Happy and Grubby in the Garden

Allotment in the Wirral, UK
Drone view of allotment in the Wirral, UK (Phil Kiel: Unsplash)

I suspect former neighbors laughed from behind half-drawn curtains: “There’s a weird gardener next door who toils in the midday sun.” But I didn’t care, wearing my green hat with pride and careless if anyone thinks I’m a throwback to rustic ancestors.

Most people had a vegetable plot before the Industrial Revolution sucked them into grey cities. In medieval times, the manor divvied out strips of land for serfs to cultivate. It wasn’t gardening for recreation. Each acre provided crops to feed a family member, mostly in grains and legumes, and no space for daffs and mums in hunger times.

After the collapse of feudalism and expansion of urban living, people lost their country gardens. The prosperity that later nourished expansion of suburbs provided smaller plots, mostly for recreation and never intended for subsistence. Victory Gardens were a brief exception, but after World War 2 the loam mostly returned to lawns and flower beds. Developers earned more profit from larger houses on smaller lots. Gardens mostly served as curbside appeal.

The retreat from gardening in the 1950s and 60s was like the withdrawal from music-making around the family piano in the parlor. People had more options than grubbing in the yard on weekends or after work, while TV and record-players replaced the playing of instruments at home. Although both accomplished amateurs, our parents never made music when we were growing up. We had no pressure to learn, and our fine piano formerly played by professionals at the BBC was given away. No one thought it odd because that was the fashion and ‘progressive.’

So many pianos became redundant that piano smashing contests were held at English village fetes. Instead of fingers playing melodies of Liszt and Chopin, sledgehammers rang down on busted springs and shattered keyboards. Years later, I noticed more children having music lessons and heard it was hard to find a cheap second-hand piano. Something counted as redundant in one era may become appreciated again in another, like antique chamber pots that also went under the hammer and now prized as dainty flowerpots or for fragrant pot-pourri.

Gardening has also become resurgent, driven by appetites to grow-your-own organic food and maybe encouraged during lockdown in the pandemic. But the smaller gardens boast timid ambitions that end at the neighbor’s fence, and people in city blocks have no green space to call their own. That’s a pity when the benefits of gardening for physical and mental health are appreciated more than ever.

Some people enjoy community gardens that exist in many countries, although the distribution is spotty and only benefits the neighborhood. In Britain they are called allotments. Each lot is rented from the council by a local resident in a relationship you might call an update on lord of the manor versus serf!

Unfortunately, 80% of allotments disappeared in the past century by turning green space into concrete and asphalt. The recent upsurge in demand for them is unsatisfied. Waiting lists crawl as occupiers cling to their space until death or a job move parts them.

Turf wars spring up when councils want to sell the land for a pet project or to developers. The ranks of protesters who proclaim rights to the bounty of open land and take the moral high ground for a locavore diet are (maybe) the first signs of a peasants rebellion since 1381.

Councils look to their supporters. Some citizens regard ragged rows of crops in allotments as eyesores and don’t understand gardeners passionately gossiping about their brassicas over cups of tea in tumbledown sheds. But society’s divisions can be healed and suspicions overcome through peace offerings. My neighbors never gave a strange look again after I offered fresh, home-grown vegetables and honey.

Next Post: Eastern Bluebird

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