Monthly Archives: November 2012

Pennies from heaven

The bills have gone out this week, my income evaporates this coming Friday as I take voluntary redundo from the somewhat knackered Guardian, the planet is going bust, but what the hell. It’s only money. And we didn’t become allotment gardeners to get rich off the fat of the land, did we? We do it for love (and the occasional bottle of the red stuff), don’t we?

On the question of getting rich though – a curious little snippet turned up in my ex-employer-to-be’s organ a wee while back that stated that the “average” allotment gardener saves £1,400 a year in food bills by growing their own – a not inconsequential sum, especially when you are about to join the ranks of the impoverished classes.

Harvesting the gold. © Getty

I mentioned this little factoid to one of my heathen chums in the pub recently, and met with the usual disbelief and derision (“and why bother with all that back-breaking-getting-wet-and-muddy-stuff anyway when you can nip down to Tesco’s and get the lot for £25 a week?”) Yes, I responded, but £25 a week is £1,300 a year – not far short of my fellow hack’s apparently bonkers statistic. So who’s the mug there then? (Yes, OK, what price my time etc)

We digress. To come back to the bills, how much is the People’s Republic of Haringey demanding that we cough up to rent our modest slice of north London clay? It’s a question commonly asked by new recruits or those joining the waiting list. The answer, at 2012 prices, is in most cases about £45. “What? £45 a week or a month?” they ask. Errr, no. That’s £45 a year, all in, and you can put your chequebook away as you won’t be getting a bill for a wee while yet (unless, of course, we are back to the subject of bungs). That adds up to about £9 a pole (or rod), including water.

It’s not exactly big bucks, is it? Even when you are staring at penury, as I may well be. And it’s about half that if you are retired or registered disabled. Beyond that, it is entirely up to each tenant how much money they throw at their plot. Some go down to B&Q and spend many hundreds of hard-earned rabbit skins on some crummy little matchwood shed that would fall over with one good kick. Others, like me, wait until we pass a skip stuffed with old floorboards and build something much more robust for free.

The subject of money has never been very high on my agenda (I try not to chuck it around in reckless fashion, but neither do I see any particular use in accumulating it for the sake of it), but I fear the same may not apply to our landlords. The closet capitalists of the Republican Guard have spotted an opportunity here to claw back some of the millions they lost in a flutter on Landbankski by jacking up our rents by 50% – which is exactly what they have done over the past couple of years. The trouble is, they were coming from such a miniscule baseline that even that even a 50% hike did not amount to a hill of beans (more on the changing social profile of our tenants and their ability to pay it in a future post).

I have to say that our tenants shouldered this burden with true equanimity. I heard not a single murmur of protest from any Shepherds Hillbilly when this increase was imposed. The only observation, made by one of our fellows, was that this amounted to about 20p a week.

 At last, we’ve found something on which we can all agree. And who’d have thought it? They’ll be telling me that money grows on trees next …

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Sparing the rod

OK, so we’ve established that the meek will indeed inherit the Earth, notwithstanding what’s going on elsewhere in the forest, but the question that now remains is – how much of the Earth will they inherit?

Ten poles?* No way. No one gets that much of the Lord’s estate any more. Five is the standard. Six is maximum.

(*note to townies – see note at end r.e. a pole, AKA a rod)

Spot the pole or rod in this pic of me in my youth

The parish of Shepherds Hill is not quite the biggest allotment site in the People’s Republic of Haringey in terms of area (we come a close third, I believe, at about seven acres). But we are the biggest in terms of the number of plots – 225, all bar a handful being five or six-pole jobbies (according the the Republic, at any rate, though I’ve never bothered to count or measure them), occupied by between 180 and 190 tenants (I’ve never bothered to count those either) – some 15 plots bigger than our nearest rival.

 Unlike some of our chums in neighbouring inner-city boroughs, the Republic has managed to make a complete hash of flogging off its assets, which means that they remain in the enviable position of having 26 sites in total, comprising roughly 1,800 plots occupied by about 1,500 tenants (What! So some people have more than one plot, I hear you ask? Yes, more on that in a future post).

All of this compares rather well with, for example, our fellows in neighbouring Lib Dem Islington, which boasts a total of six sites comprising 90 plots in all (yes, that’s ninety plots. How crap is that?)

So how come we’re not the biggest site in the borough but have more plots than any other? Well, it’s back to the meek again. If you are a newbie, then five poles is your lot, and whenever a full-sized (10-pole) plot falls vacant, I always split it into two (sometimes less. In fact if you were in the borough of Tower Hamlets, I am told, a plot amounts to something about twice the size of a beach towel).

And further to that, no existing tenant gets the opportunity to expand any more.

Expansion and the allocation of full-sized plots was common currency when I first took over as site secretary more than 11 years ago, but all of it ended not long after that when I (unilaterally) saw the injustice of allowing existing tenants to expand their empire when there are those on the waiting list with no space at all. And nor could I see the argument for allowing anyone to occupy more than five or six poles when that amount of space is quite enough for most people to sow their seeds and scatter.

 In the early days of the somewhat tiresome Haringey Allotment Forum – (about five years ago, when I used to have the patience to blow three hours of a Saturday morning listening to a load of people who didn’t know what a meeting was for banging on about diddly squat) – I nearly fell off my chair when I heard some old duck from a site that shall remain nameless blowing off about how at her site, they always start new recruits off with five poles, and if they show themselves to be of any use at all, then they reward them by handing over another five poles.

Now how in the name of Bonaparte’s balls (as the good duke once said) can that be fair? I can understand their wish to attract good gardeners (though I have never taken the view that you have to be a good gardener to be a Shepherds Hillbilly) – but what about all of those people sitting there in the long and sometimes disorderly queue who have no space at all? There’s rather a lot of them. Don’t they get a look in?

Ah well. The annual bills (for rent and water) go out this month. That’ll concentrate a few minds.

*note to townies – a pole, aka a rod, equates to five and a half yards, or near enough five metres, which for the purposes of this exercise, is expressed as a square unit. I believe the unit of measurement originates from the length of the shaft that would harness a horse or ox to a vehicle, or possibly the stick that was used to beat the animal.

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Bung ho!

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (along with the birdies – see posts passim). Uh huh. So far so good. But what’s going on while the meek are standing patiently in line, waiting for their number to come up? The queue for vacant plots is a long one, and at times a little disorderly.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the sometime tiresome business of apportioning slices of this planet, i.e. vacant plots, to new recruits has yet reached the deeply dodgy lows of council house allocation or school places, where all manner of sharp practices and even sharper elbows are deployed to shunt one’s fellows out of the way. But arguably, it’s heading that way.

One day son, all this will be yours

And what would these sharp practices amount to? Some are not particularly sharp, and others not without merit. There’s the odd disingenuous ruse along with some entirely sound cases, and the odd heartfelt plea too. There remains nothing I can do to escalate them up the list – though I would love to be able to do something for all of them (and in most cases eventually will).

I thought I’d seen it all (we all know about the sub-letting racket, which has been touched on in this blog recently), but a brand new one landed in my lap only the other week – namely the notion that one’s place in the queue is transferable. Hmmm.

So what happened? I sent out my usual bog standard email to a certain aspiring allotment gardener (who shall of course remain nameless), bearing the good tidings that he had, after only a little more than two years, reached the top of the pile. I said, as usual, that he was free to come and take a look at what was on offer, or, if circumstances were not conducive at the moment, he was free to remain where he is in the queue, i.e. at the top, and come back to me when he had enough spare time and energy to tackle it (that usually flushes out a few dreamers and impostors straight away).

And then the answer came back. Sadly, he was no longer living in this parish, because his marriage had gone bang and he was now residing in a cardboard box in a corner of the borough not unadjacent to Siberia, and was therefore not in a position to take up the offer joining us Hillbillies. But, praise be, his beloved ex-wife-to-be was still in residence in the former family home up the road – and she might like to have a go instead. Either the split was entirely amicable, or the applicant had something else in mind – like, perchance, that this would be a very good spot to dig a big hole and bury her once and for all.

There’ll be more on the death thing in a future post, along with the prickly subject of legacies and estates, in the event of death – but this was a first, a situation where the applicant and his partner are no longer an item before they had even set foot on the site, but wished to remain one for the purposes of this exercise. Impressed? I’m not sure that I am.

All of this, of course, looks messy. A more straightforward example of sharp practice concerns outright bribery. Has it happened? Yes, I would say so, but we never got as far as talking about money. The wheels fell off well before any sums were even mentioned.

The details? Well, clearly it would be inappropriate of me to go into that. Suffice to say that I got a phone call from a very nice lady, enquiring in the usual fashion about availability, and she got the usual answer, i.e. that there is a waiting list which she was free to join if she wished. “Ah, com’on now,” says she. “We all know how d’world goes round. What are we really talking about here?” It would be deeply inappropriate of me to hint at where in the world this lady might once have hailed from – but let’s just say that she might possibly have been related to the Rose of Tralee.

“I’m sorry,” says I. “But I’m going to pretend that you never said that, and that this conversation never took place. Goodbye.”

Prat. There was good money to be made there. And I’ll be out of a job soon. Never mind. My legacy will be along eventually – but maybe not on this planet.

Does the Good Lord do bungs? Indulgences, maybe.

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Riding for a fall

The autumn is upon us, and cliches abound about golden gowns, crunchy carpets and all sorts of other guff. But I think we do need to say a word or two about leaves, given that this is high noon for them, that they are a very useful resource to us gardeners (as a peat substitute in home-made seed compost) – and they do, I am reliably informed, grow on trees.

The uninitiated might well assume that there is absolutely nothing controversial whatsoever about the tranquil pursuit of gathering fallen leaves. But not so fast my fine friends. As your trusty blogger has managed to demonstrate amply in posts passim, there is a row lurking around every corner, under every stone and behind every tree.

So can we get the rant out of the way first? A word on leaf-blowers:


Sorry. I may have to edit this blog when a certain person sees it. But really, this is a “why-oh-why” moment. Leaf-blowers should be banned, and anyone who ever so much as mentions those two words in the same sentence, let alone brings one up to the plot, should be shot (my mate Rob from Mowdirect says they do quiet ones, but I remain to be convinced).

And why is that? Because they are surely the most gratuitous, incessant, maddening, pointless and useless source of noise pollution known to mankind. If you lived where we live, our house backing onto a large school playground, you don’t need an alarm clock at this time of year, because such is the groundsmen’s aversion to the dead brown stuff that they feel obliged to blow-dry each and every specimen to within an inch of its life (and what the hell is wrong with a rake and a broom?). And the root of this aversion? No doubt because in this litigious little world that we live in, if one of the little darlings were to slip on a dead leaf and graze her knee, a call might well be made to m’learned friends.

But what has all of this got to do with the allotment site, I hear you ask? No, OK, no tenant has so far had the balls/stupidity to bring one one of those infernal things up to the hill. But the subject of leaves is certainly well up the agenda, and elephant traps remain when it comes to gathering them up.

One year on, and are those bags rotting or not?

I kicked off my foraging habit a fair few years ago by touring the streets with binbags, doing my best to avoid the litter, broken bottles and dogshit (and ignoring the theory that they are further contaminated by vehicle exhaust fumes). But what happens when you meet a bunch of “operatives” from the People’s Republic of Haringey coming the other way? They are not impressed by that sort of thing – “customers” (or are we called “clients” these days?) doing “their jobs”. (Try explaining to them why you’re doing it, and the eyes start rolling, the heads start shaking and the men in white coats are summoned).

I briefly considered transferring the foraging to the woods – but hang on a mo. Fallen leaves aren’t just lying there messing up the forest floor, are they? They are part of an ecosystem – one that is best left undisturbed (and yes, one of our fellows has indeed been bollocked recently by a local woodland ecowarrior for doing just that).

Three years on, and we’re just about cooked

So what next? Well, for once, the People’s Republic have done something useful without cocking it up. Their parks department seems to be allergic to fallen leaves, so they dutifully blast them all to oblivion with aforementioned leaf-blowers, gather them up and dump them for free at the allotment site, all tucked up in allegedly biodegradable plastic sacks which, one year on, appear to be doing a very fine job of failing to degrade very much at all.

Oh well. Guess you can’t win them all. At least I’ve done my bit for saving the peat bogs. I haven’t bought a sack of seed compost in many years.

Categories: Allotment blog, Allotments, Compost, Gardening, Horticulture | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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