Shut Up and Dig

What’s all this about Allotments?

There
was an outcry at the social and economic problems caused by enclosures, and
allotments – patches of land for growing crops and rearing animals on a small
scale – began to be offered as compensation to commoners for their loss of
common land. This move began to be enshrined in law starting with the
Small Holdings and Allotment Act of 1908.

But allotments really came
into their own during the first and second world wars, when food shortages
prompted the government to urge people to use every scrap of spare land for
growing food, sparking the still famous Dig for Victory campaign.

From the fifties to the present day, the number of allotments in the UK has
been in decline, despite their becoming fashionable in recent years as the
organic movement has championed the joys of growing your own hyper-local
food: there are now about 300,000 allotments left from a peak of about 1.4
million in the 1940s.

If you’re interested in delving deeper
into the history of allotments in Britain, there’s more information
here
, or you can get yourself a copy of The Allotment Chronicles by Steve
Poole.

Perrone1aSo
how big is an allotment plot? It varies, but most are, put roughly, the size
of a tennis court or smaller. In an arcane nod to their past that may mystify
non-British readers, most allotments are still measured in the ancient units
of the pole, perch or rod.  A standard plot is 10 sq  poles/perches/rods (confusingly they’re all the same measurement), although a lot of sites now offer half plots of five square poles
- that’s the size of my plot.

And who’s the land owned by? The
majority of sites are owned by town and district councils – in other words,
local government – and have some protection against being sold off or
converted to other uses. The rest are privately owned by organisations such
as the Church of England, rail companies or individuals. Each plot holder,
or allotmenteer as they’re also known (I rather like the latter because it
almost sounds like I am climbing mountains, not turning the soil) signs a
yearly agreement that they’ll take good care of their patch, and stumps up
anything from £5 to £150 a year in rental. My five poles sets me back about
six pounds a year – which is just about what you’d pay for a Chinese takeaway
for one these days.

The allotment ethos has always been
simple: that by growing fruit and vegetables (and in some cases by raising
livestock such as chickens, goats or rabbits) on local land, plot holders
could improve their quality of life, save money, enjoy the fresh air and have
access to fresh produce. That ethos remains today, although the emphasis is
now on the health benefits of homegrown veg, enjoying the outdoors
and bypassing the sterility of the neon-lit supermarket shelves laden
with vacuum packed, regimented dull produce.

Allotments are
now trendy. They’re sloughing off their image in popular British culture as
the domain of dour men wearing flat caps and growing ranks of leeks and
cabbages: Arthur Fowler from the TV soap EastEnders was their poster
boy. 
Now you’re just as likely to see young professionals bringing along their
small children to grow globe artichokes, peppers and asparagus, or retirees
trying out beekeeping or small-scale self-sufficiency.

If
you’re interested in finding out more about the allotment phenomenon, try
exploring the websites of the National Society for Allotment and Leisure
Gardeners
,
the Allotments 4 All site, and
the Allotments Regeneration Initiative.

But
perhaps the best way of getting a taste of life on the plot is by tuning into
some of the great blogs written by allotment holders: some of my favourites
are Pumpkin Soup,
My Tiny Plot, Spadework, and Allotment Lady
there are lots of links to more great allotment blogs on my blogroll.

Jane Perrone is the author of The Allotment Keeper’s Handbook and
blogs about her organic allotment and garden at Horticultural.

Posted by on February 8, 2007 at 3:04 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
Comments are off for this post

4 Responses to “What’s all this about Allotments?”

  1. firefly says:

    Excellent post. I look forward to visiting the sites and blogs linked to here.

    I really wish there were more solid incentives to garden in the US — tax credits for preserving ecosystem services would be a start, and might avoid customary howls from entities like agrobusiness about ‘lowered profits’ if homegrown food were to catch on.

  2. Excellent piece, well written and informative!

    I have 1 question:

    Why not mention that allotments could and still can be found in many Western European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, to name but a few? These countries had, after all, similar social/economical structures to those of Great Britain. The way it’s written now, one might get the impression that allotments are only to be found in the UK.

    Thanks for all the links, I’m looking forward to visiting them.

  3. I spent quite a bit of my formative years in my maternal grandparent’s “allotment” located just outside of Bayreuth in Bavaria, Germany. It was specious enough for a croquet green, out building, cistern, vegetable garden, fruit trees and shrubs, cutting gardens, herb garden, pathways, etc. They pretty much treated it as their weekend country home away from the city life.
    I remember them saying they had a 99-year lease on the land – which amount to lifetime ownership.

  4. JLB says:

    Thank you for this piece! I’ve encountered several references to allotments lately, and this helps me to understand how they work.

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS