Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland gardeners tell why personal allotments give a taste of the good life

Ten years ago, the walled garden at the National Trust's Springhill property near Magherafelt was pegged out and transformed into community allotments. Linda Stewart talks to five gardeners with a real passion for growing their own

Digging deep: Arlene O’Neill
Digging deep: Arlene O’Neill
Relaxing time: Rose Mary Johnston enjoys growing her own food
Digging deep: Arlene O’Neill loves spending time at the allotment with her son, Seth
Digging deep: Arlene O’Neill's son, Seth
Spade work: Fiona McCartney inspecting her plants
Spade work: Fiona McCartney on her plot and inspecting her plants
Family fun: Will Tate
Family fun: Will Tate's son Thomas
Fresh produce: Erika Krallingue grows a wide range of fruit and vegetables
Historic setting: Springhill, home to the community allotments

Just three weeks after the plots were pegged out by National Trust staff at Springhill's walled garden, they were all taken, such was the local enthusiasm for the good life.

 And within one year, the allotmenteers had made huge improvements to their green retreat, creating a composting area, communal facilities, picnic table, summer house, seed swap station, herb garden and even a polytunnel. Now the allotments have grown to 27 plots and there is a waiting list of prospective growers keen to get involved.

This weekend the National Trust is celebrating 10 years of the Springhill Community Allotments with a special open day.

Civil servant Rose Mary Johnston (43), from Moneymore, says:

My parents would both have been into gardening. But my brother had his allotment first and I liked the look of it. The first year I wanted to grow potatoes and I found that it's such a relaxing activity, especially when you are stuck at a desk all day.

I must have the plot about seven or eight years.

I have a few fruit trees - gooseberries, raspberries and blackcurrants - and this year I am probably going to grow beetroot and radishes.

From last year I had early sprouting broccoli which is just coming out. I grow sweetcorn in the polytunnel - I usually grow chillis as well, and cucumber.

I think the most unusual thing I've grown was the sweetcorn - we weren't sure how it was going to go.

We always have corn on the cob for our starter at Christmas dinner and that year it was our own sweetcorn and our own potatoes and Brussels sprouts as well.

It's nice knowing that you are growing your own food.

Relaxing time: Rose Mary Johnston enjoys growing her own food

There are things that can go wrong - I planted Brussels sprouts one year and something came along and ate them. We sometimes have squirrels coming down, too.

I find it's nearly like meditation sometimes.

There's not always anybody else there and even if there is you don't have to speak to them. You just get on with it. We have a big clean-up twice a year and we bring out some of what we have grown. Everyone's lovely and very supportive.

Sometimes people grow too much and they hand the plants out to other people.

If you need advice, there is always someone there who can help."

'It's a fantastic opportunity...  I love being outside and the kids learn through play here'

Digging deep: Arlene O’Neill loves spending time at the allotment with her son, Seth

Senior childcare worker Arlene O'Neill (47), from Cookstown, has a son, Seth (12), and a stepson, Chris (30). She says:

My daddy would have grown vegetables and I lived in the country when I was young.

I always wanted to have an allotment - I live in a terrace house and I don't have any grass or a garden. The Springhill allotments were a fantastic opportunity and they gave me a chance to do this.

I love being outside and the whole play aspect. The children are learning through play and for me it's the muckier the better. There isn't any bad weather, just bad clothes.

Seth was probably about four when I got my allotment and it was lovely. At that stage he just wanted to dig - he had a tractor and he would dig a wee pond and fill it up with water. But we weren't making full use of the plot, so I gave it up.

To be honest, when I went back last year, it was funny to hear Seth talk about, 'Do you remember when we did this?' - it's really special to have an allotment and just spend time with each other.

I think I am probably more about the process rather than the end product - sometimes there are more weeds than plants.

I grow lettuce and spring onion - and there's the poly-tunnel, which is great because you can grow tomatoes and courgettes. Last year we grew beetroot, but it wasn't a success.

I usually grow peas and beans, but the peas don't generally make it home. I grow sunflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums and those kind of things.

I like sweet potatoes, so I planted them. I don't know where they went to or what happened, but nothing grew.

I tried to plant pumpkins last year, but that just didn't happen either."

‘The phone’s left at home and I potter about listening to the birds ... quiet is the new gold’

Spade work: Fiona McCartney inspecting her plants

Retired teacher Fiona McCartney, from Cookstown, says:

I experimented a lot over the years with window boxes, carrots in window boxes and fruits in tubs, but I always wanted an allotment.

I had contacted a couple of people I knew to try to turn fields into allotments, but unfortunately that didn't work out.

But I happened to be at Springhill when I saw the walled garden and it was almost like a door into the Mad Hatter's party. I was so disgruntled that I hadn't known about it and I didn't have an allotment.

It must be four or five years since I got my plot. I grow vegetables down there, which take less effort, and I grow fruit at home.

Each year I grow something different than I haven't grown before. One year it was baby Brussels sprouts, but when I went down to harvest them, there was a single 6in stalk left and nothing else, thanks to the rabbits and squirrels - at least somebody enjoyed them.

Then I tried New Zealand spinach and it's just a weed. It grows everywhere. It's beautiful, but it does take over.

I usually grow peas and beans and something else in between - last year it was sweetcorn.

I got great sweetcorn and made sweetcorn relish out of it. I have a cupboard full of different chutneys.

Another year I planted peas that grow along the ground but that was a disaster - the rabbits and grubs were well fed.

I love getting down there - I leave the phone at home and I potter about. I listen to the birds. I listen to people who are talking and I can hear the lawnmower going past.

It's the birds and sitting there by myself in the quiet. Quiet is the new gold.

It's my thinking time. Plants bring you back down to earth - it's just wonderful."

'At the end of the day we sit and eat what we have collected'

Fresh produce: Erika Krallingue grows a wide range of fruit and vegetables

Coppersmith Erika Krallingue (47) lives in Moneymore and has two children, John (12) and Emily (7). She says:

When I was young, my grandparents owned a massive big field and they grew vegetables and fruit and kept their own animals. They didn't go to the supermarket. That's how I got involved in it and that is why I like to grow my own vegetables.

This year, I am growing spring onions, garlic and lettuce, then I will start beetroot, carrots and zucchini. I also have blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries and blackberries - a little bit of everything. I started here in 2010. I heard about it from one of my friends, Seamus McCrystal, who was telling me about his allotment - I went up to see it and decided to get my own allotment.

They are nice people over there. Even if you didn't know anything about growing, you are learning so much from each other. Everybody reads about some of the stuff and we share the information.

Sometimes I grab all the kids and we make a fire and we'll have a barbecue or we'll bake potatoes. Other times they collect nettles and I make nettle soup - I teach the kids to make it as well.

At the end of the day we are sitting around a table eating what we have collected.

I like it because we get fresh air and there's no electronic games for the kids. At the allotment they can climb up a tree, they can be real kids.

We eat straight from the soil - it's a completely different taste and flavour from what you get at the supermarket.

It's different because you grow your own stuff. The kids take the dogs out and can have a nice walk and forage for mushrooms.

There are so many things that we can eat. In summertime there are the flowers that we can eat and I make cordial from elderflowers.

Since I've had the allotment, I've never bought a bayleaf as we have a bay tree - it's lovely.

I think we should go back more to the natural earth. Life is too fast. Humans are not prepared for such fast changes and we forget about where we are coming from."

‘It’s amazing for kids ... Thomas has his own shovel and spade’

Family fun: Will Tate's son Thomas

Will Tate (54), from Moneymore, is helped at the allotment by his four-year-old son Thomas. He says:

Five years ago we saw the allotment at an open day and I thought I'd like to give that a go. I grow cabbages - it's not industrial scale - and I've planted some garlic.

I come from country stock and my grandfather had a little allotment. He would grow lettuce and I still remember digging around with him and I guess that is where it all comes from.

I am usually pretty conservative in what I grow - although people have raised an eyebrow at the garlic at times.

Last year I grew beefsteak tomatoes and made soup out of them.

Family fun: Will Tate

It's really quiet there, they talk about the allotment community, but it's inside a walled garden and the allotment owners have the key, so a lot of the time you are in there on your own.

A lot of the time, it's just you and the birds. The prevalent atmosphere is total isolation which makes some people nervous.

They call it the secret garden. If you were wandering around Springhill, you wouldn't actually know it was there.

It's amazing for kids. We've our own tractor and trailer up there and Thomas plays with the other kids and they've a swing in there.

Thomas digs holes and he also rakes up woodchip. He's got his own shovel and spade now and last weekend he planted a bulb."

Invitation to a fun-filled day for all the family

The National Trust is inviting everyone to celebrate 10 years of Springhill's Community Allotments this Saturday from 11am-4pm, with a fun-filled day within the walled garden.

You can listen to live music from local musician Ryan McGarrity throughout the afternoon, while little ones can enjoy taking part in a potting station where they can take home a little piece of Springhill.

You can join assistant ranger Maureen Graham on a 'gardening for wildlife' tour, and Springhill gardener Warren Marten will also be running workshops in the allotments.

The first 50 visitors to enter the allotments will receive a complimentary mocktail.

Normal admission costs apply. Under fives and National Trust Members gain entry free.

For further information visit

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