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Root and Branch

Best muckers

The tensions of sharing an allotment plot

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

You can never really know someone until you’ve gardened with them. That’s what I’ve realised now I’m sharing an allotment with my mother.

We’re the best of friends ordinarily, yet over the past few months, as we’ve dug and mulched and ordered far too many seeds, any emerging green shoots have had to weather some seriously frosty silences. Now, with our first joint growing season gathering pace, I’m wondering whether to expect a breakaway region up near the compost bin.

My mum surrendered her own plot after Covid lockdowns and a broken wrist made tending a difficult patch impossible. Thick tree roots marked one end, irrepressible brambles the other; in between lay heavy clay soil still recovering from damage caused by a pair of Tamworth pigs that lived there before it became hers.

An early lesson every allotment holder learns is that a plot’s upkeep is always, always more work than you imagine. So, for reasons not entirely altruistic, I invited my mother to muck in over on mine.

The thing is, when I said we could “share” it, I’d envisaged the entire plot becoming ours — albeit with me prevailing when it came to design, and things continuing to be done as I do them (yes, I hear how that sounds). My mum, quite reasonably, presumed I was offering to carve up the plot and give her a share.

That initial miscommunication has turned out to be the first of many. I’ve weeded her wild flowers while she’s planted wild strawberries where I’d already sown lettuce. She’s a proponent of the no-dig method, and I’ve had to watch her scarify the surface of my — sorry, our — old courgette bed, resisting the temptation to charge over with a spade before she popped sweet pea seedlings in.

As for purple-sprouting broccoli — well, I didn’t envisage billowing green netting. Meanwhile, we’ve both accidentally stomped on my daughter’s fairy garden.

“Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are,” wrote Alfred Austin, who succeeded Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. In the same way some dog owners resemble their pets, so gardens frequently mirror the personalities of their gardeners.

Maybe the horticultural friction on our plot shouldn’t come as a surprise

There are the social butterflies, whose outdoor spaces seem to revolve entirely around entertaining. At the other extreme, you’ll find the retiring intellectuals: think thick hedges and a meadow for a lawn, hidden-away corners perfect for solitary musing. Then there are the slavish followers of fashion (ferns and grasses are a giveaway), and those prone to virtue signalling (look out for raised beds and state-of-the-art compost tumblers).

You can even spot style differences on an allotment. Gazing around ours, I’m fairly certain you’d pair the riotous tangle of sweet peas, nasturtiums and bumper veg with the flaxen-haired herbalist. The picture-perfect haven could only belong to graphic designers, and the straight rows of spuds and beans to the classic old buffer.

Maybe the horticultural friction on our plot shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, my mum is an artist who makes her own clothes and when she fancies a change, cracks open a bottle of fabric dye. Tell her she looks smart and she’ll take it as an insult. I, on the other hand, own a quantity of crisply tailored garments in beige.

Of course, gardening can also disabuse you of illusions you’ve nurtured about yourself. I enjoy planning but do I stick within its parameters? Absolutely not. And while clutter at home makes me feel itchy, I’ll happily leave scattered piles of clover and buttercups on the allotment sitting around for so long they take root again.

In the wordless way that things are so often achieved in a garden, my mum and I seem to be finding a way to harmoniously divvy up the tasks. She doesn’t much enjoy planting, for instance, whereas I tend to skimp on the aftercare; tomatoes and squash can be my responsibility, sprouts and spinach hers; I’ll fend off the slugs if she keeps the cabbage whites at bay.

Meanwhile, it’s taken a while to find anyone doughty enough to take on her old plot (one candidate installed some wiccan-looking willow structures then vanished after trying to get a fork into the soil). But it finally has a new tenant. One of the first plants that’s gone in, I note, is a kiwiberry bush: over to you, Dr Freud.

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