allotment-gardening

Ten years ago my mum died and I made a life-changing decision to keep the family home, as a second home. I had always loved the big garden, laid out so carefully nearly 70 years ago by my dad and added to subsequently by my mum, and now me. There was a big vegetable plot and the soil is wonderful.

But …. I already had three allotments. After over 20 years of allotmenting, on two different sites, I decided I would have to relinquish them. It was a big wrench but there is a limit to how much produce you need, not to mention time. I’m glad to say that my links with allotments didn’t end completely though – read on to find out more.

So, you’ve made that decision that you would like an allotment. In this article you can learn more about how to go about getting one, some of the issues to think about, and then some suggestions on what to do with your plot, not to mention all that produce!

What’s so special about an allotment as opposed to a garden?

People generally assume that allotments are all about self-sufficiency, ‘the good life’, producing all the vegetables and maybe fruit that you possibly need. And yes of course you can do all of that. You can grow flowers too. If you have a big enough garden at home you could do all of that without having to leave your own property.

But the joy of an allotment is that you have to go to it. You can leave the computer, phone and TV behind, and just dedicate your time to getting on with whatever needs doing on your plot. If you’ve got a bit behind with keeping the allotment tidy, then if you don’t go, you don’t have to look at it every day.

But for many the real joy of an allotment as opposed to being in your own garden, is the social aspect, being part of a community of like-minded people – being able to ask advice, or give it, or maybe swap produce. Some of the bigger allotment sites may even have a communal shed or area where folk can gather and just chat.

More and more young families are taking on allotments, giving their children a specific part of the plot where they can get their hands dirty and start growing their own crops. You are never too young – or old – to start!

How to apply for an allotment?

This will depend on where you live, how many allotments are available, and whether or not there is a waiting list in operation, and how long that waiting list is. Many allotment sites are run by local councils, some by local trusts. You generally need to live in the area where the allotment is located to qualify. The Government website provides a useful postcode lookup, to direct your to local council's allotment information.

When I first decided I wanted to take on an allotment I used to drive around to see where they were. Once you start looking its amazing how many allotment sites you find – those blue water butts are a bit of a give away, but there might also be a range of slightly ramshackle sheds. Then, of course, you might notice lots of really well-tended plots.

Word of mouth is often a good way to find a plot. If you already know someone with an allotment, let them know you are interested in taking one on. While some sites might be oversubscribed, others might be desperate for new folk to take on plots.

Commitment

How did I end up with three plots?

By accident is the simple answer! I gave up my original plot after some years because there were too many empty plots all around. Rubbish was accumulating, weeds proliferating, dandelion seeds spreading like crazy, and I rather missed neighbours.

My second allotment site was smaller, in the next village, and a really nice well-tended site, with all allotments taken. None of the problems of the original site. I took on just one full-sized plot originally. I really love digging and clearing an allotment. Planting seeds and harvesting has less appeal. Fortunately, my partner loves planting and harvesting and hates digging, so division of labour worked well.

Having cracked the initial plot, I realized that my neighbour on the next plot was struggling, so offered to take on half his plot. And then the same thing happened again and I took on the next one! There was plenty of scope for keeping active and certainly more than enough space for growing crops.

Benefits of allotment gardening

Depending on where your plot is you might find yourself in a beautifully peaceful spot, surrounded by fields. My first plot was in the city and every Friday we heard the call to prayer from the local mosque, but that in itself was quite atmospheric.

Allotments are not expensive and it is a fabulous way to exercise and keep fit, and be out in the fresh air, and get to meet folk.

Whereas gardening can be a solitary experience, you will always have neighbours on the allotment.

And then there is the satisfaction of growing crops from scratch – either seed or purchased plants. Maybe the idea of becoming almost self-sufficient isn’t just a pipe dream.

It is highly likely that you will end up with surplus produce of one sort or another. Plant six courgette plants in case they don’t all survive and inevitably they will, producing courgettes galore, or marrows if you don’t get there often enough to harvest when they are small.

But there is a real joy in being able to give produce away to family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues. When I was still at work I would take in a large wicker basket full of produce every Monday morning and just leave it for anyone to help themselves. My colleagues loved it!

I had a neighbour who loved runner beans. She got a plentiful supply all through the season. In return at Christmas I got a lovely present of a box of chocolate truffles from “The Bean Appreciation Society” – a great arrangement!

Allotment ideas and planning

You might have inherited a beautifully laid out plot, with the various beds all nicely marked out, maybe even with a bit of lawn beside a nice shed. If you haven’t, and are taking on a plot that is just a big open space, think about how you want to divide it up.

Maybe put in some paths to break up the area, giving you smaller areas to dig, shorter rows, and ease of access to your crops. Paths can be made up of slabs beautifully laid, or some that are a bit more spaced out, to form something like stepping stones. Or you might have access to bark chippings, in which case they form a nice path, though it is handy to put in some kind of edging to contain the chippings.

Do you want to keep the beds at ground level, or would you prefer to create raised beds? These are usually smaller beds edged with railway sleepers or similar. They are not necessarily particularly high, but the edging sleepers do mean that the soil in the bed is contained and, depending on the height of the sides, you can fill up with good quality soil or compost. This makes gardening so much easier, particularly if the basic soil on the plot is not good. It is also handy if bending is not quite as easy as it used to be.

It is really important to think about how you want your allotment to look. Rows and rows of very neat vegetables? A soft fruit area? Flowers in one particular area, or perhaps bordering the paths. I always liked to plant lavender along my paths. It flowers for months on end, smells beautiful, and is great for attracting bees. Nasturtiums are a pretty flower, with the benefit of the fact that you can add them to salads and eat them. They can take over though.

It is a good idea to rotate your crops so that you aren’t always growing the same crops in the same spot each year. Peas and beans on part of the plot one year, the next year maybe root veg, such as carrots or beetroot, and then maybe courgettes or summer flowers another time. And if you want to rest part of it, maybe just grow quick salad crops or herbs that you can harvest. See this link for a great article on Growing Herbs.

If you are a lover of asparagus, then there is nothing better than cutting your own. But that is more of a long-term crop and your asparagus bed will be a permanent feature on the plot, and it is a relatively short season.

If the rules allow you to plant a fruit tree, and you’re in for the long-term on your plot, then a Conference Pear or a Victoria Plum are ideal. Both are self-fertilising so you only need one of each – handy if you don’t have too much space.

Make sure you have room for compost. You don’t need a fancy bin, you often see them made out of wooden pallets tied together. Be careful with what you put in, a mix of green (grass, leafy plants, etc), some finer woody twigs will break down, cut flowers etc. Avoid pernicious weeds. And it is actually useful to have two compost bins on the go, so one can be built up, then covered for the winter to rot down, while you are filling the other. If you are patient and leave it long enough, you will have some great compost that is a joy to handle.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Grow different kinds of lettuce or salad crops; if you’ve only ever had the purple coloured beetroot, maybe try a golden one; if you’ve never had home-grown potatoes, try planting some new ones for a start. One allotment neighbour decided he was going to try and grow licquorice. I love it when I buy it from the sweet shop. It had never occurred to me to grow it. Children love growing squash, pumpkins or gourds – the latter being purely for decoration but they are so easy to grow and come in all shapes and sizes.

Lessons learned

When I took on my first, horribly overgrown, allotment, I was really keen. I cleared a patch of soil and decided I would clear a bit and plant it, rather than trying to clear the whole lot. I put in several rows of lettuce plants I had purchased and felt very proud of my day one progress. When I returned on day two, all that was left of my lettuce plants were spindly stalks. The pigeons had eaten the lot! Lesson learned – bird scarers!

The soil on my first plot was not bad, partly because it hadn’t been cultivated for some time. Nonetheless I decided it would benefit from some manure. So my partner bought me a tractor load of manure for Christmas. A true romantic, he even put a sprig of holly on the top! The problem was I wasn’t there when it was delivered and it was dropped on the neighbour’s plot. I spent much of Christmas moving barrow loads of manure on to my plot. A great way to burn up those excess Christmas calories!

I had never heard of mare’s tail. I later discovered it is one of those perennial weeds that you can never really get rid of. Someone jokingly told me that the roots go down almost to Australia. My second lot of allotments had loads of it. I eventually gave up trying to dig it out and just learnt to work round it!

Allotmenting can sometimes seem a bit competitive. You feel you are doing incredibly well and then you start to look around at other people’s plots – more productive, bigger crops, barely a weed in sight. Usually it’s the result of a neighbour putting in a lot more time. Stop worrying and just focus on, and enjoy, your plot!

With three plots I didn’t need to cultivate the land very intensively. And then I went to China on holiday. Every roadside, every square inch of arable land, seemed to be growing cabbages. I felt guilty about the fact that I should be making more use of the space and could be growing more, and so I did.

These days the vast majority of people have a deep freeze so you do have the option to freeze surplus produce. (Some readers will probably remember the days when fruit was preserved in Kilner jars.) Trial and error will show you which work best. In a good season you may well be drowning in runner beans. They don’t freeze terribly well, best to give them away fresh. Peas freeze well, but mine never even get to the stage of coming into the house. To my mind, peas should be eaten straight from the pod, preferably in the garden so the pods can go straight into the compost bin.

Local characters

Over the years we have got to know some amazing ‘allotment characters’, all with a shared passion for their plot, but very different in many ways.

I used to work with someone who always weighed his harvest. Every day he would come in to the office, reciting how many pounds of beans or potatoes he had harvested, or how many jars of green tomato chutney he had made.

Then there was the man who gave over much of his plot to growing red currants. He put so many barrow loads of manure on them that he was producing currants the size of grapes! We always wondered what he did with them.

Another, newly retired, arrived promptly at his plot at 9am each morning, went home for an hour at lunchtime, and then returned until 5pm. Needless to say, with all that time put in, his plot would have won the best allotment prize hands down. The amount of produce he grew was incredible. I did wonder if he was selling some of it to the local shop.

And everything was recorded on a spreadsheet – dates of planting, position on the site, what the weather was, and ultimately what the harvest was. I think he was struggling to relinquish work mode!

My uncle was an avid allotmenter. He had two plots. One of his passions was growing dahlias and chrysanthemums (two traditional allotment flowers) and he gave them all away to the local church or to local residents. He actually died in his shed on his allotment – there was probably no better place.

How I nearly took on another plot

Having relinquished my three plots to focus on my big garden at my second home, I certainly didn’t need another allotment. I then found myself, however, involved with a charitable trust, which had inherited some allotments.

My real reason for involvement was not so much the historic interest of the site, though it was amazing, but in ensuring the allotments were preserved for the future. It was quite a struggle and took quite a long time but that I managed to do. Job done really.

It was a small site, the setting was utterly stunning, the soil wonderful, and there were half plots available. The other allotment holders tried very hard to persuade me to take on a plot. I was so tempted.

Common sense prevailed in the end. I realized I didn’t have the time and certainly didn’t need to be growing any more produce. But it was a very near miss. If allotments are in your blood, its hard to give up.


Author: Sue Ablett

Sue has had a varied career from Russian linguist for the Government, to University research (pulling in a PhD ‘for fun’), and for the last 20 years of her working life was Executive Director of a national children’s cancer charity. She is a keen traveller and has a big catalogue of travel talks. She is a very keen gardener. She set up and continues to chair Evesham Festival of Words. And she is now a regular speaker and article contributor for Mirthy.

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