Two years after applying, my wife and I got a call saying a free allotment plot had come up. But digging and weeding were only half the challengeby Sam Leith / July 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
There was a time when “weed” and “chilling with my hoe” meant something quite different to me. Now it means pottering around in the vast green lung nestled in the top of East Finchley. Two years after my wife applied for an allotment plot—and immediately forgot having done so—we got a call out of the blue saying a plot had come up. Would we like to go and see it?
I had my doubts. Here was a large patch of land, substantially overgrown—long grass and some sort of rushes here there and everywhere; some dandelion-strewn beds baked in the sun; a tangle of fruit trees and a neglected pond. A natural couch potato, I was now to be taking on couch grass and natural potatoes. I was making a rod for my back.
Rod: unit of measurement for an allotment. (Also: perch or pole.) A rod (I discover) is an Anglo-Saxon measurement, five and a half yards, relating to the pole you’d use to control a team of oxen, which I do not have. “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” Hopkins asked. Somebody had certainly wrecked my rod: my word there was a lot of strimming and digging to get the front bit into something like usable condition.
This is a column about language, rather than about life—so I shall skate over the abundant and unexpected satisfactions of digging and weeding, the excitement of seeing potatoes (idiot-proof, happily) pushing up through the ground for the first time, the slender questing tips of garlic, the tiny purple-tinged shoots of beetroot or feathery carrot-tops; likewise the disappointment of not a single one of my peas germinating or the whole bed of lettuces falling victim to a slugpocalypse.
But if the process of allotment gardening is still a question of learning on the job, the vocabulary is too. I’m not even talking, especially, about the difficulties in identifying plants—though I have that, too, having only the most hesitant of ideas as to how to tell a chrysanth from a geranium or a forest tree (bad) from an orchard one (good).
The first thing I noticed was a proliferation of phrasal verbs: you’re forever digging over, potting on, planting out, watering in, or earthing up, and there’s something rather satisfying in that. They all suggest not just…