This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners. With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective. A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff. I wish I was joking …
Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table. There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.
I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle. It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.
So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies. That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.
And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.
My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in. It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.
These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace. Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.
In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected. All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t. But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.