My boyfriend and I are standing on a pile of thick clay soil that smells like manure, tentatively licking the root of a plant.
“Is that spicy?” I run my tongue on my teeth. “Do I think it could be spicy?”
“I can’t taste anything,” says my boyfriend, stepping on a zucchini seedling.
“Let’s take him home, anyway,” I reply, wiping my muddy hands down my thighs. “We could always just boil it.”
It’s easy to be good at things: praise, instant satisfaction, positive reinforcement. It is more difficult, and altogether more rewarding, to be bad at things.
I’m really bad enough to have an assignment. We assumed the value of our 10 posts (I have been told this is a standard allotment size, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times) last winter. We weren’t the only ones. Unsurprisingly, interest in assignments skyrocketed during the first shutdown. According to the National Allotment Society, 40% of English councils reported a “significant increase” in requests, while they experienced a 45% increase in requests for information through their website. But growing vegetables, if you haven’t done it long before, isn’t always very easy.
My boyfriend and I planted a couple of tomato seedlings during a heat wave in April. They were effectively burned to death in less than three days. I hadn’t thought about watering them every night, I was a little worried about giving my three-year-old son water. We planted a gooseberry bush on top of a red ant nest – caring for it was spicy on the knees and quite useless: ants soon infested the root system. I cut down a vine left by the previous owner while the sap was rising, possibly killing large sections. Our main course It was the free shed provided by a holy member of the adjudication committee. At the time of writing, the shed is tilted, the roof wrapped in tarp, and the door nailed down to prevent it from opening.
There’s a guy who owns a plot two down, who got his allotment at the same time as ours. He’s already plowed it, producing mountains of sweet corn, tomatoes, chard, and potatoes. He built a series of metal structures, like an electrical substation, to grow beans and peas, and he marked edges so straight they could tear paper. We, on the other hand, put up a big plastic kiddie slide, found a rat nest under a pile of wood, and at one point we were watering everything with a kiddie beach bucket.
In late summer, when we were temporarily left homeless by the craziness of the British housing system and delays in a chain, we managed to grow eight pumpkins. It’s strange not having a fixed residence, sleeping on your dad’s kitchen floor, and at the same time having a patch of huge orange pumpkins. We began to leave them behind as gifts of gratitude for the people who let us take care of the house. My aunt took one to London sitting in the passenger seat of her car like a cultivated squash copilot.
But the thing is, I love it. I love it precisely because we’re bad at it. Everything is new; everything is an experiment; It is all hard physical work and therefore rewarding. As I sit in an overturned bucket, sipping coffee from a vacuum flask, looking through the tangle of weeds, I feel completely content. Even when I’m failing I love the pitying looks other parcel owners give us as they pass slowly, on their way to their incredibly fertile sites. I love that our neighbors on the plot, an elderly couple who yell at each other in Urdu from both ends of their plot, pity us for bunches of coriander. I love that my son can entertain himself for a few hours doing nothing more productive than mowing the lawn with a pair of scissors. I love it because sometimes it’s good to be bad at things. To learn how to do something new, you first have to be a fool. You make mistakes, you get discouraged, you forget your plans, and you see what works. And then plow.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism