|from 'An Illustrated Allotment Alphabet'|
When many people think about allotments they probably think gardening programmes, BBC GW, Geoff Hamilton, Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Carol Klein, Chris Beardshaw etc. Then they think cloches, spades, trugs full of compost, maybe John Innes number2, dig it in well and don’t forget to water it in, the proto fruit bush or seedling that is.
And yes, you do have to think practical in order to grow stuff. But that is only part of the story of allotments.
To be fair to the gardening media world, attention is often drawn to the satisfaction and sense of peace and well being one can derive from growing your own but what about the allotment as a creative space?
Since I was converted to veg growing some 17 years ago I’ve noticed that many fellow allotment holders treat their plots in a very creative way. This could be due to the high proportion of artisans living in south London or maybe its down to the fact that the practical, all rules followed approach, is not what many people want from their gardening.
Judging by the condition of many plots I see, text book standards are rarely achieved anyway, and neglect is definitely more the order of the day.
However, this neglect is often only superficial and nearly always offers some interesting surprises. Even a plot completely overgrown with weeds is more interesting, in my view than a neatly manicured allotment where everything is clipped and kept in place.
Some allotment plots I’ve seen are so cluttered, anarchic and eccentric that they could be considered works of art in themselves. I am convinced Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys are not really dead but have quietly retired to the Gunsite Allotments in Dulwich Woods to continue practicing their art while disguised as gardening enthusiasts.
My first encounter with a real allotment holder did not, however bring to mind a famous artist of any description. Wilfred, who neighboured my plot was very old school and possibly one the most unfriendly and uncommunicative people I’ve ever met. After about 3 years he moved on, no doubt driven half mad by my persistent habit of saying hello and goodbye to which he would occasionally reply with a low grunt.
Although Wilfred’s plot was not artistic or inspirational it did have its own character, mainly defined by an abundance of oversized brussel sprouts fed on large amounts of artificial fertilizer.
After he left I actually missed him, but his distinctive style was soon more than matched by a new neighbour, Sam, who had no need of fertilizer of any kind.
Sam’s gardening style was so heavily influenced by minimalism that I’m still not sure if he was really Carl Andre incognito. Every inch of his plot was covered with thick layers of cardboard, underneath which were more layers of newspaper. This barrier was not just weed control but the control of any organic growth what so ever, because all Sam wanted from his plot was an opportunity for some serious digging therapy. His passion was for rotavating not cultivating. He loved to dig and when he and his spade were satiated the cardboard covers would fall back into position, restoring the perfect Carl Andre look. It was all weirdly, wonderfully conceptual.
Allotments are much more than gardens to grow vegetables, they are spaces to dream, create, escape and have time to nurture an awareness of our environment and all its possibilities.
Long live the creative allotment!