Growing Your Own
PUBLISHED: 14:07 29 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013
More and more people are getting involved with growing their own food, but while that's fine for those who have their own gardens, many don't. Allotments are the perfect alternative, but land for allotments is under competing pressure from many so...
Ayesha Wilkinson of the Barnstaple Allotments Association is a real enthusiast and says, "I think people are getting involved in growing their own food for a whole variety of different reasons, whether it's for their health, the social aspect of being part of a small allotment community, or environmental concerns. These reasons are all adding up to make greater self-sufficiency more popular than ever before."
Like an increasing number of people across the county, Ayesha Wilkinson grows a significant amount of her own food on an allotment. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), across the UK there are now 330,000 people who have their own allotments. Beyond this, there are an additional 100,000 people waiting for a plot to become available. Although traditionally seen as the preserve of retirees, much of the new demand is being fuelled by people in their twenties and thirties.
Tony Dion, Secretary of the Fatherford Road Allotment Association in Okehampton, adds his voice to the debate. "I think one of the main reasons for the recent increased interest in self-sufficiency and allotments is concern about the environment. It can't be a coincidence that demand for plots has risen at the same time as environmental fears have become more acute. The great thing about having somewhere to grow your own food is that you can have a direct impact on limiting your effect upon the environment because you control how your food is transported."
Too many food miles...
Last year, half the vegetables and 95% of the fruit eaten in the UK originated from beyond our shores, and in the last 15 years the amount of CO2 attributable to food transport has risen by 15%. By contrast, if you grow your own produce then the only food miles are from the plot to your kitchen.
Mike Creek, secretary of the Ilfracombe Allotment Society, says that you can also dictate what goes into what you eat. "There are so many different preservatives and chemicals in much of the processed food sold in supermarkets and the high street today that people aren't really sure what they are eating; you just don't know what 'nasties' are in them. If you grow your own produce then you know exactly what has been used on them. There are plenty of people who now grow their food organically because of this."
According to Tony Dion, allotment gardeners also have an acute respect for, and demonstrate sustainable use of, renewable resources. "All our plots have compost bins where home and garden waste is composted. So much of what is thrown away at home, such as vegetable peelings, paper and tea bags, can be turned into wonderfully rich compost, something that is essential for anyone wanting to grow their own food. Most plot holders also have two or more water butts to save rainwater. Whilst it is unlikely that you can get through an entire summer just on collected rainwater, by using water butts and ensuring that your soil retains moisture it means that the mains supply is used less."
Another aspect of growing your own produce is the effect that it has on local biodiversity. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners says that allotments have on average up to 30% higher species diversity than urban or country parks. Biodiversity is important for allotment holders because it promotes crop pollination, tackles pests and helps speed up the process of decomposition for compost heaps.
Tony Dion feels that getting involved in growing your own produce on an allotment also has benefits beyond the impact upon the environment. "I think allotments promote community cohesion. The age range of our plot holders runs from mid-twenties to mid-eighties and several of our plot holders even bring their primary-school-aged children or grandchildren to help them on the plots. There is also an emphasis here on disabled members. We have purpose-built 10-rod plots for disabled people, and when our site was planned it was with the thought of having both vehicular and handicapped access to all plots. There is a car park that will hold 30 or so vehicles, as well as wide, level, gravelled paths bordering all sides of each plot. There is a great breadth of people involved here and they all come from a wide variety of backgrounds, arriving at allotment gardening for an array of different reasons, something which is really healthy for the local community."
One of the main problems facing people serious about improving their self-sufficiency today is the limited provision of allotments. The LGA says that more than 200,000 plots have been lost over the last ten years in the UK, principally to development. Such is the pressure on land, specifically marginal land on the edge of towns and cities, the kind of land on which allotments are traditionally sited, that very few new plots have been created either. Too often allotments compete against the needs of residential and commercial development and come off second best. Just a few months ago, plans for an allotment site on council-owned land in Hayne Lane in Honiton were refused by East Devon District Council, who instead earmarked the land for development.
The overall trend - one of decline
"I don't think that local authorities are in tune with this issue at all," says Ayesha. "Provision varies across the county but the overall trend is one of decline. There are plenty of former sites that have been lost to development over the course of just one generation. This is arguably why we have a situation today where as demand has risen people are facing lengthy waiting lists because the number of plots has fallen. I think it's fair to say that allotments are way down the list of priorities for the majority of authorities responsible for their provision."
Although it is true that the county as a whole has seen the number of available plots decline over the last 30 years, the lack of allotment space is something that Stephen Upsher, Communications Officer with Exeter City Council, feels many local authorities and parish councils are now increasingly concerned about.
"We became aware of this problem and like a number of other local authorities have tried to do something about it in recent years. Since 2004 we have created 91 new plots. These plots have been added firstly by reclaiming unused land on sites which were overgrown or had poor soil and second, by dividing large 10-rod plots (250 square metres) into two 5-rod plots when they became vacant."
It is also the case, says Stephen, that when planning permission for new housing developments is considered, each local authority should look at the possible provision of green space within the new development. "Through a Section 106 Agreement, the authority responsible for planning should require developers to provide some type of community benefit, such as improved transport infrastructure, play areas for children or added green space, such as an allotment site. This ensures that any development takes place with the needs of the community in mind. What is installed should then be determined by the local authority in consultation with the residents."
Although welcome, when it comes to the community benefits provided under Section 106 Agreements, allotments still compete against other needs, whether it's park space, play areas or community facilities, and as such there is no guarantee that they will be provided at all. All this means that the recovery in the total number of allotment plots in Devon could be a lengthy process.
Growing your own food is a simple way to limit your impact upon the environment and if you do it via an allotment it's also a great way of becoming part of a community. More than anything else, Mike Creek feels that the best reason for becoming more self-sufficient is both the quality and the wide variety of the food that you can grow.
"Amongst our plot holders we have people growing every vegetable you could think of: artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, beans, beetroots, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, carrots and cucumbers. It goes on and on, almost covering the entire alphabet. It's all of the highest quality too. Anyone interested should get in touch with their local
authority or allotment association today. The sooner you get on a waiting list the sooner you will get a plot. It's a wonderful way to spend your time and with food like this it gives a great return on your efforts too."
Most of the county's local authorities will have details on allotments in your area and information on how to register for a plot. Alternatively, the South West Counties Allotment Association has details of Devon-based allotment associations. They can be found and contacted at: www.allotmentssouthwest.org.uk/Findasite.htm