The tulip vs. turnip row

I can't quite put my finger on it. But there is something about Carlo's plot that suggests it would be perfectly at home on the slopes of some Tuscan hill town. His plot feels different from anyone else's on these Glasgow allotments. But in fact, everyone's plot (as Red often points out) is different from everyone else's. "Which is what it's all about," he growls softly.

Yet we are all playing much the same game. Growing similar vegetables. Dreaming of meals.

Some people, however (not we plotters, naturally), are a touch snooty about vegetable growing. Seems they consider radishes and broccoli lower forms of horticultural life than, say, rhododendrons or lilies.

My wife and I were taken by a friend and her daughter, both keen gardeners, to visit an immaculate private flower garden filled with rarities. Amazingly, Britain has thousands of flower gardens not unlike this - witnesses to a national obsession - which occasionally open their gates to visitors or local garden clubs for charity.

The reason for such visits is not, on the whole, to see spinach and sprouts. But sometimes such gardens do include vegetable patches. This one did. I spotted it through some exclusive shrub. As a new, enthusiastic plotter I said: "Ah - vegetables. Must see those!"

"Oh, I'm not interested in vegetables," our friend's daughter retorted, "they're all the same."

I suppose she meant that, compared with flowering or foliage plants, vegetables are utilitarian and predictable.

Maybe she also meant that spacing them in measured rows hardly requires a flair for garden design or eye for color harmonies.

One of my older brothers also just came up with a vegetable put-down. For most of his life to date, this brother could hardly have told you the difference between a tulip and a turnip. Visiting gardens was his notion of ultimate boredom. But on retirement he suddenly and surprisingly took on an allotment. It was enormously productive for years.

Today he finds himself living alone. He told me on the phone: "You'll never believe it, Christopher! I've taken up gardening."

"But you had your allotment."

"I mean real gardening. That was just vegetables."

Rather fascinatingly, some of the doyens of upper-crust horticulture in Britain, those formidables who have forged international reputations for elevating "real gardening" and plantsmanship to dizzying aesthetic heights, often admit a keenness for "just vegetables."

Rosemary Verey, for instance, eagerly showed me her vegetable garden when I interviewed her some years ago. She is such a consummate flower gardener that, at the time, I was puzzled. But now I think I understand.

Christopher Lloyd, a remarkable plantsman, wrote a book in 1997 called "Gardener Cook" (Willow Creek Press, Wis.). Its title indicates its theme. You can almost hear him, as he writes from personal experience about his vegetables and fruit, licking his lips with anticipation of the next home-grown meal.

And Beth Chatto, that highly original gardener, confessed to Lloyd in a letter: "Much as I love the decorative garden, the vegetable plot is, for me, both a place to relax and, occasionally, somewhere to hide." She talks of feeling "at peace ... among the neat rows of vegetables."

IN THE end, she seems to suggest, the basic simplicity of vegetable growing is more satisfying than the most sophisticated planting. Like Beethoven confessing to a soft spot for a good tune.

"To relax" is not necessarily the term that springs to mind when you go plotting. But "to hide" and "feel at peace" - oh yes.

I wonder. Could it be that Verey, Lloyd, and Chatto really just wish they were plotters?

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

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