One man's art is another's appetizer

Jane Austen said: "Few things are so melancholy as a row of cabbages in December."

Or I think that's what she said. I didn't invent it - though I could have rewritten it from memory. Anyway, I don't agree.

Nor does Joy Larkcom, author of the book "Creative Vegetable Gardening."

Nor does Big Ted, to judge by the ranks of purple cabbages bursting the seams of his plot. And the Macleods' procession of giant round-headed green ones suggests they would also dispute the novelist's aspersions. But then Jane, it seems, was no gardener. She preferred to watch her mother gardening rather than garden herself.

Joy Larkcom, however, has grown vegetables for 20 years. And she writes: "I am always surprised how beautiful cabbages are." Rosemary Verey likewise observes in "The Garden in Winter": "the sight ... of the purple cabbages makes picking the Brussels sprouts a joy instead of a chore."

Our allotments are unlikely to be visited by such redoubtable ladies.

There are standards, after all. Even though Monty described her blanched sea kale to me as a vegetable grown only by "advanced gardeners," the horticultural aspirations of Larkcom and Verey are to our allotments what The Royal Shakespeare Company is to your local drama club.

Larkcom's book is about "the potager" - much loftier than the word "plot." She says it can simply mean "kitchen garden." But its associations with the famous Renaissance vegetable parterres (ornamental gardens) at Villandry in the Loire suggest the potager is high art, not soil-grubbing.

Larkcom advocates planting vegetables - even in winter - for their sheer beauty of color and form. I find this appealing, but confusing. I believe my allotment pals and I might learn things from her book. But I suspect a conflict between vegetables grown to look wonderful, or for food. Marie Antoinette notwithstanding, you surely can't have your onion and eat it?

My fellow plotters would never dream of voicing admiration just for the visual beauty of vegetables, or for a pretty planting. It would seem middle-class and namby-pamby. Yet I sense something more than approval of a successful crop in Red's quiet pride in his carrots, or even in the way he appraised my cauliflowers (Mark Twain called them "cabbages with a college education") by a gruff emphatic mutter: "lovely."

Certain plants add to my puzzlement by their equal felicity as edible and lookable. Take the globe artichoke. An utterly toothsome delicacy, its sculptured buds must be beheaded for the table before they break into flowering bristles of lucent violet. How can one choose between such pleasures?

Even the common leek is not immune to paradox. I offered the Visiting Artist some. "Dig up half a dozen," I suggested. She generously faxed me later: "Impressive leeks.... Seriously, they are very beautiful, and I hope I've not pulled out the wrong ones - I worry that I've spoiled your pattern to make my pattern."

She told me she had been drawing them. And then, later, that she hadn't the heart to complain when her partner, not realizing they were still unfinished as art, turned them into a casserole.

It can't be easy, if you are a vegetable, to be two things at once, all things to all men. Unless, like cabbages to Miss Austen, you are not appreciated at all - though a phone call from her house in Hampshire has now informed me that my quote was not from her, but from one of her characters.

And what this character actually said was: "Who can endure a cabbage bed in October?"

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