard your precious crops against thieves
This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In the same way that children grow, it felt like it happened overnight. Suddenly, the tasselled grass in the meadow that lies between the allotment and the road was brushing my shoulders, while over on our plot, the squash leaves were the size of umbrellas, the artichokes’ spikey flowers had pumped themselves up to resemble medieval weaponry, and the broad beans — sown late and surely seedlings just yesterday — had become a stocky-stalked thicket swamping even the weeds.
The lone reliable plum tree and a nearby pear tree were stripped of all their fruit in a single raid
It’s this way every year, and every year it feels as if a spell has been cast, woven from sun and rain, and giving green-tipped life its ancient cue to go for it. This is usually when we gardeners get to relax just a little, too. Yes, there’s some sowing to be done: no sooner have the earliest of the early potatoes been pulled, then in must go the winter greens. Some growth spurts need guiding, too — side shoots on your cordon tomatoes will want pinching out, for instance. But really this is the month when a gardener’s energies should turn to harvesting, to filling baskets and bellies with strawberries, runner beans, heads of buttery lettuce.
Except that instead, we’re eyeing our ripening crops warily, even gathering produce just a little before it’s ready, because looters other than pigeons and slugs have been visiting the allotment.
There had always been some occasional pilfering. One allotmenteer was relieved of an antique trowel with sentimental value. A tiny tree’s first perfect pears vanished overnight and hikers and school children often pluck an apple or two for the road.
In the past year, however, it’s become a more oppressive problem. The lone reliable plum tree and a nearby pear tree were stripped of all their fruit in a single raid. Courgettes and tomatoes that one day were nearly large or red enough to pick were gone the next. And on Mother’s Day, a fellow plot-holder pitched up to find the narcissi she’d grown specially had all been stolen — not a single flower remained.
There’s something uniquely disheartening about arriving at your plot to find someone’s beaten you to it
Being a rural rather than an urban allotment, we’ve been getting off lightly. Elsewhere in the country, you can find reports of sheds being set alight and pellet gun shootings. Understandably, the police view missing allotment produce as minor theft. To the extent that they’re concerned at all, it’s the purloining of heavy machinery such as rotovators and mowers they pursue.
And yet there’s something uniquely disheartening about arriving at your plot to find someone’s beaten you to it. It’s not just about the loss of a bit of veg or even an entire crop of fruit. It’s all the time and effort that’s gone into getting there, the care and nurturing and hope that the journey from seed to harvest requires.
There’s a temptation to romanticise the likes of “scrumping”, that relic of bygone childhoods free from helicopter parenting and screens. The urban foraging and wild food brigade haven’t helped much, either. And then there are the guerrilla fruit pickers, who roam around looking for supposedly abandoned trees, ensuring their bounty doesn’t go to waste.
Back at the allotment, there’s a miasma of mistrust, and any curious gazes bobbing over the hedge now tend to be met with hard looks from we gardeners. Could it be chefs from the foodie pub around the corner who are responsible? Or the townies who daytrip down to it? And what about everyone’s go-to villains, the village teens? (Though what they’d want with pound upon pound of stone fruit is anyone’s guess.)
Suggestions as to how we should combat our own mini crimewave ranged from solar security cameras to politely worded notices
When it was raised at a recent allotment meeting, suggestions as to how we should combat our very own mini crimewave ranged from solar security cameras to politely worded notices. Should we form an allotment watch? Apparently, such organisations do exist. We were gathered at dusk around a cauldron of bubbling nettle soup, so had any sticky-fingered veg-lover caught sight of us, they’d hopefully conclude we’d convened the coven to brew up a vigilante potion.
Nature does have her own arsenal of defences. While I’m not about to snap off an artichoke globe and clobber anyone whose backpack is bulging with “foraged” apples, I am eying spikey barrier shrubs and wondering about putting to good use the brambles that are wont to pop up everywhere.
And of course, there are always the beer traps we’ve set up to catch slugs. If any thief’s foot should find itself sinking into one of those noxious wells, the stink will identify them as surely as SmartWater.
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