When my Dad finally made it to the top of the allotment waiting list aged 86, he was offered an unpromising jungle of a plot. He told me I’d always dreamt of becoming an allotmenteer and a ten-year gardening adventure began, full of resentment, disappointment and potatoes large enough to appear on Google Earth. Ted the Shed is my no-holds-barred account of the difficulties of sharing a joint endeavour with an out and out loner.
The book is illustrated by the cartoonist Janis Goodman and will be published by Ings Press in 2023.
Here’s an extract:
‘It all begins the day Dad rings me on the landline with shocking news. He is the only person we know who still uses a landline – so we keep it, despite the expense.
‘We’ve been offered an allotment!’ he shouts, without saying hello.
I understand his surprise. He put his name on the Parish Council’s waiting list on his 80th birthday six years ago; had forgotten all about it. It was just after he and Mum moved North to be near me.
‘What do you mean, we?’ I say, glancing out of the kitchen window at the tiny back yard of the house I share with Mr Mandy Sutter. It is spring and dandelions have come up in all my plant pots. That is the level of gardening I am comfortable with…’
He ignores my question. ‘There’s only one snag,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t been cultivated for ten years or more. It’s very overgrown.’
‘That does sound like a snag,’ I say, aiming for gentle discouragement. Never mind the fact that he’s now prone to ‘funny turns’, has a bad toe that makes it difficult to walk and has never had an allotment before, just a vegetable patch in the Cotswolds that brought him nothing but misery.
But the fervour of a possible new venture is on him. Dad loves nothing more than a project. ‘We’ll go take a look at it, shall we?’
The plot is in a newly reclaimed area next to a well established allotment community on the edge of our small town. It has been funded by Lottery money to try and reduce the 180-strong waiting list, Dad tells me as we walk and stumble the maze of narrow, uneven paths, passing impressive examples of recycling: ancient ceramic baths planted with potatoes, a greenhouse made entirely of windows, a shed made entirely of doors (‘How do you know which one to open to go in?’ asks Dad), rotting planks standing, leaning and lying for no apparent reason at all. There are animals. Chickens cluck, geese squawk and goats stand silently chewing.
We reach our potential plot. I stare at a chest high thicket of nettles, two quite sizeable trees and something I will later find described on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website as ‘a major weed problem’ – Himalayan Balsam. I am mildly horrified. Faced with the reality, Dad will decide to turn the offer down. Surely. He stands, teetering slightly.
‘Looks like a lot of hard work,’ I say.
He grins. ‘That’s the beauty of it.’
‘It’s in such a state they’re letting us have it free for the first year. It’s a beautiful spot, isn’t it? The river is just on the other side of that fence! And is that a blackcurrant bush in the middle?’ I peer but see only the powdery green hue of flowering nettles. Dad, taken out of school at 14 and set to work because his own father had lost his job, is thrifty to a fault and I am sure his appreciation of beauty is less to do with the river and more to do with the fact it isn’t going to cost him a penny. And there’s that word ‘us’ again. He goes on, ‘Even if all we ever do is pick blackcurrants, we’ll still be quids in!’
Now is the time to make my position clear. I have neither the time nor the inclination to take on a project like this. The only vegetables I recognise in growing form are potatoes and peas. Mr Mandy Sutter has zero interest in becoming a man of the soil so we can’t count on him for help. But somehow these words, though perfectly formed in my mind, don’t come out of my mouth. The thing is, I haven’t seen Dad so enthusiastic about anything for ages.
Soon after making their new start up North, Mum, disorientated in the unfamiliar flat, had a fall. She was never the same and died two years later. It was a terrible blow. But today Dad looks almost happy. As for me, a heady, reckless feeling is on me, a known accompaniment to any doomed new project. I’m in my fifties now and the last time Dad and I did anything horticultural together was at five when I made him ‘garden salads’ from grass, leaves and flowers, insisting that he ate them and watching to make sure he swallowed. Is it time this relationship moved on? I find myself turning to him and smiling. ‘It IS a beautiful spot.’