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The secret world of Allotment Life

Highgate Allotments

In this age, we never truly know the history of the fruit and veggies we put in our bodies, so ‘growing your own’ has become the holy grail for those escaping pesticides and unnecessary supermarket packaging. This paves the way for allotments.

This may feel like a throwback to when Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers grew their own on the 1970s show The Good Life, but with a waiting list up to six years at times, public demand is clearly changing. There are currently over 300,000 allotment plots in the UK, with approximately 100,000 people on waiting lists.

Why should you be one of the 100,000 on a wait list?
With a growing population, living in London and owning a house with a garden is a luxury that most aren’t fortunate to have. Even then there is no guarantee of perfect growing conditions. I grew cherry tomatoes two years ago which produced the grand total of one ripened vegetable at the end of summer, not exactly the bumper harvest I had hoped for.

So when we moved to the Highgate area, I was quick to put my name down for a plot at the Highgate Allotments. With the gate entrance a mere 25 meters from my house, it felt like an idyllic way to spend my weekends with enough open space for the sun to ripen my crops.

I found a strange landscape with rows of oddly constructed sheds and glasshouses, plastic cloches flapping with the breeze, ramshackle arrangements of bordered plots and an overwhelming array of straight lines and empty plastic pots.

Of course there was a time when banging nightclubs used to motivate my weekends, now its talk of soil rotation and seed germination…I guess we can call that the graceful ageing process. Its fair to say that I was pretty excited when after two years my number came up, I received the email and was allocated my plot.

The Inheritance Lottery
When taking over a plot, there is every chance the previous person was a keen gardener and has painstakingly weeded the section, left you a shed full of tools and a quiche in the oven. However, they may have also lost interest and rendered up an overgrown mess with old car tyres and a shed which lets in more rain than a festival poncho. It really is the luck of the draw and I got pretty lucky, others I’ve spoken to spent months clearing the section before they could plant the first seedling.

Community Spirit
It may be a gated community, with folk travelling from as far as West London, but there is a great community spirit. Growing up in New Zealand, I always spoke to my neighbours which is something I’ve tried to maintain through my 20 years on this side of the pond. The Highgate Allotments are welcoming and people are quick to stop for a chat, shake with dirty hands, swap seeds and offer up their excesses.

The lure of digging our hands into the soil, or earthing as it’s called now, and green space in a busy city has drawn us together to either cultivate the land, or enjoy the solace of a garden space sorely lacking at their own property. There is a facebook group where you can hear about allotment gossip, learn when the next load of compost or wood chips is to be delivered (at no extra cost might I add), or ask for advice from the veterans.

Guerilla gardening
Well, not quite, this isn’t the wild west and these aren’t lawless lands. There are rules to keep order which people seem happy to follow. You can erect a shed or greenhouse with maximum dimensions of 2.5 by 2.0 meters without council permission, the annual cost is £75, plots must be tended to otherwise they’re taken away (seems logical) and theres a bonfire ban between April and September. Allotment managers arrange with tree felling companies to deliver wood chipping on a regular basis for pathways, and compost is delivered a few times a year which plot holders can help themselves to. Plus there’s a shop in case you need any urgent supplies.

What have I been up to during my first month
I am not a gardening ninja and have lots to learn. I imagine this will happen through making mistakes such as planting too close together and too much in any individual plot. I don’t know why a certain type of soil works well for certain plants and not for others, but I’ll get there. I accept my place as a gardening rookie and am happy to potter around and learn from what others are doing.

I’ve spent a few weeks clearing my plot back to basics, digging over the soil and fencing smaller patches with repurposed wood. Last weekend the seeds went in the ground which I now realise I should have germinated first. Like I said, it’s a learning curve.

I got a lot of inspiration from walking around the allotments and looking at what others have done. Most people cover their plot in fruit trees and veggies, whilst others have a Lord of the Rings style garden they’ve created simply to sit in and relax. Sheds range from modern to derelict, gardens range from straight manicured lines to wilder concepts. I’ve enjoyed watching the spring tulips and daffodils giving the wintery land a breath of life, before the summer gardeners return to their plots.

Plots are as varied as the people who tend them. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is like a type of relaxing oasis paradise and better than going to the doctor.

Happy gardening folks.

Highgate Allotments link
Facebook group link


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