The word provender means a provider, a fodder stockist, a purveyor of fruit and vegetables or of food in general. To me it is a utility word, with no connotations of luxury or bounty. So it is strange that one of my favourite restaurants in London has chosen the name of Providores. Their fare is both generous and delicious. Now at Provender in Swanley I have found another generous company with almost the same name. Provender Nurseries provide everything the serious gardener could possibly need. Last weekend it was Provender’s Allotment Day and they kindly allowed me to come down and join in the fun.
I expect that fingers were bitten to the quick the night before, when again a gale swept across southern England. Would people be able to get there? Would the roads be clear? By the time I arrived, having been buffeted along the motorway in my decidedly lightweight Smart-car, the wind was still whipping across the Kentish hilltop that is Provender’s home site. Even inside, the gale still howled through the struts of their massive greenhouse. But allotment folk are made of sturdy stuff, sun steamed through the glass and no-ones spirits were allowed to be dampened by a bit of a breeze. Provender had set out tables and chairs and laid-on a feast inside the greenhouse. There were steaming vats of tea and coffee, jugs brimming with fresh milk and for those inclined, bacon butties and sticky cakes. By the time I’d been logged in and badged-up, most allotmenteers were already sitting down, enjoying a natter and tucking into the vittles.
Provender is a wholesale nursery that has just celebrated its first year of trading. (It is an amalgamation of two older companies and has held an allotment day here for several years.) From what I could see the marriage is a good one. I tore myself away from the iced buns to take a tour of the nursery grounds. I was impressed by the ranks of healthy hedging plants and an impressive collection of fruiting and specimen trees. If you need to, you could buy a pot-grown Prunus Caroliniana five feet wide and eight foot tall, or a fan trained pear, or a mature olive tree. Any one of these might be just the thing to create instant effect or to blot out the sight of troublesome neighbours.
Birds were singing away in the warm greenhouse where palms, citrus and bamboo headed for the rafters. In another shaded and more humid environment, summer bedding plants and perennials waited their turn in the spotlight. Wherever I looked, I saw thriving plants that were clearly well looked after.
But the allotmenteers didn’t have their eyes on the show-stopping plants, they were after different tackle. I noticed chicken pellets being shipped out by the pallet load and people pulling bags of lime off the shelves like gadfly. Slug pellets were going well and most groups purchased at least one of the bargain mega-bags of daffodil bulbs. These were already in shoot, but would still be a good way of making a show for next spring on a tight budget. Many of us bought pansies in order to provide a bit of immediate sparkle. I bought some purple ones that I shall use to add colour to my spring salads, for pansy flowers are edible.
I talked to George and his friend Ted Kirby from the Rainham and District Allotment Society. They were worried about the soft growth that such a mild winter had triggering. Ted already has broad beans in flower on his allotment. “If we get a late frost…” George said, but he didn’t finish the sentence. It would be too terrible to contemplate.
I wandered around the product area selling seeds, equipment, chemicals, thermal fleeces, and all the bits and pieces that serious gardeners need. A wholesale nursery is such a refreshing change from the retail garden centres, where you have to wade through so much irrelevant stuff, before you can find what you need. There wasn’t a flouncy pot stand, or a children’s toy, or a cookery book in the place. I did linger for a moment by the glove department, where I could select from an array of perhaps fifty different colours, weights and styles of gardening glove.
In stopping to admire the gloves I met Nick Haygon. He is a keen allotmenteers and chair of his society, (Biggin Hill and District Horticultural Society)
He’s also a professional gardener at the Tilgate Park in Crawley. The walled gardens at Tilgate contain a show allotment, designed to encourage people to grow their own, as well as decorative gardens, a thriving café, a petting zoo and acres of country walks and parkland. It looks really pretty and it is now on my list of gardens to visit. (Pinterest)
Lastly I stopped by the seed potatoes to talk to Mr Hyder an old stager, 90 years young, who was representing Sevenoaks Allotments. He’d been the chairman several times during his life and I noticed how his colleagues deferred to him when selecting things to buy. He told me that he’d had to reduce the crops on his allotments as he was finding the work a bit more difficult these days. He was growing soft fruits like blackberries, blueberries and gooseberries that don’t need so much attention. “But those are the super fruits,” I commented, “Are they the secret of your longevity?” He told me that he still grows a wide variety of veg in his own garden. He doesn’t hold with earthing-up potatoes. He says that he tries to encourage the plant to grow downwards, producing tubers, not growing upwards and producing foliage. “Don’t you earth-up if a frost is forecast,” I asked. “No,” he shook his head, “I just bring my duvet outside and place it over the potato bed.” He reminded me of the lady market gardener I met once in northern France. On a cold day in December her market stall was covered with a baby blue fleecy bed sheet to keep the frost from the lambs lettuce and chicory that she was selling. They don’t call them vegetable beds for nothing!
The staff at Provender were very attentive and were on hand to answer any questions. And there were a lot of them about, helping us to teas and buns, out in the nursery itself and manning the till. I’m sure the allotment societies enjoyed the day and they certainly made a lot of purchases. The queue of carts was lengthening as I said my goodbyes to drive back to London.
Provender hold quite a few events during the year, I’m already looking forward to the autumn allotment day.