I have vivid memories of time spent with my grandfather in his own garden. He had a relatively modest house – a terrace in a small village, typical of mining villages in the North-East of England. His garden however was vastly bigger than the house would lead you to expect. Although I don’t know it’s exact size, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t 1/4acre or more.
The house itself had a small yard leading onto a back street, across which you’d find a gate to the garden. He split the garden into 4 different areas – the first being a more traditional cottage style with lush lawn and perfectly formed borders, with a fish pond tucked in the corner. Beyond this it was all about vegetables – he had a huge open plot of open ground leading to a 10×8 greenhouse with dwarf brick walls, below which were cold frames – again brick built and finished with what I assume to be window frames. A further section of ground then led to a large wooden shed, beyond which was his compost area. He’d installed standpipes around the garden, and everything was clearly hand-made but made well. Not so much a ‘show garden’ as a large allotment extremely well kept and presented.
Sadly, when my Grandmother passed he decided the house would be too much for him to manage – he’d spent most of his life in the garden, and relatively little time indoors. Combined with his own advancing years, it was time for him to move on. A look on Google Maps shows me that the new owners aren’t gardeners, and with great regret it now appears to be an overgrown jungle.
Back when I was around 11 years old, I spent a summer staying with them. I, too, found myself spending all my time in the garden – helping lift potatoes and generally ‘pottering about’. I do recall growing some sweet peas and being immensely impressed with myself when they surrounded the shed at the far end of his garden. Whilst other kids my age at the time were buying the Beano or Dandy during the holidays, I was buying ‘Gardening News’ (I think – it was more a newspaper format back then, if that was indeed the title).
A year or so later, I was given an Atari ST computer for my birthday – and that was to spark what became my career as a software developer. Pretty much since my 12th birthday, my life has revolved around being in front of a computer screen in one way or another. I’d lost sight of what it feels to be outdoors, to feel soil and breath fresh air.
Whilst I’ve had a relatively successful career, with the usual ups-and-downs most careers have, 3 years ago I realised it was starting to take it’s toll on me. I no longer enjoyed any of the work I was doing – the pleasure had gone and the stresses of being a freelancer and having a young family were becoming too much.
Purely by coincidence, we visited a nearby garden centre one afternoon & discovered they were creating a new site of allotments (the centre itself is expanding, so presumably this was one of the conditions imposed by the council planners). I’m not entirely sure why, but I immediately completed the application form and handed it back – having not grown anything for a good 20 years, and being what most others would consider ‘black fingered’, my decision to apply surprised me as much as anyone else.
I later discovered that the application forms had in fact been available for a few months, although the site itself wouldn’t be ready until early the following year. Knowing that allotment waiting lists can be long to say the least, I was convinced I’d missed the boat. A month or two later, I received the call offering me one of the 40 new plots, which I immediately accepted. The plots themselves are quite expensive, certainly compared to traditional council-run sites. I pay £390 a year for a 135sqm plot – though it does come with a greenhouse provided. I suspect it was the price that had put off so many earlier potential applicants.
I went into it with a completely open mindset – It was March, I had a brand new plot and a totally blank slate to start from. I figured I’ll see what happens, and if it doesn’t work out, then I’ve only lost a relatively small amount of cash and a little time. That first day, bitterly cold and somewhat damp, I did little more than turn over some soil – I doubt I was actually accomplishing anything, but just ‘doing something’ was enough for me to realise this was exactly what I needed. The following weekend, I got to work ‘double digging’ – as recommended in the pamphlet that came with my tenancy agreement. After digging out the first row, it began raining heavily so I had to ‘down tools’ for the day. I returned the following day to find a trench full of water – almost like a moat greeting the entrance to my plot. The dry days went on, but the water went nowhere – an indication of how poor the drainage, and heavy the clay, was. What struck me, however, is that it didn’t bother me – in my ‘day job’, such a setback would have sent me spiralling into self-pity – depression, almost. But here, I simply found it to be another task to tackle.
The weeks went on and the weather began to gradually improve – things began to be planted, and said plants started to flourish – perhaps I wasn’t as ‘black fingered’ as I thought all along. I began taking my (at the time) 3-year old daughter with me, and she was always keen to get out her ‘toodles’ and do some digging. Almost 3 years on, it’s still somewhere we both go to escape and she’s as keen as ever.
I’ve had many failures along the way, and some successes – but being part of the allotment community, I’ve quickly learnt that failures are ‘par for the course’ – nobody gets a perfect crop every time. The downside to this new found interest is that I’ve found myself yearning for it more and more – almost reliant on it to mentally survive. My own health has suffered in the last 5 or so years, undoubtably as a result of decades of work stress and being tied to a screen. What I have however found is that being on the plot, being outdoors, is the ultimate therapy – both physically and mentally, it ‘fixes’ me.
For my own sanity, I needed to find a way to spend more time on the plot, more time outdoors, and more time learning about horticulture. A career in horticulture is something I’m neither experienced or qualified enough for right now – I’ve been writing and designing software for nearly 25 years. But perhaps I could combine the skills I do have with the life I’d like, or indeed need. ForkMojo is my answer to that – but you’ll have to wait for the next post to find out exactly what it is.
Founder and Editor, ForkMojo. Organic Allotmenteer, Husband, Father & Programmer.