Grow your own in Surrey allotments
With local, seasonal produce all the rage, allotments have never been so popular - and all across the county people are clamouring to join the waiting list. JIM KEOGHAN reports
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2008 Photos by Andy Newbold
Ask people to name three things they associate with self-sufficiency and it's a sure bet that one of those will be The Good Life. The 1970s sitcom, which gently poked fun at Tom and Barbara Good as they attempted to turn the garden of their Surbiton home into a farm, complete with pigs and chickens, was a response to the growing trend at the time for people to become more self-sufficient. The show may no longer be on our screens (unless, of course, you are a devotee of UK Gold) but the desire to 'grow your own' has never been stronger and all across the county people are clamouring for allotments. Move towards organic According to the Local Government Association, 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 and ageing hippies, much of the new demand is being fuelled by people in their twenties and thirties. Kevin Taitt, grounds and services manager of allotments in Farnham, says that one of the main reasons that people get involved is through a concern about how their food is grown. "In recent years, more and more people have become interested in what their food has been exposed to," he says. "With an allotment, you get the chance to have complete control over the entire process and so can limit the amount of chemicals that go into producing the food that you eat. There are plenty of people now who grow organically because of this." Good for the environment Another attraction of allotments for many people is the positive impact that they can have on the environment. Last year, half the vegetables and 95 per cent 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 per cent. By contrast, if you grow your own produce then the only food miles are from the plot back to your kitchen, or 'welly to belly' as allotment holders themselves put it. According to the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, greater use of allotments is also an important contributor to local levels of biodiversity, as most sites have on average up to 30 per cent 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. Because of this, gardeners do whatever they can to increase biodiversity within their plot - although David Inns, chairman of the Horsell Allotments Association in Woking, says that sometimes you might get more than you bargained for. "I remember a few years ago we were having a terrible problem when lots of plot holders were having their crops eaten," he says. "I came down here one morning to see what was doing this and discovered three deer, a mother and two fawns, happily munching away. "It took me days to work out how they were getting in because they kept running away. I kept giving chase but because I'm no match for a deer, especially not at that time in the morning, it took me several attempts and more early starts than I would have liked before I had worked out how they were each getting in. We eventually fenced the gaps they had used and thankfully we haven't seen them since." Put your name down One of the main problems facing people serious about improving their self sufficiency today is the limited provision of allotment sites. 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 for land - specifically marginal land on the edge of towns and cities where allotments are traditionally situated - that very few new plots have been created, either. 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 Claire Lapping, communications officer for Reigate & Banstead Borough Council, feels many local authorities and parish councils are now increasingly concerned about. "The local authority here, like many others in the county, is doing what it can to increase allotment provision to meet this increased demand," she says. "In May this year, the council here reopened up an old site at Colesmead Allotments in Gatton Park, Reigate, that had actually closed for several years due to lack of demand in the past. We have also recently extended the New Pond Farm allotments in Woodhatch by a further 20 plots and we are hoping to extend the Park Lane Allotments in Reigate into a field owned by the council to provide 30 new half plots." Allotment associations across the county now feel that local authorities are more supportive to their needs. Plots are being renovated and new ones opened all the time. While this still falls short of what is needed to accommodate the rise in demand, it at least represents a change in direction on the behalf of local authorities. Although the waiting times remain significant, Pauline Willgoose, of the Guildford Allotment Society, feels that it's still worth putting your name down as soon as possible. "I can grow everything I need on my plot," she says. "I still go to supermarkets during the year, but a lot less than I used to. The trick is to eat seasonally - don't expect strawberries in January. If you do that and put in plenty of hard work, hard but enjoyable work, then there is every reason that your plot will furnish you with a wide variety of tasty produce all through the year, and what could be more rewarding than that?" Tom and Barbara Good would have been proud of their fellow Surrey residents!
What to grow in your allotment David Inns, the chairman of the Horsell Allotments Association, shares his top tips: "Essentially you name a vegetable and it's grown on most allotment sites. Along with the standard types - such as carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages - there are also the more unusual ones like globe and Jerusalem artichokes. "With the warmer weather over the past couple of years, I and a few others have also successfully grown aubergines out on the plot with just a cloche to give slight protection and added warmth. "Many types of fruit are also grown, such as blackberries, red, white and blackcurrants, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries. I grow an unusual gooseberry that is red and is as sweet as a grape!"
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Getting in touch
Guildford Allotment Society: call 01483 853036 or e-mail email@example.com Farnham Allotments: 01252 714434 Horsell Allotment Association: call 01483 825358 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org