Column: Gardening, April 11, 2013

Deborah Catchpole in her allotment

Deborah Catchpole in her allotment - Credit: Archant

I HAVE been following the story of various allotment sites in Hertfordshire which are under threat of closure – it seems to be something which has polarised opinion amongst the gardening community and amongst allotmenteers (people who use allotment sites).

Understandably people are very angry at the idea of losing their allotment plots to make way for development, or housing, after having spent hours, and in some cases, years of their life working and tending their plots. Allotments mean many things to different people, and this month I have been thinking about the use of allotments, and their place in modern society.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that allotments are a good thing – encouraging people, and enabling people to grow their own food can only be a positive thing.

Knowing where your food has come from, and knowing exactly what chemicals – if any – have been put into the soil to grow your food, can only be seen as a good thing. Added to that the idea of getting out in the open air, and getting the exercise whilst looking after your allotment, and growing your own food, I think it would be difficult to find a negative side to keeping an allotment, so why wouldn’t everyone want to have an allotment?

Many people would say that it is very difficult to get an allotment if you do want one – it’s an age-old story that there are waiting lists longer than you can imagine, and you might be waiting years for people to give their plot up, or for someone to become too old to look after it, for you to even get a chance of moving up the list – this was certainly the impression that I was under when I took on my allotment three years ago.

When I moved to my village I was conscious of the fact that my garden was too small to grow vegetables in, and as I didn’t know many people, I thought that taking on an allotment would be an excellent way of making friends in the local community – and I wasn’t wrong.

I had, however, thought that I would be waiting months, if not years, to finally be given a plot but in this I was wrong. In a matter of weeks I received a phone call telling me that there were two plots on the site which were completely overgrown and hadn’t been used for a long time – they needed a lot of work, but if I were prepared to clear one, then I could use it.

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I went along to the site and looked at them both – I chose the one that I thought was in the best position, and set to clearing it. Two days of back breaking work, and the soil was clear and ready to be dug over. Luckily I was lent a rotivator, which made the job a lot quicker – but it still wasn’t for the faint hearted.

The people at the site were friendly, and always ready to offer advice from their years of allotmenting.

They would share their left-over seed, and would come by to look at the work I had done – I could tell they were slightly surprised by the young girl who had come and turned the plot around so quickly...although I think a couple of them had noticed that I’d had some help from my long-suffering parents!

I only had the plot for a year – I planted vegetables, and flowers for cutting, but my job changed, and I found that with my new commute to work, I just didn’t have the time to look after the plot as much as I wanted to.

In addition to looking after my own garden, I didn’t have the time to do both to the standard that they deserved, and so I sadly made the decision to give the plot back to the council.

It’s a decision that I have often regretted – particularly when I drive past the site on a summer’s evening, and I think how nice it would be to be down there – chatting to the other plot holders, and sharing a joke in the sunshine whilst watering, or even better – harvesting the veg!

But, I know it was the right decision – there is a waiting list here, and I knew that it wouldn’t be fair to keep the plot on, when other people could be making proper use of it.

I was speaking to Ben Renfrew on Twitter, he’s the manager of the Hillier Garden Centre in Hemel Hempstead, and he told me that locally there are a lot of allotment sites where there are no waiting lists, and in fact where there are plots which are lying vacant, waiting for someone to take them up.

I met with Ben last weekend, and we chatted over a coffee about allotments, and why he thinks people are not necessarily deciding to keep them locally.

At the site where Ben has an allotment in Gaddesden Row, just outside Hemel Hempstead, there are about 60 allotment plots, and he told me that there are probably only 20 people who are using the site.

On either side of him there are empty plots, and a whole field which was cleared last year which nobody has taken plots on. We discussed the fact that there are always going to be things which happen in life which make you decide that you can no longer look after a plot – maybe you start a family, or you have a change in career, or poor health – but Ben thinks that this year there has been a decline in people taking their plots up again, because of the bad season that we had last year.

He told me: “Last year was disasterous on the allotment, but the year before I was going down and spending two or three hours watering every single night throughout May and June because it was so hot.”

The weather clearly has a massive impact on how easy it is for people to keep an allotment – some people may not have enough free time to be able to spend so much time tending to their plot, and as Ben said, with the weather last year being as bad as it was, people who had dedicated a lot of time to their allotments, and found that they got little reward from it, would be unlikely to want to do the same again this year.

Ben explained that if you took on an allotment in a good year, and saw the benefits from it, you would probably be happy to put up with a bad year the year after, but if you start on a bad year, it would be hard to motivate yourself to try again.

Ben obviously loves his allotment, and he told me that over the last six or eight years, people seem to be really getting into allotments: “One of the really lovely things about allotmenting, and one thing that I would really encourage anybody to go into allotmenting for, actually, that you do reconnect with a sense of community.”

This is something that I definitely agree with – regardless of anything else – on the allotment site, everyone is there for a shared love of gardening – they are all wanting to grow food, sometimes to save money, sometimes to get some exercise, or just for the sheer joy of growing something, but it’s a great leveller, as everyone there will have the same weather to contend with, the same slugs and pests, and a great sense of camaraderie can be established. It may be true that there are some allotment sites which are massively oversubscribed, but there are some which are crying out for people to take them – so if you’re interested in taking on an allotment site, get asking around, and you may be pleasantly surprised!