Agnes goes wild

John Macleod looks up from bend-over. "She favors 'the natural look,' " he observes with a gentle irony.

"She" is Agnes Bray. During the winter, Mrs. Bray has not appeared much on her plot next to the Macleods'. "She's probably on a bus," says John, smiling. "She's always away on bus tours."

So out of what may be a certain exasperation, John is working in the Bray plot this morning, trying to discourage the prolific Bray plant life that ramps through the netting into the plot he and his wife organize.

The contrast between these two plots is striking.

The rectangle of earth tended by John and Cathy Macleod is meticulous. They "keep a very orderly plot," as Monty says of hers. Even their rubbish is neat. The berry hedge has a short-back-and-sides. The lace curtains in the shed window look freshly washed. Where other plotters' strawberries are a winter mess of runners and tattered brown leaves, theirs are primped and trimmed. Macleod strawberries behave themselves.

Now and then I walk over to take a good look at the Macleod Territory, just to keep my admiration level topped up.

The sea of earth tended (some might say "neglected," but it is not so) by Agnes Bray, on a chart from wild to tame, would be close to wild. But in the summer I have seen this doughty old-stager, deep in her cottagey-jungle of spectrum-hued flowers, hoeing away vigorously. She swears by the hoe. To her it's the secret of good gardening, the mainstay. But what exactly does she do with it? Her plot looks as if it is nature's very own tangled mayhem, untouched by human art. She has no rows to hoe between. No apparent design. Her "tares and wheat" grow together. It is certain, though, that if she did not hoe, her plot would soon become a small wilderness and no longer a garden.

Paradoxically, I find myself also wandering over in the summer to admire Agnes's plot.

I know she knows and loves her flowers. Does she realize, though, that she is at the cutting edge?

Today, books called "Natural Gardening," "How to Make a Flower Meadow," or "Gardening with Native Species" are everywhere. Species are in, exotics out. Trying to grow plants that do not suit your local conditions or soil is - so goes the new gardening ideology - a needless struggle. Why not work WITH nature rather than against it?

Agnes grows what will grow, a potpourri of annuals and perennials, some wild, some "garden plants," but all survivors. And, in a field of 70 allotments mainly devoted to vegetable culture, she simply doesn't give vegetables a look in.

HER attitude makes perfect sense. It is the rest of us who are absurdly illogical, growing a range of highly specialized, hybridized food-producing exotics against all odds, coddling and manuring and feeding and weeding. And all we have to do is toddle off to the supermarket and every single vegetable we can attempt, plus a host more, is instantly available and clean as a whistle.

My own reasons for wanting an allotment, in addition to the (rather wild) garden around our house, include this peculiarly burning wish to grow vegetables successfully. And I further want the opportunity of making a formal garden, with plants in regulated patches and delineated rows.

And so, while at home I welcome "the natural look," down here in the sunny plots, I am a Macleod follower, bending over to keeping nature out. (Except for one or two cowslips.)

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

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