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David Robbins: The plot thickens as my green fingers are put to shame

We put a good deal of thought into the selection of our allotment plot. We mapped the arc of the sun, tracked the prevailing winds and paced out the distance to the water tap.

Plot 66, we reckoned, was perfect. It's true there was a tree behind us, but it was to the north and wouldn't cast any shade on our seedlings.

With our 80 square metres, we were practically landed gentry. I kept thinking of a stanza from Pope's Ode to Solitude my father was fond of quoting: "Happy the man whose wish and care/A few paternal acres bound,/Happy to breathe his native air/In his own ground."

There was only one blight on our pastoral paradise: the neighbours. To our right was Willie and further away to our left was George. Willie and George. George and Willie. Whatever way you looked at it, they were the best gardeners in the place.

The grand opening of our allotment complex was last week. There was free drink, a pig on a spit, a magician for the kids, speeches and displays of forced rhubarb.

But I couldn't enjoy any of it. People were strolling around the allotments, you see, wine glass in hand, looking at how the different plot-holders had worked their 80 square metres.

They saw our plot. Not bad. Five raised beds. A bit of aspargus, a few rhubarb crowns, some soft fruit. And then they saw Willie's. And then George's. And then they glanced back at ours, and there was a look of pity in their eyes.

In February of last year, we all started together, us, Willie and George. We decided to put in raised beds and fill them with topsoil. Quick, easy and not a lot of digging.

Our neighbour Willie, a builder by trade, decided (on George's advice, mind) to double-dig his plot and then sieve the soil. We thought he was mad.

All through the spring, while we planted our spuds and brassicas, there was Willie, slowly and methodically digging his plot. There was the tinkling sound of each shovelful of soil hitting the wire mesh of his sieve. The nice earth fell through, and the stones stayed out. He carted them by the barrow-load to the corner of the site.

He must have gone down about four feet. He found all sorts of interesting objects: old teeth, coins and bits of metal. But mostly, he found stones.

George, meanwhile, had become the Father of the Allotments in the way William Dorrit becomes the Father of the Marshalsea in Dickens's Little Dorrit. He was a full-time gardener and was generous with his time and advice to all the other allotmenteers

His plot was pretty in an allotment sort of way -- full of found objects and ingenious recycling. He even had a seat and a bird-feeder, and was given to sitting back, lighting up and surveying his domain with a series of contented sighs.

As I was barrowing the five tonnes of topsoil into our raised beds, I noticed something. Willie and George were part of a group of working men who would gather at each other's plot to discuss the finer points of carrot root fly or some other topic of vegetable husbandry.

They looked for all the world like the elders of an ancient tribe, each accorded his space to talk, each respected for his view. They came to the allotments, it seemed to me, as much for these senatorial talks as much as for the gardening.

One day, I saw a group of these working men stooped over something in a remote plot. They reminded me of a scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which a bunch of Steinbeck's dustbowl farmers gather to decide something. They hunker down and draw things in the dirt with sticks. They speak slowly, and listen more than they talk.

Meanwhile, beside us, Willie was catching up. His soil was now the texture of fine tea, black and rich. He planted his veg in neat rows. There wasn't a weed to be seen. His sweetpeas were much admired.

Thanks to all his digging, and the volume of stones he had removed, his plot was now a few inches lower than ours. But his plants grew taller.

Our bought-in topsoil proved wet and heavy to work. We spent more time cutting the grass paths between the beds than we did tending to our vegetables.

One day, our daughter noticed a little bunch of flowers growing in the corner of Willie's plot. Veg wasn't enough of a challenge for him, we groaned. Now he's growing orchids!

"These?" he said, bending and lifting them in one movement. "They're plastic."

drobbins@independent.ie

Indo Review