We plough the fields

I inhabit a few different worlds. My professional – and quite a bit of my personal – life is spent with energetic creative types who do fun and inspiring things amidst the urban din of Birmingham. People like this lot, who will be leading Birmingham’s Handover ceremony for the Commonwealth Games this weekend. There’s a rapper, a choreographer, a principal ballerina, a spoken word artist and a film-maker. We spent yesterday morning telling the press about plans for the ceremony, with time for a photoshoot amidst Digbeth graffiti. They will perform this Sunday to a worldwide television audience of around 1 billion people, so no pressure then (you can watch the Handover as part of the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday from 11am on BBC2).

The artists taking part in this Sunday’s Commonwealth Games handover…watch it on BBC2 from 11am

Then there’s the country/foodie life, which made me take a two hour round trip at the weekend as I had a hunch that new season asparagus would be on sale at Hillers, near Evesham. I was right.

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

And then there’s the parent life, which involves a lot of nappies, washing-up, more nappies, cuddles, early nights and giggling.

Harry is 7 months old and has discovered the shelf of baking equipment

It’s a good mix of things. When the arty stuff gets too irritating I can head to the hills, and when the shire is too stifling I can retreat back to Brum. Or indeed retreat to the allotment. Last week I was blessed with four hours childcare – FOUR HOURS! – and headed down for some grafting with Gary, Matt’s Dad. The snow seems to have finally gone, and whilst it’s not warm, it is definitely now spring and there was mulching and manuring and soil-prep to be done.

Gary gets to work on the allotment

Whilst I cracked on with putting a thick bark mulch on the raspberries, blueberries and currants, Gary stripped back the black plastic sheeting from the main vegetable plot. It was a relief to see that the soil was not in too bad a state: instead of forking and weeding it over in the autumn as normal, last October I merely pulled out the last of the sunflowers and covered the plot over with plastic (there was only so much I could achieve with a 1 month old baby). It survived this mistreatment well and only needed a light weed and fork before being mulched with rotted manure. Gary is incredibly neat and methodical, I discover – must be where Matt gets it from. I, on the other hand, take a ‘that will do’ approach and dig/manure half of the other plot in about an hour. I know whose approach is better (clue: not mine).

A few hours later, the main plot is forked over and manured. He did an amazing job.

I focused on putting a think mulch of bark on the soft fruit

My efforts at manuring are significantly less tidy than Gary’s…but it will do. The broad beans take up their new home.

After just a few hours the plot is transformed from winter weeds to clean edged plots ready for planting out. The soil is still cold – daffodils only just coming out now, a month later than I would expect – but there is a tiny harvest to be had: I take the opportunity to pick a handful of new sorrel leaves, to toss with new potatoes and butter.

One and a half plots, ready for planting

First picking of sorrel, for tossing with new potatoes and lashings of melted salted butter

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: A vat of bolognese, first season asparagus with salmon tart and new potatoes (phenomenally expensive but worth it), chicken marinated with yoghurt and ras al hanout, last of the simnel cake
Reading: Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, a love letter to Birmingham’s urban waterways

Black Country Allotment Society

I’ve been aware of circadian rhythms this past week. Given that it’s suddenly now dark before 5pm (precisely when did this happen?), all the summer routines are gone, forgotten. Dinner is early. Waking up is late. I’m getting through tealights so quickly we’ll have to do a special trip to Ikea to stock up. Hell, I’ve even been craving sprouts (but only if they’re roasted. That’s the key to a good sprout).

So there’s not been much allotmenting, just a lot of….sitting. I am good at sitting, it’s all that yoga (i.e. to relax is not lazy, but essential if one is to feel part of the wider universe. Got to love those yogis). But if one is going to be in hibernation from November to March, some decent reading material is needed.

Happily, the postman brought such an item the other week, a brown box filled with beautifully presented essays and musings on the allotments of the Black Country. It’s the work of Susie Parr, a writer who has been working with Multistory, a community arts organisation based over in West Brom.

No.2

The box of delights

Susie spent two years popping in and out of Black Country allotments, making friends with the tenants, researching the history of allotments and, by the sounds of it, getting completely lost driving around Sandwell (easily done).

She discovered a rich cast of characters on her travels. I particularly enjoyed reading about Alison, who I think must be in her 60s. Alison never chucks anything away. Yoghurt pots become seedling nurseries, an old bucket serves as an amplifier for the radio, and she makes her own storage heaters though, frustratingly, I am not told how.

Alison uses a pencil to punch marks into used tin cans, making every-weather plant labels. On one label, she has engraved a poem:

The kiss of the sun for pardon

The song of the bird for mirth

One is closer to God in the garden

Than anywhere else on earth

2014-11-11 11.07.29

Snapshot of the mend-and-make-do plant labels

Sandwell and the Black Country are just down the road from us but in many ways they are a world away. It’s not true to say that this area is post-industrial – the Black Country remains industrial. It’s a hive of industry. Whilst our patch of land in Harborne is overlooked by massive houses owned by surgeons and solicitors, plots just 1 or 2 miles away in the Black Country are surrounded by tight terraced housing, warehouses and nondescript industrial buildings. Some things have changed though: I loved this shot of haymaking, date not given but I’d surmise it’s early 20th century.

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

I got the sense from Susie Parr’s introduction that she hadn’t expected to find such a thriving scene of gardeners in the Black Country. If I’ve learnt anything from living here, it’s to not judge by appearances. Even in the most unpromising of areas, there are gems to be found.

You can read more about the Black Country Allotment Society project at www.multistory.org.uk

Full disclosure: My friend and former colleague Kate works for Multistory and sent me a free copy of the Black Country Allotment Society publication to read. I was under no obligation to blog.

End of year figures

Subs were due this weekend. I headed over to the office, which is actually a garden shed, and handed over my hard-earned cash to Archie.

Archie is the Boss of the allotments. If you’re not looking after your plot, Archie will send you The Letter instructing you to buck up your thinking. Every so often he wanders over to see what we’re up to, and always asks about the hops. I’m hoping he’ll present us with a gold star for effort one day, but it’s yet to materialise.

As I wrote out my cheque for £81 I reflected that the fees had gone up since last year. It’s actually a rise of 9%. Archie told me that Birmingham City Council has decreed all their departments must now breakeven (what on earth were they doing before?) and as a result they are no-longer subsidising the allotments.

Subsidising the allotments! I hadn’t realised that Cllr Albert Bore and his gang had been giving me a financial helping hand with my high-maitenance tomatoes.

So as it’s Year End on the allotment, I thought I’d work out just how much produce we’ve grown, in financial terms, so I can pass my thanks back to BCC.

If you’ll humour me for a few moments, my figures are thus.

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