“If they go green, they’re poisonous. That one’s green, so it’s shit.” Hector was digging up potatoes when I went to the allotments to visit him. He’s an old friend of my mum and during his skinhead days in the 1980s, Hector and his friends were celebrities of the London nightclub scene. He’s very much carried on the drinking habits of his youth, so his face is often a warm shade of red, but today, as he clawed at the earth for his produce, it was the same violent crimson as his tomatoes.
I always thought that my local allotments looked like shanty towns – an assortment of derelict sheds with cracked glass like cobwebs - but I soon discovered the pride and dedication that the majority of the growers put into their personal little patch. Hector does not pay as much attention to the appearance of his plot as others. His allotment is a wilderness; a maze of outreaching shrubberies and plants so overgrown that we had to go through the neighbour’s garden to get in.
AND WE DIG FOR POTATOES AND LEEKS,
NOTHING IS OWNED.
Hector falls into the stereotype of a typical allotment grower; a middle-aged or elderly man with no garden at home. However, he also contradicts this stereotype, as his allotment is so wild that he could face threats of eviction from the council. Does he care? He knows where everything is and he doesn’t want to plant things in pretty rows as many other growers do. “I’m not bothered about being a specialist. Things wanna grow, so they grow. There’s no need to be fancy about it. I just like being part of the environment. I feel like I could be naked here.”
MUCH LIKE NEWLY-PINK PLUMS,
OR THE FIRST BLACKBERRY OF THE YEAR,
ALL IS NATURE.
Another warrior of the mud at the allotments is Michael. Michael explains how the notion of common land is crucial to the allotment environment and believes that there is something inspiring about not personally owning the land. He told me that in the materialistic modern world, the history of common ownership has been eradicated, but it still exists within the community of allotment growers.
Allotments were originally introduced in the 19th century when land was handed to the poor to enable them to grow their own food. During times of recession, communities often turn back to the land in order to source their own produce; defying the social norms imposed upon us in exchange for a more independent, even rebellious, existence.
ALL EXPECTATIONS ARE REJECTED,
WILDFLOWERS ARE HONOURED.
Many growers draw upon little techniques to help maintain their allotment. A great many plant bamboo canes topped with bottles in the soil, following horror stories of clumsy, eye-first falls onto the sticks. Rattling in the wind, these sticks are an attempt to scare off pigeons. Techniques like this are particularly well known to a young couple I approached called Nick and Siobhan, their age proving that the classic stereotype of the old man in his flat cap, digging in the mud, is not as accurate as it once was.
Nick is a gardener, quite middle-class and is a lot more particular about his allotment than the other growers I had met. “The secret is that you don’t feed the plants, you feed the ground. I always make my own compost. Compost is the key to success.” Compost requires a mix of carbon, nitrogen and moisture to produce a good rot and it has been said that in the past gardeners added a dash of urine to help this process. I can’t help but wonder if avid gardeners, such as Nick, still experiment with these more primitive gardening techniques of their ancestors.
Hector compared sharing allotment ground to sharing a block of flats and incidentally this comparison may become all too real. Recently, it’s been suggested that the already cramped patches should be cut in half to allow even more people to cram into them; an invasion of materialism onto a community that has disowned private ownership. Times are constantly changing and the prospect of overcrowding and commercialisation is ever-present, but for the meantime, the growers share their environment peacefully. It is a minimalistic lifestyle, but also a fulfilling one. I could tell that it was true from the look on Hector’s face, as he tasted the first blackberry of the year.