Through the Garden Gate of Martha Swales – London, England
“Transforming my allotment from a weedy wasteland in to a beautiful and productive place is immeasurably satisfying. It’s been a huge amount of work but it’s really starting to look fantastic. I love having my friends there in the summer for BBQs and teaching my little nephews about fruit and veg, the boys are only 9 and 18 months old but the older one comes and waters and helps me plant seed.” Martha Swales
Featured Gardener: Martha Swales
How much time do you spend gardening?
I’m at the allotment almost every weekend, sometimes all weekend! In the summer when the days are long enough I pop over after work at least once during the week as well, and in spring I can be found planting seeds at home, which occupy my windowsills, desk and mini greenhouse.
Describe your garden(s) or gardening activities:
I have a 10 rod (250 square meter) allotment on the outskirts of London. I started growing vegetables in containers in my parents garden,which they had mixed feelings about! I managed to kill the lawn…and they told me to find somewhere else to grow my veg so I moved on to the allotment starting with 5 rods and now have a full 10. I grow a huge range of fruits and vegetables and am still in the process of getting the entire plot in to use. I like to grow things that are expensive to buy in the shops or hard to get, I always have to have a few obscure things to try every year, cucamelons. Oca, Yacon, Chilean guavas, melons, mini kiwis, and miniature white cucumbers are a few I’m doing this year. I also do all the usual things, loads of kinds of tomatoes, soft fruit, asparagus, potatoes, beans and brassicas, cucumbers and salad and the annual giant pumpkin challenge. I like to have plenty of flowers for pollinators and just because they look pretty. Wild flower mixes tend to be my favorite. I try and keep it organic but have to admit I use the odd slug pellet, going to give nematodes a try this year as an alternative!
What about your garden(s) or gardening activities has given you the most pride?
My allotment is solid clay and that has been a huge challenge. Everything takes 5 times as long as it feels like it should, in the winter it sticks to everything, in the summer its rock hard, to the point of being difficult to break even with a pick axe! It’s been really frustrating and at times very depressing! My mum told me to give up on it when she first came to help me out, and she’s a gardener. The only way round it has been a lot of hard work. I’ve been improving it with compost and manure and put in raised beds, it’s slowly getting there but It’s taken a lot of patience. On the up side it’s very rich in nutrients and I’ve had some really great produce.
What advice would you give to a novice gardener who is just starting out?
Just get stuck in. Do a little research on whatever you are planting to avoid disappointment, the answer is bound to be somewhere on the Internet and there are lots of lovely people on twitter who will be happy to give advice. If you want to grow veg start with something where you will see results quickly to keep you enthused, mixed salad is a great place to start.
What are your two favorite “can’t live without” gardening tools or products?
The basics are always the best, a decent fork and spade are the essentials. As I’m dealing with clay a pick axe comes in very handy! My parents picked me up an old one at a car boot which has stood the test of time. Another invaluable tool is a hand held mattock, a bit like a flat ended pick axe – it’s excellent for dispensing of weeds and breaking up soil.
What’s your next project?
The final section of the allotment still needs to be cleared and I’m planning to plant fruit trees. I already have an apple, pear, plum and two figs waiting for a home, but currently there is an enormous sprawling blackberry standing in my way.
How does your garden and/or gardening enrich your life?
My allotment gives me somewhere to get away from everything, especially in the summer when I can go there straight from work. Life in London is busy and I spend far too much time in offices and on the underground. I go there and feel restored. There is no greater time of the year than spring, when everything is bursting in to life. It’s lovely just to see nature at work,the plants, birds, butterflies, bees, insects, toads, foxes and the donkeys in the next field, it all has a very satisfying harmony. My friends seem be willing to come join me for a lazy day drinking and eating and when the weather is good which is one of my favorite things to do in the summer. And of course the produce, I get to try things that you can’t buy, I get to see what garlic tastes like when it’s so immature it looks like a baby leek and is only faintly garlicky, or discover that miniature white cucumbers are crunchier and sweeter than big green ones, I get to have patty pan which I like way more than courgettes but that you can’t get for love nor money in the UK, and tomatoes of every size, color and acidity level. The best bit is getting to try something first time after months of waiting, like cucuamelons last year, this year I’m looking forward to yacon, which apparently looks like a potato, has the texture of water chestnuts and tastes a bit like pear. It’s just a place that provides a great and welcome contrast to the rest of my life and gives me food for the table.
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