So, You Want to Be an Allotmenteer?

Langley Allotments, Summer 2016
An allotment site in summer is a very fine place to be.

It’s fast-approaching changeover time at our allotment site. September is when the next year’s rent falls due, so anyone who’s thinking of giving up their plot is most likely to do so before they have to fork out another year’s subs. This means a steady trickle of potential new allotmenteers being shown around our site – and I’m sure a fair few others – by the Secretary, and a series of bright-eyed, enthusiastic newbies taking up their tools and getting to grips with growing their own.

If you’re one of those would-be good-life seekers, then congratulations! It’s a wonderful way to tick all sorts of healthy lifestyle boxes: fresh air, exercise, mental wellbeing, community spirit and of course all that lovely produce that you’ll be picking and plucking from your plants in due course. You’ll even save a bit of money on your shopping bills when harvest season rolls around (although it’s really not about turning a profit).

But before you rush off to sign up to your nearest waiting list, here are a few things to ponder. (Disclaimer: the following is intended as a dollop of tough love. Some of it may sound as though I’m trying to put you off the idea of allotmenteering completely. I’m not. Unless, of course, I do manage to put you off the idea, in which case, maybe allotmenteering isn’t quite right for you. At least, not right now. If so: you’re welcome.)

Here goes:

1. Forget What You’ve Seen on The Big Allotment Challenge

So, yeah, you remember that two-season BBC show (now cancelled, it seems) in which a bunch of folks turned up on day one to be given the metaphorical keys to a perfectly turned, absolutely weed-free patch with a sparkling clean greenhouse? Odds are that won’t happen to you.

Unless you’re extremely lucky and end up inheriting a plot that’s been lovingly tended right up until the moment before you signed the paperwork – which can happen; sometimes folks move house, or switch plots, or sadly pass away with spade in hand – then it’s far more likely you’ll be shown around something a lot closer to the state of ours when we took it over back in January 2014:

Plot #59, January 2014, from the front left corner
“Doesn’t look too bad..?” They said, with a lot more hope than experience…

As you can see: a grass-covered, weed-choked patch of little more than scrub-land. And that was in winter. Once the weeds started growing again in Spring… well, it would certainly explain why in the early days our plot neighbours and several passers-by shot us the occasional pitying look when they thought we weren’t paying attention.

Are you ready for that sort of challenge? Are you sure? If so…

2. Be Prepared to Put the Hours In

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but an hour or so every other weekend (but, hey, only if the weather is nice, but not going-to-the-beach-nice) really isn’t going to get the job done.

If you’re thinking of allotmenteering as a part-time hobby that you can fit in around your salsa classes, triathlon training, guitar lessons, weekly shop, Munroe bashing, Sunday morning lie-in, or whatever else you already have to cram into your too-busy schedule, then perhaps you should think again. The chap who had our plot two tenants before us was dubbed “the half hour gardener” by one neighbour for his habit of turning up once a week, poking around for 30 minutes, then declaring he’d had enough and disappearing off again (and they’re still muttering about him four years after he left).

Here’s the thing: nature won’t wait for your timetable. Weeds will grow, water will evaporate, blight spores will spread themselves around and slugs will munch their way through anything that looks tasty, whether you have time to do anything about it or not. And those weeds, pests and diseases definitely won’t just stay within the boundaries of your plot; they’ll rapidly spread to your neighbours’ meticulously tended patches. Your overgrown, cough grass stuffed and dandelion-choked disaster area won’t endear you to anyone close by and could earn you a few pointed words from the Secretary at Inspection time.

For everyone’s sake, if you’re going to take the job on, you must be prepared to do it regularly and do it properly.

Oh, and speaking of time-sinks…

3. “Kids and Allotments Don’t Mix”

…is what someone told us in passing when we started out. And, based on observation since then, I have to say that it’s generally all too true.

Bored Child is Bored...
Bored Child is Bored…

Now, before any doting parents take extreme umbrage and yell at me for horrendously slighting their own precociously green-fingered offspring, I will admit that there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Every so often, you will see a plot taken on by an adult (or two) with a kid (or more) in tow and yes, the nippers will quite happily help mummy and/or daddy out with a spot of weeding, or wander around wetting things with their little plastic watering cans. Which is adorable, and great to see, and offers hope for the future of humanity, etc.

But it usually doesn’t last. There’s a reason that most allotment holders are either retired folks, or (like us) child-free types with enough free time to dedicate to the calling. That’s free time that doesn’t involve football practice, dance class, birthday parties, swimming lessons, school parents’ evenings, karate club, band practice, drama school, or any of the many, many other demands on parental time that always seem to be just a tad more important than getting down to the allotment for a session.

Empirical evidence: in our two and a half years to-date, we’ve seen a number of plots taken on, poked around on a bit, then abandoned again after a few weeks or months, and the majority of those have been the ones leased to families with young kids. And no, I don’t remember seeing a teenager helping out with anything on any allotment on our site, ever.

If you want to get your kids into growing their own food, connecting with nature and eating healthily, that’s great. My advice: start with a couple of raised beds in your back garden, or just some large plastic tubs if you don’t have much space, and take it from there. If they’re really, truly fascinated and stick with it, then you might want to think about moving up to an allotment in due course.

Still With Me? Good.

If you’ve just read, digested and – most importantly – nodded along to all of the above; if your determination to be an allotmenteer now burns more fiercely than ever, then that’s fantastic. I do believe you might me made of the Right Stuff.

July 2016 vegetable assortment
The rewards of all your hard work await you…

Next step: get in touch with your nearest (or rather: most highly recommended local) allotment site and ask to be put on the waiting list, if you haven’t done so already. If it’s anything like ours then you might be on said list for the next 2-3 years, but once your name rises to the top and you’re shown around your potential plot of weed-choked, grass-smothered, barely-cultivatable land (that’s nevertheless full of so much potential), you’ll know your time has come.

In a future post I’ll suggest a few top tips for novice allotmenteers, based on the experience that Jo and I have gathered in our first three years on Plot #59.

It’s National Allotments Week this week, and the National Allotments Society website is a great place to go for all sorts of allotment-related info.

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2 comments

  1. Sue Garrett says:

    Our plots were all head high with brambles, docks and various hidden rubble etc. when we took them. Like you we have seen people come and quickly go when they learn how much hard work is involved. One person was overheard saying, “I weeded it all (a half plot) a month ago and you wouldn’t know it.” Newsflash: Weeding isn’t something you do just once. I think for some the idea is far more appealing than the actuality.

    • Darren T says:

      I think you’re absolutely right, Sue. A lot of people love the idea of having an allotment, without necessarily loving the idea of working an allotment. Or as you say, suddenly butting up hard against reality when they discover that there’s actually a whole lot of hard graft involved before you get the rewards. (And without ever realising that the hard graft is actually part of the reward…)

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