Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The plot thickens - solving mystery of our love for allotments

For as little as £20 a year, growing numbers of city and town dwellers are getting their hands dirty on their own little bit of ground. Linda Stewart and her fellow gardeners explain why they dig it

Planting a seed: clockwise from top, Linda Stewart and daughter Neve

There's nothing quite like having a little corner of earth to call your own, and it's even more rewarding when you can put it to good use, whether it's a square of lawn or a fully fledged garden replete with trees, bushes and shrubbery.

For many green-fingered garden enthusiasts, however, there's an added pleasure in going beyond growing the usual bulbs and creepers and cultivating your own little fruit and vegetable plot.

For those who don't have the room in their gardens to install a patch, though, sometimes the answer is to take out an allotment in a special dedicated site away from home. Not only does it provide a fertile and manageable patch of land in a secure location, it's also a gateway to an entire subculture of fellow enthusiasts who are usually only too happy to share tips and techniques for extra big yields or prize-winning produce.

Such is the popularity of allotments – which can be rented for as little as £20-30 a year – that waiting lists for council-owned ones can often be measured in years.

But for those prepared to be patient the rewards can be great, with allotments often providing a lifetime of pleasure, even into the retirement years.

As part of the Belfast Telegraph's brand new Bloomin' Marvellous campaign we look at what these plots of land mean to the people who put their heart, soul – and some back-breaking labour – into making them work.

Ann: 'There's a real community spirit'

Ann McCarron (42) is a housewife and part-time student from Derriaghy. She is married to IT manager Colum and has three boys, Thomas (12), Jamie (6) and Max (3). She has a plot at Colin Community Allotments in Poleglass, which is managed by Groundwork NI. She says:

My granny was a really good gardener. Everyone used to describe her as green-fingered, although I was too young to understand what they meant – I thought she actually had green fingers!

I got into gardening when I was eight or nine just helping around the garden at home in Glengoland and I had my own wee patch for growing flowers and lettuce.

It didn't really take off until I got my own place in my 20s and then I really got into it. I built a pond which I landscaped around and I had about 30 fish.

I really got into growing my own food at home. But it was a small garden and we built an extension over half of it. I did have a small greenhouse where I grew cucumbers and tomatoes but it got very beaten up by the wind and we had to take it down.

I put my name down for an allotment in Lisburn and I've been on the list for five years now. Two years ago my husband heard something on the radio about Colin Allotments harvest festival and phoned me, and I was straight in the car driving around looking for it, but I couldn't find the place.

Then the next day we went out in the car again and I found it, but there must have been a volunteer event on, as the gates were locked and I was peering through the fence going 'Hello! Hello!'

I pestered the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership every week until they eventually gave me a half plot and six months after that I got a full plot. I'm now studying horticulture at Greenmount because I realised I would like to work in this area if I can. I also volunteer at the allotments every week learning new horticultural skills.

Because I started with half a plot I tried to squeeze as much in as I could. Last year I had sweetcorn, squashes (which I was told couldn't grow here and I ended up with 20!), raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, beetroot, carrots, purple spouting broccoli, broccoli, all sorts of peas, potatoes, leeks, onions and garlic. In the winter I grew savoy cabbage – I ate the last one two weeks ago.

It's my wee bit of heaven. I've got three boys who love the allotment. The oldest loves all the wildlife up there and there is a really lovely community spirit.

It's in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a mountain. You think you are there only 10 minutes and you've actually been there for three hours, doing nothing but chat, dig and sow. The time flies because you're enjoying yourself.

I love the whole idea of growing my own and the kids love being able to say "We grew this ourselves".

Having a lot of fun on allotments!

Belfast Telegraph Environment Correspondent Linda Stewart (42) is married to Lee (31), and they have a two-year-old daughter, Neve. She has a plot at Minnowburn Allotments in south Belfast, which is managed by the National Trust. She says:

Every summer we used to build little huts at the back of my grandpa's house in Co Monaghan. While we were busy arguing about it, he would be toiling in his vegetable garden, maintaining perfect trenches of onions, cabbages, carrots and spuds.

Even in the depths of winter, the promise of spring was always there, in the straw-coloured bunting of desiccated peapods strung across kitchen windows.

My mum picked up the bug too, cultivating rows of peas and broad beans along the back of the garden. But I didn't. I loved podding peas on the sunny back step, but I detested visits to the garden centre and the cross man who would tell us off for running.

It wasn't until I bought my own house that I finally got it. There was less than a foot of soil in the back garden before you hit builder's rubble, but I filled so many pots with herbs and lavender that the back step looked like it had been invaded by a terracotta army.

When I moved to Belfast, I filled pots with cherry tomatoes, sowed salad, planted rhubarb and even grew potatoes in an enormous plastic pot. And I put my name down for allotments at Castlereagh Borough Council and with the National Trust at Minnowburn.

Five years later, I'm still on the council's waiting list – not really surprising as they have a grand total of four plots for the entire borough. But last spring I was allocated one of the much-sought after plots at Minnowburn, set up a few years ago as part of a National Trust drive to establish 1,000 new allotment and growing space plots throughout the UK by 2012.

When I arrived at the site, which lies in deep rolling hills close to the neolithic Giant's Ring, I found it was more manageable than expected.

It took a couple of sessions of back-breaking labour – aided and impeded in equal measure by my toddler Neve – to clear out the couch grass and dock leaves.

If you're working full-time and you can only get to the allotment every week or two, the key is to start with easy things. I dispensed with pest-prone brassicas and high maintenance tomatoes, concentrating on things that could get by with occasional weeding and watering.

And we were away – sowing rows of scallions, leeks and beetroot, putting up pea supports, planting seed potatoes in trenches and lines of raspberry canes. Neve enjoyed running about, digging with her toy trowel, filling pots with "pompost" and occasionally leading me a merry dance.

The biggest beetroot were the size of golf balls as I didn't thin them properly and the raspberries were a faff, thanks to the maze of netting I put up.

But the potatoes were a resounding success, as were the scallions which are still supplying our kitchen.

Meanwhile, the peas proved the star of the show with Neve getting a real kick out of popping pods. Only a few meagre bags made it into the freezer.

And the main thing was the joy of waking up on a sunny weekend morning and heading off to the allotment with a two-year-old, a dog and a lunchbox of snacks. We'd spend hours imitating the cows in the next field, goggling at ladybirds and weeding away the cares of the working week before returning home muddy, sunburned and carrying bagfuls of vegetables.

When I was ill for a while at the height of the heatwave, the allotment was as good as a tonic. I couldn't bear the heat of the house so I'd escape to Minnowburn with a bag of fruit and a tin of Cherry Coke and read a book in the long cool grass under the trees.

It was satisfying to clear away all the dying vegetation at the end of the summer and even better getting the jump on the next season by sowing alliums.

Storms lashed the city through the winter and we didn't go near the plot – but it was all the sweeter a few weeks ago when the first sunny day of spring finally dawned and we were confronted with fresh shoots of garlic and onion poking through the soil!

 'This takes my mind off feeling unwell'

Former plasterer Clive Kavanagh (49) has a plot at Eden Allotments which are run by Carrickfergus Borough Council and in just a few years have become the biggest allotments in NI. He says:

I was always interested in growing things when I was young because my mum and dad grew flowers in our back garden in Carrickfergus.

Then I worked abroad when I was younger. I grew stuff when I lived in Germany such as potatoes, leeks and tomatoes. I had a big summerhouse with a garden.

I am disabled now with MS-related fibromyalgia which makes me terribly sleepy and sore and tired. I also have arthritis in my feet and my hips.

But I've had this wee allotment now for six years. It is fantastic – it takes your mind off your illness and gives you a wee bit of exercise. My brother helps me with it and so does my nephew.

From the allotment, which is 40 feet by 40 feet, I can grow enough potatoes to do me and my mum all year round. I can get enough onions and tomatoes to do us all year as well.

Every day I'm here I bring my Jack Russell dog, Maggie. She is here all the time and she knows where to walk and where not to walk. She will go up and down the walkways and avoid the plots.

I grow carrots, parsnips, onions, leeks, strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, turnips and plums. I have six plum trees and I've a couple of flower beds with dahlias and tulips. There are a couple of arches with trellises where I grow clematis and roses as well.

In the summer, I am here most days. If I'm not well enough to work, I sit in the sun on my seat. I have a wee kettle in the shed and I make a cup of tea.

It's about getting out in the fresh air. It's so enjoyable planting things and watching them grow and eating them.

It's really, really good.

It's better than sitting in the house being sick and bored. It would drive you to suicide – that's how I feel sometimes. You're aching and sore and you just don't feel well all the time.

I feel ill most days but the allotment is like a wee pick-me-up.

Even if you can't do anything, it's great just sitting and having a chat with your mates.

My illness leaves me.

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