“In this garden the most surprising transplant has turned out to be myself.”
Ever since Sarah first took it on as a bedraggled challenge of an allotment plot over 20 years ago now I’ve been no more than an occasional visitor as Sarah, with some help but mostly not from me, turned her patch of forlorn earth into a garden. My involvement in her place increased a few years ago when she decided to give the far end of the plot back to the City Council for them to rent out to someone else, and then replan the half she was left with. It was then I came and helped with the physical reshaping of it. Up to my knees in mud and taproots sometimes, as her over abundant exotic grasses were removed to make space for what we’ve eventually done. Though even then it was so much Sarah’s plot still that I didn’t yet have my own key.
The key came not very long before the pandemic did, as my help with the reconstruction work turned me into someone at least competent enough to be turning up on my own sometimes for slightly more skilled garden activities than the intense reading and listening to music that had previously been my limit. Though even then the key would only be used on most Sundays or during Sarah’s longer absences sea kayaking in Anglesey or the Outer Hebrides. When I’d still do little more than strimming and some basic weeding, before I’d take my book out of my bag and get on with what I was really here for.
Until time passed and I’m here in the garden now as I mostly have been, at Sarah’s invitation and suggestion, ever since the Covid lockdowns changed the shapes of all of our lives. Today I’m here on my own planting up a whole new bed of plants as if I know what I’m doing. Which I do now, to my intense joy and fulfilment, having been successfully trained by Sarah and transplanted by her into being at home and also useful here in this garden.
This idea of transplanting has come to me through my university work on utopias. Where I’ve been introduced to an anthropologist and gardener called Marilyn Strathern, and her habit of transplanting knowledge and theories from one academic field to see if it might take in another. I’ve used her idea here in a piece of my own work, where I’ve tested out what some philosophers more at home in history and other disciplines might make of utopianism and the possible future uses it might have.
“In her work as an anthropologist Marilyn Strathern often uses gardening metaphors. Getting her hands dirty, being surprised at what takes and about the cross-disciplined sociability of theories, much like Darwin’s sociable plants in ‘Origin of Species’. So I want to use her approach and metaphorical gardening tools to go back through what I’ve been thinking and writing about utopianism. Broadly considering the shadow question that’s been in my mind all through this chapter. The question of whether utopianism is still a useful concept for the future, or is it largely played out now? I want to see what bounces back from my group of theorists, see what takes, and give myself some time to garden my thoughts.”
And some of all this has ‘taken’ in Strathernian terms, and added to my own academic understanding. Much the same, to further stretch the analogy, as I have to gardening this allotment. For so long a place that was simply not my environment. And now here I am, completely at home in a garden where the most surprising transplant has turned out to be myself.
All of which is quite enough tangential philosophy for one blog post. What I’ve written here being in its way a tangent to my own academic work and perhaps not to be written up in what I’ll finally produce. But I’m including it on here anyway in The section of the website where I keep my academic fieldnotes. Because tangents can often point my thinking into a new direction that I’ll turn out to be glad to have taken. Much as I am glad to have taken this unexpected tangent into becoming a trainee gardener. Here at the school of Sarah where I can now do project such as today’s on my own.
So anyway, today’s main job is to put all the plants Sarah and I bought yesterday from Port Sunlight garden centre into the ground. They’re going into the back part of the allotment, nearest to the magnolia tree. So partly shady, but mostly not. Though now, as I get started, with Sarah Walker on BBC Radio 3 beside me, it’s a cloudy day. Perfect then for a late morning into afternoon’s careful planting.
Two hours later, and everything’s in the ground. Watered, fed and tidied up. And I’m sat down with some coffee to listen to the rest of Sarah Walker. Somewhere in my coming and going for fresh water, the bluetooth had come untethered from the speaker, I hadn’t noticed and so had worked on in silence. Engrossed as I’ve so much been in my methodical planting. And yes, there was a method to the doing of this. Not unlike one of my methods of doing the PhD work that I’ve done here since the university closed to me early last year.
Here today I’d decided on my work, my purpose, my tools and at least an outline of the method I’d use. All so the actual planting of the twenty eight plants Sarah and I selected yesterday would be carefully and, I hope, successfully done. So they’d transplant successfully from the nursery pots they’ve lived in ’til now, to this end part of our garden. My aim and field of work and purpose for today.
Here’s the method I used:
All the plants, placed in their approximate locations by Sarah and I when we brought them here yesterday had been watered and fed for their first overnight stay.
Starting this morning, I decided to work from one corner of the bed, then anticlockwise all the way round it. From places where I could always reach in from the edge and work on the few plants I could most easily reach and place from each of about half a dozen kneeling points.
I’d place the first then the next of the three or four plants to be worked on from each point into the yellow bucket next to me for a drink of water while I’m digging the holes, middle of the bed first, so I’m not reaching past what I’ve just planted.
As each plant is taken out of the water and before it’s placed in the hole just dug, I’d untangle its roots a bit so they’ll more easily start reaching down into their new soil once planted.
Then each plant in turn is packed down and watered from the watering can also at my side, which has had some seaweed plant food added to it.
Repeated then until done, all the way round.
And of course it’s like a meditation, is this method. Where the water, the soil, the roots, the plants and the equipment all come together in my hands to create a new piece of our garden. Losing the music along the way as I said, but never my focus on the plants and the soil. One plant, a Hidcote white lavender, ended up somewhere other than in the new bed, as Head Gardner Sarah had suggested it might need to. But other than that, and including ten little Golden Thyme, I’ve done what I wanted and planted up twenty seven new plants in the back bed of our allotment. Hoping all of them will take. Realising of course that they might not. As with Marilyn Strathearn and her transplanting between academic disciplines idea, not everything does work. But working on it carefully and methodically, as I’ve found with my own utopian and activism thinking, gives you the best chance of eventually finding some success with what you’re trying to achieve. Though like with any other kind of thinking the weeks to come will show how well my work here today has worked. (At which point I’ll add another photograph to the end of this article.)
For now I’ll do the final tidying up and putting away, so the allotment’s ready to be a university campus as well as a garden for my friend Abi and I to work at this week, like we always do, in a kind of utopia.
And when I come back in the morning, I’ll be doing the watering and other everyday maintenance I always do before my day of university work and later on Granby volunteering get going. Because that’s how gardening works. It’s an every day kind of thing.
This and my previous post “Blue” are now also part of my collection of PhD fieldnotes here.