Mention allotments and most people think of retired men sitting there with a flask of tea enjoying the sun and gossiping with each other about the size of their produce this year. (I was going to say marrows but thought better of it, although actually, marrows are a favourite topic of conversation as they are easy to grow and look impressive at the local show).
Nowadays, yes, there are a number of old boys at most allotment sites, but there are also young men, families and women of all ages. Get on the good side of them and you could have advice and surplus produce as well as general conversation. More importantly, an allotment can be the key to mental health and well-being.
If you don’t like to get your hands dirty, buy some gloves. There is nothing better than to sow some seeds in a tray or pot, put them in a sunny sheltered place, water them, and see them grow. You don’t even need an allotment, the garden will do. Even pots on the windowsill, if you live in a flat, will give you some interest, maybe some tomatoes, or just a few salad leaves. A dish with kitchen roll in the bottom and sow some mustard and cress. When it reaches about 5cm use the kitchen scissors to snip off the top 3cm and add some to your sandwich. The point is not that it only gives you enough for three or four sandwiches, it’s the fact that you’ve grown something out of nothing. With just water, light and a place for them to germinate, you’ve added some tangy sprouts to your diet.
Now, we have an allotment site opposite our house and consider ourselves very lucky in that respect. Incidentally, we don’t need an allotment for food. We could go to the supermarket and get our produce there like most people do. It’s that we want to grow our own things. We want to get out there and do it ourselves. We want to talk with like-minded people, not just about growing things, but about anything whether it be our lives, our children, our jobs, whatever. Somehow, it lifts your spirits and makes you feel better.
Having an allotment gives you a sense of purpose, something to do that is productive. As a family, we’ve always enjoyed growing things, fruit, salad, vegetables. I started off as a child going ‘plotting with Daddy’ – us kids didn’t do much but run around while he worked on the ground and shouted at us if we trod on the plot. When I married and moved out we discovered an allotment nearby and took it on in spite of the overgrown grass and weeds. When we moved again it was a viable plot, well managed and ready for the next allotment holder.
The focus needed to clear a patch of ground, to sow seeds, plant potatoes, strawberries, is very calming. It is a structured calm, you have a positive task to do. When you finish, you can be satisfied looking at the result, knowing that those rows or patches of little plants or seeds will grow and produce food. Never mind if it’s not a straight line – so what, we once had two rows of carrots come up in a V-shape, because we forgot to move the guide-line at one end. It didn’t matter, they still grew and produced carrots.
Being outside, hands in the dirt (gloves or not) you feel empowered. It gives you peace and satisfaction, although it can be difficult when you’re struggling with lumps of clay or weeds, nonetheless, at the end of the day, you can see the difference in what you’ve dug or cleared. It may only be a few square metres, but that would be enough to plant a half dozen tomato plants or a blackcurrant bush.
Most allotment holders are sociable people, they want a bit of peace and quiet to grow their own and to chat with like-minded folk in between. If people don’t want to talk, they’ll still nod and say: ‘good morning’ as they walk past. If they do stop, we’re happy to take a break and have a chat. It works both ways.
Several times over the first lockdown, we met people we hadn’t seen before, who were using the opportunity of being furloughed to work on their plots during the daytime. Chatting to them from the edge of the plot, keeping a sensible distance, was a lift. We went most days, sometimes twice a day, just to hoe, pick tomatoes, peas, beans for dinner and to chat with people. It felt peaceful over there, talking to allotment holders who we hadn’t met before asking what they were growing (if it wasn’t obvious), complimenting methods and results, offering a couple of spare onions or accepting a couple of courgettes.
The communication, the companionship, the fresh air – they were so desperately needed at a time when lockdown barred almost everything sociable.