by Laurie Anstis on December 11, 2011

I’ve had an allotment for the last five years.

To those of you who have seen any TV gardening or cookery programmes recently, this may conjure up images of bucolic contentment – the countryside in the city, providing health, happy families with healthy, happy food, with Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver popping in from time to host a barbecue for the allotment holders.

It’s not like that.

Instead, it is a continual war of attrition between me and a host of intractable weeds.

Through a combination of idealism and not knowing how to use garden chemicals, I took the decision to run my allotment on organic principles. The elderly man who works the neighbouring plot keeps his much better than mine. Expecting the wisdom of the ages, I asked him what his secret was. He told me that he soaked his plot with glyphosate weed killer every winter – but even that does not get rid of the persistent weeds.

Look up any list of the most difficult weeds. I’ve got them all, as have most of the plot holders in my site. These things are like nightmare monsters from a science fiction movie. Mare’s tail (of which I have a particularly fine collection) is a prehistoric plant – the last survivor of its genus. Its roots can go down 2 metres. It will regrow from any fragment of root, and the only way of getting rid of it is by digging it out. To eradicate it, I have to dig out my allotment to a depth of 2 metres, and even once that it done it will still spread to my plot from my neighbour’s.

Brambles are a thorny issue too. They grow at an incredible rate, and are established in the hedges around my plot. The only way to get rid of them is to dig out the hedge. The only consolation is that sometimes the weeds get in the way of each other, so the brambles will sometime smother the mare’s tail and couch grass.

The most that can be hoped for is management of the weeds, and keeping them from competing with the vegetables by regular weeding and control. Miss a week, or a few days in the summer, and they will be all over the plot. Miss several weeks, and you get the council’s standard warning letter (with the file name h:/allotments/standardletters/tooweedy in small letters on it), with which I am very familiar.

Allotments are also ideal for various plant diseases, insects and other small pests. Each vegetable seems to have its own foe, and they are all there on the allotment, from the carrot fly to the onion white rot. In a garden, these pests are not so much a problem is crops are more spread out, and there is less opportunity for the pests to get established – but an allotment site, where everyone grows the same thing, is paradise for these various pests.

And then there are the rabbits and rats, which proliferate.

It’s not all bad. During some summer months I can live off fruit and veg from the allotment and garden. One year the squash and pumpkins did well, and there were enough of them to see me through the winter. Potatoes and some other veg taste incomparably better to shop-bought.

But mostly it is very hard work, and each year I have been seriously thinking about giving it up.

If that hasn’t put you off, one of the first things that people ask is how I came to get the allotment. There is a perception that waiting lists are so long that it is impossible to get hold of an allotment.

That is particularly the case in the more fashionable areas of London. Demand generally outstrips supply, but it might not be the case in your local area. In my area, it is still possible to get a plot within a year. So if you really want to try it, you may find that getting a plot is not as difficult as you think.

One comment


I do so sympathise. We’ve had an allotment for about 8 years and did a lot of work initially to get it working – removing shopping trolleys, old paving slabs, about a hundredweight of used cat litter and so on. Once underneath all that the soil is very good and productive, hence all the stinging nettles. Bindweed produces quite pretty white flowers; it’s just a shame that it chokes everything in its path.

The plot is quite shady so cabbages tend not to bulk up properly, too little water and the courgettes die, the pigeons (or mice) get the peas, onions won’t grow for some reason and I once got 4 broad bean pods off the plants I’d put in. That’s 4 not 4lbs or 4kgs. Potatoes have actually been ok and we’ve had some success with them. The soft fruit has been great – redcurrants, blackcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries. We keep pruning the raspberry canes at the wrong time so never get a very good crop and the strawberries get massacred by everything and anything.

The weeding is a constant problem as you say. It’s almost heartbreaking to weed it one week then go back the next weekend and find it looking like you haven’t visited for months. I think unless you have time for it, ie are unemployed or retired it is virtually impossible to keep an allotment up.

One alternative use for an allotment you might consider though: one of my former colleagues got one and threatened to take the family camping on it for their summer holiday. I’m not sure if he actually did but it is a good idea!

Hang in there!


by Michael Scutt on 15 December 2011 at 8:21 pm. #