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 an activity but motion in space: progress in the real world. And then there are the terms of art that have me squinting at my phone screen in the sunshine. I know what shade and full sunlight are, more or less. But what’s the difference between ericaceous compost and the other kind? And is that friable potting compost that you buy in sacks and the compost that you get (eventually, deo volente) out of the bottom of your compost bin the same stuff? How does this compare to muck, which I understand to be horse manure? Or to mulch, which seems to do service as both noun and verb and seems important as regards strawberries? (And what of the proprietary “Strulch,” which sounds to me like a Dickensian villain or a toilet noise, but which is in fact mulch mixed with straw?) And when they’re recommending watering a certain number of inches, how in Titchmarsh’s name are you supposed to measure that?
Did my fork break because it was a border fork? I’m assuming a border fork is so named because you dig your herbaceous borders with it rather than because it originated in the Scottish marches. But in trying to settle this I’ve Googled my way on to a page that tells me my fork fork (with which I replaced my broken border fork) may also be a spading fork, a digging fork or a graip. My grasp on how a Dutch hoe may differ from the non-Netherlandish varieties of hoe remains shaky at best, about as shaky as my sense of how I’m supposed to use it.
And then there’s chitting, which you’re supposed to do to potatoes. How do you chit, and does that apply to first earlies or second earlies or maincrop? You can search me. If you force something, will it bolt? Perhaps I should ask a jockey. Dead-heading I get, of course. I have my old Jerry Garcia bootlegs.
We’re at sea on land, in other words. What I probably need is a big book on the subject. Allotment Gardening for Etymological Beginners, or similar. Fortunately, I now have a peaceful shed in which I can settle down to read it.