Dig In, Eat Up and Don’t Lose the Plot


Blue sky, bright sun, the sound of birds singing in the distance, bees happily flitting from one plant to another and the smell of flowers, grass and earth. In short, mother nature on a beautfiul day.

It is my allotment, or rather half-allotment – all 125 square feet of it.

It isn’t just a case of sitting back and enjoying it, though. Having an allotment means really getting back to nature: digging, planting, weeding, supporting crops where necessary, cutting the grass and truly getting your hands dirty.  Putting up with the cold, wet and windy days, as well as enjoying the good ones, because there is always something to do.

But that is one of the greatest joys of having a plot. The feeling of satisfaction after a couple of hours gardening, when you survey the neat rows of potatoes, the budding peas and beans and the ripening fruit, can’t be beat. Who needs a gym membership when you can work out on your plot?

Of course, fresh air and exercise is just a by-product of the true purpose of an allotment, which is to grow fruit and vegetables. Someone once asked me “does a potato grown on the allotment really taste so much better than one bought in the supermarket, or a greengrocer’s? It’s only a potato!”.

“Taste it and see,”  I replied, handing over a couple of Charlottes just dug up.

She never told me what she thought, but she didn’t have to: the fresher they are, the better they taste, as anyone who grows their own knows full well. And that applies to all fruit and vegetables, as every variety loses sugar as soon as it is plucked from the ground.  Produce sold in supermarkets and greengrocers is probably picked two or three days before it hits the shelf, which is why nothing tastes as sweet as our parents remember, before the days of cold storage and central distribution centres.

Allotmenteers can also grow crops and varieties of crops that are either expensive or hard to find in the shops.  Like artichokes. Or blueberries. Or Umchi Kuru, a Japanese onion squash, rainbow chard and white sprouting broccoli. Forget tasteless, watery tomatoes: try Sungold, an orange cherry tomato, or Tigerella, named because of its green stripes. And the varieties of lettuce! I grow Bronze Arrow, Reine des Glaces and Ashbrook, none of which are commercially produced.

They can also pick fruit and veg when they are young and tender. Broad beans and peas are great raw in salads, before they get too big, too old and too tasteless.  Baby courgettes are almost seed-free and waterless – and you can eat their flowers, too.

Working on an allotment can be a solitary activity,  but allotments are not lonely places. Most site have social events, sometimes open to the public. Plot-holders usually share produce with their neighbours and help each other out. The sense of community can be a tonic for those feeling isolated or trapped in blocks of flats.

All of Barnet’s sites are now self-managed. This means that each individual allotment association interviews applicants, allocates plots, and ejects those members who do not look after their plot; in other boroughs, the council sets the rules, allocates the plots and inspects the sites to ensure everything is coming up roses.

Many of Barnet sites do have waiting lists, but some do not. Lawrence Street Allotments in Mill Hill currently has two half-plots available, with a third coming up in September. It is a medium-sized, friendly site, which engages with the wider community through its annual plant sale and open day.  Car-less tenants can get there on buses from Mill Hill Thameslink or Golders Green.