Nice work, if you can get it

'That's what you might call," says Red, grinning with evident satisfaction, "a good day's work."

The fact that it's only 11 a.m., and that this redoubtable plotter probably arrived at his patch about 8:30, is beside the point.

"A good day's work," when you are lengthily and contentedly "retired" can be what you decide it is. Two-and-a-half hours of removing sterile coal-ash and gravel from his soil to make a loam he thinks might be worthy of next year's leeks is work by any definition. And it is what Red has clearly decided is "sufficient unto the day." It's also perfectly possible that he achieves more in the time than some of us, "footering around" (as the Scots put it), might achieve in eight hours.

I would hazard a guess that these 2-1/2 intense hours are, in fact, the part of the day that gives Red real satisfaction. He scarcely ever misses them, spring, summer, autumn or winter, unless the weather is notably atrocious.

"It's a good hobby" is his catch phrase. He says it firmly and frequently, though I suspect it is a gross understatement. It's a very serious "hobby."

Some of the other retired plotters work all day. Those of us who are not officially retired cannot, of course, (officially) spend as much time as we would like grubbing around in the earth.

Myself, I planned at the outset to give the plot half an hour a day. I stuck to this religiously for some time. But such disciplined tactics are not easy to maintain in the face of warming spring soil ready for seeds, or exigent, ground-swamping chickweed, or the sudden prosperity of a pea crop that will spoil if not harvested today.

Other plotters apparently find it hard to make more than an hour or two each week for their plots. This does not work too well horticulturally. Ecologically, though, it's possible they are unintentionally doing more good than we gardeners are: Undisturbed habitats are just the thing for biodiversity.

I recently mentioned Mirabel Osler and her "Gentle Plea for Chaos" (Arcade, 1998) book. What I omitted (through lack of space) was a spicy touch of privileged information I have gleaned.

My informant tells me that he will deny ever having said this, so it's my word against his. But apparently Mirabel writes (as you might rather expect) in the same way she gardens: overflowingly, unstintingly, even haphazardly. It would seem that her chaos of onrushing prose needs a little editing. Unlike some writers, she is quite happy and even grateful, I was told, to be edited - perhaps in the same way that a rambling rose responds well to a good pruning.

Some gardeners and writers are natural ramblers. We are inclined to be untidy in our in-and-out-flow of inspiration.

But I have discovered a strange parallel between plot-gardening and this weekly writing about my plot-gardening. Both are extremely limited in space, and not a little pressured, time-wise. Our plots are not large by some standards, and mine is one of the smallest. I chose it so, but this year I was strapped for room.

The only solution is to cut back on some things next year (fewer runner beans would be fine) to make room for others. This is hard for someone who wants to grow everything. I will have to model myself on an Irish woman who, according to Big Ted, had a plot here on which she grew everything in very short rows: always just enough, never too much.

Our overpacked freezer this year tells its own unedited story. And, to boot, this article is 28 words longer than it should be. A very good day's work, I'd say. Plus overtime.

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

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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