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To Each His Own Shovel

Red straightens up. "That's the best part of gardening!" He appraises a strip of dark earth, a fresh and weed-free swath of large, satisfactory clods. Yesterday this ground was lost in an indeterminate wallowing of potato stalks and foliage.


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I know what he means. I've just finished picking my last broad beans. I've disentangled strings. Heaved up stakes. Cut down plants. Yanked out roots. Gathered up straggling weeds. Virtually doubled the compost heap.

Then with methodical zest I've dug over the whole wide row. "Ah. Yes. Earth. I remember. Good to see you again!" This reappearance of the ground is an end-of-season pleasure greatly relished by gardeners. A return to simplicity and essence.

Big Ted's comment, when I told him I was only half satisfied with my plot this year, was: "Don't worry, in the winter it'll look just like everyone else's."

A rectangle of soil. What could be better?

I have a couple of old books about allotment gardening (and one or two recent ones). One was published in 1940: "How to Run an Allotment"; the other, "The Kingsway Book of the Allotment," about 1917. The tenor of these books indicates the serious nature of allotments during two world wars: thousands digging for victory. The books are full of "how-to" advice - clearly aimed at people who have never had a spade, fork, or hoe in their grasp before.

By contrast, a 1982 book by TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh describes some of the uses of spades and forks, but gives no advice at all on handling them. Overt didacticism is hardly in keeping with the period.

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But the two early books are unashamedly didactic. Both describe, for example, in five and six stages respectively, "The Correct Method of Digging."

I have a special affection for Stage 3 in the first book. It says that after you've lifted the spade "vertically into the air" and brought it "smartly downwards" to drive it into the soil, you must: "Place the left foot on the left shoulder of the blade and bring both hands to the handle ... then, springing forward, throw the whole weight of the body onto the left foot."

In the second book, you are similarly advised to "lever up the spadeful of earth" by "throwing the whole weight of your body backwards." All the various stages of digging in both books are much involved with throwing your weight about, springing, swaying, sliding, twisting. It is all furiously choreographic. I had a sudden dream-vision of our 70 plot-holders simultaneously doing their morning's digging.

Dig-dig, dig-dig. In grand, heroic unison to Beethoven by loudspeaker (the Pastoral Symphony, presumably), they lurch forward and backward, bodies undulant like wave-buoyed porpoises. Maybe they sing along. All that's wanted to make the affair complete is a Soviet artist of the socialist-realist school celebrating it in a vast painting.

What vision could be more appalling? To me, the whole glory of allotments is freedom of idiosyncratic expression. Here, no one need conform.

I told Bob about the old instructions. "Oh," he grunted, "that stuff is for people where the escalator doesn't go right to the top. Everyone finds his own way of digging." He's right. I've been digging for years with my right foot.

There is, on the other hand, this observation from a book called "How to Grow Food": "Not any fool can dig."

To which one can only reply: "Oh, yeah? Just watch me!"

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