My allotmenthood and my motherhood are intertwined. I got my first plot – actually a chance to look after a friend’s for a year or two while she went away on sabbatical – a week before I gave birth to my daughter in July 2010. I was nine months pregnant, hot and tired, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get access to an allotment after being on several waiting lists, near to different places I’d lived in London, for nearly a decade. I’d read that gardening, specifically bending and stretching with a spade or hoe, is supposed to be great for childbirth – perhaps the gentle swaying helps the baby engage. (In the end, I’m not sure it did help as I was in labour for hours, but at the time I loved the idea of it.)
That autumn, when she was a small baby, I took my daughter down to the plot and planted garlic and onions, harvested blackberries, and dug over beds while she slept in the pram that I’d parked on the path next to me. The following spring, when she could sit on a blanket thrown over the soil and play with toys – but wasn’t yet at the stage where she could crawl off into the brambles – I sowed peas and planted potatoes. When I got my own allotment, in April 2013, we donned wellies and spent the first day there messing around with the bare soil before racing home for hot chocolate.
As she got older, she has loved the allotment less. Some children adore helping out with gardening, but mine has needed a lot of ideas to stay interested. If there are other children to play with at the site, she can stay for hours. But on our own she can easily become bored, even if I have lots of fun things for her to do. I built her a wooden playhouse to mess about in while I got on with digging – although I admit I’ve been packing it with netting and tools and using it as somewhere to keep dry in a thunderstorm. Young children have low boredom thresholds – producing potatoes or carrots from the soil, and peas or broad beans from a pod, is captivating, but an allotment does not provide this every time, and an afternoon of clearing weeds is pretty dull for a six-year-old.
So last week, in the middle of half term holiday, I was delighted when my daughter got interested in the allotment again. The reason – we were getting a pond. She may not have been bothered about vegetables or herbs, but the idea of frogs and toads coming to our plot suddenly sparked an interest.
The pond liner – a preformed plastic one – was roughly 100cm by 70cm, which is one of the smallest you can buy but should be still big enough to attract wildlife. My Dad, who was staying for a few days over the holiday, turned the pond upside down on the bed and marked around the edge with a spade before digging a hole.
My daughter and her Grandad dug the hole together while I chitted the seed potatoes that arrived that morning. It took a few attempts to get the depth right – the lip of the pond should be level with the ground, or else it will get filled up with soil.
After the hole was dug, the soil at the bottom needed to be levelled and firmed down, or else the water level would be uneven. Once the pond was in, my daughter loved guessing how many watering cans full of water it would take to fill it up (in the end, it was nearly 10).
We then waited for the pond to settle before backfilling around the edges of the pond with compost. Later, we added stones around the edge – these will give the frogs and toads something to step onto.
I will either wait for a passing frog to lay frogspawn in our pond, but if this doesn’t happen I will ask a neighbouring plotholder to donate some from theirs. It is best to transfer only frogspawn that is from a nearby pond, in similar conditions, or else they may not take.
Ponds need oxygenating plants to prevent the build-up of algae, provide cool shade in the summer heat and homes for wildlife. I have ordered two oxygenators that live in the water – hydrocotyle sibthorpioides variegata, or crystal confetti, a spreading perennial that forms a carpet of small green and white leaves, and eleocharis acicularis, also known as needle spike rush, which has upright tufts of bright green needles. For the margins of the pond, I have ordered mazus reptans ‘Alba’, or white Chinese marshflower, which forms mats of pretty white flowers in summer, and iris louisiana ‘Black Gamecock’, a lustrously purple iris.
After refusing to come to the plot for months, my daughter has now been to the allotment three times in as many days. I’m looking forward to her checking on the pond every time we go, waiting for the frogspawn to grow into frogs in spring and, hopefully, the dragonflies and water boatmen in summer.