Feature: Getting to the root of green renaissance

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It is not too long ago that the allotment holder was a figure of fun, usually male, invariably decked out in a flat cap and pictured sitting in a shed puffing on a pipe.

Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in The Good Life

Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in The Good Life

Not so now.

Allotmenteers are a very different bunch. Toiling alongside each other on neighbouring plots are likely to be a doctor, a teacher, a retired miner, stay at home mum – or Jeremy Corbyn if you are growing your own food in Islington.

The interest in the provenance of what we eat, food miles, healthy living, environmental concerns and, latterly, austerity has fuelled a renewed interest in growing our own. Working an allotment is cool and the waiting list for plots across the UK stands at more than 90,000 names.

The history of allotments from medieval times is linked to poverty and need.

The boom started in the 19th century with rapid industrialisation and the lack of a welfare state.

It was the Dig for Victory campaign of WW2 that really popularised allotments. The war effort and rationing along with the need to be self-sufficient saw parkland and public space being dug over for cultivation.

Those of a certain age will remember the hugely popular BBC sitcom The Good Life, which featured a couple of innocents living an alternative lifestyle, which included growing their own food, in snooty Surbiton.

It was a programme of its time as the 1970s, that era of industrial unrest with the three day week and strikes by power workers and miners, also saw an upsurge in growing food as hard-pressed families struggled to make ends’ meet.

In 2018, if money is no object, the most exotic of produce is available year-round from the local supermarket.

Yet still there is the attraction of sowing, nurturing, harvesting and eating something that you can say “I grew that” even if it is the humble spud.

Three years ago, with an empty nest and more time on our hands, we decided to give the good life (sort of)a go. Our time on the waiting list was shorter than expected, months rather than years, and we had a choice of several plots on a site a mile from home.

There was some hard labour clearing the overgrown plot we plumped for (thankfully our local council splits the traditional sized plot into more manageable quarter sizes), a bit of construction work erecting the obligatory shed and creating some raised beds and time spent on working out how to outwit the pests who like to make their home on an organic plot before we could start filling the trug with home-grown produce.

The first season it was rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb with a few potatoes, onions and leeks thrown in.

Now we also enjoy homegrown sprouts and parsnips with Christmas dinner, endless green beans and salad crops and delicious raspberries. Feeling guilty that my breakfast blueberries travelled all the way from Peru or Chile I duly planted some, but so far the biggest beneficiaries have been the pesky pigeons.

We’re pretty much self-sufficient for basics like onions and shallots for most of the year in and the freezer is heaving. I’ve even taken to making jam too.

We’ve definitely upped our fruit and veg intake too; it’s true fresh and homegrown tastes so much better.

The work involved is not as much as we expected - though a full-size plot would mean more putting in more hours on the basics like weeding and watering.

It’s not all about the food though.

Gardening is a great form of exercise - burning 150 calories an hour if you’re interested in such things -and being outdoors is the perfect antidote to a day spent behind a desk and is acknowledged to be great for mental health.

The site is quite a community too, a mix of old-time allotmenteers (yup there are pigeon lofts and massive, perfect veg grown for shows) and enthusiastic newbies, including a fair number of women working their own plots. Our fellow allotmenteers are a friendly bunch too sharing tips, plants and home made cake.

There’s also a community allotment where gardeners grow for their own use, but also donate produce to be sold at the community shop giving hard-pressed families the chance to buy healthy, fresh, seasonal, locally grown produce for a very reasonable price.

If you are already a convert to growing your own, a team of university researchers would like to hear from you.

Where can you grow your own?

There are 18 Doncaster Councilmanaged allotment sites, 26 more run on the local authority’s behalf by town-based allotment associations, and other sites owned by parish and town councils. There are allotment sites in Cantley, Balby, Hexthorpe, Denaby, Intake, Carcroft, Tickhill, Conisbrough, Hyde Park and Dunscroft. For more information email customer.services@doncaster.gov uk or phone 01302 736000.

Who can apply for an allotment?

To apply for a Doncaster Council-managed allotment you need to be aged 18 or over. The majority are fully-occupied and vacant plots are quickly snapped up so anyone interested should add their name to the waiting list for one or more

sites as soon as they can.

Plots are measured in square metres and vary in size according to site and availability. Plots can also be split in half by prior arrangement to suit those with less time available.

Tenancies cost £9.65 per 100 square metres and are paid annually.

* Volunteers needed to complete a year’s worth of diaries to assist University of Sheffield research project.

Data will help investigate the ways allotments are used, how people manage their crops and how often they visit their plot as well as uses of pesticide and homemade compost. Volunteers of all levels of experience, ability and styles of growing are needed. Contact My harvest.org.uk/2017/12/calling-all-growers. Or email mcdobson1@shef.ac.uk