Greetings from Bristol’s steepest allotments, where, a month into a national drought, the grass paths have turned to tinder and the desiccated clay soil resembles crazy paving, refusing to yield to the sharpest spade.
We had a smattering of rain yesterday but it just ran down the huge cracks in the soil and disappeared. Yes, it will go into the water table, but it’s more of a water footstool at the moment. We need a lot more than a shower before our thirsty crops will feel the benefit.
My courgettes and tomatoes are doing well, but everything else I’ve planted is struggling in the heat. The self-seeded fennel is basking in it though!
Perrett’s Park allotments are on a rich clay soil, which is great for fertility, but has a digging window so narrow you couldn’t get a seed packet through it. One week it’s sodden gloop, the next it’s rock hard, with fissures wide enough to lose your favourite trowel in. So you need to time it just right to plant anything. And of course when the ground was finally workable in May it coincided with a flare up in an old knee injury which meant that I couldn’t even walk to the site, let alone wield a fork in anger. After a month of being unable to visit at all I returned to head high grass at the edge of all my beds and an understandably unimpressed allotment neighbour.
I’ve since hacked back the thicket and what I have planted is trying its best but my plot does look a bit woeful compared to those many of my lovely fellow allotmenteers, who I scuttle past, head down to avoid any questions about how my little wedge of land is doing.
Still, there’s more to allotment life than the size of your marrows. Thanks to the amazing biodiversity of the crops tended here, large areas that are left to run rampant, and a generous helping of organic growers (inc. yours truly), we see so much more wildlife here than in our gardens a few streets away.
While watering on these sweltering evenings I’ve spotted damselflies and cinnabar moths, commas and large whites (grrr, keep off my cabbages!), and every variety of bee you can think of.
My most spectacular encounter was when I pulled up some black membrane to discover an absolutely huge iridescent slow-worm. It was fast asleep when I uncovered it, but woke in an instant and slithered away through the grass, stopping every few seconds to watch for the pigeons and magpies that patrol the trees hemming the site.
I’d seen several shed slow-worm skins on my plot already, so to meet their owner was rather gratifying. I have since put down some more membrane in a nearby corner, so that my slinky friend can make a new home without fear of an idiot human bothering them.
Some ants had clearly decided that the original membrane patch counted as soil, as they’d created surface channels in the ground underneath and were storing eggs in them. Disturbed in their nursery, an air of panic descended on the nest and these hardy soldiers started carting the eggs away. I watched for a minute, fascinated, and then covered the open tunnels with some spare planks to allow the ants to emigrate to a safer spot without getting picked off by predators.
The silver lining in this tricky season has been the arrival of my very own bench. My friend H had promised me her old one months ago, but between the godawful spring weather, my dodgy knee and our work schedules it never seemed to be the right time to move it. Finally an opening revealed itself on Sunday, so, despite it being 28C, we lugged it over.
My much-anticipated seat is now installed next to the dry spot by the bay tree where nothing grows thanks to its greedy roots. And the extreme slope of my terraced plot means my new perch overlooks the whole of south west Bristol, to the verdant horizon beyond the haze of the city.
I won’t have the most successful growing season this summer, but the wildlife more than makes up for it, as does the promise of a large gin and tonic, savoured in the saffron light, as the sun drops below over the distant hills and I watch contented from my new (old) bench.