Allotment gardening grows in popularity as women dig in

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The Independent Online

In an age when everything from gentlemen's clubs in St James to misogynistic golf courses have fallen victim to sexual equality, so too, it seems has the allotment patch.

Allotment gardening, once the domain of the working man, is increasingly popular with women, with waiting lists for a plot lengthening and a plethora of websites devoted to the cause. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG) estimates that 20 per cent of plots are owned by women, compared to 2 per cent 30 years ago.

Female celebrity gardeners such as Charlie Dimmock and the former pop star Kim Wilde have fuelled women's interest in horticulture. Fears about additives and pesticides in food have also led to a boom in allotment gardening, with some London councils operating a 10-year waiting list for a plot.

Geoff Stokes, the national secretary of the NSALG, said: "There is a feeling among everyone I speak to that more and more women are taking up allotment gardening.

"In parts of the north it is still a very male preserve, but certainly in the south and London the numbers of women are increasing rapidly. When allotments began, the men did what was considered to be the hard work, like the digging and ploughing. The women stayed at home and did the cooking and the cleaning. All that has changed now. Women see these people and realise there is no reason why they can't carry heavy bags of sand, lift huge stones or get covered in mud.

"The whole organic thing has helped as well. A lot of houses have very small gardens, but women want to know where their food is coming from - and what better way is there than to grow it yourself?"

The association has two women on its counciland is planning a full-scale audit of its female population. Lynne Aldridge, 41, a charity worker from Enfield, acquired her first allotment two years ago and is now a regular at her plot in north London. Her bumper crops this year have been Jerusalem artichokes and shallots. The 25m (80ft) plot also has a pond and a shed covered in sweet peas and clematis.

"My father was a keen gardener and some of my earliest memories as a child are of helping him out on his allotment," she said. "But it was quite a stuffy atmosphere then - my mother would never go down to the plot, and it was overwhelmingly a male thing.

"My dream is to have a smallholding in the country, with hens and ponies, but at the moment I work in London, so the allotment is just a rehearsal for the bigger thing.

"It's my escape - a little haven where I can go and potter about outside, and get away from work and the city," she said. "It is also wonderful to be able to grow your own vegetables. The health benefits are great - you just feel rejuvenated by gardening."

Ms Aldridge said there was little sexism in the world of allotment gardening these days. "Most of the men are very nice. You do get a few who we women call the 'Reg's' - the men who stop by your patch and tell you that you won't be able to grow anything, or you're doing it all wrong. The men are also more gossipy and bitchier than the women, which I didn't expect."

Allotment gardening developed during the 19th century, when the industrial revolution spurred increased urbanisation. The Victorians believed that allotment gardening would provide a wholesome and healthy pursuit for the urban poor, and entice them away from the degeneracy of drink.

During the Second World War allotments came into their own as a major provider of food in a country under blockade from the U-boats, and with the farms depleted by the loss of men to the war.

There are now some 297,000 allotment plots in England, covering 10,520 hectares (26,000 acres). Even 10 years ago, there were 30,000 vacant plots, but councils either sold the land or let it decline. Now the soaring popularity - and the dwindling garden space at most houses - mean that about 13,000 people are on a waiting list.

The average size of a plot is 250 square metres, and tenants pay anything from 25p to £80 a year for their plot. And as allotment gardening has attracted more women, they have also taken over the sheds which come with the plots.

Allotment gardening is also becoming more ethnically diverse, according to Ms Aldridge. "It used to be a very white, male-dominated preserve, but you look around our site and it is now very representative of the community.

"The Jamaican man next to me is growing pumpkins, and there is a Turkish woman who grows amazing peppers. It's no longer all about flat caps."

MALE PRESERVES UNDER THREAT

FOOTBALL: As the new season starts, a survey has found that one in four fans going through the turnstiles is now female.

SHEDS: Once an all-male territory, the humble shed is also being invaded by women. Last month a Shed Summit was held to pay homage to the small retreats - the event was organised by a woman.

GENTLEMEN'S CLUBS: In May, the all-male membership of London's Savile Club voted to allow women in to its hallowed halls. The Savile was among the last of the St James's clubs that banned women. A one-year experiment is starting, allowing women into the dining rooms in the evening.

GOLF: Annika Sorenstam made history this year when she played alongside the men on the US PGA tour - the first woman to do so.

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