Planting, growing, and garden politics.

Alison Swanson is a member of the Executive Committee of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society and gets involved with the rest of the committee in lobbying for allotments and legislative changes to protect allotments. She is a bus driver’s daughter and the first member of her family to go to University. After graduating a long time ago she worked in the area of widening participation and flexible learning. Now she spends most of her free time down the allotment and is flirting with the idea of writing but finds it difficult when the sun shines and the plot is calling.

Twelve years ago I got an allotment. I turned up to meet the allotment association secretary and, being first on the waiting list, I expected to take full possession of the next available plot. When I arrived a middle-aged man in a quilted anorak with a brolly, a belly and a timid wife was walking round my plot proprietorially. Something about the way he walked, shoulders back, filling the space, head turning like one of those oscillating turrets on a tank annoyed me. Call me emotional, irrational even. The secretary who is normally a benign little lady, says “we thought a whole allotment was quite a lot dear, we think you would be happier sharing with Bill here”. Fuck that. Obviously I gave a reasoned argument for why natural justice should prevail. Then I just stared at Bill and Bill knew. Never saw him again.

On day one of my new allotment, my whole allotment, the allotment that was mine, Jimmy appeared. No introduction, nothing. Look at this he says pushing a spade under my nose. Five dead mice were laid out on the spade, shoulder to shoulder neatly in a row. (Do mice have shoulders?) Anyway, the spade was shiny and spotless which says a lot about Jimmy’s character. Jimmy waited for a reaction. As well as the mouse test I passed the earth-moving test and the shovelling manure test but I didn’t pass the common sense test apparently. Jimmy’s a Tory and I’m a socialist. We also don’t agree on Brexit, but he’s gone a bit quiet on the subject recently.

Gordon (ex bank manager, not real name) was fun. After a couple of years on the site I decided to join the committee and became responsible for enforcing the rules. Gordon had made a beautiful job of fencing an allotment. Every timber was the best pressure treated wood, complete with FSC tags. No old pallets and headboards for Gordon. This was top quality thinking man with a wallet’s timber. Gordon obviously saw the fence as his lunar flag but the allotment wasn’t his allotment and this was more than a mere technicality. “There’s a waiting list Gordon.” “But I put up a fence, that fence cost me more than three hundred pounds”. “Well you shouldn’t have erected it.” The funniest thing wasn’t his sense of indignation but his surprise at being told no. A young girl, who was next on the waiting list and the rightful tenant, must have though Christmas came early when she was awarded her own plot complete with Gordon’s beautiful new fence. Happily for Gordon he came to the top of the queue quickly enough and soon got his own allotment and as things turned out his second effort at fencing was even better. This was a truly beautiful fence, a fence to beat all other fences, the Taj Mahal of fences which neighbouring allotmenteers would envy. He was even able to smile about the lost fence under the rationale that the young girl wouldn’t have been able to build one herself. Guess it saved the effort of dismantling it. That’s what you call a ‘win win’ in male middle management speak. I will always have admiration for Gordon’s joinery skills though and perhaps a little sad too. I think he took a wrong turn career wise. Maybe being a joiner just wasn’t an option? Perhaps the banking sector is full of frustrated joiners from middle class homes where their life chances were restricted by parental expectations? We all get on fine now and in fact growing food can be a great leveller, so long as there’s plenty of land.

After three years I’d had enough of the committee and enforcing rules. Rules don’t sit that comfortably with me. Don’t get me wrong we need some rules else there would be chaos but I wanted to get more involved in the actual physical work of growing, digging and planting. My man likes cooking and we have a good thing going where I grow it and he cooks it. So I got another allotment. This space was seriously trashed and overgrown but I wanted the challenge and it suited me. It took six months to dig up the hogweed and level that site. I moved tonnes of earth with a wheelbarrow from the riverbank nearby to fill a long ridge that ran through the middle of the plot and I’m quite pleased with the results.

I wanted a shed on my new allotment. Allotments are historically situated on marginal land, the land that property developers can’t use or spare bits of ground with compromised access between railways and rivers. On the plus side this means allotment holders get to keep their plot, which for many is the nearest they will ever get to having a stake in the land. On the negative side however I have regular floods to deal with. The first flood was actually quite good because it came in gently and left gently depositing a layer of rich nutritious silt feeding the soil. I had the most productive year ever after that particular flood but subsequent floods have been less kind with sheds and any spare wood lying around floating off. You would be surprised what can disappear in the floods. With this in mind my new shed needed to be anchored, rooted firmly to the ground. Unsolicited opinions about this came in thick and fast. Jimmy’s suggestion was the best in principle. His idea was to drill through the flagstones my shed sat on and bolt it to the ground. Only snag in the plan was I needed a big drill and a jenny because there’s no power on the site. In the end I decided to cement three stakes into the ground at three of the four corners to the shed on the edge of the flagstones, drill through the walls and, attach the shed to the stakes. No jenny needed, no cracked flagstones and nothing will shift that shed. The shed and me are staying put. I painted it lilac, for no other reason than to annoy.

There are more women on our allotment site now than ever. It’s probably 50:50 and some time when I feel like it I will do a demographic study. For now though I need to keep my eye on the chair of the committee. In between growing veg she reads Sun Tzu for leisure. Now that’s a really dangerous woman. Its all good and we have a right to be there.


All photos taken by Alison on her allotment and used with permission.