So Much Fuss Over Flowers

Agnes Bray tells me her husband - who used to cultivate the plot across the path from hers - always said: "If you can't eat it, it's no use."

Her plot today is like a pretty cottage garden of the old school. Not much bothered with the edible anymore, this octogenarian fosters a fond profligacy of summer flowers, willy-nillied by the entrancing process known as "self-seeding." The result is lovely, more controlled than it looks ... and not at all approved of by Agnes's neighbors.

John and Cathy MacLeod, on one side, garden in "a very tidy, particular" way. Some mornings John even says: "That's me finished for today."

FINISHED??!

All I can do is admire. My own gardening seems a tunnel with no end-light.

John says he has to go Agnes-side to attack her weeds before they invade MacLeod-side. He also recounts how Agnes, watching him paint his shed, told him: "When you've done yours, you can do mine!" "Yours," he countered laconically, "doesn't need paint. It needs wood."

Cathy MacLeod does grow flowers. Sweet peas - mostly their own seed - tendril up the fences, all spectrum colors. Mallows are planted just outside the gate. John is quite clear: Flowers are her business, vegetables his.

On the other side of Agnes, Joe Gallagher is so orderly that someone described him the other day as "millimeter-man." No mayhem here. Wildness ruled out. Chaos theory a myth.

Joe is a really good grower. "But then," someone else told me, "he is Irish" - that fact explaining everything.

Flowers are anathema to Joe - or so I thought. I mean, he told Robin (who, against allotment precedent, grows roses and honeysuckle over trellises in his corner plot): "You're wasting your ground!"

Joe brought me some parsley plants. To thank him, I cut a bunch of anemones and walked over to his place. He was standing in his hut. It was drizzling.

"What are those?" he sounded as skeptical as a llama.

"Anemones."

Pause.

"What did you say? ENEMIES?"

Allotments, mainly, are for food. But flowers are not a recent introduction. Some allotment associations actually require a percentage of flowers, for appearance. Dahlia and chrysanthemum enthusiasts have abounded in the past, and still abound here and there.

In our allotments, sweet peas are certainly popular. Common orange marigolds and bright cerise bunny's ears reappear each year without being weeded out.

I have delphiniums, and so do Jim and Fiona one over. I am starting sweet williams; I'm convinced they are an allotment flower. I want gigantic bunches.

But nasturtiums - Red grows them rampantly up all his fences - orange and yellow flowers, round flat leaves, are the allotment flowers par excellence: easy, bright - and edible. Red's mother used the seeds in pickles.

Some plots sport spring daffodils and tulips, happy even when neglected.

Oriental poppies boldly survive weed-swamping, too. Brilliant Californian poppies - Eschscholtzia, there's a name - flourish remarkably in this un-Californian climate. Bob O'Neill has them, and he is keen on "everlasting" flowers, for drying.

But short shrift is what most of the die-hard potato, onion, and cabbagers give flowers. They remind me of a Vermonter I knew who could fully name each squash, beat, and bean, but called every flower "a phlock" (plural: "them phlox"). He and Joe would have been pals.

Yesterday, though, I made a discovery.

Casually secreted behind his shed, Joe has three boxes of annual flowers.

In full bloom.

"Mmph," he explains offhandedly. "They're for the family."

"Ah."

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