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It started for Chris and Dawn Nicholson when they went to an open day at Armstrong Allotments near their Newcastle upon Tyne home, and saw the glorious produce grown by plotholders.
The Nicholsons, active and in their mid-50s, were both public sector white-collar employees beginning to plan their impending retirement.
Roll on a year and Chris and Dawn, now both retired, have their own quarter plot, an expanding group of friends in their community and a very practical dream of growing and eating their own sweetcorn in 2019.
The Nicholsons’ three-bedroom semi has a garden, but the allotment, which marks their vegetable growing debut, is a different challenge.
“If you’re stuck in your own back garden, you aren’t seeing anybody else from the area,” observes Chris. Now, they pop into the allotment when out walking Milo, their bichon frise, bump into allotment neighbours in the street and are looking forward to this month’s allotment barbecue.
Allotments have, traditionally, been seen as the preserve of older, predominantly male, gardeners. “A lot of the men over the years have said, it’s our territory, our piece of land,” says Mark Todd, Newcastle’s allotments officer. But allotments have seen a radical shift towards active female management. “A lot of people now on sites are saying the books are up to date because women are keeping things in order,” he observes.
Some very traditional male gardeners still cultivate plots, commanding respect for their knowledge and dedication; a new film produced to mark the centenary of Armstrong Allotments includes shots of a prizewinning chrysanthemum grower teasing each petal into place with cotton buds.
But allotments are changing; the newly retired taking a plot may well find their neighbours are a generation younger than them.
“The allotment community helps bridge the gap between different age groups and allows for a bit more conversation between those groups,” says Tom Hallam. A 25-year-old postgraduate medical research student, he and his partner Jenny, 24, took on a half allotment at the Premier site in Newcastle last year. They, like many young gardeners, are motivated by concern for the environment, by the pleasures of food self-sufficiency and the desire to reduce plastic wrapping.
“The average age of plotholders is coming down,” confirms Diane Appleyard, press officer of the National Allotment Society. “Families are gardening together. A lot of councils have reduced the size of plots which opens up allotment gardening to people who are working.” She took on an allotment in Bristol at 52, once her son went to university.
The rise of veganism, concern over chemicals and a desire to escape social media immersion are all factors boosting allotment gardening among the under-30s. But both the young entering workplaces and retirees bursting out of them can see the health and stress-reducing benefits.
Traditionally, an allotment was ten poles, a measurement dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. That is around 250 square metres, the size of a doubles tennis court, big enough to feed a family of four for a year. Today, many sites offer half or quarter plots.
The National Allotment Society estimates the UK currently has 330,000 plots but thanks to rising demand, needs 90,000 more. Allotments are in diverse ownerships — typically local authorities and parish councils — and are locally managed, so prices and waiting lists vary greatly. The NAS says rents can range from a peppercorn sum to £100 or more a year. Equally variable are on-site facilities; some have composting toilets, a communal meeting room and a garden shop, while others lack even a water tap.
There are however three facts about allotment gardening, relevant to all plots, which retirees need to consider if hoping for a sustainable and enjoyable new activity.
The first is that allotment gardening requires effort and some stamina. A flattish site, close to home, with plots of flexible size is a wise choice for the long term.
The second is that there are rules. These are communal sites with expected standards of activity; if you fail to do much — bearing in mind that sites commonly expect 75 per cent of the plot to be cultivated — you will be told to improve. The committee is not being gratuitously officious; they probably have a waiting list and other gardeners will complain about your weeds.
Lastly, allotments take time. Patty de Zwart, Armstrong Allotments’ secretary, says young applicants are not always receptive to this message; older applicants, due to their life experience, take it on board. “If you tell them it takes a lot of time and effort they know what that means.”
There is one further fact to consider — having an allotment can be a joyful pleasure, delivering food, friendship and fresh air. “It’s an amazing privilege,” says Ms de Zwart, “to have a piece of land for the price of a decent meal out or a monthly gym membership.”
Contact the National Allotment Society: nsalg.org.uk/
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