by Alice Alech
Though allotments are typically owned by the local Government, in some instances they can also be rented from individual landowners. Allotments trace back to the late 1500’s when land for growing food and keeping animals was attached to tenant houses. During the Second World War allotments were vital for food supply. However, with the rising popularity of supermarkets in the later part of the twentieth century, the demand dwindled.
The British have discovered an uplifting, social, healthy way to promote sustainability - care for the environment by growing their own fruits and vegetables while at the same time interacting with fellow gardeners. Allotments, or small parcels of land rented for the purpose of growing food crops have grown in popularity as concerns about carbon footprints, saving money, and good nutrition have increased.
Today everyone wants an allotment. A recent survey of over 150, 000 council plots in England shows that 91, 500 people are waiting for an allotment.
In Bury St. Edmunds, deep in the heart of West Suffolk County, people are realizing how satisfying it is to produce their own food. Clerk Jen Larner from the Town Council told me that there are about 150 people currently waiting for an allotment. The average wait time is about 2 1/2 years, depending on the site.
“We are obviously keen to reduce the waiting list, so we regularly carry out site visits to our five sites to ensure that people are working their plots properly. We are always on the lookout for further land that could be used as allotments to meet demand,” Larner said.
I meet up with Carolann McDonald, one of the lucky plot holders at the Nowton Road allotment in Bury St. Edmunds. I accompany her to her five rod plot - an ancient measurement calculated to be the length from the back of a plough to the nose of an ox - where she disappears to whenever she can to spend quality time connecting with Mother Earth.
Although it is 8:30 in the morning, four or five gardeners are already active. The first thing you notice is how tidy and well looked after the plots are. The mix of colors, the sweet fresh smell of vegetables, mingled with pure clean county air, make me feel healthy. I suddenly feel the urge to get back in touch with nature.
Carolann tells me how important the cooperative spirit is among allotment holders. “The sharing of know-how and experience, exchanging tips, is important to a beginner like me. Between May and the end of summer, harvest time for most of the vegetables, I feed my family entirely on fresh produce from my plot. The fresh taste, the sweetness of it all is so rewarding, so much better than buying in the shop.”
When Carolann first started in 2006, the yearly cost of the allotment was £16($24.60) for her five rod plot of 123 square meters (rods are sometimes referred to as poles.) Today she pays £ 23($35.36), including water supply. Considering the rising cost of food prices, this is a good value. It makes perfect sense for Carolann to grow her own vegetables for her family of five.
Renting from a private owner can cost more. Ann Hills, another resident from Bury St. Edmunds, rents from a private landowner. She pays £50($72.33) per year for her fifteen by three meter plot which does not include water. Her husband has rigged up three water butts to contain rainwater which she shares with her neighbor.
Ann has been using organic principles for three years now. She belongs to the Suffolk Organic Gardeners, a great source for seed swapping, knowledge sharing, and buying organic.
“I aim for quick growth for a small yield,” Ann says. “Beans are perfect for this and they are expensive in the shops. I’m getting a good crop of broccoli at the moment but need to protect them from the pigeons so I have put up a net,” she added.
Ann appreciates the exercise she gets from this satisfying hobby. “I bike to my allotment mostly at weekends. Surrounded by trees, wilderness, and birdlife, this is perfect escapism after a busy week at work.”
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, campaigner for real food, broadcaster, and writer, is the founder of Landshare - an organized land sharing scheme. Landshare allows landowners to share with those dreaming of a little plot to cultivate. It is also for sharing knowledge of gardening and a movement to free up more land for growing. Landshare began in 2009 to alleviate the long waiting list of would-be gardeners. Interested parties simply register and post their advertisements on the Landshare website. Today there are over 47,000 members.
This is encouraging and exciting news for everyone. Without gardens and allotments our landscape would be poorer. Plants and soil are the two main natural carbon sinks; they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Everyone wanting to improve their carbon footprints should be encouraged. Allotments are places of beauty and creativity where we can care for the earth as well as our own mental and physical selves.
About the Author
Alice Alech was born in Guyana, educated in the United Kingdom and has lived in the Caribbean and Australia. She is a freelance writer living in France.