Catherine Thomas

In November of last year we acquired our first (half) allotment. Two Landscape Architects with no garden pined for evening sun, chattering birds, the smell of earth, patio barbecues.

Our little slice of wilderness was sleepy with winter but full with promise of brambles and teasels and bindweed.

We began to plan and design our plot just as we might any other public space or commissioned garden. We studied the hedgerow on our western  boundary; its heritage as a field boundary on 19th century maps. We studied the views out across Tesco, Brislington and to distant rural hills; the allotment’s gently sloping topography; where to pencil out our spaces to sit and enjoy the vista. We studied the existing structure: the small teal shed, chicken coop, makeshift shower-door cold frame, and two thistle-filled baths. These objects (some immovable, others not) gave us our three dimensional structure. We studied the sun’s aspect, the prevailing wind, and the microclimates of shelter beside the shed and hedgerow; our planting beds and where the camping chairs might go started to be drafted up. We spoke to neighbours who shared their knowledge of the soil and it’s favoured crops. We began to choose a palette of plants: annuals and perennials; vegetables and flowers; plants to remind us of grandparents; fruits we could never find in the shop.

Whilst we drew out our layout, rooted up brambles, plotted paths and dug out levels through the winter, it struck me how the allotment’s human community – like the ruderals – had also fallen asleep. They waited for the thrill of seed potato day in March. Our community instead was ecological. The blackbirds, robins, song thrushes and blue tits coaxed courting calls in February. Ravens coasted overhead croaking. The blackthorn quietly budded and speedwells blossomed between the turf. A smooth newt escaped our re-levelling and digging. Whole worlds of yellow meadow ants protested at being dug up (I apologised). The pond we had found under a mat of grass greeted the frogspawn in March. The local foxes made a timetable to trot past casually.

With the number of urban dwellers forecast to increase substantially over the next century, and with small and medium towns expected to take a large proportion of this growth[1], the need for urbanised populations to connect with their natural surroundings grows pressing.

The ability of intimate green spaces to connect a person to their natural world – wild natural processes – is extremely important. As a Landscape Architect, always dealing ‘with the push and pull of nature and human development’[2], it is so exciting to me that this connection is possible even on the micro scale of an allotment.

It seems essential that an increasingly urban (and suburban) population should occasionally glimpse a world they do not inhabit: one that runs independently to and sometimes subversively against neat and orderly controls. A universal process; something greater than oneself; that is continually moving and changing. The connectedness of nature is a comforting experience that is central to wild nature’s relationship to human wellbeing.

Urban encounters with the wild – whether that be through gardens, allotments, parks or even waste ground – are a heightened version of the sublime, ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’[3] – an experience associated with romanticism and wilderness. Where encounters with the sublime mountains and canyons of the 18th and 19th centuries were rooted in the majesty of huge scale, remoteness, and a connection with an almighty god, encounters with the modern sublime can lie in a sudden personal encounter with unexpected wildness. For an average suburbanite, this could be through a glimpsed view into some accidental brownfield meadow, or a chance meeting with an urban deer; ‘the imagination does the travelling’[4]. For those of us who are lucky enough to be able to interact with our own or a community garden, it is the sublime feeling of something ‘other’ and more permanent than ourselves that is key.

And so, when we did come across our fellow allotmenteers, they ruminated on the resolve of the badgers and slugs, or awed over swooping buzzards overhead.

The wild community, though often ephemeral in its characters, feels equally as beneficent as a human community; because with your fingernails soil-encrusted and having learnt the familiar call of the dunnock, you are as much a part of it as anything else. When we consider the wellbeing that our gardens and public green spaces afford us, we should remember – as well as the plotting, planning and controlling – to let the wild in.

[1] Simson, A. (2016). Benefits that trees can bring to urban futures. 4 Mar., Landscape Institute Conference, University of Sheffield

[2] Landscape Institute (2018). About.


Landscapeinstitute.org. Available at: https://www.landscapeinstitute.org/about/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2019].

[3] Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. 2nd ed. [ebook] Project Gutenberg, pp.67-262.

[4] Farley, P. and Roberts, M. (2012). Edgelands: journeys into england’s true wilderness. London: Vintage.

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