Saturday, May 29, 2010

Using my allotted time

I’m a bit of a spoof at a lot of things but I think that gardening is the area at which I excel.
My experience of this noble art is limited to a few years as a reluctant teenager when my mother would send me down to the allotment on summer evenings, carrying a bucket of water on each handlebar. Needless to say, there was barely a thimbleful left by the time I arrived at the place but the array of lettuce, peas, courgettes, onions and other vegetables all seemed to survive without my seemingly vital irrigation missions.
Of course, I had to do a bit of digging occasionally and harvesting, pea-shelling and hanging onions up in the shed, ostensibly to ward off vampires. And I was always very good at eating the produce, which tasted so much better when you knew how little effort you had put into them.
But I was never a true gardener in the sense that I actually knew what I was doing. I lived in flatland until I got married and the three houses we have had in our married life have contained a yard, a postage stamp garden and, currently, a ‘bit out the front’ and a ‘bit out the back.’
I imagine that I would love to have an allotment but I haven’t yet achieved that grizzled appearance which is part of the application form. Nor do I own a pair of rubber boots and a flat cap, which are both essential parts of the uniform for the allotment owner. But I can well imagine myself on balmy summer afternoons foostering around in my potting shed (whatever a potting shed is!) or leaning on my spade talking about black fly to the oul’ lad in the next allotment.
Here in estate-land, nobody is really a professional gardener like the lads up in the allotments. Our interest in the garden is normally confined to dashing out in a spot of dry weather to hack away at a wayward viburnum or mowing the moss on the lawn.
In the allotment, though, it’s a different kettle of radishes. You actually need to have a faint inkling of what you’re supposed to be doing because you are surrounded by experts who will come over to your patch (with a spade to lean on) and examine it closely.
Of course a proper allotment owner has to be male, so I have a head start there. Like the Masons and Portmarnock Golf Club, women are normally debarred from owning and working allotments, though I believe they are allowed to visit due to the perfection of an alarm system which wakes up the visitor’s husband when his spouse is still a hundred yards away.
When talking to proper gardeners, it is essential to understand that there is only one way to kill a slug / a rabbit / greenfly (delete as necessary) Of course, everyone has a different method but everyone is convinced that there’s only one way. Probably none of them work. In fact, I suspect a lot of allotment owner’s time is spent devising methods of murdering small, defenceless animals, which seems fair enough to me.
Slugs naturally bring out the most basic instincts of the allotment owner. The hardened gardener will nip them in two between thumb and forefinger and then casually wipe the squirted brown blood off their top lip. Others use salt or cider or pellets. Less scientifically, bringing the flat side of a spade down on them from a height is often an effective way of dispatching them to that big lettuce leaf in the sky.
The proper gardener will have a whole array of implements at his disposal, from hoes (a long handled spade for people with thin feet) and forks to trowels and those little cylindrical bits of wood used for making holes to plant seeds, technically called a ‘yoke.’ Normally, these will be hand made and handed down from generation to generation and the only way to get hold of a set is to approach the widow of an allotment owner and convince her that the deceased would have wanted the tools to be used by someone who appreciates them.
These implements should normally be kept in a small shed which also houses other objects essential to the allotment owner’s trade. This includes a folding chair, bottles of French beer, a supply of pouch tobacco and a vast array of plastic flower pots that will never be used.
It’s also important to have bits of orange string to tie to little pieces of wood from one side of your plot to the other. This will make it look as though you know what you are doing and will also help the birds to find where you’ve planted the seeds. And remember, plain string will not do – it has to be orange – probably something to do with feng shui or karma.
The proper allotment owner will also have bits of dry earth encrusted in the cuticles of his fingernails. To do this effectively, you must crouch down, scoop up a handful of earth and then scrunch it up between your fingertips, letting it fall back to the ground. This actually forms part of the initiation ceremony for the new allotment owner, who must do this with a knowing air while being watched by the oul’ lads out of the corner of their eyes. You should then wipe your hand briefly on your trousers and hold your index finger in the air to test the wind direction.
Possibly the best way to impress your fellow friends of the earth is to go down and buy a bag of onions in Dunnes early in the morning and lay them out on your plot before the others arrive at 11am. Then you can make a great show of picking them and examining them. If anyone asks you what variety they are, just think up an Italian phrase like Dolce Vita or Bellissima.
There’s no point in overdoing it though. Keep it simple. Digging up pineapples or kiwis that you’ve buried the day before will only lead to doubts forming in their nasty suspicious minds. And, be warned, spaghetti doesn’t grow the same way you find it in the packet, nor indeed do they harvest it smothered in tomato sauce.

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