Cleve West: Working on the allotment can be creative

imageHe won Best in Show for the Telegraph at Chelsea this year, but as Cleve West explains in his new book, ‘Our Plot’, working on his ramshackle allotment can be just as creative

You don’t need to be a designer to express yourself on an allotment. The very ramshackle nature of recycling, improvising and modifying means the plot is a natural canvas and inspiration for creativity. Decay in all its forms is more acceptable on an allotment than in a garden. Rotting wood, rusting metal, moss, lichen and fungi are not just the natural ingredients, they are the stars of the show.

There are no restrictions on materials at an allotment. Plastic, glass, toys, household objects and all sorts of rubbish have their own peculiar charm with the power to become a vignette of the life and character of the plot-holder. It’s this that makes them so appealing.

No judges, no press, no pressure to adhere to convention mean that, aside from neglecting it completely and risking a letter from the council, from a designer’s perspective an allotment is a bit like (ahem) vegging-out. Even when members of the Garden Museum came to visit in summer, there were no anxious moments spent rushing around trying to make things presentable. Everything is as it is according to the amount of time you’ve had to spend on it that week.

It may sound sad, but I don’t think I could survive at the plot without a shed. The fact that I am currently building my fourth is, even in my book, a little excessive but there’s a philanthropic logic behind it. With allotments being in such demand, our local council has taken to dividing up any 10-rod plots that become vacant.

With all the work we have put in over the years, I am loath to give up our plot without a fight, but when we do part company and the council comes to carve up the rods, each plot will have its own shed and one will have a shed and a greenhouse.

“Sheddism” is traditionally a bloke thing, but I think that’s only because allotments have been their domain for so long. If I had control of the allotments I would ban prefabricated sheds and urge people to make their own. Even those who don’t know much about building should coerce a friend into helping them create something that adds a bit more personality to the place, rather than orange, larch-lap boxes of mediocrity.

Building a shed is cathartic and best done over the winter so that you are not continuously battling your conscience over other things you should be doing. For me, winter at the allotment is as enjoyable as summer, if not more so. Being less busy, there is more time to feel at one with the place.

Each of our sheds has a green roof. They were originally planted with grasses and houseleeks but we eventually chose the more drought-tolerant stonecrop (Sedum acre), which only needs watering after a month of drought.

The Wonky Shed, built during our first year at the plot, was not only a useful distraction from the fact that we hadn’t a clue when it came to growing food, but its daft shape set the tone for future activities. It certainly added a lighter note to the place, but the fact that it was placed at 45 degrees led to an awkward, shady space behind it that was impractical.

This area eventually became a small ditch-like pond with a bridge that teeters just on the acceptable side of tweeness but is a useful refuge for amphibians, ducks and young children. All we had succeeded in doing was announcing to other members of Bushy Park Allotment Association that here were newcomers with absolutely no idea how to go about growing vegetables.

It used to store all our tools but now houses all the things that we thought might be useful for the allotment (drawers, chairs, scraps of wood, metal) that we can’t bring ourselves to throw away, and it’s consequently stuffed to a point where opening the door involves evacuating at least two neighbouring plots so people aren’t injured from the fallout.

A rabbit burrow under this shed makes good use of a secret chamber originally made to store valuables, but abandoned when we realised that, aside from the dog, we didn’t really having anything of value to store.

The Tool Shed was built on our second plot during a tedious bout of theft. Tools were being nicked during the night on a regular basis and so leaving anything of worth overnight became a serious risk. A shed without windows seemed to be the obvious solution and again I used as much reclaimed lumber as possible.

Complete with loft space for nesting birds, it looks a bit like a gun tower and makes a fine backdrop for an espaliered ‘Conference’ pear.

A few weeks after I’d finished building the Tool Shed, I arrived at the plot to find that many of the neighbouring sheds had been upended and all the contents removed from underneath. Ours, the sole witness to the carnage, stood untouched like a brooding sentinel.

The Potting Shed is bigger than what might be considered allowable on an allotment, but it was built on the footprint of an old structure that we found on clearing the two plots behind us, so I figured it was OK.

A sink filled with compost and some shelving afford us the luxury of potting up in comfort while standing.

Due to its location at the back of the plot where we gather and eat, it has taken over from the Wonky Shed as the hub and doubles as a makeshift kitchen. The door to this shed was a souvenir from the BBC programme Small Town Gardens, and it, too, sports a green roof.

Lately we have made balls of muehlenbeckia prunings from our garden at home and placed them on the roof to detract from its slightly slapdash construction.

The Fourth Shed currently has no name and lies on the other side of the stream behind the greenhouse. Garden designer Tony Smith has persuaded me to consider decorating it with artificial grass and now calls me Cleve “Foursheds” West.

The hearth of the matter

Without doubt, the most exciting project we’ve ever undertaken at the plot has been building an earth oven. Over the years we have taken to spending whole days at the plot and cooking proper meals there. At home, bread-making has become part of our weekly routine, so it made sense to combine the two.

The idea came when new water mains were laid in the winter of 2008–09. Although pleased to have water on tap close to our plots, a few plot-holders were a little grumpy when clay from the trenches turned paths into quagmires.

One of them, “Sainsbury’s” John, positive as ever, saw this as an opportunity and made a prototype oven by moulding clay around bags of gravel. We tested it by baking bread and pizza to celebrate his birthday and I knew instantly that I had to build one of my own.

Soon a large bag of puddling clay, left over from a pond project, found its way to the plot. There it sat for months while I thought about the best way of siting and building the oven.

Eventually, I found the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and spent a month or so absorbing it, before making a start in the late winter of 2009.

Bricks and hardcore at the plot were used to make the base. The clay, mixed with sharp sand, did the job for the first layer of the dome and subsoil from the site itself was dug for the insulation layers. The process tickled my primitive synapses; it was completely absorbing and satisfying.

My late mother helped mix and make the first layer of clay, which elevates its importance. It now stands not just as a hearth to draw people but also as a memorial to her and a symbol of honest hard work.

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