Dwelling on dinner, not on appearances

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"Neil's running for secretary," I said.

"Neil?" said Bill, puzzled. Then light dawned. "Oh, you mean the carpet man."

The reason for Neil's nickname is plain: His plot is three-quarters carpeted. Not with creeping plants - carpets. Laid down willy-nilly over the undulant topography, these unwelcoming mats of Neil's look evermore jaded and faded the longer they stay in sun and moon and frost. They are a radical, rather rugged method of weed prevention.

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It works. There's scarce a weed in sight on his patch. (There's scarce a vegetable either, but one shouldn't carp.) I have my own preferred, if less obliterative, weed-discouraging methodology called "digging them up." I believe it allows the soil to breathe and desirable plants to thrive; but while I disagree with Neil's technique, I'd "defend to the death," as Voltaire did not say, his right to exercise it.

No plot illustrates better than Neil's a central difference between allotment gardening and other forms of the art. What motivates him - and most others here - is effectiveness, not effect. The aim is not appearances, but something for dinner.

Few plotters care what their plots look like. Nothing is further from their consideration than Pope's maxim: "All gardening is landscape painting," unless it is Gertrude Jekyll's "[T]he duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in our gardens is to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures."

Paradoxically, it is their blithe disregard for mere effect that makes allotments so fascinating aesthetically. Here is artless art. It is needed.

Architectural timidity and stifling regulations make bland convention the highest ambition of most new building in Britain today. One of the last remaining evidences of totally unplanned vernacular "architecture" can be seen on allotment sites. The sheds and greenhouses mushroom without on-site meetings or applications in triplicate. It is as if allotmenteers are immune to the rules under which everyone else labors.

The smoke rising in innocent (and nostalgic) clouds from allotment bonfires is symbolic. It ought to attract droves of indignant officials determined to stamp out such practices. But no bureaucrats come.

It is hardly surprising that many cities have allowed allotments to be sold for building sites. Their independent oddity, their improvisation, disintegration, untidiness, and, above all, their amateur individuality must be an affront to many an urban planner. They look like some sort of poverty-stricken township, for heaven's sake! Squatters' camps!

Only now are these planners beginning to show a little appreciation for the value of allotments to city life. A recent government report stresses this value. It remains to be seen when and if the government will act on the report's recommendations.

But there is a kind of danger in official recognition, as well has hope for survival.

An earlier report, in 1969, recommended a new "image" for allotments: They should be "leisure gardens," have strict rules for structure and design, and the sheds should be renamed "summer houses."

These well-meant but paternalistic notions have been largely ignored, and allotments have remained a law unto themselves. But once again suggestions are voiced that it is time allotments cleaned up their act and polished their image.

Let's hope not. Plot-holders should feel free to be as aesthetic or unaesthetic as they like. Neil should be allowed to grow nothing but carpets if he wants to. Some things are basic liberties.

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