Paradise lost

Scary giant mutant radish

Study to find the effects of high-stress environments on the growth of domestic radishes

It is a well-known fact that German allotments are an intense environment of competitive gated-community style policing of each other’s plots, enforced with glee by the leathery pensioners who own half of the gardens in the space. Vladimir Kaminer even wrote an entire book of humourous anecdotes about his time as an allotment owner. Either your tree is too close to the fence, or not close enough to the fence, or the square meterage of lawn is insufficient, or the quantity or quality of your barbeque smoke is unacceptable – there is, reputedly, nothing one can do to avoid that moment when your neighbour pops their head up over the hedging to make their latest com(ment/plaint).

Community gardens are different. Over here, as in general, community gardens are open-minded, collaborative spaces, where people join for their love of getting their hands dirty and watching things grow, rather than a love of leylandii and uniform patio paving. The kind of people who join community gardens are warm-hearted, social, overproportionally vegetarian and accept the higgeldy-piggeldiness of a garden’s inherent nature, especially when it is open to the ideas and hands of so many diverse people.

This is what we tell ourselves and each other to avoid acknowledging the truth.

One reason I like to garden is because of the peace and contentedness of quietly taking care of your little leafy habitat. But in my community garden, peace is not an option. Inevitably Klaus (not his real name) will be there, usually preceded by his son who will launch himself screaming through the shrubbery wielding some kind of weapon, immediately hurt himself and then launch himself cry-screaming in the opposite direction.

Klaus himself then makes a beeline for me to give me the lowdown on fifty dozen things, none of which I even vaguely express interest in hearing about. Klaus is a man who inherently puts me on edge because he chooses to accessorise in a way that signals danger to anyone who passes for female: he has a greasy plaited ponytail, a greasy plaited goatee beard (be still, my rising gullet), a jaunty medieval-style jerkin and occasionally tops it all off with a crumpled fedora. Once he has effortlessly broken the ice between us he talks non-stop, mansplaining basic gardening concepts to me and telling me in turns which parts of his veg bed are particularly exceptional and which parts of mine are ugly, badly-maintained or incorrectly planted.

If there is ever a break in the flow because Klaus needs to take his bawling child home or get another beer, Felicia (not her real name, but equally flouncy) will enter the scene without hesitation. Felicia is a local ceramics artist who creeps around the garden in long, flowing dresses and with long, flowing hair, ‘collecting inspiration’ for her work but mostly also just collecting various weeds from our beds to put them on top of bread and butter for her dinner. I know this because she tells me at length, every time I see her, how delicious and visually appealing her latest open-faced weed sandwich has been.

Felicia also makes me nervous because she is a woman of advanced years who is astonishingly naive and has failed to understand the reality we now live in. She does, however, understand favours. She will talk endlessly about ephemeral topics until, suddenly, my vision refocuses and I realise that I am about to agree to do her a ludicrous or borderline physically impossible favour. Once or twice she has nailed me down and I have said yes before I could hold my tongue: she asked me to retouch some art photography she had taken, but was unhappy with the results because in the retouched photos I had failed to create a metallic silver effect on the water like she wanted (no, I don’t know what she’s on about); another time she actually tracked down my phone number and called me in a panic insisting that I, as a computery-type person, track down every mention of her on the internet and delete every trace of her as if she were in some kind of witness protection program and as if I were an expert hacker who could ply the world’s servers with a twitch of a finger. Now that I work for a newspaper, she is certain that she can persuade me to persuade my new colleagues to write an article – an article in our nationally-available, read by millions, extremely high production quality publication – about her and her lumpy pottery. It is exhausting listening to her and running the obstacle course of her various ‘I wonder if you could do something for me…’ ambushes.

And then there is G, who as a veteran gardener is certain of the right way to do everything and highly critical of anyone who does anything the ‘wrong’ way – he will send us about the garden with long lists of tasks, most of which are laborious and/or tortuous – I recall having to chop bundles of stinging nettles with a hatchet, sending thousands of nettle-particles fizzing onto my bare arms in a fiery spray. And then there is J, whose vile son is only two years old but has a high-volume sadistic bent which inspires him to ram toy wheelbarrows into people’s shins while hollering demonically. My personal crime is to construct a tent of netting over my vegetables during harvest season to try to prevent theft; this bothers everyone because it is ugly, and ruins the look of the garden. Almost like planting a tree too close, or not close enough, to the fence. There are so many of us, all getting on each other’s tits all the livelong day.

And then there is the mailing list. A sawn-off shotgun firing red hot kernels of complaint into people’s inboxes when they least expect it. As soon as the buds form on the trees and the frogspawn begins to form, signaling the start of the gardening season, the mailing list begins to sputter into life. Someone complains that their mulch has been scattered onto the path; another grumbles that a well-meaning donation of horse manure on their veg bed has crushed their early salads and they are NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE. Someone has removed a straggly lavender from their bed and the backlash of whinging is immediate: that lavender was years old and was a landmark of the garden, how dare it be discarded! G writes to lament that people are not finely chopping their garden waste for the compost heap, which he feels is simply an act of delinquent laziness.

Recently, one anonymous gardener took the decision to give the brambles in the garden a fairly radical pruning. This to me seemed like a fairly good decision; those brambles have been rampaging forth for years, and now they resemble the kind of terrifying fairy-tale mass of thorns that are meant to keep princesses in custody. The mailing list exploded. Some were shocked and offended that someone could be this destructive; others were scandalised at the idea that this could have been undertaken without checking with the rest of the community; a couple of peacekeepers tried to placate the masses with pleas of ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Some people chimed in apologetically noting that they too had recently pruned things, and they hoped that was okay and they were sorry in advance for any lines they may have crossed. One woman noted with ire that she had pruned one of the bushes conservatively only to find that it had been re-pruned more aggressively the next time she arrived in the garden.

Reading this email chain distend, I think about the stereotypical German allotment that we are Definitively Not. I think about all the times I have attended committee meetings for the garden and felt deeply, spiritually tired listening to the debates about compost sieving and sandpit improvements. I wonder whether this is how the others dreamed it would be: a democracy only insofar as every voice is equally heard as long as that voice has a moaning tenor. I go to my veg bed with trepidation, wondering who will be there to bend my ear while I try to enjoy the fresh green of new seedlings. This is not the peace, nor the escape I wanted. I weed my veg bed with frustration listening to Klaus sat behind me smoking a wonky roll-up cigarette, until the weeds are gone and I can see the kidney shapes of new herb leaves. I carefully water the tiny seedlings, explaining to someone’s grubby child that they will be spring onions in a few weeks. I pick gooseberries and barely notice the vibrations in my pocket as new emails come through the mailing list. I examine my growing crops through the net tent. I pick the first zucchini of the year. Well…who needs peace?

Rose T