Author Frank Beswick is a keen British allotment Gardener
What is Allotment Gardening?
Allotments are community gardens. They were established in early nineteenth-century England to provide land for people to supplement their incomes by growing their own food, though nowadays they cater for enthusiastic vegetable gardeners.
Each allotment site contains a number of plots, and each plot is rented by the plot holder. The landlord is generally the town council. Many allotment sites have their own clubhouse erected by the plot holders. Water is provided by the municipal authorities but has to be paid for from allotment funds.
Each allotment site is managed by a committee, which should include a chair, secretary and treasurer, who ensure that the site and its funds are properly managed. These officers are elected annually at the annual general meeting.
Who Are Allotment Gardens Suited to?
Anyone over eighteen can rent a plot. All that you need is time to maintain your plot. Retired people generally have the time, but we have a variety of plot holders, including young mothers who want to provide wholesome organic food for their families. If you like growing your own food you are suitable for an allotment.
But there are personal qualities that render someone suitable. If you can get on well with others and are willing to give fellow plot holders a helping hand, maybe to carry something heavy, you will fit in on an allotment. For example, when I bought a second-hand greenhouse from a fellow plot holder my friends and I carried it to my plot intact. Also suitable are people who are prepared to share advice with newcomers. Gardening is an incredibly wide activity and no one knows it all. If you can join in when there is an open day and “do your bit” you will be welcome on an allotment site.
How to Get Started on Allotment Gardening
Applicants can speak to the local council, who might direct them to a site with vacancies or put them on a waiting list. But they can approach an allotment site by contacting its officers by phone or email. On my allotment, the treasurer shows applicants around the site and deals with the forms, but on other sites it might be the chair.
An important piece of advice to new plot holders is start quickly, but don’t rush it, or you will wear yourself out. Aim to make steady progress. It is important to have a sense of direction, so have a plan of what you want to do. An important part of your plan will be to have a crop rotation, which means varying the crops that are grown on each bed annually, and not growing the same crops or members of the same vegetable family in the same bed year by year.
The simplest rotation is as follows: potatoes, peas and beans, brassicas (members of the cabbage family) onions and or leeks. This is a four-year rotation. There are more sophisticated rotations, but you can develop them as you make progress. Getting some good books on gardening is very useful in helping you develop your knowledge and will help you with your planning. You will need some tools. The basic minimum includes a spade and a shovel.
I have noticed that beginners sometimes confuse the two. A spade digs ground, a shovel scoops up loose soil.
Necessary tools include a hoe for breaking up soil into a fine tilth and for keeping weeds down. A rake is useful for smoothing soil and gathering plant debris. A garden fork is good for digging over ground and is lighter to use than a spade is. You will also benefit from having a garden claw, which is a tool for twisting out deep-rooted weeds such as dock. Sharp cutters, known as secateurs, are useful for cutting unwanted branches. You will need at least one trowel for close work on the ground.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Allotments
Allotments have made a positive contribution to the lives of ordinary Britons. They have enabled the populace to grow healthy, inexpensive, sometimes organic pesticide-free food and at a time when world food insecurity is a potential threat, they will be much needed. This has become more important to me as I am now retired, and it is a form of non-monetary income. It is good for health, for gardening is known to be good exercise, particularly for older people.
Take an example. One of my fellow allotmenteers, Jimmy, a friendly seventy-nine-year-old Irishman in poor health, was told by his doctor that he must not give up his allotment, as it was good for physical and mental health. And the allotment has greatly extended my social network. Gardening has got me into teams entering flower shows, where I have won gold medals (as a team member.) As one who was a sporting failure at school, gardening has allowed me to win something at last!
Drawbacks are mainly human. Thieves do steal from allotments, generally plundering electrical tools, though once I had my bramley apple tree stripped by a thief. Plot holders sometimes quarrel with each other. But these are mainly squabbling. Troubles with neighbours do occasionally occur.
We are currently trying to come to an agreement with one whose conifers cast shade on one of our plots. Councils do impose limitations. For example, my council does not allow plot holders to keep chickens. Perhaps the one with the biggest grievance there is the allotment’s resident fox! But she eats wood pigeons, which attack some crops, so she is a useful resident.
I can speak for myself in saying that the allotment has greatly enriched my life. It has given me a productive hobby and is a central part of my life strategy. Allotments are an integral element in a green vision of Britain as a country self-reliant in food. They are also an important component of an independent lifestyle in which ordinary folk take responsibility for their own lives, growing and making their own food.