Out in the late summer sunshine, I was on the hunt for pleasing plant produce at the Armstrong Allotments in Newcastle, who have their open day once a year. Like a vegetable themed Brigadoon, this is the only day of the year when mere mortals can pass beyond the fence and see up close what must be some of the most attractive grow your own plots in the UK.
The vegetable and flower auction is a highlight of the summer for me – I love it! I walk past the site on a regular basis and peep through the fence posts at the verdant valley beyond. It is a bit of a secret garden moment when that gate opens and you are welcomed inside by the friendly allotment holders of Heaton, on that special Saturday afternoon.
Competitions happen first and prizes are awarded. Best flower arrangement, best marmalade or jam, best mixed veg platter and of course the ‘Heaviest onion’ category. A comment on its actual weight obviously, or was it just an exclamation of its street cred? As in ‘Man you are one heavy onion.’
The highlight of the event for me is undoubtedly the excitement of the allotment auction. Huge combination bags of mixed vegetables are sold off. A few years ago you could get boxes of veg for next to nothing, but the locals have cottoned on to this and bidding is much more competitive these days. One lady bought seven giant bags of veg! She either has an incredibly large family or runs a restaurant.
As usual, I got quite carried away but I was prepared and had brought the car to carry all my spoils back to Beatrice Road. I had bought far, far, too many things. I had two giant bags of veg, jewel like tomatoes in red and yellow, sweet corn, potatoes, yellow and striped courgettes, beans, apples and more. I just had to have a huge bunch of Dahlias with their flamboyant heads and incredibly intense colours – burgundy, hot pink and zingy orange. I bought marmalade, redcurrant jelly, plum jam, rhubarb and orange jam, and pickled beetroot.
I even got the three giant veg winners, the marrow, the leek and the cabbage as big as a beach ball for £1! No one wanted them as they were so large and would take too much chopping. Also sometimes the giant veg lose some of their flavour as a result of their size. I used them for a photo opportunity (I’m in the allotment newsletter now) and for general amusement. Then I donated them to a friend who works at a special school where they created much interest among the pupils. The marrow especially caused some giggling.
I ask myself – why do people grow giant veg? If you google this burning question, there are absolutely no results! ‘How to grow giant veg’ yes, or ‘Top tips for growing giant veg’ or Easy steps for growing giant sized vegetables’ but no discussion of the motivation behind this activity. I can only assume its the competition element, a powerful motivator for us humans, especially the male of the species. My leeks are bigger than your leeks, etc etc
These 69 allotments were land saved from development because their sandy foundations weren’t suitable for building houses on. Lord Armstrong who owned most things in these parts, let the land be used by local people to grow their own food. There weren’t many people who had gardens in the Heaton area back then, (and there still aren’t) so allotments provide valuable access to green space and a way to get close to nature as well as providing delicious food and spirit lifting blooms.
Looking after an allotment is hard work and time consuming but a very rewarding way to spend your spare time. People who have allotments (a bit like people who work with animals) always look rather happy and stress free to me.These allotments are extremely tidy and well tended with mature fruit trees and bushes dividing up the plots which are surrounded on one side by suburbia and on the other side by trees and parkland. Along with vegetables many of the allotment holders choose to grow flowers, usually Dahlias or Chrysanthemums (why is that?) but other things too like Crocosmia and Sweet Peas bring splashes of multi colours to many of the plots.
The cafe is open and there are cakes and scones and pies to be had, it’s all a very civilised afternoon indeed. I better started stewing that rhubarb and steaming that beetroot…