Page last updated at 23:51 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 00:51 UK

Hell in earth

The current grow-your-own trend has sparked a new wave of interest in allotment owning. But before you get swept up in the trend, the BBC's Paul Reynolds has some words of warning.

Paul Reynolds on allotment
Water debacle - Paul Reynolds in his troubled allotment-tending days

Let's get one thing straight - the Queen does not have an allotment.

An allotment is a piece of land you till and toil over yourself. You do not get your gardener or under-gardener to do it for you.

What the Queen has is an old-fashioned kitchen garden. All country houses used to have one. Buckingham Palace has such huge grounds that it almost qualifies as a country house and now it has a kitchen garden. It is an admirable thing to have.

But it is not an allotment. The Palace spin doctors, who recently unveiled the garden, have scored one over the media on this.

I know about allotments because I had one in the 1970s. It can best be described as hell in earth.

At the time, there was a grow-your-own trend, as now. It was the age of The Good Life, the BBC TV series in which Tom and Barbara Good turn their suburban garden into a vegetable and pig patch.

I got my allotment in 1974. The Good Life series began in 1975. It ran until 1978. My allotment did not.

Kingston council had plenty of spare allotments down by the by-pass - they had not come back into fashion quite yet - and was only too pleased, if a little surprised, at being asked for one.

It turned out to be a serious piece of land. The old chap who had the one next to mine (full of good green things and even roses) was cheery but he looked a bit puzzled. He was right to be puzzled.

This is what you have to know about allotments:

NATURE IS YOUR ENEMY

You become locked in combat with a tenacious and devious opponent. My allotment was covered in what I thought was grass. It turned out to be the dreaded couch grass. The more you cut up the roots in your efforts to dig it out, the more it grows.

The Good Life
A lot to answer for - The Good Life's Tom and Barbara

I decided that industrial methods were required. I hired a rotovator and balanced it precariously half out of the car boot as I headed off for a stint as a ploughman. The old chap next door looked even more puzzled. And my illusions of being care and machine-free were already gone.

I soon learned that clearing the land is only the start. You have to keep it cleared. Otherwise nature strikes back - and couch grass returns. As it did.

And so did blackfly - especially on the broad beans, which they love. And maggots (or was it clubroot?) that destroyed the roots of cabbages and other brassicas (a word I newly learned).

THE COST

I have already mentioned the car. It took 10 minutes to get down to the by-pass. I reckoned that you needed to be on site working for at least an hour at least three times a week. Otherwise you were overwhelmed. And that kind of driving drives up the cost.

And don't forget the tools, seeds, fertilizer (on my sandy soil it was vital - forget that organic dream), net coverings (birds are another arrow in nature's quiver), fungicides, green and blackfly spray. I could go on.

It wasn't long before I started thinking of how easy it had been to get veggies at Kingston market. Or at the little shop round the corner. And frankly, they tasted just as good. Another illusion gone.

THE GLUT

Nobody told me that everything came in at once. Suddenly, there was an abundance of French beans (my most successful effort). But what to do with them?

Vegetables
You wait ages and nothing, then it all turns up at once

The only answer was to freeze them but in those days we were told to "blanch' them first which meant boiling them for a minute (I never did work out why) and then bagging them up in fiddly portions. Of course you needed a freezer (more cost and valuable space used up). And you can't freeze potatoes.

Courgettes also did well. But we could not eat them fast enough and within days, they had grown to the size of marrows. I found that I needed a compost heap for my unused crops.

And naturally (for nature works according to its implacable timetable), when we had a glut, so did everyone else. The shops were full of whatever we had. The question loomed ever larger - so why grow your own?

THE EFFORT

My plan of three hours a week was the basic minimum. And it was rarely achieved after the initial enthusiasm wore off, which it did very quickly. One began to find excuses - babysitting was one, though I, or rather we, did take the pram down there a few times (see photo), which required more effort getting it in and out of the car.

And in the photo, I also see a pathetically small watering can. This just about sums up the odds I was facing. You had to use one as the council did not let us deploy hoses, so you had to trudge back and forth to a tap some way from my alloted space. It took ages. Mark you, in the photo the broad beans look quite healthy (you can tell from their flowers) though I am not sure why I covered them in a wire cage, as blackfly would not be - and were not - deterred by that.

THE CONCLUSION
Buckingham Palace garden
The Queen and Prince Philip survey their new 'allotment'

In the end, after the second summer, I think, it all became too much. I had found out that I was not really up to this hand-to-hand combat. It was too much effort, too costly and you could get stuff from the shops or market much more easily. I told myself this was also helping the people growing and selling it...

I tried cutting the allotment in two, giving half to a friend who was much better than me (he had been in the Canadian navy). But I knew the end was coming. The couch grass made a steady return to my half. Then I hung up my spade.

I came to think that man and nature do not live well together but are best apart.

And unless you are really prepared for a fight, leave it to the professionals. The Queen does.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Having an allotment isn't a homespun alternative to Tesco. Despite the recent hype. It's a hobby with an edible by-product. You either enjoy doing it or you don't. I've actually grown bits of stuff I don't like this year, simply because I haven't tried growing it before.
TerryB, London

When my husband came home 18 years ago and told me gleefully that he had acquired an allotment, I was furious with him. He could not even cut the lawn for me (I was seven months pregnant with a toddler of 16 months as well). However, over the years I gradually took over tending the plot. I use as many labour-saving devices as possible. I love bringing home piles of fruit and vegetables. However, it is always a battle against the pests. Even the weather is against you, and when potato and tomato blight ruins the crop, it's still hard to take. But I would not be without it.
Dr Janet Jackson, Sudbury, Suffolk, UK

My dad had an allotment a few years ago, thankfully only a short walk away from the home. Many an evening he'd toddle off through the village with this wheelbarrow loaded with tools, and then return a while later feeling accomplished. Somehow I managed to avoid all involvement, but it kept him happy and meant he got some air and some exercise so all was well - then we moved.
James B, Sheffield, UK

Allotmenting is a great thing for many reasons. You can grow things that you would never find in a supermarket - asparagus peas, salsify etc. You can allow fruits (especially tomatoes and strawberries) to ripen naturally on the plant, instead of having ether gas pumped over unripe fruit in vast greenhouses. You can harvest food shortly before eating it, maximising its taste and nutritional value. You get good exercise. You make new friends - if you had spoken to the old chap next door you might have actually received some good advice and maybe even some free plants. Maybe if you had done basic investigation first, your expectations might have been more realistic. You say nobody told you about gluts, but any veg growing book worth its salt would contain this information. Yes, growing your own food is hard work, but extremely rewarding. With good husbandry and a bit of research you can make the job much easier, and it gets easier every year.
Lorna, Warwickshire

It's as if Paul has been reading my mind. I've had an allotment now for two years and on the TV they make it seem so easy. It started as a hobby but becomes an obsession, a war of me against nature. This year, thankfully, I've devoted less time and am a bit more laid back - I actually think allowing large amounts of weeds gives the slugs food without them interfering with crops. April and May are intensive but now I just go up a couple of hours a week and potter about. The difference between now and the 70s is I think we recognise the importance of organic growing as part of the future , it is no longer a hobby but fast becoming a necessity and I feel I am learning skills that I can pass on to my grandchildren.
Kenny Peers, Birkenhead

Phah to such naysayers. I am a longtime gardener new to growing vegetables and wish I had begun years ago. The indescribable joy of picking your own produce to augment home cooking can be accessible from a window box upwards, and if an allotment was too much commitment, then perhaps better planning and shared effort and proceeds is the answer. But really on that kind of cost-benefit analysis very little would ever be ventured most especially that other much loved home-dabbling - the child.
Mary McNulty, Belfast

Size matters, as does a little careful management. Don't overstretch yourself with a huge plot. If the soil/ground conditions defy you, cover it with weed screen and wall in some decent soil with planks. Select varieties which are pest resistant or which discourage pests from adjacent plants. Grow as much variety as your pocket will allow to avoid gluts and to maximise the seasons. Make your plot comfy with a shed/veranda to chill out periodically. Simple planning will take the unnecessary stress out of a hugely satisfying family pastime.
Mike Lancashire, Blackpool, UK

I'm in my first season as an allotment holder, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Yes it's been hard work clearing and digging, and yes you have to visit a couple of times a week to hoe off any weeds that are popping up, but if you keep on top of it, you only have to work hard once a year. As for the taste of the produce - fantastic. You will be surprised at how strong a flavour carrots really have, how sweet peas are, and sweet corn is out of this world.
Stu, Cwmbran, Torfaen

My friend and I took on a large allotment with the aim of growing some "organic" fruit and veg. The battle with weeds, the dreaded couch grass, greenfly, blackfly, birds, mice and rats and every other pest or disease you had never heard of became an absolute slog, and the expense far outweighed the reward. When we made the decision to give the allotment up it was an absolute relief. I think maybe if you have awful lot of time on your hands, perhaps retired, and thoroughly enjoy gardening, a small allotment might be a good idea. If not, then my advice would be leave it to the professionals.
Louise Allen, Worthing

Tell me about it! I've had nothing but the best of intentions for the block of land we designated as our patch at the bottom of the garden. I've grown everything from seed in the greenhouse to a fairly established patch in the garden. I now have plenty of brown, mushy courgettes on their way, a few pieces of cabbage, sprout and broccoli stem that the slugs have left me and some dried up chilli plants. My only success is my potato crop. But the wife won't eat them because potatoes are too fattening. My fondest memory? Watering my babies for a good 45 minutes before I realised a leak further down the hose was also watering my crotch. Love it.
James Wittering, Worcester

The fact that the Queen doesn't dirty her own hands reminds me of an incident from my youth which demonstrates the progress of at least some social mores. The gardener of the local squire of our feudal Surrey village in the 1950s had the temerity to enter the annual village flower show competition for the best vegetables. He was unlucky enough to win first prize which aroused the envy of his rivals. They reported the fact that the vegetables had been grown on the land of the squire. The result was that the first prize was transferred to the squire himself, despite his unsullied hands, and the gardener lost his job and of course his important standing in the community. What stands out most strongly from my childhood memories of this incident is the reaction of his fellow-villagers, including my own parents. Everyone condemned the gardener as a cheat and the landowner as the victim.
Brian Thompson, London, England

We have a large veg garden with raised beds. When we get a glut of anything we share it with others like elderly neighbours and family. People appreciate it. Spuds, onions, swede and carrots get stored in bags in the shed; beans, cabbage, stewed rhubarb etc are frozen and used through the winter. Shallots and beetroot are pickled in jars. It's not rocket science - you just need to get yourself organised and keep on top of things.
Linda, Fife



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