Neil's bag of tricks

'let me put it this way," observed Neil, surveying my plot early in the season. His face wore a rather mischievous look. At that time, my rows of newborn seedlings represented promise rather than fulfillment. Other than premature rhubarb, there was nothing actually edible in sight.

"Let me put it this way." (Neil likes to repeat himself.) "It looks great, but don't give up Safeway Supermarkets just yet."

"Don't worry!" I laughed with all due self-deprecation. But I did think it was a bit cheeky. After all, his plot last year was 90 percent covered in carpets (and you can't eat those). While this proved to be a major weed deterrent, it was also somewhat anti-veggie.

Apart from a narrow row of Jerusalem artichokes and, clambering up his boundary fence, a line of sweet peas (and you can't eat those), the nearest thing to fresh vegetables on Neil's territory in 1998 were his plastic bags. He had filled these with dirt and dotted them around to hold down his carpeting against west winds.

What struck me with the force of irony was the supermarket slogan on them: "Sainsbury's: Where Fresh Food Costs Less." So that, I thought, is where Neil gets his vegetables....

The thing is, though, that the places where fresh food really costs less are home patches and allotments and plots and victory gardens. Supermarket vegetables are admirably standardized and washed and waxed almost to extinction, but dew-fresh and better-tasting they are not. One wouldn't mind these big-chain boys making persuasive claims- Sainsbury's latest is "Making Life Taste Better" - if they didn't bag our slogans. And I have to admit that I do not restrain the jubilation whenever allotmenteers around the country successfully prevent some supermarket from buying their land.

Allotments seem peculiarly attractive to supermarkets, being seen as mere wasteland, and often inner-urban. And what could be more rational than to take over ground where local people have for decades grown local produce and then to sell to those same local people tomatoes grown in Israel and lettuce from Africa?

Myself, I have never really dreamed of what sanguine friends-of-the-soil dubbed "self-sufficiency." Nor do I have ambitions for my plot to be the sort of place where "[t]he nectarine, and curious peach,/ Into my hands themselves do reach," in Andrew Marvell's succulent 17th-century words. "The Garden" of Marvell's poem was surely not a breezy Glasgow plot.

I'm happy to leave the peaches and nectarines (and the melons and peppers) to warm-climate cognoscenti. Let them supply such exotics to the supermarkets. Me, I'll stick to broccoli and beans. They beat the supermarkets hands down.

Now it's August. We are entering into the fruits of our labors. Neil's carpets have parted like the Red Sea and allowed a few vegetables to flourish. And his 1999 sweet peas are a wondrous curtain of color. He is picking bunches to give to his girlfriends.

It has been rather warm for Scotland. Most years our harvesting is a steady affair, a little to pick or dig each day. This year, though, I find a degree of rush. My short row of peas, for example, raced through the stages of unready, almost ready, ready, and over within the space of about four days. If I wanted this kind of hectic schedule I'd move to New England!

But here, even in old Scotland, I have been arriving home with bulging bags of peas and turnips, spinach and raspberries - we have raspberry jam coming out of our ears - broad beans, and even for the first time some carrots. Bulging bags! On which it is written: "Safeway: Lightening the Load."

No, no, I can't give up supermarkets. Where would I get my good, fresh plastic bags from?

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

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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