A Gardener in Demi-Paradise

The Plot So Far

Hamlet got it wrong. That ultimate, overworked question of his, I mean. All wrong. The really ultimate question is "to weed or not to weed?"

But probably the Prince of Denmark didn't have an allotment and so wasn't faced with the seasonal urgency to plant and sow vegetables even though the ground is still, despite every effort, a network of die-hard weeds.

Shakespeare doesn't mention Hamlet's allotment, probably because allotments didn't take off until World War 1.

Big wars notably increase the demand for patches of public land rented for a nominal sum for people to cultivate fresh vegetables. But even though we haven't had a really sizable war lately in this neck of the woods, allotments still are all over the land. You only have to take a short rail journey to see them laid out below you in all their glorious mayhem of huts and cold frames, polyethylene tunnels and manure heaps, uneven ranks of cabbages and hyperbolic rampancies of squash and zucchini.

I, unlike the great Dane, have always harbored a yen for an allotment.

You'd think one's desire might be pre-empted by already having a home garden one is not completely on top of. But it makes no difference. Whatever makes a plot on an allotment appealing is not satisfied by one's home ground. And also, one's home ground tends toward the decorative rather than the practical.

Last summer I decided - secretly from kith and kin, whom I suspected might not be entirely sympathetic - that the time had come. The clincher was her voiced preference for flower gardens and sitting-out places at home rather than lines of peas and beans.

So I applied to the nearest allotments association. Bob O'Neill, secretary, showed me around, and this opulent tapestry of fenced-off acreage, divided into about 70 plots, seemed to me at the height of summer a "demi-paradise" (to recycle a phrase). Peculiarly, the evidence of some plots way beyond any form of human control did not deter me. But I did know that the plot Bob offered me was too large for the limited time I could give it.

In November he came up with a smaller one. I started work on it next day.

"Those are just annual weeds," he said. He spoke the truth, more or less. What covered the ground in November looked easily dig-in-able. But what the secretary did not mention was the rampage of perennial weeds underground.

My first spading - I started at the far end of the 65-by-30-foot patch - disclosed a complex network of roots enjoying subterranean winter life to the full. Some roots I knew of old: thistles and nettles. But although I've gardened for years, I have escaped, until now, intimacy with two other notorious roots: bindweed and ground elder.

And a fifth, not very familiar, kind was also present. I have rapidly fallen out of love with it. It is a feathery-leafed little monster of the deep known here as mare's tail. It roots down into the deep clay, and snaps off self-preservingly when you pull it. The right word is, I think, "endemic."

So here we are in spring, and spring is the time when thistles, nettles, bindweed, ground elder, and mare's tail all wake out of hibernal sleep and feel like having a little bit of daylight. Well, no, not a bit. A lot.

So who said there hasn't been a major war in Britain lately?

* First in an occasional series about a garden on an allotment in Glasgow.

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