We have both had flu for the last couple of weeks and it has prevented us from doing any work on the allotment. It has, however, given me the opportunity to pull the rocking chair close to the stove and delve into a few gardening and allotment books. Three of these were Yule gifts, and the last is a special one I acquired last year.
The first book I settled into was Down to Earth: Gardening Wisdom by Monty Don. I have read a few of Monty’s books and I am struck with the beauty with which he writes. Every now and then I was caught by a little snippet of description that I found soothing – sometimes with a tinge of sadness (similar to the writing of Tove Jansson). I was particularly fond of Monty’s descriptions of the seasons, especially autumn:
Day and night hang, too briefly, in balance, then tip towards the dark and the year is lost. Autumn can be beautiful. It can be rich with colour and smoky light, and it can be full of flower and fruit, but autumn is always sad. The party is over and the light all over the northern hemisphere is slipping away.
I think it hints perfectly to all the little deaths that autumn will bring. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this is just a book filled with poetical descriptions. It also offers an immense amount of gardening wisdom.
The book is not allotment specific, but it has a lot to offer the allotmenteer in the sections that discuss vegetables, herbs, fruit, soil conditions, pests, tools, weeds, composting, et al. And it is very easy to dip in and out of for advice. I confess that I read it cover to cover and felt like I was being led around both Longmeadow and my own plot whilst Monty offered words of encouragement. That is what is attractive about this book; it is not a prescriptive list about what to do (although lists of planting advice is offered as well as a month by month break down of plants and jobs), but it feels like an informal meeting and the imparting of wisdom – read it with a cup of tea in hand for maximum enjoyment. Maybe I have watched too many gardening programmes but I also read it with Monty’s voice in my head.
There are certain chapters I am looking forward to revisiting such as the chapter on wildlife gardening and we will certainly follow Monty’s instructions on how to build a wildlife pond.
The greatest comfort I find in this book is how connected Monty is to Longmeadow and how he explores the sense of place within gardening. For me, this is what forms the shape and style of our way of allotment gardening. We have no wish to impinge straight lines and rigour on our plot. We do not want to banish the wildness, just tame it a little and encourage its beauty.
The second book I read was The Essential Allotment Guide: How to Get the Best out of Your Plot by John Harrison. As you can tell from the title this one is allotment specific and the guide is broken down into many different helpful sections (such as the history of allotments, choosing a plot, pests and problems, clearing a plot, tools, vegetables) and there are lots of little diagrams and drawings throughout – it is very comprehensive. The book was published in 2009 so some aspects of it will be a little out of date and need to be read in context. There is an interesting few paragraphs about the weedkiller Aminopyralid and its longevity and prevalence in manure. It estimated that manure with traces of it in would not be safe to use until 2013, providing that old stocks of Aminopyralid were not used after its licence was revoked. I wonder whether this is the case – has it all broken down now? I have seen a few trials on Facebook groups with people growing beans in manure to test for weed killer and noticed that a fair number of beans were affected. I do not know which weedkiller these trialled though, but this book gives a timely reminder that not all we put on our plot is as safe as we think it to be.
On the whole, this book is very practical. It will be a great resource to dip in to – and I will do, but as I had the time I opted to read it from cover to cover. I feel that I have learned a lot, and it has challenged my gardening assumptions. I confess that I never realised that swede and turnips are brassicas (even though they have brassica in their botanical names!). We treated them as a root crop last year. Maybe that was one of the reasons they did not do so well.
I will definitely be returning to this book for advice on starting an asparagus bed as that is on our To Do list this year, and I will certainly return to the sowing charts and the information regarding saving seeds.
The next book I read was The Vegetable & Herb Expert: The world’s best-selling book on vegetables & herbs by Dr. D. G. Hessayon. This, as with the other books above, was a Yule gift and I confess to already owning a copy. It was, in fact, my go-to book last year as we started our allotment adventure and it practically lived in my rucksack for trips to the plot. To this end, my old copy is looking the worse for wear and will live in the shed when we have finished building it whilst this new copy will stay at home.
I spent a lovely hour or so reading through the plant and vegetable guides, garnering ideas what to plant this year. Like the last book, this is another oldie. It was printed in 2003 so it won’t include any new varieties of plants and describes Jerusalem artichokes and kohl rabi as unusual. However, the photos, charts and diagrams are invaluable in helping to identify pests and diseases and giving planting instructions. The information about each plant is set out in alphabetical order for ease of use, and the growing instructions are really simple to understand. Everything we have grown so far has been planted in accordance with this book. Rob wants to grow mangel wurzels this year, but this is not covered in the ‘Unusual Vegetables’ section.
The last book I have been reading is my favourite, but that is mainly for sentimental reasons. The Reader’s Digest ‘The Gardening Year’ is the gardening book I grew up with. This very copy in fact. I am sure it used to have a dust jacket, but it is old (printed in 1971) and so well used that it has lost it somewhere along the way. It is as comprehensive a gardening book as you could wish to have, and, as it is older than me, I have to described it as dated too! It is heavy and bulky and not really one to be carried around the allotment (the spine is breaking and I do not want to get mud on the pages). What makes this book special to me is the annotations and notes my mum has made over the years and kept within its pages; scraps of magazine and newspaper articles and notes about plants from friends. I open this book and I see Mum. She will read this (unless I have bored her into a coma with the start of this post) and think I am a sentimental old fool, but this book holds a collection of some of Mum’s gardening dreams, interests and inspirations and I am certain that without her influence and love of gardening and growing vegetables that Rob and I probably would not have an allotment today. Thanks Mum – and sorry for the cheesy post!