The gardens grow quiet

An allotment is "a place where people can indulge in two of life's passions - gardening and talking...." So says a plot-holder quoted in a recent British government report called "The Future for Allotments." The words were interestingly placed in a section called "Practical Value."

Only one gardener I know on our plots is not loquacious. He nods - but he doesn't stop working. Yet even with him I once had a long conversation.

Everyone else will bend your ear with the least prompting. Jeannie, heading for the stables this morning for another barrowful of manure, covered in a couple of minutes a wide range of topics: (a) the relative weight of different wheelbarrows; (b) manure and why she was digging it in where she's uprooted her old gooseberries; (c) steel-capped boots, which cake with mud (she was wearing sneakers); (d) young children riding horses (they should start early, the way her youngest grandchild did); (e) Dan, Big Ted's pal, who was loading a trailer with manure as we spoke (he "does a lot of work for the church at Barrhead," she said); (f) golf balls that land in Mr. King's plot, and (g) Mr. King's potatoes, about which she was not complimentary.

Things go steadier on the plots at this season. After a spell on my patch (chiefly tidying away prematurely frosted items, like the tanglement of sweet peas, the giant forest of Jerusalem artichoke trunks also disrupted by wind, and the similarly collapsed rhubarb), I find time to go on a sociable walkabout.

Actually, not all my walkabouts end up being sociable. I'm happy just peering through the fences and gates at everyone else's triumphs and disasters, admiring their order and sympathizing with their chaos, noticing how different each plot is from the next, and from mine.

I also pick up an idea or two: I spot a good way, for instance, of growing thyme, or notice big sunflowers in one plot and red cabbages in another, both of which I'm now determined to try next year. So it doesn't bother me if scarcely a soul is in evidence.

One rain-soaked morning last week was just like this. I was sure I'd heard Joe Gallagher distantly thumping something in his shed, and I knew I'd spotted Jeannie, woolly-hatted, in hers.

But when I strolled past, they had vanished. It was like a community recently inhabited but suddenly abandoned - the sole survivor being me.

I love these plots, I thought, particularly in winter. I even love their forlornness. I love those three globose cabbages, all that's left from a full row on the Macleods' plot. I love Big Ted's whirligig bird-scarer made of halved plastic bottles nailed to four wooden cross-pieces gyrating on their topsy-turvy pole in the wind while the birds are asleep, sheltering in the woods.

I love the variety of ways the plot-holders protect their winter greens - drapings and cagings and tunnels of netting of every gauge and material imaginable, supported on strings and wires and tubes and pipes and sticks and poles.

I LOVE the aspirations of this place, its hope-springs-eternal, do-better-next-year, work-in-progress air - as well as the quiet pride of its "you should have seen my carrots and onions this year - they were really something" aspect. I love its chat. But I also love its loneliness....

By now I was heading back to the main gate. And there, gaggling like a family of geese, were Joe, Jeannie, Red, Monty, Jim, and Fiona. Jim said: "We're just trying to avoid you!"

I don't think he meant it. But I didn't really care.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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