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The Clearing of The Allotment

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

As I arrive at the allotments and walk up the communal path past white flowering cherry blossom and budding raspberry bushes. Glancing on either side of the path, I realize that all the allotments are at least a season ahead of mine! Neat rows of cabbages, newly sprouting onions and fresh green lettuces, rich brown well dug over soil. I arrive at mine and hold my breath- a tangled, unweeded mess sprawls up the hillside. I have come to dig it all over and remove the remains of last year. The crops that didn’t grow, the weeds which have taken over, the grass growing over once much clearer paths. The tangled mess of chaos reigns here and needs to be removed and the earth cleansed of this disarray. The rhubarb seems to have already gone to seed without even producing any fruit this year. The only plant which is really thriving is the mint, which has now taken over the strawberry patch, its roots like evil fingers speeding throw the ground on muddy peak district days, as if on fast forward on a nature documentary, stretching and multiplying, to occupy every inch of space available and pinning down to the ground any plant or creature in its path.

The birds chatter and seem to laugh all around me, discussing my unusual presence here today. The sun starts to break through the cloud and I hear the distant hum of traffic- a world on the move and at work. I think of my eldest son Arthur who will be sitting in my classroom now, in his German lesson, staring out of the window probably, as the supply teacher replacing me tries to teach a cheeky 7F an unplanned lesson on daily routine or household chores from a dry text book, and me here in the sun sipping sweet, over-mashed tea from my old metal flask on my recycled allotment decking.

The strawberry plants which I have brought here today to enliven the old ones are already almost all dead themselves, left out on my house decking too long with no watering and the kids kicking endless football over their delicate leaves. A plane drones somewhere overhead, on its way over Cracken Edge, as always when I glance upwards appearing to be flying far too low for my liking, full of hung-over holiday makers and successful business people, returning to their happy lives in Manchester. And then a train. Too late for commuters now, probably a couple of part-time Mums wearing the compulsory Chinley ‘Rab’ jackets with 3 wheeler buggies and perfect blond-haired toddlers reading already as they wait for the train.

I walk over to the small strawberry patch - really the only successful area each year on this forgotten space. Probably the only fruit along with the rhubarb which will survive without a gardener’s care and attention. It is overgrown with, on first appearance seems to be just weeds. Then I glance upwards and spy the whole area and panic – far too much to do in one morning - or ever before summer is over. Even the strawberry patch seems too much suddenly.

I start with a spade, digging over weeds in clumps and bending clumsily to separate them from the soil. After a few minutes I decide to hunt for a trowel instead, and find one, discarded, slightly bent and dirty under the decking. Crouching closer to the ground now and clearing one tiny area at a time- just half a foot of space, unearthing weeds and tossing them upwards into the compost heap behind me. The earth smells stronger from this position. As I unearth some twisted mint roots, a worm, who was happy tangled in their maze slithers sideways into the new soil and begins his journey again. With each small step, new areas of fresh dark soil are appearing. I choose to leave most of the mint between the strawberry plants. It is starting to look like a fruit bed now. To my left, a small clump of fresh rhubarb takes my attention which I hadn’t noticed before now. I crawl over the soil and notice that the stalks are tangled and choked with grasses and weeds but they pull out easily to reveal tiny new baby growths- tightly curled up leaves like buds ready to unfold. As I clear around this plant, I sense a newness of life to come and a new fresher breath fills my lungs and my mind with hope. As I continue in this way I realize that I am clearing away the bad, deciding what should be removed and allowing the good the right to survive. I bend down with envigoured energy in my body and soul. A new season will soon be able to reign here and from the chaos, beauty will grow.

The roots of the mint go so deep. Some of it is ready to be pulled out; others are tangled around fresh shoots or strawberry plants. Some of the weeds I even decide to leave where they are as they look just right. I do not want to rip out everything and start all over again. I decide to tend to it calmly and let every plant work together as long as they all have their own space and am not strangled by the strongest. I leave what is good and take out the unnecessary obstacles. Working close to the ground, I smell the fresh mint and see tiny white strawberry flowers amongst the leaves. I smell the delicious scent of autumn rhubarb and imagine the taste of red rhubarb crumble, frozen and stored until the nights are dark again and served with rich creamy custard. The smell of mint, served with lamb on a dark Sunday lunch. As I weed around the mint my trowel hits something harder and I unearth a potato. Then two, three, four- they are pushing the mint upwards. Hidden by the weeds, like little gems- last year’s harvest, forgotten yet preserved under the mess of weeds. Now nineteen lay on the slab beside me- enough for a few meals. Covered in roots and dark soil.

Although I have only improved a very small area, I am pleased with my morning’s work. The cockerel crows loudly and I am reminded that my time here is up and I need to return home to bathe and sort out the house.

Drinking Tea - Gardens By Thyme & Space - Julia Wilson
In the sun, sipping sweet, over-mashed tea from my old metal flask on my recycled allotment decking.

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