Over the last ten years or so a phenomenon has taken the garden world by storm. Nobody could have predicted back in the nineties that growing your own fruit and vegetables would be so big. With so many magazines and books devoted to the subject it’s hard to remember what gardening was like before. Of course, there were people growing their own before it became the trendy thing to do, then, for a whole host of reasons, a new generation was inspired to pick up their trowels and start growing. The problem with anything that becomes trendy though is that it can fall out of fashion just as quickly.
I’ve been wondering about the whole grow your own thing for a while now and whether the bubble has burst. I loved gardening before it became fashionable. I was an incredibly uncool teenager who watched Gardener’s World on a Friday night. As growing veg surged in popularity I was moving around the country from rented house to rented house with no garden to call my own, and with the urge to grow and put down roots of the plant kind getting stronger by the day. When we finally settled in one place it was no surprise to us that there was a waiting list for allotments in our village. Why wouldn’t there be, everyone wanted an allotment. We were lucky, it didn’t take long for us to get a plot but my experience there suggests that the enthusiasm for growing your own food has waned.
The last few weekends when we’ve had dry and even sunny weather, Wellyman and I have been the only people at the allotments. This is the perfect chance to get the allotment ship-shape before growing gets under way. Most tenants are retired and tend to go to the allotment on weekdays. The newest plotholder is a lovely man in his seventies and these guys really do look after their allotments but they were all gardening and growing food long before the recent resurgence. What we don’t seem to have any of are families and those younger people who were meant to have been excited by the idea of growing heirloom carrots and tending a compost heap. They have been there. My neighbour loved River Cottage and the idea of providing fresh and tasty food for her family but, in the end, other commitments were more pressing and she has given up her plot.
I’m lucky, because I work from home I can generally find an hour or so during the day to pop up to the allotment. If it has been wet for days and days and then there’s a dry spell I have the advantage of being able to go and get jobs done. But it has got me thinking, is it possible to manage an allotment when you work full-time and have other responsibilities or are allotments mainly the preserve of the retired? Has the generation swept up by the ideas of their own bit of the ‘good life’ realised that juggling jobs, families and other demands on their time aren’t compatible with maintaining an allotment.
Alan Titchmarsh wrote recently about the accusation that TV gardeners have made the whole subject appear too easy and have lulled a whole group of people into a false idea of just how much work is actually required. Unsurprisingly he disagrees. He believes it has more to do with people being used to instant gratification and not being able to see things through. This is an opinion shared by many on my allotment site who have seen people come and go. Certainly when it comes to cooking, if you look at the vast numbers of recipe books sold every year and the almost wall to wall food programmes you’d think we’d have a better relationship with what we eat. And yet it seems many watch these programmes whilst eating ready meals. Perhaps growing your own is going this way too. The idea is very lovely but the effort required not so. There is no denying though that modern life has become much more demanding. The idea we would work a three or four-day week and that technology would liberate us has never materialised. Plotholders do have the option of taking on really small plots on our site but even this hasn’t been enough to make them more manageable.
It was decided recently to set up a committee to liaise with the council and to try to improve the management of the allotments. The idea was to work towards establishing an allotment association. Unfortunately it was a struggle to get four people to be on the initial committee. I put my hand up and looked around at the sea of faces, no one wanting to make eye contact, hoping others would volunteer themselves. The idea that there would be enough enthusiasm and drive to become a self-managing site is rapidly diminishing. The dilemma for my village’s allotments is that we can’t attract and then keep younger plotholders and the older tenants generally aren’t interested in trying to inject some vibrancy into the place. They really want the site to stay as it is. My other allotment neighbour is 82 and said to me the other day ‘I’m not that fussed about the plot this year, my knees are giving me grief but it gets me out of the house’.
I don’t know about you but it all makes my heart sink. I’d love it if there were people who wanted to put up a polytunnel and introduce an allotment show but ideas like this are greeted with complaints about people trying to change things. It will certainly be an interesting year for my village allotment. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What does your site do to attract and keep new tenants?