Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Creative Allotment - reflections on art, allotments and the beauty of neglect

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!  


  1. Laughing. I really like this. So true. I basically used my allotment as a place to hang out! A few attempts were made in growing food..there was a bit of tut tutting by the old boys about my lack of use of weed killer but because I had a corner plot near woodland the outrage was kept minimal.

    1. thanks, glad you have taken it in the right spirit, it is so easy to offend when expressing opinions (even light hearted ones) about allotments. There is definitely and old/new school divide in attitudes which I find quite fascinating. But I suspect that any differences there are about how allotments should or could be mainly come down to a question of time, some have it, others don't. The real problem is how to make allotments successful for those, mainly younger gardeners who have the desire and enthusiasm but not enough time or possibly experience to get satisfying results. One point I was trying to make in the 'creative allotment' was that broadening the definition of what an allotment is or could be might help. On my site there is currently a debate (sometimes heated) about wether or not there should be a little refreshment cafe at weekends, I quite like the idea but is it a case of next stop Mc Donalds!!!!!

  2. I'm with you on the creative allotment! That's how Veg Plotting was started, because fully formed blog posts would spring into my head whilst I was up at the plot :)

    I've often pondered writing a post about the types of allotment based on the 'designs' I see around me - unfortunately I don't have a Carl Andre type up at our site. My plot has been described as 'Bohemian' by one of my neighbours.

  3. It does not surprise me that fully formed bits of writing or ideas pop into your head while working on your allotment. This fits in perfectly with my own experience and recent research done on how creativity is generated (see Horizon, the creative Brain). As you work doing sometimes quite tedious things like
    weeding your subconscious mind is somehow able to communicate with your conscious mind more easily, perhaps because its distracted. I also think the direct contact with plants, soil and fresh air gives an added boost to the imagination. For long term city dwellers like me, this might also be partly due to the novelty of being in a more natural environment. I hope you do write your 'Design' piece, perhaps there might be some interesting bohemians on other sites nearby?