Wednesday, 23 January 2013


I, my partner, and our two kids live in a small one bedroom council flat, and as you can imagine, it can get very cramped. There is no bolthole, no where to have a moment to yourself, and in some respects this can be quite healthy – all issues have to be dealt with there and then, no sulking in distant rooms. But when the kids go wild (as they invariably do), the flat exponentially shrinks, and when this happens, there’s one thing I truly wished we had: the humble garden.

As a child I grew up with a garden which adjoined a vast overgrown stretch of land which was a disused railway line. Along with my brother and sister we would play there from dusk ‘til dawn – or so it felt as a six year old. I always recall how that wild, abandoned environment would spark my imagination, and how its wildlife would ever be a source of fascination: the simplest of creatures, the hedgehogs, foxes, voles and moles, the bees, wasps, damselflies and warlike dragonflies, and even the toads, frogs and newts. Consequently I have always appreciated the benefits of being outside in the fresh air, amongst nature, and as such I find it a shame that our kids don’t have what we had as children. 

In a two-room flat, eight storeys high, your options are limited. I thought of aquascaping as a way of bringing nature into the flat. A fish tank as a kind of surrogate garden where your imagination at least could run wild. I learnt as much as I could about creating planted tanks, using CO2, forcing the plants to explode in a jungle-like frenzy. Gazing into that tank, neon tetras darting, java ferns, cabomba, vesicularis, and java moss gently swaying against the flowing water, I often imagined was akin to gazing into the Amazon basin. We all enjoyed (and enjoy) the thick lush underwater world of our aquascape tank. But children naturally require more; they need to get their hands dirty.

The vague notion of having an allotment crossed my mind three years ago. I’d contacted a nearby allotment but was told there was a lengthy waiting list and that we would be on it for years. Undeterred we joined the list. And for three years I forgot about it, until an email arrived: ‘You’re top of the list’.

I turned up at the allotment with my son to meet the site secretary. To our surprise we were offered a choice of three allotments. All recently vacated. It was that time of year apparently, annual fees to be paid… and when members finally accept defeat and move on. I knew instantly which one we’d want. There it stood, a little way back up the hill, with this big, old dilapidated shed, smashed windows, a slew of disintegrating apples on one of its two small trees – but apple trees… and two of them! 

I can’t convey the sense of luck we felt as a family. This was on the scale of a minor miracle. This plot of land was quite a substantial plot of land. The potential seemed immense. We were put on a standard three month probation, whereupon the site committee would determine whether we had proven our commitment to the site. Thereon we would be charged £45 a year (soon to double!)

So we began work on the plot - in complete blissful ignorance. Of course we didn’t mind one bit. Having had no garden in over 25 years, planting and tending seemed remote. In our favour was the fact that it was November. In terms of planting there was not much to do - mainly preparation for the new year. So we dug up weeds, collected remaining apples, dug up the last of the potatoes left behind by the previous tenant. We cut back the raspberry bushes. And laid sheets over the newly dug beds to kill the weeds. I relocated sections of turf to muddy areas making for a larger area for the kids to play; we relocated a small tree to free up space. And then came a minor eureka moment. In the site’s skip was a large blue plastic fish pond. Allotments don’t have ponds, right? Allotments are for growing, right? Well no, not entirely. I called the secretary, asked if we could put a pond in? Sure, go ahead, good for biodiversity. And so the pond duly went it. 

With the introduction of the pond there seemed a change in perception. This wasn’t merely a place to grow produce, but also a living space, a GARDEN! Soon we came to realise that the shed could either hold tools, or hold a table for reading; the spare land could either grow carrots or be a wild grass play area; the paths between plots for walking, or a place to hold barbeques and picnics – all allowed by the site committee. 

As things turned out, our allotment would partly be used for growing produce, but also partly as a garden sanctuary for the kids. True, we don’t have a garden we can step out into, but we have the next best thing, and a heartbeat away. And when the pond settles in, we’ll introduce frogs, toads and newts for the kids; already a fox has staked his claim to surrounding areas, and without fail, the red-breasted robins regularly appear to snap up the newly dug worms. I ask you, what family could ask for more?

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