9 min read

The Old Chesterton Allotment Society

How to grow potatoes for fun and very little profit
The Old Chesterton Allotment Society

Hello, grownups!

What do you do with a broken heart, if you are stuck on an island 13,000km away from everyone you love? You cut it into pieces, making sure there is at least one bud on each. You wait for your heart to form thick callouses, then bury the pieces cut-side down, twelve inches apart, three inches deep, pushing them snug into hilled rows. You cover your heart in mulch, and you wait for the spring.

I moved to England in the depths of winter. I thought this was a brilliant plan, because I’d be front-loading all my misery and getting all the tough parts over with in one go. A pool-jumping, rather than a slowly-easing-in-at-the-steps approach to moving. If you move in the middle of winter, then every day will be a little bit warmer, a little bit lighter, a little bit easier, I told myself.

Only, this was January 2020, and I’d failed to predict one minor detail: a global pandemic that would make it impossible to get to know my new city, or meet any friends, or leave the house for longer than one hour a day with the one other member of my household.

I’ve never struggled to make friends. I’m a joiner, by nature. Nothing makes me feel happier than being part of a club or a team or a troop or a gang or a crew. If there’s even the slightest chance of a branded t-shirt then I am ALL IN. Making friends would be so easy, I thought. I’d made a list of groups to join before I moved: Scouts, a D&D group, a book club, a hiking club, an amateur dramatics society, a writing group, a drawing class… Of course, when I actually moved, none of these things were operating. I hunted and hunted, and eventually found one group that was still running: The Old Chesterton Allotment Society.

Reader, I joined it.

An allotment is a parcel of land that you can rent out by the year and grow vegetables on. It’s kind of a community garden, except that everyone has their own, clearly demarcated plot. They’re only rented out to regular people, never to businesses. For the princely sum of £140 a year, I was allocated a piece of land far larger than my flat. If you are much, much better at allotment gardening than I am, you might be able to meet your whole family’s entire vegetable and fruit needs from the average-sized allotment. In my case, I managed to produce an ungodly volume of spinach, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and snails, but little else.

In a country facing an infuriating housing crisis, the existence and affordability of an allotment feels frankly miraculous. I was on the waiting list for six months. In London, the average waiting time is around seven years.

In the past, allotments were a key element of food security for large hungry families. They were first codified in law during the intense urbanisation of the early 20th century, and they became even more popular when they were rebranded as Victory Gardens during the two world wars. Nowadays, they’re basically social clubs for octogenarians. I was the youngest member of the Old Chesterton Allotment Society by approximately sixty years. This made me an item of suspicion and scorn, but also of pity. Within twenty minutes of arriving at my allotment, I could count on some kindly passerby to wander over to tell me that I was holding my hoe all wrong, or I wasn’t pruning my tomatoes aggressively enough, or hadn’t noticed that the snails had entirely overrun my beer traps and were now mounting a new offence against the pea seedlings.

Their suspicion of youngsters isn’t entirely unwarranted. Sue and Pat, the first two women who warmed up to me, confessed that there had been a spate of young people (i.e. people in their 30s and 40s) taking plots in the past few years, and they usually lost interest after just a couple of weeks., once they realised that maintaining an allotment is more drudgery than romance. I reassured them by telling them that I’m a seasoned vegetable-grower (omitting the fact that said vegetables have consisted of a couple of spinach plants, a few kitchen herbs, and two marijuana plants named Mary-Kate and Hashley).

The virtue most cherished by allotment gardeners is thrift. Buying pre-built greenhouses or trellises or sheds is frowned upon. Instead, you see ingenious structures built from wood scraps, old pallets, chicken wire, brittle plastic pipes. There’s endless debate amongst the members about the best place to buy seeds. Admit that you were WEAK and bought established plants from the home supply shop because those goddamn snails keep eating your seedlings, and you will be rewarded with a flurry of tisk tisks and raised eyebrows, even if it ultimately cost you 20 pence more per plant. Mortifying.

What you might not realise about farming an allotment is that it’s a competitive sport. The goal isn’t just to grow the fruits and vegetables you want, but to grow better fruits and vegetables than your neighbours. Allotment members would never admit this, but they put a lot more effort into making their allotments look neat and manicured than actually aids their vegetable production efforts. Most people plant a strip of flowers closest to the road, ostensibly to attract pollinators. About half the time you spend at the allotment is spent maintaining your plot, and the other half is spent wandering over to your neighbours to gossip about the failings of their neighbours. “Lovely raspberries, nothing like Her in plot 92, look like they haven’t been watered in weeks, poor things. I should ask if she wants to borrow another watering can.” They will then move on to your neighbour, presumably to do the same to you. There’s lots of passive-aggressive generosity. I once got an, “Oh, it looks like you might need to borrow my fork, dear, to dig up those weeds that are strangling your carrots. Feel free to grab it from my shed any time!” Well fuck you too, Dorothy, you’ve let your spinach go to seed, don’t think I haven’t noticed.

My favourite person was a man named Willy, who was there every single day. His eyes were red-rimmed and rheumy, and he looked like he was made of chalk, but that man knew absolutely everything about plants. He saved my tomato plants from blight, showing me how to pinch off the affected stems and leaves before the fungus spread across the rest of the plant.  “You have to be more ruthless,” he kept telling me. “Be more ruthless or you’ll lose the plant.” For many weeks in the nine-month lockdown, Willy was the only person I spoke to apart from my partner. We never spoke about anything except plants. I have no idea where he’s from, or what he used to do before he devoted his life to coaxing food out of soil and air. I have no idea if I can call him my friend, but he gave me cabbages and I gave him onions, and he showed me how to dig up potatoes without piercing them, and in the subtle language of the allotment, I think that makes us BFFs for life.

Like any organisation that’s been around for a long time (the Old Chesterton Allotment Society was founded in 1924) there are tangled politics and feuds that go back generations. There is a Byzantine constitution that’s constantly being amended. I get more emails from the Old Chesterton Allotment Society than from my bank, telling me about updates to bylaws, contestations of those updates, reversions to the original bylaws, contestations of those reversions. There are frequent elections to the management committee since people - er - die a lot (simple demographics, although looking only at the death rate, you might think that allotment gardening is one of the most high-risk hobbies ever invented). There was a three-hour AGM two months ago debating the question of the differences between a Member and an Associate Member, a distinction that surely is of grave importance to somebody, somewhere.

There’s a built-in generosity to allotments. Unless you are spectacularly good at planning, you go through waves of having an absolute glut of something or another.  You cannot eat, store or pickle twenty whole heads of cabbage that all ripen at once, So you give them to your neighbours. It’s like watching the invention of trade from first principles. There’s a hierarchy of vegetable value. Nobody wants your damn spinach, unfortunately for me and my entire freezer full of cooked and frozen spinach. Berries, though, are in hot demand. Cauliflower is the real white gold this year, after most people’s crops were decimated by cabbage worms. You know the one person who managed to grow a whole beautiful row of perfect cauliflower heads this year? Willy. What a hero!

When an allotment member is dying, the other members of the society let their garden run wild. They don’t look after it for them, because in that particularly English way, it would be a gross violation of their independence to touch another person’s vegetables. So at any time, there are three or four plots in the Old Chesterton site running wild. They become gorgeous, filled with wildflowers and butterflies and fat bumblebees. You often see other members standing at the edge, gazing over the plot, tears in their eyes. “He taught me everything I know about killing cabbage moth,” Pat told me. And then one day, you’ll arrive, and the plot will have been ploughed up, razed over, earth violently stripped, and you’ll know what has happened without needing to ask.

There is beauty here, and love, and astonishing pettiness. When you are allocated a plot, you must sign a fourteen-page “Respect Policy”, which details and forbids dozens of distinct ways that people can bully, harass and intimidate each other. They say that regulations are written in blood, and you have to wonder how many juicy dramas have played out amongst these sunflowers and raspberry bushes to have necessitated such a document.

I found my first clue about these undercurrents of darkness on the very first day I toured the site. Two four-foot-tall Englishwomen in their eighties were showing me around, trying to suss out whether this suspiciously young thirty-something would be up to the task of battling the endless waves of snails (Reader, she was not). At some point, one of them asked what I do for a living. “I’m a writer,” I said.

They immediately perked up. “Ooh good, there’s plenty of material for you to write about here!”

“I hope not. I mostly write crime and horror.”

Their faces darkened. “Oh yes, plenty of that too! Let me tell you about Her over at plot 28, who stole my good stainless steel spade…”

Wishing you courage in your battle against the snail army,

Sam


Should I pay off my bond, or invest?

A reader sent me a question the other day which I thought I'd share with you:

The company I work for was recently acquired, and I was lucky enough to get a nice big bonus out of the deal. Would it be advisable to use my payout to pay off my entire bond, or to take a portion and invest in a share basket?

Purely from a financial perspective, it's usually a better idea to invest in a share basket (or even better, a low-fee global ETF, through a tax free investment wrapper) than to pay off a bond. This is for two major reasons:

  • On average, you can expect equities to grow more than the interest rate you're likely paying on your home loan. That's especially true right now while interest rates on home loans are unusually low.
  • Equities are more diversified than your house, so you're not betting all your money on a single asset.

But that said, there are good reasons to do things that aren't financial. Some people get enormous peace of mind from owning their homes outright and if you believe that's true for you, then it might be worth doing anyway.

Ideally, you'd want to sit with a good fee-based financial planner to look at your financial situation overall, including considering the tax implications for either choice. There are nuances that can mean it is financially better to pay off a home loan in certain situations (although it's unusual).

If I were in your position, I would probably invest in shares rather than paying off my home loan, or split the money and do a little of both. Just remember that shares/ETFs are not a quick money-making scheme or a place to park your short-term savings, they're a place to invest your money for the long-term (5+ years).

I hope that helps!


Sam sitting on a wooden throne with a sign next to it that says "Storytelling throne"
I found a storytelling throne in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens, and I sat in it, so I hereby claim my title as the Story Queen :)

Updates from Sam-land

Today's piece is a bit of a fond farewell to the Old Chesterton Allotment Society, since we've decided to give up our allotment plot and move to London. I'm sad to finally concede the war against the snails, but thrilled about moving to a city where I have more friends. I'm so grateful that we were in Cambridge during the lockdowns rather than in the city, but now that everything's opened up, I'm ready for a fresh start. Flathunting starts next week, and we hope to be settled somewhere new by the end of the year. Please beam me find-an-awesome-flat-that-doesn't-cost-a-bajillion-quid energy!