Archive for August, 2013

A Long Way To Grow.

There’s a break in the labour (and I do mean sweat-breaking labour here!). The angry bucket-of-wasps whine-buzz of the concrete saw is gone. The pale dust settling and carpeting the disturbed top-soil and cut slabs like fairy dust. There, then gone; just an irritation of the nostrils left behind; similarly the antique-tractor chug-chug of the generator driving the cement mixer.


And he could hear the distant hum of traffic on the motorway across the hedges and fields. The baby-cowboy whoop of the train ride attraction at the garden centre up the hill and along the road a ways. Feel the autumn’s coming breeze that gently caressed the elm hedge and his forearms.

There was a small, dull pain in the small of his back as he lowered himself onto the concrete posts, accepting the offered mug of hope-fully strong and sweet tea.

Beneath his booted feet a couple of toadlets and a pale grey woodlouse spider crawl and tumble, undoubtedly disturbed from a temporary sanctuary beneath the old-brick pile they had been breaking to use as hard-core. Dry-skinned and frantic the immature toads wrestle their small bulks against gravity and the low, strong sunlight; the progeny of a wild-life haven pond somewhere on the allotment site.  Earlier he had carefully carried a full-grown toad and released it under his own plot shed. To eat the slugs and snails that, if not controlled would decimate his hard-labour crops. But these tiny creatures would be the prey of hedgehogs, visiting cats and, perhaps, birds for a while yet. They had a long way to grow.

He smiled grimly. This was a side of keeping an allotment he hadn’t considered: the community side. Getting roped in, however willingly, to helping build the raised beds had seemed a pic-nic when it was first suggested. The hard landscaping side; phew hard work with capital letters!

Now, after disputes over leadership, arguments over design and lack of support from the authorities – during which he had begun to lose faith in humanity – it was good to be getting on with the work, to be getting somewhere. Small step by small step. As part of  a team … of course.

Frank re-appeared, some wrapped up parcel in his arms. He was smiling broadly. A fairly lonely guy Frank was heartened by the task and now unwrapped a couple of bottles of home-made wine.

“Red currant …” he beamed around the group: Robot Dave, Alison, Ted the Fireman-Who-Was, Jim and Mrs Jim and Jack. Jack was the gaffer on this job: a plot holder who was also a landscape gardener and knew what he was about. The rest were content to follow jack’s careful instructions. Jack was patient, reminding himself that these people, unlike his professional work-fellows,  had no background or knowledge of techniques. The work was slow, but – as they all felt – would be worth it in the end.

And this was a bonus: the working together, the banter, the talking with people. The subject matter was, to be brutally honest, irrelevant. Football, crops, weed-control, recipes, current affairs (not to be mis-spelled and used for wine making) last night’s TV, memories (embroidered or not) just helped communication … built the community aspect of the site. Which should be a big aspect of allotment life.

And usually ended in some light-hearted tomblaggery, usually lead by Robot Dave. It was said, by some that he was a retired police officer, by others that he still carried a warrant card. But all agreed he had a wicked sense of humour.


Sandwiches and chocolate biscuits arrived and the sun sailed in a high cloud sky in which a pair of buzzards circled once again. Needless to say these and  the wine, rich and fruity slowed proceedings and attracted a pair of bright-jacketed wasps.  Ted didn’t sample the wine, claiming he needed to be alcohol free for two weeks on his dentist’s orders. Jack had none because he was working the saw and was rather attached to his fingers.

Then a companionable silence fell across the party. Until Mrs Jim noticed something and, nudging her husband, whispered:

“Throw some bread down. Our robin is back …”

Dutifully and in slow-motion Jim peeled off an edge of his butty and threw the crust onto the earth. Out of the hedge, alighting briefly and cheekily on the heads of tall nettles the robin hopped onto the ground. He cocked his head and eyed each of the people patiently, then dipped to the food.

When he fluttered away, some moments later, they all sighed … rose and picked up where they had left off. Slabs to be cut, bricks to be sledged, barrows to be loaded, trenches to be filled, soil to be shifted, a community to be built on borrowed land, left for posterity.

A long way to grow yet…


The Scales of History.

Bear with me please:

Monday morning, the day when revellers from the weekend-long V Festival nearby head for home in various states of overdraft, euphoria, wakefulness and sobriety (God bless ‘em all) …

… and the day for a work party to “sort out” the things and spiders, snails and history jammed inside the corrugated shed by the bottom gate so that equipment and tools that are the domain of the events committee can be stored therein.

(Trust me – if you dare – we will be meeting the Festival goers again, later. And give me a chance to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with live music concerts: I have spent some great times at such events: love ‘em.)

The clearing out went well; these people get the job done, but we were left with some low seated cushioned chairs, an ancient gas burner barbecue that we don’t believe will work, six pairs of rusty hedge shears and a blunt cross-cut saw and three sets of scales; one a very fancy state of the art once upon a time set of Avery scales such as would have been used in a shop.


The other two sets were agricultural balance scales, previously used for weighing out potato seed orders and, maybe fertilisers and such like.

scales 2

Opinion was divided.

Those who wanted to take them up the tip: the “just-get-rid” brigade.

Those, the money-sensible ones, who said take ‘em to a scrappy, get some cash.

Me: “They belong in a local museum. We could donate them or “loan them and add our name to the list of donors at the museum. It’ll raise our profile and be the noble thing to do …”

There is a museum nearby, with various artefacts of local interest (s is right and proper) so I duly – but somewhat carefully as they are all heavy items – loaded them into the car and was waved off, fully expecting to be back within thirty minutes.

How wrong can a man be?

Arriving at the museum I was greeted by a very personable young woman who told me that I should fill in a form that the donations officer could look at and let me know. We agreed that, if the said officer was at the museum he/she could come and take a look and, if necessary I would fill in the form and leave the scales there.

The officer (a lady it transpired) was not in. While waiting I had completed the form (I write quickly!) but The young lady … let’s call her Irene (not her real name) said I would have to leave the form but not the scales. The museum would be in touch.

I countered with a rather sharp “Okay, can you tell me where the nearest scrappy is ?”

This shocked her, visibly. She explained that I could leave the scales behind the reception counter and add a message to the form that said the scales became the museum’s responsibility. This would empower the staff to look over the items and decide; if no good would allow them to dispose of them.

Suited me – perfectly. I wrote the and signed the message and started to unload. Would you believe it ? As soon as I got the last set out a guy came along and said I couldn’t leave them, they were – to cut a long story short – no use to the museum.

My turn to be visibly shocked. I simply could not believe it. A museum turning down perfectly good, very local items (Avery made in Digbeth, Birmingham) indeed!

I tried to persuade him to accept the scales – but to no a avail; he was rather pompous at times (or I felt he was because, of course, I was upset that he was not doing what I wanted him to do: accept the gift offered for posterity).

I had naively imagined that here might be some behind the scenes partnership/network going on between museums that enabled them to swap unwanted/surplus items. But apparently not. Or not for this place any road up.

So, again I asked for directions to the nearest scrappy. The man had the temerity to tell me the way to the local tip (where no money would change hands) but Irene, standing bashfully in the background while the wrangling was going on suggested a place. Throughout, she had been admirable, polite and working well with a member of the public (even one in his allotment “scruffs”) and finally coming up with this solution.

So, onto the roads for what should have been a ten minute trip.

Here is where we meet the going-home traffic from the festival. Clogging up the main roads I needed to ravel on. Some accidents adding to the chaos. I began to reconsider my previously stated enthusiasm for such events and those who attend them.

I arrived, a little dispirited, dehydrated  and still annoyed that scrappage was the only way forward to be told that I needed photographic identification before I could be given money. I had none with me!

Further, having weighed the items the total weight was worth less than the minimum payment.

I came away with a note and promise to return with extra iron and evidence of who I was attached to an address.

I am, sure that, when we get to the allotment barbecue and the newly cleared out shed plays its part my blood pressure will have returned to normal.

Hope everyone enjoyed the V Festival.

Postscript: Neither of the photos used in this article is of the actual scales: I didn’t have my camera so thanks due to


for the nearest likenesses I could find.

World Wide Allotments?

Chatička v zahrádkářské kolonii na Krejcárku v...

Chatička v zahrádkářské kolonii na Krejcárku v Praze 8 (?). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of my, so-far insatiable curiosity as I grow from thinking that only England (can-you-imagine I could be so parochial?) ever had allotments

to a wider understanding of the world.

I have been search-engine-ing allotments and came across this – apparent – situation in Poland.

I reproduce the article (a mixture of history, commentary and lobbying perhaps) below:

Progress and tradition collide in Poland’s green oases

Mon, Jul 30 2012

Related Topics

WARSAW (Reuters) – Krystyna Pakulska walks down a dirt track lined with silver birch trees and stops for a moment to breathe in the air.

“Look at the beauty around you, the flowers and the trees,” says the 59-year old, a retired employee of Polish state television. “Why destroy this beautiful land?”

This is an allotment garden, one of dozens carved out of the Polish capital by the country’s previous rulers so that workers could relax in their spare time by tending flowers and shrubs on their personal plots.

Two decades after Poland threw off Communist rule, this relic of a more sedate past is colliding with a modern reality: the appetite of the market for space to build new apartment blocks, offices and retail parks.

This rural idyll is right in the centre of Warsaw and that makes it a prime real estate spot.

A calculation based on market data from real estate firm Colliers International shows that if a garden in central Warsaw were available for residential development, the smallest plot could sell for 165,000 euros, and probably several times more depending on the number of floors in the planned building.

For now that price exists in theory only. Developers cannot touch the allotments, also known as community gardens, because they have special protected status under Polish law.

But the country’s constitutional court ruled in early July that this status had to change, a decision the gardening fraternity says will be exploited by property developers to pick them off one by one, buy up their plots and build on them.

Silver-haired members of the Polish Association of Allotment Holders protested outside the court, and gardeners vowed they would not surrender their plots without a fight.

The row resonates with ordinary Poles too, most of whom can remember summer afternoons from their childhood spent pottering around in a relative’s allotment while the grown-ups enjoyed a beer or vodka. Newspapers ran front-page stories on the court ruling and politicians debated it on television talk shows.

The fight over the garden plots has become a proxy for a bigger conflict being played out in Poland, between the desire for modernity and living standards on a par with the rest of Europe on one hand, and on the other an attachment to older values of family and community.

In the years since the Berlin Wall fell, Poland has embraced the market so enthusiastically that it is now more capitalist than some countries in western Europe.

It worked. Poland’s economy has grown uninterrupted since 1992, and last year was still growing at 4.3 percent, even while growth slumped in the rest of the European Union.

Yet the outpouring of feeling over the allotments has revealed a side of Poland which – possibly influenced by the financial crash on Wall Street and the tribulations of the euro zone – has a more nuanced view about the value of wealth.

“There are people for whom money is not the most important thing,” said Emilia Borkowska, 60, deputy head of the Rakowiec allotment collective just south of Warsaw’s city centre.


The community garden she helps run is divided into about 520 fenced-off plots, each slightly bigger than a tennis court.

Most are like the one owned by Krysztof Borkowski, a 49-year-old policeman. In one corner sits a tiny Alpine-style chalet, where he can shelter from the rain.

The rest of the space is taken up with a manicured lawn, a bush which he has clipped and trained so the foliage is formed into a geometrically perfect spiral, wisteria, a peach tree, an apricot tree, and a grape vine.

Asked what he makes with the grapes, the bare-chested Borkowski, standing next to his elderly mother, laughed: “Only red wine. I’m sorry, I don’t have any today.”

Founded in 1927 during a brief period of Polish independence, the history of the Rakowiec garden traces the jagged arc of Poland over the past 85 years.

When Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, resistance fighters used the garden as a hiding place; its archives record 12 Mauser rifles, 9 pistols and 200 grenades stored in one allotment.

Communists installed by Moscow took over after the war, and the allotments were re-named “Workers’ Gardens”. Owners grew vegetables to make up for the shortages of food in the shops.

Poland was convulsed again when Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker from the port of Gdansk, led the Solidarity protests that toppled Communist rule. Investors arrived, followed by construction cranes. Warsaw became a bustling financial hub.

Yet inside the shrub-lined fences of the Rakowiec garden, little changed. The families who had owned the plots for generations kept them, for the most part, and the gentle rhythm of planting and weeding and watering carried on as before.


Lately though it has grown harder to resist the intrusion of the outside world. Twenty years of economic growth have left real estate developers with a dwindling supply of prime sites where they can profitably build.

Poland needs the developers’ investment . The European Union money that has so far buoyed Poland’s economy will flow less freely in the next few years. Economic growth next year is forecast to slow to 2.1 percent, half the figure for 2011.

There is still a lot of building to do to make up for the stagnation during Communist rule. Warsaw has 2 square meters of office space per capita, while the European average is 5 square meters per head.

“We need to catch up,” said Marta Sikora-Drozda, senior consultant with real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. “These (gardens) are very attractive places for residential development, green and situated in prestigious districts with convenient communications from the centre.”

She said that some developers had, a few years ago, looked into acquiring community gardens and then walked away when they came up against laws which protected the allotments.

The ruling on July 11 by the constitutional court may change that. The court decided that the law on the gardens’ status was unconstitutional because it gave the Polish Association of Allotment Holders monopoly control over the gardens.

Tomasz Terlecki, lawyer for the allotment holders’ association, says the law must now be re-drafted, giving developers an opportunity to lobby for the changes they want.

“The regulations … will be more liberal in the future, which of course will be more beneficial for the developers,” said Terlecki.

Back in Rakowiec, the allotment holders are preparing to fight off approaches from developers.

If the garden is put up for sale, the allotment holders might get some kind of pay-off but not enough to buy anything comparable. The state owns the land under the plots, so it would receive the bulk of any compensation from the developer.

Pakulska, the former Polish television employee, has had an allotment in her family since 1971. She does not know what she would do if it was taken away.

“They (businessmen) want to build supermarkets and malls here. It is about money and nothing else. I understand it because it’s about the market,” she said.

“But why here?”

(£1 = 4.95 Polish zloty)

(Additional reporting by Marcin Goettig; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Patrick Graham

I am genuinely intrigued to find out more; about whether – or more likely how – allotments work different countries and regions of the world.

let me know please, I would be very interested to hear from you.

Cement, Quail Eggs and Toadlings

Up to the plot this morning. Partly to continue the summer-so-far’s battle against weeds; largely being blamed on the inefficient digestive systems of horses. Should I explain? Perhaps …

The theory goes that anything eaten by a cow is digested at high temperatures – and several times – but that most of what a horse eats, passes through, so any seeds are still viable: nettles, groundsel, chickweed to name but a persistent few.  A lot of us use horse muck/horse manure as it is generally free and, without doubt adds to the structure and nutritional value of the soil. The free weeds may well be a price worth paying. Especially as cattle manure is expensive and carries a greater risk of containing contaminated ingredients (only last year we had cases of amino-pyralids in bought-in manure; handily and properly dealt with by a good committee.

Partly – after digression – to await the delivery of cement and pea gravel for the construction of raised beds (an on-going project that regular visitors may have noticed is a recurring theme).

Yesterday I had emptied one of the two compost bays, dumping the rich, delicious-to-a-worm looking material on a space we have been taking potatoes from. Loaded a couple of barrows of wood chip into the bottom of the  vacant bay, and began to dump weeds on top of that base.

Happy to be disturbed by Jim and put parts of the world straight once again. But while we were talking and sheltering from showers Jonesy appeared with an egg tray (half a dozen size) for Jim. Never one to back down from a good thing I put myself “on the list”. It seems that “Mrs Jonesy” keeps various poultry and ducks and Jonesy is left with the task of eating or distributing the eggs (free of charge – the words that are music to the ears of allotmenteers across the U.K.) and as he said himself:

“I just can’t eat a thousand a day!”

The box contained marvellously patterned quail eggs, lovely to look at, tasty to eat! And Jim was more than happy to pass them on to me: result!


Alan and his wife commented on the enormous numbers of tiny toads on the site: possibly from this year –or maybe last, they are “swarming” everywhere: climbing, crawling, falling across paths, between pea plants and chrysanthemums and down the valleys between potato rows., over wood-chip, around compost heaps and the tyres of parked cars. I was really pleased to see so many of them, but guess the warmth and showers were the perfect conditions that had fetched them out of hiding, to spread themselves across the face of the hundred plot site – and maybe beyond.


[ I had a poetic-licence moment linking the beautiful Perseid meteor showers, witches and the (welcome) plague of amphibians. Particularly in medieval times how easy to enhance your reputation (or your risk) as a “wise woman” than by claiming to have turned your enemies into toads a couple of days after the Devil’s firework displays of recent early morning skies eh? (Sorry, this is not meant to be my creative writing blog, but couldn’t help make the connection in a Terry Pratchett kind of way).]

Indeed I collected a handful of the little dragons and released them on our plots. As they grow they will help the fight against slugs and snails. I am assured that birds will not eat toads as they taste repulsive. I am sure that hedgehogs have no such qualms.


Finally we succumbed and put the kettle on. As soon as the kettle was boiling, wouldn’t you know it? The lorry arrived and we set to; unloading gravel and cement: stored out of the way of the rain until the next stage (somebody will be organising that soon I can only hope).

Before returning home I put a cover over the newly started compost bay, picked some runner and French beans and some parsley, then just by chance scrounged six black sacks of grass cuttings that will be a wonderful addition to the compost.


Weeds and Other Animals


Some early showers while we were up at the plot this morning. Missed a day yesterday – the new football season is here and my team, Walsall, like every other team and the fans are in with a chance of winning everything- the league, the F.A. Cup, getting into Europe, and I was at Oldham yesterday, watching the mighty Saddlers, deservedly win away from home.But this morning the massive task of weeding awaited. This has been a good year for weeds, the temperatures and rainfall breeding the monsters out of bare soil like fairy fountains. Good King Henry, groundsel, stinging nettles, bindweed, chickweed, dandelions and so many more. Some no doubt from seed surviving the low temperature digestive systems of horses (we have a lot of horse manure in the ground this year), some lying in the soil from past years, the rest blown in on the winds. I try to persuade myself it is the sign of a healthy , fertile soil – might be better convincing myself to start eating weeds!

But I am struck as I bend and pull by the masses of wildlife: peacock butterfly caterpillars on the columns of stinging nettles that make me by-pass these weeds to give them a chance: butterflies like the peacock are so glamorous – we have five flying around the site today, landing on water butts and potato foliage, but dashing away before I could get the camera sorted out.

A troop of five or six finger-nail sized toads struggle away from my feet along the grass path. Bumble bees cling to the white-knuckle rides as the wind turns massive sunflower  heads into theme park giants. Masses of earthworms wriggle in the soil I take up as I dig up the self-set potatoes. And – of course – the flapping white kites that are cabbage white butterflies fill the air around. There is a large toad in the compost heap; he has to move over as I tip another heaving barrow –full of weeds onto the heap… I need to empty the last bay out and start a new pile. It helps having the deliveries of chipped leylandii to mix in with the kitchen scraps, lawn mowings, horse muck and weeds.



Once upon a time I would have considered our plots to be an incidental pit-stop for wildlife, but now I believe it is a permanent part of the lives of many creatures: the smaller mini-beasts certainly, that populate the soil, hedgerows, banks, ponds and compost heap.

On to picking what will be the last of the gooseberry crop. We need to make up the last three pounds for some wine making. Some from our plot and permission to take some from a neighbouring plot … that lovely generous allotment spirit at this time of year is marvellous. Thanks guys.

But picking the berries from between the vicious thorns I am surprised that wasps are on some of the fruit: indeed in some cases have completely hollowed out the berry, leaving the papery skin dry and almost complete.

In my own layman’s understanding of wasp behaviour this seems to mark the time when all the grubs in the nest are reared; there is no longer an imperative to hunt for caterpillars and live food so they turn to sugars – and become a little more unpredictable. I guess the queen was is getting too old to produce new eggs.

Also Matthew brings news that one of the plot holders has a family of hedgehogs in residence in a home made “den”.

The weather brightens up by mid-day and the first stage of gooseberry wine is in the bucket. The plot looking more significantly weed-free than it did at the start of the day – but, well, you know, not anywhere near weed-free. What kind of oasis would that be?


The Bumble and The Orange

Something a little different perhaps.




Here I sit in the rocking, merry orange

Shine-centre web of Sol’s burning disc.

Swallowing sweetnesses of intoxicating

Saps and sugars. From where I settle,

Sway, twitch and honey dance

Ragged tiger mask rays illuminate and

Connect the universe’s big light-blind spaces;

The spectra and trajectoried spears of

The spiralling spheres sing senza sound and

Circus semaphore signals and apricot

Flag-ripples spread and melt so jam softly’

As secure and familiar as friendship’s shields.

Everything that was is here – with me –

For I am never alone;

Everything that is and will ever be –

The least and the largest –

Begins here, leaves to return

Again and again…

Here I sit in the rocking merry orange

Shine-centre web of Sol’s burning disc.



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“Black Over Bill’s Mother’s …”

This something we say around here to describe the sort of weather in the next photo.


If Bill were an actual person you would have to feel sorry for his mother I think. But, since we have some friends

from Sicily visiting the weather has been cruelly cold – after a heat wave and particularly wet, with some dramatic thunderstorms.

Manfully our Sicilian friends came to the allotment this week and tasted carrots, black currants, tayberrries, gooseberries,

peas – oh and later, plum wine.

The photo, incidentally is of the allotment site: the blue debris netting hopefully protecting a brassica crop from the hordes of

large white butterflies that have suddenly appeared.

The next two photos are for those who will casually say their shed has “everything but the kitchen sink”.

DSC01436 DSC01435

We are now harvesting our potatoes and enjoying the flavour that comes from the short space of time between

digging up and eating. Courgettes are growing into dolphin sized, and orca-shaped creations before our very eyes and the white

currants need picking.

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