Believe it or not, it’s quite hard graft taking on a new allotment. I’ve been hanging back from a progress update as I continually feel like I'm just around the corner from a more impressive point in the process. But Chelsea Flower Show week means gardening season is very definitely in full swing and I thought it time for me to Chelsea chop chop (Google that good pun, non-gardeners) and tell you what I’ve been up to. Nearly 5 months after taking possession of my plot, I've removed the remains of existing paths with the exception of the one between me and my neighbour and I now have cruciform paths of bark edged with weather-warped timber. These divide 4 fully manured, leaf moulded and repeatedly dug over beds of roughly equal size, all the better for crop rotation, although I'm yet to work out the subtleties of implementing this in my intended potager. There’s also another small area I’ve temporarily covered with plastic membrane, which I don’t feel guilty about because its composition of timber offcuts and rubble as weights is the most aesthetic thing on the plot at the moment. As I write, there is still nothing planted out.
You know how I bandied about terms like ‘jackpot’, ‘essentially clear’ and ‘friable soil’? They’ve haunted me ever since. To be fair, I have indeed hit the invasive perennial weed jackpot - alongside copious horsetail, bindweed has made its presence felt and I’m feeling vindicated in turning down my helpful neighbour’s offers to rotovate my plot. Had I agreed, the weed might now have been distributed over the whole area, it being notorious for regrowing from tiny sections of chopped up root; as it is it’s largely confined to one patch. I carefully forked out all I could and I suppose now the correct thing to do would be to leave that area unplanted until I’m certain I’ve uh, rooted out the problem. Instead I’ll avoid planting anything permanent for the time being and see how it goes with annuals. The soil itself is dry and hard on the surface despite my improvement and, perverse though it feels to write this, some rain soon would be good.
Lacking long-established plots and with a lot of new and quickly departing plotholders, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that in comparison with others my allotment site feels slightly unkempt and anarchic. James Wong would approve of the bountiful dandelions being cultivated. A mile from the house I grew up in and a good few miles from Glasgow’s West End’s more Orla Kiely welly-strewn plots, the site sits a couple of streets back from the Clyde. There’s a sense of the area’s industrial past – a rusted shipyard crane rises above tenement rooftops to the south – but also, particularly at my far end plot, an almost pastoral feel. Over the stone perimeter wall is an open area of ambiguous character; something between a park and waste ground, scattered with the remains of bonfires and dominated by a flagpole-topped grassy mound. The former site of a multi-storey block of flats, it’s like a cross between a piece of Charles Jencks land art and the remains of the motte of a Norman castle. Beyond lies a collection of doocots. In Glasgow this term usually refers to structures built by pigeon fanciers on pieces of less visible public ground to which no other purpose has been ascribed - the verges of former railway lines, for example – as opposed to the elaborate, often stone-built dovecotes of the Scottish landed gentry. In all kinds of materials (often variations on timber and corrugated metal) and of varying stature, they are proper contemporary examples of vernacular buildings.
The ‘sense of place’ – one of those useful ideas that can easily descend into garden writing cliché - is something I’m keenly aware of. It’s a term encountered most frequently when designers are describing the half-quarry loads of local stone necessary to tie their scheme in to its attached mediaeval manor house or Regency Old Rectory but it feels equally as valid and valuable a consideration in an ‘ordinary’ urban context. ‘Borrowed landscape’, used to mean the incorporation of views of places or objects beyond a garden’s boundary into its design, is another phrase that crops up again and again. There’s a particularly compelling black-painted doocot visible over the wall and although I would have liked to perfectly align my bisecting path to it, practicality beat preciousness on this occasion. Still, I’ve stained the path edging Tudor Black Oak and plan to do the same with my future shed, and I swear it already feels more satisfyingly cohesive even if no one else ever notices. The choice of bark as the paths' surface wasn't conscious; there's a rapidly rotting communal load which I attempted to cream the drier, more intact bits off the top of and it seems as serviceable as anything else.
Speaking of precious, as someone hopelessly prone to building up minutely detailed visions of singular perfection and unrealisable ambition in my mind's eye it’s been interesting working on a plot that, though ostensibly mine to do with as I choose, is subject to other people’s intervention. You might notice a communal greenhouse structure appearing and moving about between pictures, on the spot (not technically mine but within my plot, if that’s clear) where I’d planned to put the shed; I believe at the moment my shed is again good to go there but I’m never too sure what to expect each time I return. It was also a surprise the first time a guy landed on my plot having vaulted over the wall, apparently as a shortcut to the allotments’ water supply.
Given all the variables, I’m trying to invest as little as possible financially; not that I really have any other option, sick as it would be to realise the shimmering polished marble slabs and symmetrical anthropomorphic compost heaps (might manage these actually) of my initial Emoji plan. Despite never having visited, I’m confident I’m a big fan of former V&A director Roy Strong and late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Herefordshire garden, The Laskett, full of classical references and long, formal vistas, offered to and rejected by the National Trust in 2014. I’ve read accounts by disgruntled punters of the garden’s use of bog-standard paving slabs, cheap wavy path edgings and pretentious prefabricated balustrades that all sound inspirational. I don’t know that Sir Roy has any but I’ve long had a hankering for those white plastic debased classical urns you get in bargain shops, crisp and empty on plinths rising amongst sublime planting.
That said, it still feels weird spending any cash at all in builders’ merchants and not on clothes and books and going out and that. Having hung around the allotments on a drizzly April day to take delivery of a load of planks, I yesterday received a load of 6mm mild steel rods cut to 2.5m lengths. I have to give Monty ‘The Don’ Don credit here: he demonstrated a technique of bending them around a cylindrical object to make supports for herbaceous perennials on Gardeners’ World a year or two back and in doing so exposed how obscene the price of identical bits of metal is when you buy them ready-bent from a garden retailer. My major plan involves using them straight up to create tall pyramid structures in each square bed as supports for beans and sweet peas. I’m not a big bamboo cane man and a source of coppiced hazel or ‘pea sticks’, the more polite rustic alternatives, seems destined to remain a mystery for this urbanite. The steel feels appropriate; it will gradually rust and should, I hope, provide immediate definition to the space.
Next it’s time to plant.