Can you dig it?


It’s the time of year when I always leave the allotment a couple of inches taller than when I arrived. The layer of compressed mud and clay clinging to my shoes doesn’t fall off until the next time I put them on. Obviously there’s no question of me actually cleaning them, the very idea.

Year four as an allotmenteer and I still feel like a complete novice. The purple-sprouting broccoli which grew so tall and promised to keep us well-stocked with these tasty brassicas throughout the winter was sacrificed to the Wood Pigeon God after I failed to cover the plants with netting.  Who knew those big birds could do so much nibbling? Actually, it seems, everyone else on the allotments apart from me and the new people who hadn’t managed to plant anything at all. Fortunately I’m not a total ingenue, we still have sprouts and cabbage, as well as the potatoes harvested in the autumn. And if you want to talk raspberries, I’m your woman, the freezer’s full of them.

Currently the ground can only be described as dull, brown and sticky, with occasional puddles. Everything is dormant, apart from a few hardy weeds and a cheeky dandelion which had the audacity to flower, I soon sorted that out. All I can do is dig in readiness for planting and that’s when the fun really starts. Seeds have been ordered and potatoes and onion sets are at the ready, but not too ready.  Some folk plant their onions in the autumn, that would require having cleared all the old stuff out and preparing the ground well in advance, another allotment lesson, everything is long-term!

Winter isn’t anything like over yet, there’s cold to come and those seeds will just have to stay in their colourful packets. In the meantime, allotmenteering is hard work and fun in equal measure and there’s lots of mud, a bit like running, but I don’t get as far.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four – million!


It seems like an age ago that the little, wizened seed potatoes with their weird white sprouts and spooky rootlets were carried down to the allotment in their cosy egg-box homes and planted in the cold, dark soil.

That couple of dozen of the ugly little lumps were left to their own devices and the Calverley elements. Though after last year’s potato paucity, I was taking no chances and offered a prayer to the weather gods and made a ceremonial sacrifice of one of their number to Blighty, the Blight Destroyer, which involved robes, candles, chanting and a sharp spade.

It’s year three of our allotment, and it’s fair to say lessons continue to be learned. Who knew that dwarf beans weren’t just small beans, but small plants and didn’t need a splendid wigwam of two-metre-high canes with artistically-arranged strings? And what were the odds of pigeons pecking the tops of everything that wasn’t covered? And just how much damage could a badger do to a seed bed?

With my artist’s head on, I’m telling anyone who’s prepared to listen without bursting into hysterical laughter that the wigwam is a feature in the allotment, adding balance, depth and sound, with the breeze making gentle hissing sound through the string. The pecked leaves are fractals, each unique, yet ephemeral. The neat rows of seedlings re-distributed by the digging badger are a metaphor for the world of 2017, unpredictability and chaos, yet still with hope that something will grow somewhere……No-one has believed me so far.

As the potatoes sent up their stalk, leaves, flowers and faux tomatoes, yes, potato fruits are like tomatoes, though not to be eaten, the rest of the allotment burst into life. The broad beans just keep on giving, the strawberries were fantastic fresh and live on as jam, and the second harvest of golden raspberries is nearly ready. Broccoli, sprouts and cabbage are on their way, beetroot and onions keep on giving. The dwarf beans are disappointingly small.

Fun though the rest are to harvest, the most rewarding of all is definitely the humble potato. In the intervening months, those wizened seed potatoes had cast off their scruffy jackets and transformed into not just one, but dozens, possibly millions, of potatoes. I claim a little artistic licence here. It’s not like onions, where you plant a little mini onion and it grows to be a bigger onion, potatoes multiply like Hydra’s heads. In goes the fork, our come the potatoes, it’s so fantastic that I have to exclaim and chuckle with every potato I unearth. Noel tends to wear noise-cancelling headphones at potato harvest time.

And there we have it, two piles of potatoes, one perfect, the other with feature holes and other insect nibblings. But never fear, the perfect ones go into our magic black keeping bin for consumption right through the winter, which if the current weather is anything to go by, starts next week. The holey ones become chips for freezing, slices for Lyonnaise, little cubes for roasting, or just mash. Happy, happy days.

The Day of the Tomato Triffids

Yellow tomatoes, just as it says on the packet. And the green haze of tomato plants in the greenhouse

Year two as an allotmenteer and year one as a greenhouser, and we’re one step nearer to organic self-sufficiency in a niche area of cabbage, onion and tomato-related cuisine. The healthiness of our respective constitutions will know no bounds and I foresee a future when the cats will take the blame for any gaseous expulsions.

The greenhouse was a great hit with the cats, who loved the warmth and jungle-like qualities. I imagine it brings out all their big cat hunting instincts, that would explain them trotting into the house with assorted rodents and chasing them around the lounge for their own amusement. Bless.

With not much room available to grow our bumper tomato crop, I had a cunning plan. If I doubled the number of growbags so the roots would delve deeper, I could double the number of tomato plants. Simple. Cunning. Foolproof. Couldn’t see any problems with that at all.

Tomato planting started in earnest, I chose three varieties, red, yellow and stripey. I’d visions of gliding into the greenhouse, my floaty dress billowing behind me, straw hat nodding in the breeze, wicker basket primed and ready to be loaded with plump, ripe fruit, looking like a page in the Sarah Raven catalogue.

Instead, there was a green haze as the plants grew together, competing  for space. At times, I’d to fight my way through with a machete just to water them, I wasn’t wearing anything floaty, there was no straw hat.The cats abandoned the greenhouse all together and the tomatoes just kept on pushing, triffid-like, yellow triffids.

The picture on the seed packet, showing shiny red tomatoes bore no resemblance to the yellow plums ripening on the vines, someone in the tomato factory must have thought they’d have a jolly jape and swapped the seeds, oh how I laughed. So I had double yellow and stripey tomatoes, a lot of foliage and bulging grow-bags full of roots. Yes, definitely triffids.

Meanwhile down on the allotment, there was a serious case of over-planting of cabbage. Not that I don’t like cabbage, but you can have too much of a good thing, especially when they are all ready at once. Cabbage soup anyone? Thank goodness onions store well, we’ve more strings of them than a Francophile fancy dress shop.

So looking ahead to next year, them theme will be ‘less is more’, though in the case of cabbage, nil. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make the Sarah Raven catalogue.

Tomatoes of great stripeyness

It’s starting to look something like

Be gone, couch grass and creeping buttercup!

Two years ago and I was seriously thinking of applying for PhD funding to research the complex root system of couch grass and creeping buttercup. I considered I was well on my way to becoming a leading expert in the two, particularly in methods of extracting them from the ground intact. I could see a future of lecture tours, stop-overs in luxurious hotels in countries where couch grass and buttercups are unknown. Maybe a book, possibly a movie, certainly an interactive game with dancing roots and nodding flower heads.

My then new allotment was central to field research. When I say ‘new’, I mean new to me, it had a previous owner who must have planted the offending weeds, how else could they have proliferated? And more importantly, why? Apart from a couple of blighted potatoes and one weedy raspberry cane, the couch grass and buttercup flourished, so clearly they planned to do something with them, I just couldn’t figure out what – maybe something else for my research bid.

But as with all research, after a while, you begin to question why you’re doing it. Day after day of pulling and tugging those tenacious roots and I changed my mind about the damned things, in fact, I never wanted to see them again. Clearly, that was never going to happen, I just had to make sure there was no room for weeds by planting lots of lovely vegetables.

Ooo this allotmenteering, it’s not something that can be rushed. Two years. Two years of forking, digging, pulling and tugging those weeds. But now, it’s starting to look something like.

The start of the research – two years ago


Lessons learned as a first-year allotmenteer

Borlotti beans, ready to dry in the airing cupboard.
Borlotti beans, ready to dry in the airing cupboard.

I’ve looked everywhere, but no-one has a cakey recipe for runner beans. Carrots, beetroot, courgette, potato, yes, yes, yes, yes, they bake up well with sugar, eggs, flour and spices until they’re unrecognisable as vegetables, making sure that children everywhere can say they’ve had at least one of their five a day.

But runner beans stay firmly in savoury section, there’s not even a runner bean roulade, let alone a beany cupcake. Let’s be honest, they’re not really that exciting as vegetables, unless they’re served with chorizo or chilli. And now I have hundreds of the damned things left over, enough to feed the entire village, but no-one wants them, I can’t give them away. The wall of the allotment is piled high with them as other allotmenteers try to pass on their excess beans to passers-by, without much success. Thank goodness for compost heaps, because that’s where most of them have ended up, but it is a very good compost heap.

I’ve now chalked up my first year down at t’allotment and have enjoyed the fruits and vegetables of my labour. When I say my labour, I mean our labour, Noel has been on digging and weeding duty. The vast swathe of couch grass and creeping buttercup I took over has been transformed to produce crop after crop, it’s a miracle and a tasty one at that, unless we’re talking about runner beans.

Lessons have been learned, especially at how prolific runner beans are when you plant them. Here’s my top five that will take me forward to a second year of partial self-sufficiency.

  1. If you sow all your seeds at once, they all grow together. There’s just two of us, we can’t eat the ten red cabbage that hearted up at the same time as the three different types of kale I grew. Kale chips, anyone?
  2. Nothing in the entire world is as satisfying as digging up potatoes. You plant a tatty old thing, it throws up leaves, stalks and tomato-like fruit, which is a bit weird, then when the time’s right, in goes the garden fork, out come dozens and dozens of potatoes. I mean, how does that work? It’s brilliant!
  3. Slugs materialise without warning, eat everything, leave slime and are immortal. I think they are transported from some kind of sluggy Enterprise-type spaceship where they live on slug pellets to build up their immunity. As far as I can see, they don’t like runner beans, so they’re not as daft as they look.
  4. Weeds materialise without warning, spread everywhere and are indestructible. I think they are mates with the slugs. There were, however, none near the runner beans.
  5. Home-grown fruit and vegetables taste better than anything you can buy anywhere, they are sweeter, juicier, crunchier and lovelier. And yes, that even applies to runner beans.

The seed catalogue has arrived, I’ve perused and salivated over its contents and made my order. Roll on spring!

Learning from the learners

Mix all the colours together and you get....brown!
Mix all the colours together and you get….brown!

Everyone should spend an afternoon with a class of six-year-olds, especially when they are making African masks. It’s an education, it’s fun and it’s gloriously messy. As Chair of Governors at Calverley Parkside School, I get to chair serious meetings making serious decisions and read lots of reports and policies, it’s important work, but it’s not what I’d call fun.

So when I got an invitation from Year 1 to join them for the afternoon, I jumped at the chance. Each governor sponsors a year group, then follows them through the school, by gum how they grow!

As I entered the classroom to be greeted by my Sunday name, I had to look around to see who this Mrs Akers was. It was me of course, I felt very grown up.

Six-year-olds are interesting and interested, full of new things and generally enjoying life, no cares or worries (except the sticky question of what had happened to someone’s Show and Tell, but that was soon forgotten after they all went and played out together). They can also be quite serious, so when I asked if they knew what a governor did, I got the logical reply. Governors govern, you can’t beat them, so I joined them.

The first thing I did was break a paintbrush. which immediately caused great hilarity. I don’t think many grown-ups break things in the classroom, ah well, there’s always a first time.

Soon I was surrounded by chatty children painting papier mache masks. Somehow I got covered in paint, though my white tee-shirt stayed white until I got home and dropped chocolate on it.

Of course things have changed a lot from when I was at school all those years ago, but reading time stays the same. I don’t know what the children made of my rendition of Farmer Fred and his wacky tractor, complete with sound effects, but I had fun!

Best of all was one-to-one reading with two children. It took me back to when I sat with my teacher Mrs Elliott, as she followed each word with her pen and I pronounced it, what an achievement to read an entire page, especially when there were no pictures. These two children were opposites, one reading confidently, the other not as sure, but they both made a fantastic effort.

I learned a lot today about how the children learn and how they love to learn. I can’t wait to go back!

Dahlia rings and raspberry stalks

Should have left the stalks on!
Should have left the stalks on!

Presenting flowers and fruit for the village show is a serious matter, you can’t just turn up and turn them out. There’s rules and there’s measuring tools carried in a special kit by the judges.

I had my own judging to do at the Calverley Show in the photography and wine (yes wine) classes, but I am a mere amateur. I wanted to see the experts at work.

The room smelled delicious, fruit, flowers, foliage and vegetables, with the aroma of cakes, bread and starched linen sneaking in from the handicrafts next door. But the judge with the measuring kit was focused and unmoved by those heady scents. He was eyeing one particular dahlia and he wasn’t happy. No, he said. It wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t do at all, as he produced a ring the size of – err – a dahlia, for it was indeed a dahlia ring. Rules are rules and if the bloom is bigger than the ring, then it’s disqualified, maybe even taken outside and crushed underfoot. I imagined he had other specialist tools in his kit, which incidentally was emblazoned with a large ‘J’ and stickers from Chelsea, Blenheim Palace, Harrogate and Calverley. Maybe there was a special stalk tester to make sure no non-organic materials had been introduced, I’d heard talk of wires, glue and painted wooden stakes. There was certainly a note pad for disqualification purposes, in case anyone added false petals, or had the foliage pointing the wrong way.

I was scared, I’d entered my sunflower and Arthur Bell, Arthur Bell is a beautiful yellow rose, and plonked them in the green vases provided by the society. How would they measure up?  I’d also staged half a dozen of my golden raspberries, which looked magnificent on the house-shaped plate I’d brought, they were the door, I thought they looked pretty, I’d picked the that very morning and arranged them artily on the plate. Looking at the judge’s kit, I knew I’d made a faux pas and hurriedly transferred them to the regulation paper plate.  I could only head for the wine to drown my sorrows and hope.

As it turned out, my sunflower won (though it was the only entry), Arthur Bell was a creditable second (out of two) and the raspberries were third, beaten by blackberries and plums. Evidently I should have left the stalks on. Ah well, I’ll know next time!