Having a bad patch: Allotments have never been more popular. But once you experience the back-breaking reality of tending one, you might just want to lose the plot, says Emma Townshend

Click to follow
The Independent Online

People will tell you that having an allotment is their great joy. They will spend hours, if allowed, describing the heavenly feeling of producing a meal entirely from their own plot. The problem is, like the parents of small children who brag about how amazing their kids are, these people aren't telling you the whole truth. There's a dark side to having an allotment, as even the biggest enthusiasts know deep in their hearts.

People talk a lot about the joy of allotments. They talk a lot less about the misery. The things that die. The acres of unused space. The tons of seeds and energy spent growing 2,000 courgettes. It's exhausting, disappointing, back-breaking, antisocial, anxiety-inducing work often greeted by a total lack of enthusiasm or understanding on the part of family or friends. You've probably heard all about the reasons to get an allotment - let me put the other side of the case.

For a start, it's often an absolute battle to get hold of a decent one, or, in fact, any allotment at all. In Branch Hill, in Hampstead, London, the waiting list is now some 11-and-a-half years. Your children will have grown into teenagers and be eating nothing but doner kebab by the time you've got to the top of that one. However, it's not just a London thing. There are waiting lists for allotments in many British cities, especially in the last couple of years as enthusiasm for the idea has boomed. As Mike Gass, head of allotment services in Oxford, says, "We've seen an explosion of interest in the last 18 months, almost all of it from women. We're in a situation now where most of our sites have waiting lists, many of those are up to two to three years."

But let's say you're in luck, and your local allotment officer finds you a lovely secluded plot. Beware. As allotment guru and author Jane Perrone points out, you might not be thinking along the right lines: "I cherished the idea of isolation. Wrong move. In seeking a quiet corner, I also hid myself away from the very people who could have provided encouragement, tips, a few seedlings to get things started. I also failed to notice that I'd picked a plot at the lowest level of the site. If I'd bothered to speak to any of the existing plot holders I would have realised that during winter my chosen corner would be boggy at best - at worst, underwater." Plus, in summer she soon discovered she was absolutely miles from the nearest tap.

Next, prepare to be completely overwhelmed by what you've taken on. The standard allotment is the size of half a tennis court, so unless you are lucky enough to inherit a plot shared with someone else, you have just become the custodian of really quite a lot of land. "I shared a plot, and my half was enough to feed two families," says Rebecca, from Devon. "You see new people come in, thinking they're going to do big things at first, trying to clear it all. It gets to midsummer, high growing season, and people collapse. When they realise the enormity of it all, you see them taking it in, and then they start much smaller the next year."

Then there's the emotional baggage. My friend Rose tells me about her boyfriend: "Charlie says he can't drive past his allotment without feeling terrible guilt. All the little jobs that need doing spring into his head and he just feels like he ought to be down there doing it all the time." There is double the pressure now at their local allotment, as the full-time villagers got together and decided that weekenders should be excluded, as they couldn't keep up with the work.

You do need to take into account the fact that your allotment, while yours, does occupy part of a public site. The opinions and idiosyncrasies of the other allotment holders are going to affect your experience of growing there, drastically. Certain allotments have wonderful characters; others are run by unofficial, but nonetheless tyrannical committees. "We put swings on our allotment," Rebecca, another allotment owner, tells me. "I'm a full-time mum, so the only practical way for me to have an allotment is if I bring the kids. But our allotment has a lot of older chaps with very fixed ideas. When I said we wanted to grow organically, they took the mickey like mad. With the swings there was uproar! We had to grow runner beans up them just to shut them up. It's not plain sailing - they police the site, and can make life difficult."

And talking of the police... "I was watering my plot during the hosepipe ban," Seamus tells me. "It was about six in the morning, so nobody saw me. I was just putting my hose away, and all these coppers came running towards me. Someone had sent them an email saying: 'I can see an old man on the allotment watering his onions. Go and arrest him.'"

Or what about my friend Jacqueline, who just didn't bargain for the sheer squeamish reality of it all? "I spent one summer growing broccoli, which is one of my favourite vegetables. They were beautiful, healthy plants, and I cooked them and got them to the table; but when we went to tuck into them, they were just crawling. They were totally full of bugs. It just completely put me off, it was totally disgusting."

My advice would be to think carefully before doing this to yourself. Think about whether you really want to put that much pressure on yourself - you aren't going to change overnight from the kind of person who knows every member of staff in Sainsbury's Local by name. And the truth of the matter is that, three buckets in the back garden will manage to keep you in tasty little new potatoes. You could grow a little bit of what you fancy without all the pain and responsibility. If you fall into this camp, get hold of a copy of Crops in Pots, by Bob Purnell, (Hamlyn, 14.99), which contains lots of do-able, pint-sized vegetable projects. And don't feel depressed about your failure to live the perfect life. "The middle classes," says Rebecca, "think they can have it all, but actually you can only realistically get an allotment if you've got a cleaner, an au pair and someone in to do the ironing while you're out tending the organic vegetables."

But if you're still really determined, put your name down, and while away the years of waiting by digging someone else's neglected plot. Get together with an overwhelmed neighbour and offer work in return for space. When you do finally get that allotment, arm yourself with an honest book like Jane Perrone's Allotment Keeper's Handbook, (Atlantic, 14.99). And good luck - it's a dirty old world out there.

If you do one thing... Sow some annuals

Annuals are the fun flowers, the easy things you might have grown as a child, such as poppies and cornflowers, coming up once, bursting into colourful life, and hopefully seeding themselves for the following year. Treat yourself to a couple of packets, and read the backs carefully. If you are not the most conscientious of gardeners, choose one like nigella, which can be sown straight into the soil, rather than fiddling around with transplanting. If there's sun and a bit of moisture, they should do fine with no fuss. Now just sit back and wait.

Q&AEmma answers your horticultural queriesWe are sowing at the moment and would like to know if infusing water with nettle leaves before watering our lettuces will get rid of our greenfly problem? Last year our entire lettuce crop was useless because of greenfly.Layla and Robin

Start by making sure your plants are properly fed and watered. They will always do better with their own immune systems strong, and you need to feed vegetables, they don't just grow. You need to soak the nettles for about a week, till the water's really stinky. You could also try infusing pyrethrum flowers, a kind of chrysanthemum, which have toxic properties. If you are really diligent, you could just hose them off every day or so - or best of all, vacuum them up, with the suction set on low.

Moles...do I need to say more? I have tried electronic sonic devices, plastic bottles with their bottoms cut off stuck neck-first into the runs. I have put Domestos and Jeyes fluid down the mole hills and my latest is Greek cheese in oil which has gone off and smells absolutely vile. They sometimes move to the other side of the garden after a dose of Jeyes but not for long and after the rains walking on the lawn is quite unsafe as the runs collapse. Any ideas ?Nick Rimmington

The one thing you don't mention is actually killing them. I know this is a vile idea, but I have questioned people with the same problem, and judging by their experience I don't think moles go away unless they are threatened with actual death. Having tried so hard, I think you have to weigh up how passionately you want to be able to walk on your lawn and then possibly call in pest control.

Comments