Potato Digging and Bonfires

It was the last day of September. The sun was shining and I had some free time; what better than to spend it catching up with more work on the allotment.

I discovered that my shed had been used by somebody to smoke ‘substances’, as they say. There was a sweet odour and the packaging for a hookah pipe had been not very well hidden in my bin.

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The leaves of my main crop potato plants were going brown, so I decided to harvest my spuds and burn off the branches I had cut down previously to let more light onto the plot and to clear the path that leads through the allotments. The weather forecast was for rain later in the week, so having the bonfire now was the best good option.

I decided to start the bonfire first and dig the potatoes afterwards so that he fire could burn down before I left.

There was a good stiff wind, which would help if I could get the fire lit to start with. It took me several attempts, but once the flames took hold the wood was soon burning well and without too much smoke to bother people in the village.

I never burn the rubbish pile where it stands. Instead I break the pile up and start my fire close by. This avoids the possibility of burning hedgehogs and any other creature that may be hiding under the branches.

The Romany’s may cook hedgehogs in clay, but it not something that I wish to do- even accidentally.

There is something very satisfying about bonfires.  They stir up childhood memories of Bonfire Night on November 5th, and camp fires when I was a child – and later. Tending the fire to keep it burning brings out in me an odd sort of maternal feeling. It gets very personal.

Once the fire was able to be left, I took my spade and started digging up the potatoes. The crop was not that good. I was not expecting it to be as having only taken on the allotment in early May, I had had little time to prepare the soil before it became too hard to break down.

I burned the leaves as I did not want the risk of any infection to get into my compost heap. I carefully lifted the tubers and cleaned off surplus soil by hand. I weeded out bindweed roots as I found them. They also went on the fire.

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A recent article in an archaeology magazine reported on a project where people recorded their finds as they dug their allotments. I always have one eye looking for weed roots and another for interesting finds as I dig. It keeps things interesting. At Peterborough Cathedral I had found Medieval and Tudor pottery and pieces of Treacle Ware. I found pieces of stems and bowls from clay tobacco pipes, but never a whole bowl, let alone a nearly complete pipe. I have a lovely piece of Georgian white plate that shows a garden scene painted in blue. There were also lots of small chunks of broken bone.

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My allotment has not revealed much at all. Some pipe stem, broken brick and tile, small pieces of white pottery – and that is it. I have found some bone, which will be used for my medieval pilgrim display, becoming the relics of St. Somebody or other. The study of Relics is fascinating. Some were genuine, but the imagination behind some of them is amazing. Canterbury Cathedral had a piece of clay that was left over when god created Adam. I have an allotment full of it.

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Several people passed by, usually walking a dog. I had a chat with one lady. We remembered people long dead and how the village used to be. We both agreed the allotments brought back memories. It is an ‘age’ thing. Memories become precious as you get older.

It was nearly dusk as I extinguished the embers of my fire and bagged up the potatoes.

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It had been a very satisfying day’s work. Instead of just hard slog, memories, the search for antiquities and chatting to passers-by had made it seem so much more. Such is life.

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I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site- www.historicgardener.co.uk

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