Plenty of green shoots at Rothesay’s new allotments

Grow Bute treasurer Frank Maher hard at work on his patch of Rothesay's new allotments.

Grow Bute treasurer Frank Maher hard at work on his patch of Rothesay's new allotments.

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How does your garden grow? The answer, at least if you have one of the plots at Rothesay’s new allotments, would appear to be: “very well indeed, thank you very much.”

Those whose regular constitutional takes them along the path next to St Andrew’s Primary School, between Columshill Place and the Barone housing scheme, will have seen at first hand the impressive way in which the island’s newest allotments, shared by St Andrew’s Primary and the Grow Bute community group, have taken shape over the last 12 months.

But for those who haven’t, the transformation is little short of astonishing.

When we visited the site last June, Grow Bute chairman Marlene Hill, treasurer Frank Maher and Marlene’s husband Pete were almost lost in the middle a head-high jungle of Japanese knotweed.

To the casual observer at that time, the idea of the site one day being free of that most pernicious of weeds, and instead being used to grow all manner of delicious and often exotic vegetables, would have seemed absurd.

But less than a year later, the weeds have been cleared, the site has been sub-divided into 13 plots, the soil is in place and the vegetables are already starting to grow.

And in many cases those vegetables are just a tad more exotic than carrots, potatoes, cabbages and leeks.

Mark Ashcroft, for example, is growing lupino beans alongside a variety of herbs, including coriander, sorrel and borage.

“I live in a small flat in the Gallowgate,” he says, “and there isn’t much room to grow anything.

“I went to the allotments at the Meadows, but I was told there were none left there. Then I met Marlene, and it was just the right time to get involved with Grow Bute - I thought ‘maybe if I get involved in helping them, they might give me a plot!’.”

Meanwhile Frank Maher, when he’s not keeping an eye on Grow Bute’s finances, is watching his potatoes, broad beans, peas, tomatoes, aubergines, parsnips, swedes, onions, garlic and pak choi going great guns.

Not bad for someone who still sees himself as a beginner!

“I’d never grown anything until about two years ago,” Frank tells us.

“I wasn’t working at the time, and I was looking for something to do. I just put stuff in the ground and it grows!”

And what about Marlene herself? Well, she has fruit bushes, broad beans, a ‘rambling rose’, large onions (or at least onions which will be large when they’re fully grown), a plum tree, strawberries, black sprouts and even ‘walking stick’ cabbages - so called because, yes, their stalks can be made into walking sticks.

Marlene’s horizons, though, aren’t limited to her own little corner of the new Grow Bute site: she’s already hard at work on the next stage of the allotments’ story, though her pride in the group’s achievements so far is clear to see.

“We were ready to start planting in the middle of March,” she says.

“We have 13 plots on the site, but they’re not all in use this year - one is being used to store the knotweed we’ve cut down over the last few months, and the school is hoping to make progress on its plot in the next few months.

“We’ve had a lot of help - Cowal Building and Plumbing Supplies sourced our garden sheds for us, delivered them free of charge and let us have them at a discounted rate, and Councillor Robert Macintyre was here only the other day to bring us a load of top soil.

“We’re very grateful for all the support we’ve had so far, and everyone who passes by the site says what a wonderful job we’re doing.”

The new allotments also make a significant contribution towards sustainability too. A lot of people, we suspect, hear that S word and wonder exactly what it means: well, at the new site, which is leased from Argyll and Bute Council for 25 years, you can see sustainability in action, as plot-holders grow their own fruit and veg at a fraction of the cost of a trip to the supermarket.

And the site isn’t just about those 12 individual plots either: one of the 12 will be used as a communal area, and the frame of a polytunnel, sourced from the former Bute Healthy Living Initiative (sustainability again!), is already in place, with an eye on holding open days for the public, with cookery demonstrations and other events in the planning.

“There are three rambling roses on the boundary fence, and we have communal fruit bushes and apple trees too,” Marlene continues.

“Everyone who passes by the site says what a wonderful job we’re doing.

“We’ve made the area a more pleasant place too. A number of women told me they didn’t like walking up this path at night because the knotweed made it so dark and enclosed, but now it’s much more open - and the rambling roses will make it perfumed too!”

Possibly the most impressive plot is that being cultivated by Mark McCormack, who has actually been on site since the beginning of the year, and who, on the day of our visit, is busy building a communal compost bin and tending to a large heap of dung underneath a big pane of glass.

Removing the glass, he invites me to plunge my hand inside the heap, in the manner of one searching for buried treasure: I do so, not at all sure what I might find, and discover to my surprise that the glass has helped heat the heap to a temperature of perhaps 40 degrees Centigrade. That’s ideal for growing pineapples, apparently, although for the moment Mark says he just wants to see how warm he can make it.

The whole thing sounds rather agreeably unlike hard work. Marlene, though, is keen to stress that it’s not all a piece of cake, or even pineapple.

“Sometimes TV programmes make gardening look too easy,” Marlene says.

“But it’s like keeping a cat or a dog: you need to look after it every day. You can’t just leave it to its own devices.

“We have 17 different types of tomato growing on the site, and tomatoes need to be watered twice a day.

“But it’s well worth the effort, because they taste so much better than the kind you would buy in the shops.

“And you don’t need to be an expert either. My husband isn’t a great gardener, but he’s growing Japanese burdock, or godo, for example.

“It’ll take us a year or two to get to where we really want to be, but I’m very pleased with what we’ve managed to do in 12 months - I think it’s quite impressive, even if I do say so myself.”