Gardeners put down roots

Alleluia!! I've lifted my parsnips. It took 60 seconds. Three roots were recognizable parsnips. Two could have been strange potatoes. One was an endearing runt. Still, we stretched them over two meals, and their sweet flavor compensated somewhat for their numerical deficiency.

Parsnips (ideally) are long-rooted. But the sowing season ran past before I managed a proper trench. I couldn't bear the thought of a parsnipless plot, though. So I sowed them in inadequate ground east of the peas, south of the spinach, and almost underneath two broccoli plants.

This didn't work too well.

Hey ho, another go. Next year. Determination is the name of this game. The die-hard plotters have it: Red, Joe, Monty, Billy Fullerton, George, Jeannie. These people aren't here for a holiday. "Plots" (as bumper stickers here say about dogs) are "For Life, Not Just Christmas."

"Putting down roots, that's what gardeners are about," Ben observes.

Yes and no. Leaning on your spading fork in your enclosed patch - which I always feel has something of the monastic about it - you do feel a strong sense of ownership. "My plot," everyone says. Some plotters emphasize possession with padlocks, though territorial imperatives are generally respected (except by my dog - another story). One plot even has a doorbell on its gate like a suburban front door. (A joke: There is no electricity on-site.)

In fact we are transitory incumbent growers of annuals. The title of the only article on allotments yet published in Hortus - Britain's eminent horticultural/literary magazine - puts it well: "the land belongs to those who are not yet born."

We are tenants, paying nominal dues. Mostly we are aware that to impose too permanent a structure or design on our plot is to misunderstand our humble, walk-on role in a larger, longer drama.

This came home to me six months after I began plotting. Neil, as the new secretary, asked me if my name was King. I said no, I didn't think so. It turned out that the name of the previous plot-holder (Mike King, who had moved to another plot) had not been replaced by mine on the plan.

Maybe, I suggested, it would be easier if each plot had a permanent name, like the stalls for pit ponies. These sturdy creatures were stabled for their working life underground near the coal face. When at last a pony achieved a meadowy retirement, a new pony took its place. But the name on the stall-plate wasn't altered. Likewise, plotters come, and plotters go.

Allotments are the nearest thing today to the tracts of common land cultivated by peasants centuries ago. Ours are on land belonging to the Glasgow City Council and, mysteriously, no rent is levied for it.

A FEELING of ancient right does tend to take hold of allotmenteers. Some of ours have had their plots for decades, even "inheriting" them from parents. Monty, for instance. And the passion with which they fight if their plot is threatened would make Blake's flaming "Tyger" tremble.

There was a move some years ago to oust Monty and Red from their plots. It was a silly kind of palace-coup attempt; these two stalwarts were, at the time, treasurer and secretary of the association. Their rigorous policies (or personalities?) were not to everyone's taste. The case went to court. Monty and Red won.

But even now if this shameful episode is mentioned, fierce smoke shoots from Monty's shed chimney, and across her cheeks shatter tiny needles of mascara.

Plot people don't uproot easily. Give me parsnips any day.

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