It was 10.30 on a Wednesday morning in September. Walking from Phipps Bridge tram stop, I arrived in the alleyway by the side of number 58 New Close, SW19 2SY. I walked down and at the end was the gate which was closed as I had been warned, but a shout from me brought a response of friendly voices and I was soon let in by Gillian.
My first impression was of a wide expanse of greenery, with hardly any buildings in sight.
I couldn’t believe I was still in a city. An added bonus was a dry and sunny day, though I am told a bit of rain doesn’t put off these gardeners, many of whom have been coming for up to ten years.
I was enthusiastically shown around the half acre project and introduced to people gradually. A few were already busy, Ruth picking runner beans and Nick and Peter digging up potatoes. Apart from the vegetable beds, there were three sheds, a poly tunnel and area of grass with two picnic tables.
A trestle table was already loaded with courgettes and some enormous marrows. Bob was carefully wading in between the large leaves of the plants looking to harvest the small courgettes.
‘What is the difference between a courgette and a marrow?’ I asked.
Well the plant species do differ slightly, I was told, but if you miss picking a courgette at this time of year, it grows enormous by the following week. There were certainly a lot of marrow sized veg stored in one of the sheds. Apparently people are less keen on cooking the larger ones, which are more watery. Luckily they keep for quite a while if stored on well -aerated wooden slats.
I explained I was completely new to allotment gardening and was told this was absolutely no problem. Instead I was asked what I would like to do.
In the end I was given an easy job of picking raspberries and later I helped with light weeding to prepare an area for sowing winter broad beans. I learned there are ‘good’ weeds you can put on a compost heap and ‘bad’ ones with deep roots which are best disposed of separately.
Very soon the trestle table was loaded with runner beans, onions, beetroot, Pak Choi, tomatoes, maize and lettuce. There was a whole wheel barrow full of potatoes and two buckets of apples. The arrival of a bunch of carrots produced a lot of mirth as in previous years growing them had not been successful and was the subject of a lot of friendly teasing. Our carrots come in strange shapes with some having several twisted rootlets. Due partly to the stony soil.
Steve had been oiling and cleaning the mower, having already mowed the grass paths between the planting beds during the week. It certainly makes the whole area look neat and under control even if the beds are not all weeded.
At 12.30 sharp we all sit down to a cup of tea or coffee and some cake, the latter usually baked and provided by Ruth.
Today there are about fifteen of us, including a couple from neighbouring allotments.
One of the visitors used to help with the Community garden but now has her own allotment, rented from the council. She brings a present of some Jerusalem artichokes. Gillian says a fabulous way to eat them is to coarsely grate and then fry in butter with plenty of garlic, until they go brown and look like caramelised onions. They can also be roasted, but boiling does not suit them.
There is friendly chat around the table as we put the world to rights before weighing and distributing the produce amongst us.
Some is stored and some packed in containers to take to local charities. This time we take a large bag of beans and about 10 kilos of potatoes to the Salvation Army site on Kingston road where ‘Faith in Action’ cook lunches twice a week. I was warned not to dig too much on my first day as my back could feel the strain until I get used to it.
Well I am definitely coming again!
This story is an amalgamation of the experiences of three recent new volunteers at Phipps Bridge Community Garden. Recorded by Gillian Leigh.