Patch perfect: A book about Britain's allotment holders challenges traditional notions of cool


Cool's become watered down. Once upon a time it meant Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Serge Gainsbourg… In 2013, cool is everywhere, and thus, rather less meaningful. If I Google "cool" now, the number-one result is "Cool Math Games". Ahem.

The dissipation of "cool" means the term can now be applied with impunity to formerly non-cool items such as beach huts, baking and appliqué cushions in the shape of dogs. And it's becoming self-reinforcing. If you see a book about "cool" cupcakes, you can bet there will also be a lot of Cath Kidston and beach barbecues in it. Now look, I'm not averse to a bit of Cath Kidston, or camper vans, come to think of it, but One Direction and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront are not compatible visions of cool.

So with all of these ideas in my head, I spoke to Lia Leendertz. A trained gardener and passionate grower, she has channelled her love of communal veg plots into several lovely books, including her most recent, My Cool Allotment (£14.99, Pavilion). Fortunately, she's one of those people whose slightly Frenchy chic might actually qualify her to judge the issue. The first time I met her, she was wearing a seductively jaunty pale-green wool sequinned beret, worn at an angle.

"Ah yes, that was a good hat, wasn't it?" Leendertz says wistfully, as I remind her. She's one of Bristol's gentlest inhabitants, verging on shy, with a tendency to start laughing with unexpected enthusiasm, and a nice line in stylish accessories. But get her on the subject of allotments being taken over by developers for building, and she'll definitely get cross. "Pretty ranty," in fact, is how she puts it herself.

Particularly when the occupants of fine old sites with well-cultivated soil are evicted and (following the law) are offered new plots elsewhere, often at a substantial distance. "Allotments are as much a part of our heritage as any other landscape," she says. "Most are well over 100 years old, yet there's this idea that you can provide a 'replacement site' on some crap bit of out-of-town land and that's the same thing."

The allotments she writes about in her most recent book aren't cool in the sense that you might think. There's not a Cath Kidston peg bag to be seen. Instead, these are real gardeners making Britain beautiful. There's one allotment in the book, aflame with dahlias, that has been owned by the same family for 65 years.

For Leendertz, this was the joy of writing the book. "From the real old boys doing things in the old-fashioned way, to people who'd moved to this country from somewhere else and are growing the food they miss – I came away with something different from every single allotment. I went to see a woman called Rachel Baker and she'd grown loads of unusual fruit especially so she could make beautiful jam out of it and sell it. It just made me want to do the same."

With photographer Mark Diacono, she searched out the most interesting, inspiring allotment holders, and spent much of the 2012 growing season going to meet them. "It was supposed to be a very simple celebration of allotments – it's not complicated, it's not trying to tell you how to do anything, it's just taking really beautiful examples, and saying look at this. All these different people have done something so different within the exact same plot of land."

So having met all these fantastic people, did she change anything about her own allotment? "Ah," she laughs. "I'm going to grow more flowers. I'm quite keen to grow a lot more edible flowers, and make my plot more pretty. Especially zinnias; I really like zinnias. I think I love that kind of Mexican palette generally in life."

And did she have a favourite? She thinks a moment more. "Actually, I thought Cleve West's allotment was really wonderful." A multiple Chelsea Gold-medal winner, West has an allotment to the far west of London where he spends much of his free time. "He's painted every bit of wood black and it's given the whole plot this visual identity," Leendertz elaborates. "It's a very light touch but it works. You can tell he's a garden designer," she says, with a chuckle. So no floral retro radios, just paint it all black? Now that's cool.