Summer Days on the Allotment

Photo: Yeshe Dorje

“…Just had one of those cuppa teas I didn’t want to end!”… A past statement by a friend echoed in my mind as I quenched my thirst. The temperature has gone up by ten degrees since seven o’clock this morning. Every movement seems an effort, it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s June. I’ve seen three butterflies, a comma, a large (or small) cabbage white and a Red Admiral (or was it a Peacock… too fleeting, too sweltry, for a second opinion?). The second cup of tea is waiting for me as I write this. This humidity brings on an unquenchable thirst. I’m sitting in the shade of a climbing Solanum, busy with bumblebees; the grass below strewn with purple petals. The white clover in the grass path smells divine; the pigeons seem to pick about amongst it, but I’m not sure what they are actually eating!

It’s the sort of weather which makes your skin itch…sweat, insects, pollen, pollution, who could put a finger on it? It’s a sign of ‘good growing weather’ anyway, when the soil yields its softer, tenderer growth. The rogue, self-seeded opium poppies, some pale mauve, some red, seem to flourish in this heat; the rosemary appears to have grown another four inches in as many days. The aroma of the crushed, spiky leaves lessens the weight of this sickly sultriness.

The pond irises, purple, and yellow flag are setting seed; foxgloves are swaying elegantly, in a timeless way, amongst the foliage. Sweet peas are heady with their enticing scent, and the “Special Anniversary” dark pink rose has over fifteen buds of burgeoning promised glory. Mostly, in my days here, on the allotment, I’ve learnt that, to view the whole experience of growing flowers, fruit and vegetables, you have to open up all your senses to get the optimum benefit of being here. It is not enough, for me, to merely sow seeds and reap the harvest. As a gardener, you have to be aware of a multiplicity of rewards, to be sure of overriding any ‘failures’. If you can imagine each activity as a kind of ‘sensory immersion’, the positives outweigh the negatives.

This late afternoon, I am going to uncover and pick the red and white currants. It will take some time. How is it that the berries remain cool and clammy as you pick them when the ambient temperature is so much higher? I am in fruit heaven; the white currants are showing their peachy coloured seeds through translucent skin, and the strings of most exquisite pearly red currants outshine any jewels. As well as being time-consuming and back breaking, this job is not without its anxieties. What if I accidentally knocked the bowls of berries into the bare soil? I have to put that thought right out of my mind! There are countless endorsements for this activity and I can be creative in preventing these problems. As I unfold the ‘kneeling stool’, a dear friend has given me, and securely nestle the bowls, where they can’t spill their contents, I confidently focus on the task in hand and the bowls soon begin to fill. Time passes, my own thoughts and surrounding sensory delights keeping me company.

Above me in the pear tree, a blackbird warbles its celebratory song. There is a degree of symbiosis here; surely he will pick up some tasty morsels after I have finished here, this evening? He is keeping me entertained during my endeavours and reassuring me that I have a rich diversity of life all around me, here, in my special place of buzzard skies. I glance up at the other fruit trees, the welcome shade now advancing. The pigeons have already eaten most of my magnificent Morello cherries, even before they are ripe! I have to cover my broccoli and peas against these birds. ‘Foxy’ is not doing his job fast enough!

What was I saying?…

Now, late evening, a rattle of at least ten magpies begins, a warning exchange, back and forth, from one side of the allotment field to the other, a predatory mammal is on the prowl. Is it the short-haired Oriental cat from the neighbouring road, or …?

The magpie commotion increases, they rattle, squawk and high-pitched squeal, flying up and grouping together and perching on fences and trees, as  birds begin ‘mobbing’ an area across the field towards Jack’s plot. I see the tail end of a fox disappear into some bushes. Excited to get a better glimpse, I rise from my fruit-picking job, and get on to the grassy verge. I turn a corner onto the big main path and scan the length of its possible route…nothing… but then… an almighty pandemonium takes me by surprise! Coming from the opposite direction, this time, now, nearer my plot, magpies beginning again, squawking, and squealing, fussing and minding something else’s business, but this time more urgent, building, crying, yawping, more intensely and with a climax to a persistent screech! I shudder, but not from cold, you understand?

Not wanting to find a bloodied corpse, I wait. I give sufficient time for a predator to retreat and escape. A fleeting moment, and I look across towards Rob’s plot and see that splendid, perfect, picture-book, white and orange face, alert, head erect, eyes directed towards me from inside the fruit cage…Wow! Such beauty, such power, such horror! Murder…taking place within metres of my space…such mixed feelings… Earlier, having tried, hopelessly, to free a pigeon from its enclosed food paradise, by leaving the door open, and now, minutes later after being sidetracked from my job, I venture towards the pen, finding nothing but a flurry of feathers.  I had done my best, but how do you entice a wild bird away from its free pickings? I had left a branch of red currants outside the cage, so that it might ‘just walk out’, but why would the bird have cause to leave a bountiful cage full of fruit? Oh, dear!

I want to share this experience … sadness, guilt, acceptance, the sheer drama of it all… with a fellow gardener, but now, at after nine o’clock at night, I am here alone. Closing the door of the fruit cage, I return to my plot, finishing my task and packing up my things, ready to go home, recent events raw and alive in my brain, jostling for recognition. How do you wind down for the evening after such consternation? Senses alert, adrenaline pumping and craving a friend’s comforting voice, I resign myself to ‘just dealing with it’… it is the way of Nature, after all!

As I leave, carrying my two large bowls of red and white hard-earned treasure, I glance down between the compost bin and the runner beans. There, angelic, magical and defiant, sits a jaunty collection of grey-brown bonneted toadstools, cosy in their company.

Ianthe Pickles
Lives in Liverpool
Worked for 37 years as a full-time Primary and later Secondary/Special School teacher and college tutor.
“Writing (especially poetry) was often a release during emotional and turbulent times in the 1980s working in an area of severe deprivation and unemployment in Liverpool. 
When life gets out of control, writing can often help it make sense.”

1 thought on “Summer Days on the Allotment

  1. Susan Leach

    What a beautiful and sensitive piece about allotment life and how lovely to see someone take such pleasure in their surroundings. What a difference it would make if we were all so aware of our surroundings and the fact that we are not the only creatures on this earth.

    Reply

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