Please pick your own
Thursday, 05 September 2013

Please pick your own

Time to enjoy your vegetable crops – so long as the allotment thieves haven’t been at work…

Written by Sarah Langton-Lockton
Allotment Wars was the title of a recent BBC documentary on the rifts and rivalries that self-seed like weeds on allotment sites all over the country and destroy camaraderie among growers of prize vegetables. It was a clichéstuffed piece, arch and patronising, and therefore a disappointment. I had been hoping for a more thoughtful programme, perhaps on why allotments, which people nowadays rent as much to pursue visions of the good life as for growing cheap food, are often hotbeds of antisocial behaviour, with endemic low-level crime, including constant theft.

There are, of course, the more dramatic crimes such as the dismantling and removal of my shed, which readers may recall from the time when I wrote a column about life on my allotment, or the regular shed break-ins in search of power tools, but what depresses one most is the Pick-Your-Own behaviour of fellow members of the allotment community. We all know it’s an inside job, because crops that one has been nurturing with great care and devotion are only harvested when they are ready to eat – it takes a fellow gardener to know the right moment.

This year I have lost more produce than ever, and sometimes come away empty-handed when there has been the promise of a handsome picking. The first crop to be raided was the asparagus, in full flush this season, in its third year.

Instead of a feast in prospect, I discovered, on the first, muchanticipated day of harvesting, that every single spear in my asparagus bed had been crudely snapped off an inch above the soil. Next to be raided, on successive occasions, were the broad beans, sown in the previous autumn, miraculously surviving a grim winter, and carefully tended through a long, cold spring. The plants were healthy and free from blackfly, the pods long and well filled with tender, even-sized beans. I think less than half the crop was harvested by me.

Several rows of gorgeous lettuces, including the deep maroon and bright green leaves of ‘Red Batavia’, were the next to be plucked. Single lettuces were pulled out, one at a time, from within the rows. I also ate a few, and then only the ragged ones at the ends, exhibiting most slug damage, were left for my continued use. My thief is a perfectionist, and takes only the finest produce. He or she also seems to think that in the midst of plenty I do not notice my losses.

However, even the vaguest of gardeners would surely wonder why vigorous plants of the French bean ‘Cosse Violette’, twisting and twining up a wigwam of stout hazel poles, producing quantities of violet flowers, should then produce their long, flat purple beans only on the side furthest from the path. In the raised bed next door is a never-ending supply of glossy courgettes. I do sometimes wish the thief would develop a compulsion to steal these.

So far, the greenhouse has been spared the attentions of my PYO neighbour. That’s a relief since this year it is full of strong healthy plants, among them the best cucumber I have grown to date. This is ‘Euphya F1’, a highly productive, all female new hybrid. It is resistant to mildew and doesn’t require heat. The cucumbers grow at a prodigious rate and are at their best when picked at around 1ft long. Another novelty that is giving pleasure is ‘Oda’, a sweet bell pepper from Poland. It is producing lots of dark purple fruit, which the catalogue says will ripen to red with purple streaks.

The tomatoes are also fantastic this season, and I am enjoying my favourite salad tomato, the dark red and greenskinned ‘Black Krim’, red-ribbed ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ and ‘Chiquito’, a delicious baby plum.

The tomato and cucumber plantlets came from Simpson’s Seeds: 01985-845004,


Inspirational gardeners

Organisers of The Conservation Foundation’s 2013 Gardening Against The Odds Awards, run in association with The Sunday Telegraph, are inviting nominations of gardeners who have prevailed over health or other problems to create gardens, sometimes in the most unlikely places, that are places of beauty, that promote healing and wellbeing, encourage a sense of community, or persuade others to discover for themselves that gardening changes lives.

The awards, dedicated to the memory of garden writer Elspeth Thompson, are now in their fourth year.

For 2013 a new category has been added: Young Gardeners Against the Odds. The awards will be judged by a distinguished panel of gardeners and environmentalists; winners, guests and nominators will be invited to a gala ceremony in the spring in the Great Conservatory at Syon Park.

The closing date for nominations is 30 September.

The full details of how to enter or nominate a garden can be found at and for information about the awards and past winners, go to

Plant of the week

Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’ is a graceful performer in a late summer border. Drought tolerant and free-flowering. Not reliably frost hardy, so protect in winter but be prepared for losses. £7.99:

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