It is strangely affecting to receive an instagrammed flower from Allan Jenkins; a gesture as potent as receiving one in real life. His thousands of food-oriented followers (Allan is the editor of OFM, the Observer‘s much-loved food magazine) are content to share his wayside wildlings, as well as the progress of his allotment, Plot 29. It makes perfect sense then, that in his memoir of the same name, Allan discovers that as a boy he took pleasure in giving gifts of wild flowers. He finds this out by reading the notes on him from a children’s home, having been sent away at the age of two months.
Plot 29: A Love Affair with Land began as a journal of sowing and growing but developed into something else; just as personal, since nurturing is what Allan does, whether of people or plants. It is not a cozy read but an unforgettable book. Here, Allan talks to us about his safe place, the allotment he shares with photographer Howard Sooley:
(We first visited the plot in 2013. See: Bounty from a North London Allotment.)
Photography by Howard Sooley.
Allan describes gardening as “a soothing nature Norland nanny” in one of the book’s many memorable turns of phrase. Calendula is something he’ll probably always grow, having been given a packet when he and his brother were taken home by prospective adoptive parents. His older brother, Christopher, was given nasturtium seeds.
Seed-saving and -sowing runs through the book like a chorus. Is the labor more significant than the actual harvest? “The two are interconnected of course, but there is a joy in allowing, say, flowers to find their own pace and rhythm,” says Allan. “Though I also like to come home like a hunter gatherer with the freshest leaves and peas.
“There is a magic to sowing seed you have saved yourself, a deeper connection,” he continues. “This morning at 7 am— knowing that Howard has seeds growing in his greenhouse, and that I have already sowed swapped seed—I couldn’t resist also sowing a few of last year’s tear peas [dwarf peas] and sweet peas in among the others. It was as though they deserved, even demanded their place.”
Allan is always clearing and sowing, yet there is no overall plan: “I just wait and try to feel where is the best spot for which seed,” he says. “Things rotate naturally; sometimes you want to try the bean for instance, in another spot. That said, I suspect that I will always grow nasturtiums to spill over the edge.”
In the book, Allan spends a lot of time working on the plot next door, as his friend Mary recovers from an illness. He also helps to re-line another neighbor’s pond. There is a lot of dampness, and mud. It sometimes seems as though Allan does everything, because he is kind: “I bring energy and, I think, something close to green fingers. And consistency in being there at all times of the day,” he acknowledges. “I have tremendous respect for both Howard and Mary, both knowledgeable and gifted gardeners.”
There are many times in the book when Allan travels to the plot before going to the office, catching the first bus that London Transport lays on at about 5am. “At the moment I am particularly interested in being there in half light, first light, when it’s almost dark in the morning,” he explains. “To feel, listen and see the day start, the energy shift, and to absorb the sounds and sights of the new day.”
Read the book.
Plot 29: A Love Affair With Land by Allan Jenkins, is published by Fourth Estate; $16.61 from Amazon.