Down at the highly sought-after allotments by the river at Chiswick, west London, where neighbourhood residents come to tend their individual plots in a collective patch of green, a new gardener has appeared in recent weeks, working hard on his asparagus plants.
But this isn’t a lucky new plotholder who has finally made it into the allotment after several years on the local government council’s waiting list. It is a professional gardener paid to stand in for the actual holder while he’s working in Asia on business.
“It’s funny how it seems such a sacrifice to leave my two adjoining allotments behind in London despite all the so-called perks of an expat lifestyle,” says Julian Earle, the businessman in question. “I couldn’t bear to lose them while I’m away” – thanks to allotment authorities who quickly repossess overgrown plots – “so I have engaged Anthony to do the minimum to retain ‘cultivated’ status. I haven’t carried out a cost-benefit analysis of my investment, because no doubt I would discover that I had bought the equivalent of a lifetime supply of potatoes – or even asparagus for that matter. But then, but how can you value the taste of the first Pink Fir apple of the season, or the pride of home-grown blackcurrant sorbet?”
Earle is one of the new breed of allotmenteers. Replacing the sleepy crew of elderly, retired and unemployed gardeners (and occasional eco-warriors) who used to tend these spaces are high-flying executives, barristers, doctors, celebrity chefs, artists, television types and even fashionistas who are just as passionate about cultivating urban patches of green. And when their jobs get too busy for hobbies, they send employees to work in their stead.
Jane Raven, glass designer and sister of Sarah Raven, the gardening writer, does all her own gardening but says she’s witnessed several housekeepers, au-pairs, professional gardeners and specialist firms tilling the soil and tidying up at her allotment ground in a smart part of Edinburgh. “Allotments have changed so much these days,” she says, “that my partner Andrew is always joking that you have to be independently wealthy to have one.”
Even people with the means to buy land in the country are increasingly committed to securing allotments that give them fresh fruit and vegetables, and equally importantly, outside activity – all for the typical annual rent of £30 to £50.
Raven, for instance, enjoys easy access to both land and space at her cottage on the west coast of Scotland, but she was willing to wait nearly five years for her own allotment in Edinburgh. Now she grows all the vegetables she eats for nine months of the year, including salad leaves still unavailable in her local shops, and all the fruit she eats for the summer.
Sam Clark and his wife Sam, the team behind the trendy Spanish-Moroccan Moro restaurant in Clerkenwell, east London, grow a whole host of fruit and vegetables including broad beans, potatoes, chard, garlic, figs, chillis and a rare variety of African spinach. They also use the space to entertain friends; a summer lunch for 20 is not unusual when they can escape the demands of Moro. “It’s so much nicer cooking outside,” Clark says.
Even at the top of the market, there’s a strong interest in having an allotment. Jeremy Paxton, the powerhouse behind the exclusive Lower Mill Estate in Gloucestershire, where houses sell from £400,000 to £9m, is working on a “designer” allotment idea.
“We want to offer the owners of several key houses on the estate the chance of having [one],” his spokesman, Giles Cooper, explains. “People are interested in growing their own organic food now, and we want to offer them the chance to do so in more sophisticated surroundings than the traditional scruffy old shed environment of a traditional allotment. We’re looking at landscaping [them] so that they look beautiful and providing natural irrigation and other state-of-the-art facilities.”
Lower Mill Estate, tel: +44 (0)1285-869489; www.lowermillestate.com
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