Finding the plot: Cleve West's allotment has been such a success he's written a book about it
Saturday 08 October 2011
Designer Cleve West has already had one winner this year: Best in Show for his garden at Chelsea. Now he's produced another, his first book, Our Plot, based on his experiences at his Bushy Park allotment. He and his partner, Christine, took on the plot 10 years ago and Independent readers may remember that it played a star part in the column he wrote in this paper.
Acquiring an allotment is a bit like going to the gym, he says. "Making the initial effort to go for a workout is always the main hurdle. Once in the zone and working up the sweat, it's the best place in the world. The owners of gymnasiums throughout the world know that if all their members turned up every day there would be no room to move. But they understand human nature only too well and rely on the simple fact that most people haven't got the staying power. There may well be waiting lists for allotments, but they are always in a state of flux as people eventually realise just what's involved in growing food."
The Bushy Park site, in south-west London, is unusually rural. It's well protected from the outside world by a fine old brick wall that runs along the main road to Hampton, and by huge trees that mark the boundary of Bushy Park behind. It has the tied-together-with-string quality of all the best allotment sites: eclectic sheds, strange plant supports, sagging raised beds, plenty of recycled plastic, a sense of refuge. And of freedom. Plot holders here are lucky to be able to plant trees, put up proper fruit cages and knock together buildings in which you could happily spend an entire weekend. In his time at Bushy Park, Cleve had built four sheds, each of them with a distinct and different character, but all smothered in growth and hung with a jackdaw collection of stuff. On one is mounted the long, elegant skull of a deer from Bushy Park that died, smellily, just over the fence from Cleve's territory.
A shed turns an allotment into a place for living, not just for working. And that, says Cleve, is very much what has happened to him and Christine. Their house is only three miles away, but in an urban environment, that still represents a 40-minute walk, a 15-minute bike ride or a 10-minute car journey. They can't just stroll to the plot for half an hour's slug picking. If they go, they want to stay. And so they started cooking there, first on a gas ring in one of the sheds, then in a superb clay oven that they made with the spoil churned up by the installation of a new water main. The guide you need, he says, is Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer.
A strong sense of community emerges as the dominant theme of Cleve's book. Yes, it has plenty of information on how to grow the usual allotment crops. But the most engaging thing about it is the way it celebrates the allotment spirit: tolerance (if possible), humour (Cleve and his friend Simon Sales wrote a TV sitcom based on the Bushy Park site) and a willingness to help out when fellow plot holders are hard-pushed. Cleve's problem is that his working life as a garden designer means that, too often, he's busy on show gardens at a time when his allotment needs him most. Fellow plot holders, David, Henry and Sainsbury's John have all pitched in when necessary to keep his plants watered and the bindweed at bay.
As it happened, Sainsbury's John was the first person I met when I visited. Why Sainsbury's, I asked. "How did you know?" he countered. I knew because of the book, which has pictures of many of Cleve's fellow allotmenteers (it's Sainsbury's, John explains, because he once worked there). Oddly, almost as though Cleve had scripted it, David loomed up too, drawn in by the smell of the coffee that Christine was brewing. Then Henry, Bushy Park's Green Man arrived, unusually effective said Cleve, in getting things sorted out, though not often by the usual route.
So Cleve and Christine, who thought they were taking on an allotment to grow fresh food and get a little closer to the natural world, have found themselves drawn into a kind of family – and that has taken Cleve by surprise. "I don't think of myself as a particularly sociable person. I suppose that is why I wasn't expecting this to happen." But it has and the book celebrates the process.
His chief problem is lack of time. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners estimates that a 5 rod plot (250 square metres) needs at least 200 hours input to keep it reasonably productive. Allotment plots used to be twice that size, but people who have full-time jobs struggle to find even the four hours per week that the NSALG suggests. Young families, Cleve's noticed, are hard-pushed to keep their children happily occupied and do the work that growing food demands. Many new plot holders give up in the first season.
Cleve's second big problem is slugs. He and Christine manage the plot organically, but they are also deeply committed to animal welfare. Most gardeners don't feel too squeamish about despatching a slug, provided it's a quick death. But Cleve doesn't like to kill anything. I understand, absolutely, his aversion to slug pellets, but had a harder time sympathising with his angst on the occasion he fed a three-litre pot of particularly destructive slugs to his neighbour Giuseppe's chickens. The chickens, he says, "almost wet themselves with excitement", but he still feels frustrated that he'd had to resort to killing things. "Just shortening the span of a natural process," I say, hoping to cheer him up. But it doesn't. His convictions are held deep. And that commands respect.
'Our Plot' by Cleve West is published by Frances Lincoln, £20. To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030
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