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Chic Sheds and Short Cuts

Allotments are becoming hip - and this is bad news

The Ecologist, July/August 2006

Oh dear. I’ve feared this for a long time; seen its inevitable approach, and the dust clouds it generated on the horizon, but had no idea how to stop it. Now it is upon us: allotments are becoming hip. And this is tremendously bad news.

Don’t get me wrong: allotments becoming popular is great. The more of us the better, and I would encourage anyone to get out there and get digging: that’s why I do this every month. But being hip is not the same thing as being popular. Being hip means that precisely the wrong kind of people are being encouraged to waste our time and theirs mucking about on a plot – with potentially disastrous results.

Again – don’t misunderstand me. I’m not one of these old hairy-eared allotment snobs who looks down his nose at young ‘uns who don’t do things the way they were always done. Bring me diversity, bring me new people and new varieties; just don’t bring me anyone hip. Don’t bring me any young urban coolsters with David Beckham haircuts and bootfit jeans who moisturise twice daily and think they can grow radicchio like Jamie Oliver. It’s just going to end in tears.

The signs are everywhere. I saw the first last year, when it was reported that pop impresario Anthony Wilson had been employed by a company called ‘Elevate East Lancashire’ to come up with some – wait for it – ‘blue sky thinking’ about how to ‘culturally regenerate’ the region. One of their complaints was Lancashire ’s scruffy allotments. ‘ The one reason that allotments usually look shabby is the ramshackle shed that is the centrepiece’ they complained. They suggested their replacement with colourful ‘chic sheds’ created by designer Philippe Starck. Some people laughed, but not nearly enough of them.

More recently, I was flicking through the Guardian’s Weekend magazine – bible of the wannabe urban hipster – when I came across an article entitled ‘The Thirty Minute Vegetable Patch.’ Presented as a guide to growing veg for those who live ‘on the go’ it contained some deeply depressing advice.

‘Any other hobby involves spending money, so why not allotmenting?’ it twittered. ‘It’s often easier to buy a smart new cloche than to construct one from old windows out of a skip.’ Indeed it is. And while you’re at it, don’t waste your precious time actually planting seeds and trying to make them grow: instead ‘buy vegetable plants’ which someone else has grown for you. And ‘don’t have a plot full of onions when you can get a carrier-bagful from the grocer for £1.’ Try some ‘expensive shallots’ instead. That’ll impress them the next time you hold one of those ‘“all from the allotment” dinner parties’.

Well thank God I won’t be on the guest list (not much chance of that now, anyway). This is precisely the sort of thing I go to my allotment to avoid. If I wanted designer buildings, cheap bags of onions and someone else growing my food for me I’d live in Hoxton and shop at Tesco. This is the 24-7-365 mentality of modern consumerism transferred to the bean rows. You don’t have to get dirty, you can still be acceptable to your wine bar-dwelling friends and, best of all, you don’t have to wait for anything. No more getting dirt under your fingernails. No more patiently tending your plants. No more joyous anticipation as they grow, or incomparable pleasure as you bear them home proudly and eat them. You don’t have time for that! And why bother anyway, when you can get them from the shops for a quid?

No, this will not do. Allotments are part of the slow food movement, and proud of it. If you want good food, you have to work for it. You have to get dirty knees and backache and you have to learn from your mistakes. Your shed will be a bit wonky and your coldframe will be made of bits of glass nicked out of skips, and all the better for it. Your allotment is not another extension of modern consumer living – it is the antidote to it. It is slow, steady and the returns it gives you on your effort are real and lasting. It costs time, not money, and the best things it gives you can’t be bought. If you want to be hip, that’s fine with me. But please – do it somewhere else.