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Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Friday, 11 August 2006 11:50 UK

Can you dig it?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Allotment graphic

Forget the flat caps, allotments are becoming fashionable among inner-city eco-warriors. So why the sudden urge to grow your own and, with constant demands for new land to build houses, how safe are our allotments?

What's worth a 10-year waiting list? How about the chance to get mud on your boots and talk about carrot propagation?

Because the face of the traditional allotment is changing. It's no longer just old men, Thermos flasks and Woodbine smoke coiling over the vegetables.

Instead there is a new breed of allotment enthusiast - more likely to be younger, female and bringing along the children to help out.

And the demand for these allotments is such that in some inner-city areas there are waiting lists stretching out for years and years ahead.

"There are far more women on allotments now," says Claire Willis of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG).

Urban farmers

"The image was once the flat-cap brigade, a place where a husband went to get away from his wife - but that's changed," she says.

Knowing your onions: Fears about food safety make allotments popular

"It's becoming much more of a community activity. I see my neighbouring allotment holder bringing his children, so they can watch how to cultivate vegetables and seeing the distinction between growing food and buying it from a supermarket," says Ms Willis.

Next week is National Allotment Week, which is being launched with claims of an allotment revival.

This isn't so much in rural or suburban areas, where allotments can remain underused, but in much grittier inner-city settings.

If there is a surge in allotment use, it's in these densely-populated, highly-urbanised places, where the traditional sounds are more likely to be the wailing of police sirens than the gentle thud of a digging shovel.

Organic tastes

In north London, the allotment waiting list in Camden has stretched to 10 years and in parts of Haringey the lists are so long that they've been closed.

Heidi Alexander
Heidi Alexander, deputy mayor, has seen demand for allotments rise

In Lewisham in south London there are waiting lists of more than six years for some allotments.

"There are a lot more women and younger families interested," says Heidi Alexander, the borough's deputy mayor. And "younger professionals" moving into the area are also swelling the ranks of the allotment diggers, she says.

These eco-conscious city dwellers are being influenced by suspicions about food safety - and reflect the growing demand for organic produce.

"It's cheaper and healthier to grow your own food and there's a greater awareness that it helps the environment," says Ms Alexander, although the time it takes to cultivate an allotment can't be overlooked.

"People want to be confident that the food that they and their families are eating hasn't been grown with pesticides. They want control over exactly what's going on their families' plates for dinner."

Waiting lists

In Brighton too waiting lists have been shut until further notice.

Paul Brannan's artichokes
300,000 allotments
200,000 allotments lost since late-1970s
Typical annual yield is 300 of produce
Allotment charges 25 to 120 per year
Allotment plot is 10 poles (250 sq m)
A pole is measured as the length from the back of the plough to the nose of the ox

"The sort of people using allotments has changed a lot over the past decade," says Joyce Edmond-Smith, the councillor responsible for sustainability.

As well as more women and families, she says there are "groups of people, friends who get together and rent a plot that they wouldn't be able to look after by themselves".

Allotments are even being used to improve health - with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers running "green gyms", where gardening skills are used as a form of exercise.

But it's not all sunshine in the garden. The environmental boom might have made it hip to grow your own vegetables, but the long-term picture for allotments remains uncertain.

Under threat

There has been relentless pressure on land for housing - and even though the number of allotments has remained steady for the past decade at about 300,000, this follows a sustained period of post-war decline.

allotment during World War Two
Allotments were encouraged to help the war effort

In the late-1940s, in the wake of the wartime Dig for Victory campaign to combat food shortages, there were 1.4 million allotments - and even in the late 1970s there were still almost 500,000.

Allotments have a protected status - and a spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government says that it aims "to deliver and protect allotments" and that "planning policy guidance is clear that new housing development should not be at the expense of losing recreational open space".

But it still remains a struggle to save the land from developers, says NSALG's Claire Willis. Untended plots are particularly vulnerable, and without legal protection she warns that "allotments would cease to exist".

"People pay lip service to wanting green space... but with the building programme going on at the moment, it looks as though we won't stop until everything is concreted over," she says.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Would love to own an allotment! Have been on a waiting list now for two years with no hope of having one at the moment, despite many of the allotted ones not having anything done on them! There should be greater control over unused plots.
Conker, Wigan

I have been on the waiting list in Lewisham for two years now - with no end in sight. The few vegetables I manage to grow at home are always so tasty that I just want to be able to grow more. Besides, I resent buying vegetables in the supermarket that have been picked early and are grown half way round the world in places where water could be put to better use.
A Pattenden, London

I am the Allotment Officer for Exeter City Council, I would certainly agree that in the past 4 years we have seen a dramatic upturn in allotment requests and tenancies alike. The current trend being for people who wish not only to "grow their own", but also to enjoy a peaceful and social environment away from the rigours and stresses of todays hectic society. We have 27 sites, with 1288 individual plots of varying sizes from 3 rods to 25 rods. Unfortunately we have waiting lists of up to 15 years at one site and 2-4 years at others. I appreciate people's comments that some plots are unkempt whilst there being a substantial waiting list. The Allotments Acts 1908-1950 give the tenants and landlords alike certain rights. It is very frustarating for the authorities to have to give a mininmum of 28 days notice as to Non-Cultivation and a further 40 days Notice Of Intended Re-Entry ( or Notice to Quit)
John Lawrence, Exeter, Devon

I am 29 and have kept an allotment for four years off and on. For my new site I got the last plot available in Colchester, apparently. I have a shed, with a blind, and I have built myself a turfed sofa. I recently invested in guttering. I listen to heavy metal while I rotorvate and something more relaxed while I weed. The sensation of planning ahead, of crop rotation and of just realising what grows when is just about as good as it gets. Oh and entering onions in the Rose and Horticultural society autumn show is hilarious. Do it, do it now.
David Grocott, Colchester

My wife and I got our allotment in North Herts three years ago, just ahead of the rush. There was no waiting list and we had lots of vacant plots to choose from. Since then, allotmenting popularity has exploded and we have a waiting list in our area. There is a wide mix of age and background to the allotment crowd now, with a growing trend towards organic growing and unusual varieties you just can't buy in a supermarket.
Drew Campbell, Baldock

I have been on the waiting list for an allotment for over a year and I desperately hope to get one from land that a new housing development has been asked to provide. I think this is a good compromise. Can't wait to grow my own veg!
Jennifer, Amesbury

My husband and I were granted our allotment last November in Tottenham, London, after a three-year wait. It is close to the police station and I find it rather amusing when a convoy of ten police vans goes screaming past while I'm weeding. Still, it's a little oasis; the perfect place to destress from a demanding life in the big city. We are professionals in our late thirties and expected to be the youngest plot holders, but we were surprised to discover that most of the others are our age or younger and female or couples. We all revere the retired Jamaican grandad who is a mine of knowledge and whose crops outshine everyone else's. We've been feasting every day on the fruits of our labours and it's a blessing. Don't waste any time--get on that list NOW!
Celia Brooks Brown, Northeast London

I am secretary of the Compton Allotments and we have seen a huge resurgence in tenancy with a lively mixed-class group where skills and experience are shared - five new sheds in five months! There is pressure to sell-off a small area which is being resisted in the parish council. We have only ever had stand-pipe watering so this year is no different to any other water-wise. We have harvest and springtime and summertime parties. We have to defend our crops here from rabbits, deer, badgers, birds, squirrels.
David Haskins, Compton, Guildford

I am disabled (wheelchair). I manage a centre for people with physical impairments, we have an accessible allotment with raised beds, council have been very helpful and have other usetrs of allotments, we grow all our own veg and cook it. Disabled people can get involved with allotments, council now need to provide equality of any service and equality of opportunities.
Mike Burrows, Redhill/ Reigate

Finally people are beginning to realise that allotments are cool and trendy and not just for old men who want to grow massive marrows.
Mrs J. Abba

I've had my allotment for two years now and have progressively become more and more obsessed with growing my own vegetables. The trend on our patch matches that described above and there is a definite trend with younger people 25-40 taking up plots. We're also very lucky in having people with plots who have 50+ years experience and who are also willing to share their knowledge. Invariably you end up with too much of one thing and there's an informal bartering system that enables you to swap your excess for someone else's. My landlord is also not averse to swapping pints for veg! I intend to keep mine for as long as I can, my neighbouring grower is 84 and still going strong. We mustn't let them be taken away as they provide therapy, pleasure and great veg.
Jeremy Hartley, Cheddar

I managed to rent an allotment this year and I would advise anyone who does this to try not to do everything at once. I have about half my allotment cultivated and I cannot described the joy of picking your own fresh vegetables. So far potatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, courgettes, green beans, french beans, sweetcorn. Long may allotments flourish. We must resist the developers at all costs.
Michael Boulton, Reading

I got my plot in January and spent less than 100 in total including rent, tools, bulbs and seeds. I work on the plot for a couple of hours each weekend and an hour in the week and I have the most amazing crops. I've had to give lots away because there's simply too much and everything is so sweet and delicious. Potatoes, onions, garlic, runner beans, sweetcorn, courgette, celery, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, calabrese, chard, suede and that's not counting the fruit that I inherited, raspberries, tayberries, blackberries, apples and pears. I'm already planning next years crops and most of my mates are now looking for plots. Long live the (green) revolution.
Adam, Birmingham

This is my first year on an allotment after a three and a half year wait. First few months were back breaking (dig, dig, weed, weed, curse mightily about couch grass), but since it has flourished and we have almost stopped buying veg, with the plot yeilding most of what we need. It's also a great way to unwind after a busy day.
WPO, Reading

I applied for an allotment as was gutted to be told that there is a three year waiting list in the area. In the meantime I have started growing as much as I can in my flat.
Andy, Newcastle

I've been on the waiting list for an allotment for two years now, when I joined I was number 38 on the list, so no chance of getting one for 50 years and to annoy me more many of the plots are left unused, rumour has it the council wants to sell the land for development I was advised to try for a plot in a town 10 miles away!
Emma Brooks, Conwy

We recently had to fight for our plots when our local council wanted to build a school on the site. We organised petitions and demonstrations outside our council offices and within two weeks they scrapped plans to concrete over the plots.
Gareth Hughes, Southend on Sea

Me and my partner (both in our 20s) took on an allotment in May. It's a welcome outdoors from our inner-city flats and a fab way to enjoy the weather. It's also quite therapeutic and so rewarding when you see the fruits of your labour. Be warned though - it's hard work and takes commitment (weeding, daily watering etc)
Dan, Derby

I would love to have an allotment but there are none at all in Verwood. Any ideas about how interested parties could go about lobbying for an allotment site?
Pat Hudson, Verwood, Dorset

As a man I think it is important that men have some space of their own that is not hijacked by women: the football is full of women these days, as is every pub you go into. Maybe men need somewhere like an allotment to "get away from their wife" as your article suggests. I will be accused of sexism for this message no doubt but women have a variety of "female only " activities. Why can't you let us have something for ourselves?
Phil Harrington, Newport

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