Don't lose the plot

Allotments are the perfect garden substitute. But will developers muscle in?
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The Independent Online

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in flats, especially in urban areas, is not having your own garden. Window boxes, however grandiose, somehow fail to fill the gap. And while parks and commons are a definite bonus, nothing quite beats the satisfaction of having your own patch of land to furrow, plant and harvest - which is why discerning city dwellers are getting their own slice of the outdoors with an allotment.

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in flats, especially in urban areas, is not having your own garden. Window boxes, however grandiose, somehow fail to fill the gap. And while parks and commons are a definite bonus, nothing quite beats the satisfaction of having your own patch of land to furrow, plant and harvest - which is why discerning city dwellers are getting their own slice of the outdoors with an allotment.

"It's great watching things grow," says Jonathan Bound, leaning contentedly on his spade. He and his girlfriend Alex Bruce, both in their mid-twenties and postgraduate students at London University, have been working all day on their allotment off Staveley Road in Chiswick, West London, turning the ground over in preparation for this year's planting. The sun is going down and all around the site fellow gardeners are preparing to knock off, packing their tools away in rickety sheds and emptying wheelbarrows on to compost heaps. It's an idyllic scene.

Jonathan and Alex acquired their allotment 18 months ago. It's one of 600 plots spread across six sites along a leafy stretch of the River Thames and is controlled by the Chiswick Horticultural Society. Rents are ridiculously low - typically £20 to £40 a year - and there are currently more than 200 people on a waiting list. This is hardly surprising as it's a lovely spot, fanned by gentle river breezes, surrounded by playing fields and with the additional attraction of a bustling farmers' market held on its perimeter every Sunday morning.

Allotments are a quintessentially British institution and have been a part of our national life since around 1000BC when the Celts first began cultivating plots of communal land in Cornwall. However, it was not until the 20th-century that allotment culture really came into its own as a grow-your-own solution to wartime rationing.

Indeed, so popular did the movement become that the Dig For Victory campaign of the 1940s requisitioned many public spaces, including vast stretches of Kensington Park Gardens and Clapham Common, for allotment use.

After the war, with standards of living rising and food production stepped up, the need for subsistence urban farming dwindled. Many sites fell into neglect and were bulldozed over to make way for new housing. However, in spite of this post-war slump, Geoff Stokes, the secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), now discerns a renewal of interest in allotments, especially among younger people like Jonathan and Alex who live in gardenless flats and are cooped up indoors all week.

"Nowadays, young people in particular are becoming a lot more food conscious and are wanting to exert more control over what they eat," says Stokes. "Nothing beats the satisfaction of growing your own food. The combination of lots of fresh air, plenty of gentle exercise and stacks of delicious fresh fruit and vegetables at the end of it all has got to be good news."

But there is flip side to the coin. Running an allotment requires plenty of commitment and hard work. There is, of course, a marked seasonal rhythm to the work. November to January is quite slack, whereas the spring and summer months are the busiest. But the biggest commitment comes in the summer months when the plots have to be watered at least every other day.

Jonathan and Alex were fast-tracked on to the Staveley Road waiting list because they agreed to take on an overgrown plot that had been neglected for 20 years. And it took them six months of hard slog - cutting back the brambles, weeding and digging out the stubborn roots - to prepare the plot for planting. They were also fortunate to inherit a ramshackle shed that was already on site and a few tools from Jonathan's grandfather. They improvised, too, using bits of old wood lying about the place to make frames for winter plants and a strip of old tennis net to protect seeds and young plants from the birds.

Staveley Road, like most sites, has a trading hut nearby where gardeners congregate on Sundays to swap tips over tea and biscuits. It also stocks a wide variety of seeds, bulbs and composts as well as renting out equipment for heavier tasks. Jonathan and Alex reckon they forked out about £25 on assorted seeds and plants during their first year.

However, not all is unalloyed bliss in the world of allotments. The Chiswick sites are attractive and well-run with a number of progressive policies aimed at nurturing greater community involvement. It has plots reserved for the disabled, a wildlife sanctuary and a project in the pipeline to replace the current trading hut with an eco-friendly horticultural centre.

However, other, less dynamic sites are facing the threat of closure. Why is this? After all, under the terms of the 1907 Smallholding and Allotment Act, local authorities are still legally obliged to provide allotments if there is sufficient demand for them.

The problem is that allotments are administratively costly and generate very little revenue. And some local authorities may be tempted to rid themselves of the bother altogether by neglecting to advertise the sites and allowing them to become overgrown. They can then approach the courts and argue that the sites are surplus to requirements with a view to selling them off for lucrative property developments.

The NSALG, in its role as allotments watchdog, carefully monitors such cases but says it's fighting a losing battle. Geoff Stokes reckons that about 50 of the estimated 8,500 sites nationally are each year threatened with closure. And he's concerned about John Prescott's plans to build more than a million new homes in southern England over the next 11 years.

"I find it distinctly worrying that John Prescott is, on the one hand, calling for more land to be allocated for new housing and, on the other, has overall responsibility for the disposal of allotment land," he says.

And he fears that allotment sites, especially those that are undersubscribed, will become obvious targets. "It's a question of use them or lose them," says Stokes.

But when it comes to Jonathan and Alex, he's preaching to the converted. Apart from all the fun they had in preparing and planting their plot, they were amazed at the amount for fresh fruit and veg it eventually produced. "We've been on a bit of a learning curve and didn't really know what to expect during the first year," explains Alex. "I think initially we overextended ourselves a bit by overplanting, which meant that it became a bit manic later on in the year."

But all their hard work eventually paid off and they ended up with an astonishing variety of bumper crops including rhubarb, raspberries, herbs, potatoes, parsnips, onions, carrots, pumpkins, peppers, broccoli and courgettes.

Their shopping bills were dramatically slashed, their culinary habits were seasonally adapted and their surplus supplies offloaded on to grateful friends or converted into Christmas presents in the form of chutneys and pickles.

"Looking back, we've absolutely no regrets about taking the allotment on," says Jonathan. "It's been bloody hard work but it's also been fascinating and extremely satisfying." So, what's in store for the coming year? "We've decided to become a bit more experimental and to try out some of the more exotic varieties like green tomatoes and purple carrots."

GET DIGGING

* To find an allotment in your area, contact your local authority or check out their website on www.tagish.co.uk.

* A useful site for urban gardeners is www.kitchengardens.dial.pipex.com which contains an interesting potted history and handy gardening tips.

* For more details about the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardens, contact www.nsalg.org.uk.

* The Chiswick Horticultural Society can be contacted on www.chsw4.org

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