It’s National Allotment Garden Week in the UK, and allotment gardeners are celebrating the same way they do every day of the summer: tending and enjoying the bounty of their plots.
There are around 330,000 housing estates in the country: small plots rented by individuals to local authorities, called “family gardens” in France and “schrebergarten” in Germany.
A further 100,000 people are on council waiting lists (according to data released last fall) and many more stare curiously at the green quilts from train windows and wonder what it would be like to grow their own food.
Given the significant drop in crop yields across Europe due to heat waves and Drought – EU tomato production, for example, is expected to fall by 9 percent this year – growing our own food has never been so valuable.
In their own small but significant way, attributions help to facilitate the Cost of life crisis for those lucky enough to have one, or have community-run land nearby. But the social and ecological benefits are invaluable, as we’ve found from talking to passionate housing estate owners.
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When Joanna Dobson, 62, and her partner moved to Sheffield, they drew a circle around their housing estate on a map. After waiting six years to get the plot, they weren’t about to give it up.
After eight, it’s a big part of their diet at this time of year; producing greengage plums, plums, raspberries, black currants, gooseberries, red currants, rhubarb (a Yorkshire specialty), potatoes, squash, beets, green beans, beans greens, courgettes and a polytunnel full of tomatoes.
There are 133 plots on the site in south west Sheffield, a vast network of plants and people.
“We know them on the housing estate, but not off it,” Joanna says of her neighbors. “The guy who has the plot next to ours – every time I see him we’ll have a really good conversation and get the world back in order. But I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with him outside of the sessions. gardening.
She has a friendly deal with the lady on the other side – they water each other’s greenhouses when they’re on vacation – but don’t text each other about anything else.
“And yet, she says, I would say that these relationships are really important. There’s something about us sharing this land and having this common interest that I think is really important. It’s quite difficult to quantify, but we feel that it is a united community.
Last year, a highly regarded and “quirky” housing estate holder, Eric Pie, sadly passed away, and people placed flowerpots near his self-built shed. They joined an otherwise busy patch; Eric was famous for his scarecrows and thrifty ways, constructing vegetable racks from curtain rods and towel racks.
“I doubt any of us told Eric about much more than how our potatoes were doing,” Joanna says, “but somehow it means a lot more than that.”
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The shared effort provides a bit of humor – like when the WhatsApp alert circulated that there were squirrels on Beverley’s Sweetcorn – but it’s not always fun. “It’s also disheartening,” adds Joanna, “when you’re picking slugs off strawberries at 10 p.m. and it looks like they ate more than you did, or when the weather is really bad.”
Increasingly, she finds that sudden changes in the weather cause her mood to plummet. “It’s not just anything, it’s that we can no longer predict the weather.” Spring came early in 2019, sending strawberries. But a 23C weekend was followed by a cold 9C and most of the fruit was lost.
“It did everything climate crisis much more immediate, which I guess in a way – we should actually be in touch with that, but it was pretty hard to live with for a while.
The seasonal rhythm may be off, but in her own life, Joanna appreciates that attribution “dictates a rhythm of life.” As a doctoral researcher with a partner who also works full time, the plot provides a meeting point for the couple after long days of work at home. Along with the social, mental, and physical benefits, she feels the housing estate is a place that “unlocks” her as a writer. At the housing estate, “I can always find something to write.”
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In Wiltshire, Hayleigh Cubitt, 30, was among a wave of people who signed up for a housing estate during confinement. Two years later, she and partner Ben Watkinson secured a 10 by 10 meter pitch just down the road in Corsham.
“It’s a really lovely community,” she says. “Everyone is so approachable and just wants to share what they know. When we first got the attribution [in April] we could barely work because every 20 minutes a new person came to show up.
Housing estate holders tend to be older; a government investigation as of 1998, only 6% were under 35, with most over 65. But 20 years later, that demographic seems to have changed. In Corsham there has been an ‘influx’ of young plot owners to the site this year, at least partly due to the foreclosure effect.
The resurgence of 2020 has led many commentators to look back on World War II – a boom time for vegetable gardens when the government declared “digging for victory” to be everyone’s patriotic duty.
“It’s so rewarding to grow your own food,” says Hayleigh, who works for the Environment Agency. “Hours are sucked away when you’re at allotment, just tinkering around and chatting with people and researching all your different vegetables and do some weeding.
“It’s just very good for the soul.”
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With British farmers lamenting the withered harvest of the Heat wave – and struggling to water their parched fields – it makes sense that allotmenteers invest their time and energy in this smaller scale. Supply to supermarkets has not been affected so far this year as they have already signed contracts with growers, but there is less to do with certain products like heat-cooked berries.
“I’m really aware of the cost of everything I grow in a store and I’m very concerned about wasting it all,” says Hayleigh. Some councils split allocations in half to reduce waiting lists, but this can be burdensome for producers.
“I feel more passionate about the kind of inequities in our food system than before,” says Joanna. “The fact that some people can’t even buy fresh vegetables, let alone grow their own…more and more, I find that to be one of the greatest injustices of the society we live in. “
The village prepares a community lunch from its housing estate
One woman working a housing estate on behalf of the community is Juliet Frost, 61, in Purley on Thames. As chair of the village’s sustainability group, landscaper and botanist, she manages the land to “teach people how to grow vegetables organically, food safetyand also just to teach some children in the village where the food comes from.
The cost of living crisis has given it a more acute imperative, and next month the group is hosting a free community meal at the housing estate. They are also fundraising to install a fridge and shelves at the local community cafe; the ‘Purley Pantry’ will be a vital nook where people can help themselves to excess food and meals.
The cost of housing estates varies considerably. Juliet’s community costs just £25 a year, Hayleigh and Ben pay £46 and Joanna’s is around £170. For some families, facing skyrocketing energy bills and other inflated expenses, she notes that this will obviously be prohibitively expensive.
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Vegetable gardens do more than put food on your plate, and among gardeners there is a real joy in experimenting. “Next year we want to try growing rare and weird vegetables that you can’t really buy, and being able to do that, having the space to do that, is great,” says Hayleigh.
Making room for nature is part of this creative thinking. The couple keep a “slightly wild” area for flowers and pollinators – something the National Allotment Society would surely approve of. This week’s theme is “Insects, Bees and Broccoli”, emphasizing the importance of gardening with nature in mind.
Juliette knows this well and has plenty of tips for dealing with creatures of all sizes. “Our biggest challenge right now is a mole,” she says, “and I’m determined not to have a mole scarer, so we had to put things in pots and raise the beds a bit, and it just has tunnels underneath.”
The basics of being organicshe explains, are “good nutrition, no stress, little strategies to make sure you’re not at peak harvest at the same time as other people so that the harmful can’t follow you. With seed funding from the Soil Association, the group purchased a soil amendment from an agricultural digester and is experimenting with dug and “non-dig” parts of the plot.
With so many returns from a small plot of land, it’s no wonder that housing estates hold a special place in the hearts of their tenants. As Hayleigh adds, “Time disappears and you don’t realize how long you’ve been there and you never leave feeling like crap.”