Musician and artist Darren Hayman tells us about the trials, tribulations, unexpected friends and small victories that come with a London allotment.
No one else wanted this plot. It had too many trees and too much shade. It was thick with brambles and looked like wasteland.
"Oh you’ve taken on a lot there," said David, my neighbour on the right. "The woman before you, she didn't do much, she just sat there and drank tea."
I took on my allotment just before the second lockdown, the long one, the winter one. This will get me through, I thought, a patch of the outdoors to call my own. Clearing the allotment was just hard work, that's all. I write songs and draw pictures normally and that's not hard work. Pulling up brambles, chopping down trees and lighting fires really did take me away from the pandemic. When my muscles ached at the end of each day it felt rewarding. It stopped me feeling lonely.
Allotments in cities are strange little Narnias. My plot is particularly elusive. You would never be able to find me. You could look for years. I could break laws there. I usually just smoke fags. Allotments look much like they would have a century ago; ramshackle shanty towns made from leftover windows and doors. Allotment owners are real-life Wombles, repurposing plastic, metal, glass, food, everything.
"There's a lot of work on that plot isn't there?" said Richard, my neighbour on the left. Richard is a concert pianist. He used to work with Ronnie Hazlehurst and once released an album of Beatles songs that segued into classical pieces.
Conversations drift easily whilst digging. We all wear the same uniforms of last decade's clothes, but you soon discover the musicians, the vicars, the politicians and the artists after you've discussed crop rotation.
Once I'd cleared some space I started building raised beds. I laid them out in a grid like a little city. I built a kennel and a bench. My dog, Minnie, hates the allotment. She just wants to chase foxes and dig up everyone's beds. David says "I couldn't have a bench, I'd just sit on it." I do, I just sit on it.
Eventually I had to stop building and start growing. This is where it got hard. When I make songs or paintings I am able to improvise and break rules. I fudge things and cheat and take short cuts and am very impatient. It drives partners and band members nuts but from the outside it can look impressive.
None of these skills is useful when growing food in the ground. There is no straightforward set of instructions. There is lots of advice to be had on allotments, people love to tell you stuff, but no two people agree. There are as many ways to grow a carrot as there are stars in the sky.
It ranges from the scientific, with people discussing the molecular compound of the soil, to the eccentric, with people planting in synchronicity with the phases of the moon.
Steve, is one of my favourite allotmenteers. He tends his own and his father's plots. He has a tender way with words. "She will not bear true fruit", he sighed at my plum tree once. I asked him about two conflicting pieces of advice I'd been given on potatoes. "Thing is, things like to grow," said Steve with a shrug.
This is the guidance I cling to most. I've had terrible luck at times: blight wiped out half my harvest, my prize carrot was never repeated despite recreating the exact same circumstances each year. Nature is persistent, however. You will eventually pull up some outsized vegetable from the ground when you least expect it. It will taste better than anything you've ever eaten, because you grew it and knew it when it was a seed no bigger than a speck of dust.
Let's break some myths about 'the good life' though. I am no Tom Good. None of this makes any economic sense, either in terms of money, time or labour. The homegrown potato is never 'worth it' in any practical sense.
I have found something beautiful in this useless pursuit, however.
I have discovered a respect for food and where it comes from. I now know that the courgette grows underneath the flower. I know that tomatoes and potatoes are related and can catch blight from each other. I know one onion grows into… one onion.
I still might give up the allotment. The frustrations and illogical setbacks are a little too much for me. There are berries amongst the thorns, however. I just need to learn to be a bit more patient.
All images by the author.