Listening to Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister on the radio a few weeks ago, I heard him talk about his allotment. Now Mr Drakeford is not the most exciting of individuals – not for him the off the cuff remarks, the jokes, the rash promises that characterise our erstwhile Prime Minister. Drakeford is measured, thoughtful, slow to reply, cautious, patient and, to sum him up, grounded! For a man who loves his vegetables, there could be no better description. And as a politician he clearly has values – not for him private parties in government apartments while Wales suffered. Instead, he retreated to his garden shed (admittedly one with essential services) in order to safeguard vulnerable family members.
This led me to reflect on whether there was a link between allotment communities and everyday values. On his vegetable patch, Mark Drakeford told us, he was just another chap with a fork. Nobody talked to him about politics and neither did he try for any sort of celebrity within this micro culture. This illustrates both his modesty and the tactful sensitivity of his fellow sons and daughters of the soil. If this first point is a stretch, then I can think of many other occasions where allotment manners and morals outdo those in public life.
What hits the new allotment holder first is the way that people share, whether it is tools, produce, plants or advice. There is always someone who has been uber successful with their tomato seedlings or their runner bean harvest and anyone with such plenty is always happy, sometimes only too grateful, to give some away. There are only so many marrow-like courgettes that one person or even one family can consume. A neighbouring plot may not be able to keep up with harvesting a bumper crop of gooseberries, so people will barter and no need to worry about inflationary pressures.
Knowing your onions!
In non-allotment life, advice is not always welcomed and this is very characteristic of our political classes, where the very idea of even listening to a good plan from the opposition is seen as betrayal. A very appealing aspect of the allotment community is the appreciation of good advice, the exchange of knowledge based on hard experience and the respect in which the older members are held. They literally ‘know their onions’! Allied with this is encouragement and help which is never in short supply in these gardens of Eden. After a back-breaking afternoon clearing couch grass and bindweed, it is pleasant to be offered a brew and a well done from a neighbour. Again, there might be the offer of a spare bit of old carpet to keep the weeds down.
This brings me to the environmental aspect of allotments which is all about recycle, re-use and repair. The classic allotment shed is made of re-used wood, old doors and discarded glass or Perspex. To be honest, the average shed is not the most beautiful of architectural edifices, but they reflect individuality, creativity and self-confidence. After all, anyone can have an off-the-peg hut. Similarly, there will be homemade cloches, trellises and raised beds made with a variety of spare materials. A far cry from the expensive tree houses and bespoke duck houses beloved by our current ruling classes.
Being accountable to your neighbours
Gardens of Eden they may be, but there are rules in this Arcadia and it is all too obvious if they are swerved, so don’t bother trying to cover up a misdemeanour. Each month the allotment committee walks the gardens, noting what is growing, what is not growing and the state of the footpaths. Woe betide the gardener who has left his or her paths unmown or their beds filled with mares tail or ground elder. There will be a letter of warning, asking politely for something to be done about it. For as part of a wider community without walls you are accountable to your neighbours, as the wild, unwanted seeds fly in all directions, settling happily in a prize asparagus bed or entwining themselves around the raspberry canes. So people take responsibility, say sorry, mend their ways and get weeding, otherwise they will be asked to give up their plot. I don’t even need to point to the glaring contrast with our present government.
Just in case anyone might think I am in a Utopian dream, painting too rosy a picture, I would add that the allotment committee can be the most rules-bound, hard line, power-crazed group that anyone might encounter in the course of an ordinary life. You cross them at your peril. And some advice about the end of year show – don’t take part, the competition is fierce and polishing your onions is likely to end in tears.
But the good outweighs the bad and there is nothing so good as eating a vegetable you have grown and picked only half an hour before. Bon appétit!