Allotment holders at St Margaret’s in Durham City, will be sharing simple and easy gardening and allotment hints, tips and triumphs with pictures and regular updates. This week, they look at coronavirus and how it affected the allotments this year. Happy gardening!

IN the depths of the midwinter solstice, my wife and I huddled around a small table in the Victoria Inn, Durham City, cheek-by-jowl with other patrons, all vying for the dull warmth of the coal fire.

Our purpose was not merely recreational but strategic; plans needed to be made for the forthcoming growing season on the allotment: variety selection; crop rotation; the sowing schedule; the floral palette. “The best-laid schemes […] go often askew”, and so as we plotted to rotate the brassicas and potatoes to stymie any possible diseases, and a new virus passed unnoticed into the human population half the world away.

The Northern Echo:

Amazing plot on the site in Durham

Allotment enthusiasts usually fall into one of two tribes: floraphiles for whom vegetables are a good excuse to plant flowers (ostensibly to attract pollinators), and true horticulturalists more concerned with yield than yarrow.

As the virus disrupted existing social structures, new tribes have emerged: “shielders; furloughed; home-workers; key workers – the experience of the allotments during this year’s growing season has been shaped by these categories as much as any aspect of life.

For the home-workers, tethered to a never-ending schedule of Zoom meetings whilst competing for IT equipment and suitable workspace with spouses and young home-learners, the allotments have provided an essential escape – a safety valve on the mental pressure cooker that lockdown became on occasion.

The Northern Echo:

Some of the beautiful blooms on one of the allotment plots

For the medically vulnerable, the flip side of shielding from the virus was isolation from friends and family; the allotments have provided many “shielders” with a safe environment to exercise, relax and even restore some basic social interaction, albeit from a distance.

Perhaps the most valuable asset the allotments have returned to those who tend them during lockdown is time. This is not to say that we have had necessarily more time; any allotment enthusiast will gladly confirm Einstein’s assertion that time is not absolute; it always passes much faster when you are on the plot. Rather than a surplus of time, what the allotment has provided is a regularity of time, a natural metronome for a blank score.

Whilst birthdays, weddings, holidays and reunions have been wiped from the schedule by coronavirus, the inherent clock of ripening fruit and maturing vegetables insists on regular attention and provides a sense of purpose in the promise of harvest.

The Northern Echo:

Some fine looking vines

One of the by-products of the early summer lockdown was that many people rediscovered an appreciation for open space and beautiful space as a source of emotional wellbeing.

As an open site, surrounded by public footpaths, St Margaret’s Allotments have provided a welcome break for plot holders and the passing public alike from the macabre statistics and heart-breaking anecdotes of the pandemic.

Whilst the Covid-19 social restrictions have highlighted the benefits of beautiful, publicly accessible open space, the human yearning for such spaces is not unique to, and will not end with, the current crisis. The social worth of spaces such as community allotments has been undervalued for decades, a relatively minor concern amongst the competitive arena of interests that is town planning. Sometimes it takes a crisis to illuminate what people truly value.

The Northern Echo:

Amazing flower

When the lockdown came into place, the supermarket shelves were stripped of flour and eggs, not champagne. It would be nice to think that when we finally emerge from the pall of the coronavirus outbreak, we might remember the positive emotional effect green open spaces had on each of us during this period and remind our representatives that the value of land can be more than simply its price.