Friday, 29 May 2020

Our Journey to Securing a 99 Year Lease: Part 2 ACVs, Leases and Co-ops

Yesterday I covered the research and findings into our 130-year-old history. Today I cover the actions we took to secure the allotments future.

ACV (Asset of Community Value) Under the Localism Act 2011 land or property of importance to a local community can be recognised and provided with additional protection from development. Voluntary and community organisations can nominate an asset to be included on their local authority's ACV register.

I had come across this relatively new statute in two other community projects and knew the value of registration. I established contact with the National Allotment Society to enlist their help and learn what experience allotments had with the new law. We were in fact one of the first allotments to seek this status which to date had been mainly taken up by real ale pubs! Today a growing number of allotments have registered as ACVs.

The Act only offers limited rights, but importantly puts a clear stake in the ground, such that the land can’t be sold, developed, repurposed, released without community consultation with the registered group who also have a right to bid. There is also a moratorium period which reduces the risk of being driven by other’s timescales and agenda. Importantly these rights are diluted if obtained after a development proposal has been lodged. It doesn’t impact the allotments rights under the 1925 statute but complements them. For ourselves it was a case of stating who we were, the historic value to community, the usage of the land, the benefits it gave al,l and importantly ensured the land was correctly identified.

Each council will have its own process and any application must pass several tests to be accepted. To say our submission was comprehensive is an understatement. We ensured we ticked all the relevant boxes and supplied a host of supporting material. The detailed ACV evaluation and grant by the Borough is available on our website

The Lease: I discovered quite by chance that Mudchute Associates wished to extinguish their current 30-year lease early and seek a new and longer term. Our ACV gave us the opportunity to place a foot in the Borough’s door and seek our own lease arrangements and in doing so redress the debacle of 1994. I will spare the meetings, the elongated process that took place, having to explain the Allotment statutes and ACV to some who had not heard of either.

At all stages we were advised and supported by the National Allotment Society. The London Regional Representative also attended several our Borough meetings. The key breakthrough came when others dug their feet in to try to circumvent our involvement. We reminded all of the ACV and that brought everyone back to the table.

It was going to prove fraught and complex to hold out for a totally independent lease and we suggested the use of a Head lease with subleases under it. We had many detailed discussions over some very contentious issues. It was clear that this was a different type of lease with the Borough holding the freehold and certain liabilities directly with the allotments, whilst the head lease covered more of the farm business. Our sublease was to all intent was somewhat an independent lease with stronger ties to the freeholder and the head lessee who could take action against the allotments with the full backing of the Borough, who were still bound by the 1925 statute. To cut a long story short we agreed and signed off on formal terms of contract for a lease. It was to be 99 year minus one day, peppercorn rent, self-managed, recognised our statutory status and as long as we didn’t breach the lease, we were secure. We even got assurances re transfer of the Head lease and in the event that of the head lessee became insolvent, our sub lease would revert direct to the Borough.

The protracted discussions would not have achieved what they did without the free legal advice and support given by the National Allotment Society.

In June last year, the proposed lease framework for both the Head Lease and our lease was proposed to the Borough cabinet by the Mayor and passed. 

The Society mandate: We kept all members informed throughout the journey asked them to vote on the lease terms offered, the move to an incorporated entity, as well as the constitutional changes we needed to make. We needed to explain in detail the options, and specific steps. The votes taken involved all members and easily achieved the 75% threshold required within our constitution.

The Move to a Co-op: To hold a lease we had to be a legal entity. There were several options ranging from a limited Company, to an incorporated Charity, or even a Trust. None of these appealed. Limited companies can become fiefdoms and directors can become once removed from shareholders. A CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation) had an appeal over the CIC (Community Interest Company) but allotments aren’t charities and it was felt we would be abusing the ‘charity’ status. This was our opinion and we respected that many allotment Societies have taken these routes.

We were about to give up when the National Society pointed us to the new Cooperative opportunity under the new Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014which comes under the FCA mutual and society arm and not Companies House nor the Charity Commission. Our membership agreed that the mutuality of a Coop was the way to go and better still we could do this by going under the National Society’s sponsorship and template Rules.

However, we didn’t wish to adopt the template Rules agreed between the National Society and the FCA for sponsored entities. They would require several amendments to fit and every line you altered cost money and had to be sanctioned by the FCA. So, we had to get the mandate from the membership to transfer under the template rules then immediately apply to the FCA for our amendments with the associated formal approvals from our membership to be submitted and sanctioned by the FCA. Once a registered company, this two-staged process was free.

Again, we did it and got our FCA seal and formal approval on the amendments. The Rules are important and the FCA scrutinises and ensures that any Rule changes have followed due membership process and are acceptable under the cooperative mutual approach. We also got the new Rules approved by the Borough and Head lessee by adopting an open and transparent approach.

The hardest thing was moving the new Cooperative to a new Bank. Several banks were unfamiliar with the 2014 statute and did not accept our ‘not for profit’ status and wanted to charge us business rates to bank with them. Only one bank recognised our FCA seal and number straight away and after checking our documents, gave us free banking.

The journey was a hard one, took us four years but was well worth it. We are secure from the developers who are building on the land around us. We now have a very productive and new relationship with the Mudchute Farm that is delivering the obvious benefits we never had. We can now seek to build on our sponsorships and funding to help us with our environmental and community outreach projects. Importantly, those members who follow us now have security of tenure for their lifetime.

We just need to issue the member’s shares certificates and re issue member’s packs, but until the virus eases, that is on hold.

I hope these two articles help others understand what can be done and some of the options available. To date its cost us less than £100 in registration fees with FCA and Land Registry. I cannot stress enough the support, guidance and value the National allotment Society has given us.    

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Our Journey to Securing a 99 Year Lease : Part 1 No Shortcuts

‘I am a bit confused; may I ask exactly what our relationship is with the Borough? If we pay rent to anyone for the land? And what the position is with our farm neighbours?’

I looked around the table to my fellow Committee members and awaited the clarity I sought. I was new to the Committee and as treasurer I needed to understand whether we had cost liabilities which I had not seen in the accounts. I also knew there was history, but being relatively new to the allotments, I was unclear what was fact and what was urban myth.

My questions received as many different answers as the number of members that sat around the table with me. What was clear was that no one knew with any authority what the answers were. This was some five years ago and since then we have taken a long and often frustrating journey to gain clarity, address the issues identified and be where we are today and in doing so securing our future for the next 99 years.

I realise all allotments are different, have different legal and commercial relationships with other parties, so some of this journey has been taken, or a different path pursued by others. However, I would like to summarise the steps we took and how we achieved what we did. In doing so I hope that some of what I share will help others to open the opportunities before them and have the confidence to take their own or similar journeys. This is not definitive route, nor is it meant to be prescriptive, but just a sharing of lessons learnt.

Research: It is impossible to understand where you can go unless you understand where you are and how you arrived there. Research might put folk off but unfortunately is part of the journey.

Our allotments are over 120 years old and have survived two World Wars where they not only fed many in the East End of London but being in the heart of London Docks, the whole area was subject to considerable bomb damage and lost records. On consulting old committee records and members, I quickly discovered many conflicting stories and many more questions that needed answers. Many of the records themselves were mainly paper and had not been well maintained and time consuming to review. There were many words but little substance to the answers sought. The Borough Archive Library was then searched, and it unlocked lots of information. As departments had changed names and references were often inconsistent or poorly indexed it was again a challenge to plough through Council minutes and papers. Newspaper records were useful but again often only confirmed what had been discovered.

I did unearth a comprehensive Council Administration book of record on the allotments which covered everything from 1947 to 1962. It detailed all minutes, AGMs, plot allocations, disputes, works. A great source of management information but more about day to day administration. I discovered several important council records which detailed department decisions and importantly those relating to the closure of the allotments and their reopening in the 60s and allocation of extra plots in the 70s.

We were able to conclude:
The earliest record was from 1892, the council took active participation in 1913, between 1913 and up to 1962 there were 365 plots covering the whole Mudchute managed by the Borough and under the freehold of the PLA (Port of London Authority). The PLA provided its own policing of the plots, which were surrounded by high fencing and had a manned controlled ticket access gate. 
In 1962 the PLA took back the land to extend the docks. However, it was clear from the records that this was not done fully in accordance to the statute and alternative land that was sought but even then could not be found. The rich Mudchute topsoil was sold off by the PLA. In 1965 and thanks to Lord Simon of the PLA and the then MP Dr Ian Mikado a small piece of derelict PLA land was given to the society as allotments. But this only gave us back some 30 plots. By the early seventies, the PLA had realised that containers were coming, and the docks expansion was a questionable move.

In 1978 we were given a further piece of land to accommodate a further 70 plots. This was initially established through the Borough and as part of the exercise we were granted full self-management and allowed to retain all rent collected. A year later the PLA sold the freehold of the whole Mudchute to the Borough and this in turn was managed by the new LDDC (London Docklands Development Corporation) which was established to transform and rejuvenate the whole Docklands area.

In 1994 a lease was granted by the Borough to Mudchute Associates who had established an urban farm on the Mudchute. The 30-year lease covered all the Mudchute including the allotments. The specifics of how this somewhat audacious move happened remain subject to many different viewpoints and what some would refer to as ‘minefield’ of council papers. The result was 24 years of soured relationships and ambiguity between the farm and allotments and what some may described as ‘sloping shoulders’ from the Borough.

The research and a host of formal questions raised to the Borough established that we were a statutory allotment, that they had not disposed of us in 1994 and that the lease they entered was unworkable with respect to the allotments. We could have left it there, but we didn’t want further ambiguity and wished to secure our rights and position going forward. There was no relationship between the allotments and the farm, no financial obligations and the allotments were not even mentioned, nor the land identified within the lease.  

This may have clarified the position of how we got to where we found ourselves and it did not address how we resolved the mess legally, amicably and rebuilt lost opportunities and secured our future.  

Tomorrow; the steps we took; ACV (Asset of Community Value) we were granted, the Society’s constitutional and tenancy rule changes we needed to make, the change to becoming an Incorporated Co-op and the 99 year lease we were granted.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

How Much Does Your Allotment Cost?

‘Why do you cover a lot of the plants with those tunnels?’ asks Lottie as I sit down on the bench next to her.

I give her a stroke and her face looks straight at me demanding an answer. Lottie is my ever faithful whippet who shares my plot, albeit without doing the work.

‘It’s to protect them from the cold, heat, birds, squirrels and foxes,’ I respond thinking I must have covered all the bases.

‘What about those white butterflies you had a fight with last year?’ she fired back.

‘Them too,’ I quickly returned.

‘So why are some dark green, other light green and others black?’

‘They are all same and are simply from different suppliers,’ I again quickly responded wanting to relax from the enquiring whippet next to me.

I thought for a minute, ‘I thought dogs were colour blind?’

‘Urban myth,’ Lottie says now relaxing and shifting into yet another stretching pose. ‘We merely have a different colour range to you which mostly is yellows, blues and violets.’

We relax with Lottie slowly closing her eyes again and leaves me surveying the plot and deciding on my next task.

Lottie stirs once more and obviously has something on her mind and for once it isn’t food, or squirrels, or that moggy cat from the farm. ‘Why can’t you just grow things in the fresh air without hiding them in the greenhouse, under those tunnels and making them climb up those canes?’

‘They would be killed by the wind, shrivel under the sun, be eaten alive by those pigeons and much more,’ I said.

‘Seems a lot of hard work when you can get them down the supermarket,’ she responds before nodding off once more to dream of chasing squirrels.

She has a point and you often conveniently forget to add up all the extras needed to grow your own down on the allotment. There are the basic tools; trowel, hand fork, spade, fork, rake, hoe, watering can, wheelbarrow, wellies, gloves etc. The basic extras to keep others from harvesting your produce or to support them; netting, frames, canes, repellents etc. The soil and plant enhancers: fertilizer, feeds, compost, etc. This list goes on and we haven’t mentioned seeds, pots, polytunnels, greenhouses, sheds and water butts. Many of these costs are one off and once bought last many years but some are recurring. Some are essential whilst others are bought over time as needed.

I often look at those catalogues from frame specialists and the adverts in garden magazines and wonder how much some folk must spend. There are a few high maintenance plots which would not look out of place in the Ideal Home show and magazine, where the look of the plot is obviously more important than the produce. These can be living next to a low-cost minimalist plot whose focus is very much on growing on every conceivable bit of soil and recycling anything and everything. If you  look across to Europe, many countries and communities have a different approach to allotments and the associated lifestyle.  

Then there is the rent, which can include water and utility fees, insurance, and other site costs. The costs here can vary significantly and in most cases are universally shared across all plots. The basic rental often is subject to the size of plot and whether concessions such as for pensioners are being applied.

However for the vast majority of tenants the allotment remains cheap compared to the gym and other exercise club costs. The annual rent trumps any golf club fee for value. You get more exercise that that season ticket for the football club whose performance can also give you mental stress on a regular basis. Even the Ideal Home plots are cheaper than renting our owning a garden in inner London. Perhaps it’s not about the true cost of the produce but the act of producing, the social gardening club without fences, the exercise and fresh air, the good life. 
I turn to Lottie whose eyes open slowly to look back at me.

‘But the food doesn’t taste the same in the supermarket,’ I tell her and look out across the plot once more and decide that it’s time to weed the salad bed.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Vegetable and Herb Expert - Dr D G Hessayon

When I grew up, we had Percy Thrower in black and white on the TV, the gardeners’ answer to Barry Bucknell’s DIY. We also had those ‘expert’ gardening bibles from Dr David Hessayon whose somewhat simple but straightforward books sold over 51 million copies and are as relevant today as they were some 50 years ago. Their popularity was such that the sales nearly equated to one for every household in the UK.

Then came the new gardeners to grace our lives; Geoff Hamilton, Alan Tichmarch, Anne Swithinbank, Pippa Greenwood, Charlie Dimmock, Bob Flowerfew, Joe Swift and many more. We now have the superstar and everyone’s favourite, Monty Don. These have all graced our TV, presented on radio and written books, for magazines and many column inches in those weekend newspapers.

We appear to have an insatiable appetite for all things gardening. One day Monty shows us an old trick on how to pot on plants without disturbing their roots and next its all over the internet with everyone with a smartphone posting it as the best tip of the day. One recommendation on TV and like some famous cook shows impact on supermarkets, the garden centres are stripped of the recommended plant.

At our allotment site we have a significant number of magazines which have been kindly donated by members and which provide a source of reference to be shared by all. I wanted to spend some lockdown time looking through these, so I arrived home with some 40 gardening magazines from our library covered May, June and some of July and roughly the years 2014 to 2018. The magazines were Gardeners’ World, Grow Your Own, Kitchen Garden and Gardening News.

Some of the magazines were weeklies, others monthly and all included vegetables and allotment subjects and all featured household gardening names and personalities. Today there are some dozen or so gardening magazines published in the UK and vying for all our attention.

I wet my lips and could not wait to learn everything that one needs to know about growing in this important part of the season and to gain some great tips on how to improve my harvest.

There was so much to digest I found myself overwhelmed with advice on how to, when to, and what to do if. Interestingly when you look at the same subject over several years and across all the magazines you got much of the same advice. It may have used the same words but merely in a different way. Some article formats were more digestible than others and needed more time and often were more a dissertation than a synopsis. I quickly established my favourite magazine and started to dismiss the others.

We will all have different reading tastes so will select accordingly. One aspect that I found consistently annoying was the adverts which came at you virtually at every page turn. In some cases, your eyes competed with the latest netting, cloches, frames, tools etc whilst trying to read the article opposite. It was a relief to get to the smaller classified ads in some magazines as at least you could quickly turn these pages.

Just as I was putting the magazines in a bag to return to the pavilion, I received another gardening catalogue. No not one of the many seed catalogues that I get quickly browse and dismiss to Room 101 but one that came with my ‘Nemaslug’ biological slug killer. 100 pages packed with every conceivable product in a one stop shop. I quickly realised what I already knew, that gardening can be an expensive hobby. Maybe I should file this little glossy for a rainy day or for when I win the Lottery.

I think we have enough magazines at our pavilion to answer every plot holder’s questions and provide all the needed tips for many years to come and, if needed, we can always go back to Dr David Hessayon’s bible.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Has the perception of allotments changed in the last few weeks?

There are many different perspectives of allotments, allotment folk and the value they provided to the community. Views will vary greatly, and some from outside may be far adrift from reality. The views of the value allotments give their plot holders will also differ by demographic and ethnic mix. But whatever the view held we must respect perception often trumps all.

Some views may be tainted by the length of waiting lists and in today’s instant gratification times, view allotments as elitist and plots unobtainable. Others may look through the gates and take the view that they often resemble a ramshackle shanty town. Others will look with envy at the fresh vegetables and jealously yearn for the good life. The perception will obviously vary significantly between rural and urban, suburban and inner-city sites. Some even see them as a sort of day care centre for the retired.

Over the years allotments have gone in and out of fashion. Often in times of hardship they attract attention, whilst in times of plenty and affluence they may lose that attraction.

As a result of the current Covid virus has perception of allotments changed?

One thing is very clear is that the profile of allotments and the benefits they offer has been raised. It may be increased column inches in the weekend broadsheets, or even the five-minute sound bite on TV but six months ago there would have been none.

Perhaps two things have helped to raise the profile. The first was the supermarket queues and the awakening that we as a society had become too dependent on the one stop shop, the perfect all year-round fresh food that knows no seasonality. When you start to add up the air miles and extended supply chains and things done to preserve freshness maybe you realise that there is fresh and there is fresh. The second profile raiser was the fact that allotments remained open all hours and even government ministers classed them as exercise. Later they were lauded as providing both mental well-being as well as physical exercise.

In areas of dense housing and where the shift from houses to flats often in the sky prevails, the loss of growing space or even meaningful open space is acute. Here in London’s Docklands we have the highest density of residential housing in Western Europe and everything new reaches into the sky in little boxes piled on top of each other. There is some open space but that is often managed by the estate to provide the lowest maintenance option and community gardening is rarely encouraged or provided.

It is ironic that allotments as we know them today are only some 100 to 150 years old. They were developed to provide, along with parks and libraries, a release from the industrial sprawl and to give householders a piece of land to grow on. Today the industrial sprawl has been replaced by concrete, glass and commercial and residential sprawl and yet we have less space than we did a 100 years ago or even 50 years ago. Some would suggest that we now have longer waiting lists and latent demand than at any time in the history of allotments.

I was once told by a Mayor of a borough that his colleagues were the problem and that they viewed allotments ‘as the lowest of the low.’ Well if there was ever a reason to change perception that was it.  Today even the hardest councils have had to keep allotments open and respect the benefits they give. Folk who thought gardening was something their parents and grandparents did have started to discover its many benefits and the closure of garden centres has in fact help raise awareness even further.

But perception must be changed and allotments have to continue to help that change happen. Allotments are integral to the community. They are environmental standard bearers, centres of both mental and physical well-being, educational stimulants, ethnic and social melting pots.
I often state to doubting eyes that only 28% of our plot holders are retired, only a minority are English origin and so on. These are small facts, but perception changes.

We do not judge the longest bean, the fattest leek, the straightest carrot. In fact, we celebrate the community outreach program we have and embrace environmental initiatives and projects.
Finally, I strongly believe that allotments do not stop at the fence and these physical barriers do not stop the allotments fully integrating into the community in many ways. Children may learn some basic gardening at school but where do we expect them to continue this after leaving school? Where do the disabled or long term sick go who are unable to physically manage a garden? How do we ensure social housing also has social gardening?

The city planners need to think holistically about the city-scapes they are responsible for developing and ensure that the various green and welfare needs highlighted by the current situation are not a lost opportunity. We can change not just perceptions but reality.   

Friday, 22 May 2020

Reflections on the Environmental Changes of Lockdown

Sitting on the allotment bench looking over the plot you realise how things have changed over the last few weeks. I am not talking about the virus and lockdown but the often unseen and unreported impact it has had and continues to have on our environment, living and time.

When Lottie and I walk along the bank of the Thames to the allotments the river looks still and peaceful and has a clarity which we never see normally. No, you can’t see to the bottom - the strong tides see to that and stir up the sediment on the river bed. However, it is clearer and obviously does not have the heavy and constant river traffic churning up the silt, nor the river pleasure boats throbbing out the latest dance as they rock up and down the river each evening.

The wooded path across to the allotment is laden with overgrown wildflowers, brambles and feisty nettles. The squirrels are everywhere and teasing Lottie on her walk. The trees create a canopy of shade and the path floor has carpet of fallen seeds. You could be in any woods in the deepest countryside not cheek to jowl with Canary Wharf.

On the allotment bench Lottie shifts her position, stretches, and gently places one of her front paws on my lap. That is to make sure I remain, and she can continue to nap knowing where I am.

It’s so peaceful today you can even hear the pine cones cracking open overhead in the sun, the chorus of birds singing, and yet we are less than a mile away from Canary Wharf and the new heart of the East End of London and densest residential housing in Western Europe. The Mudchute is a haven, a respite, an oasis in the bustling rejuvenated Docklands of London. Yet today the constant hum of cars is gone or is subdued, the sky is almost free from vapour trails and the sounds of City airport have temporary ceased. Even the farm in its lockdown is now deserted of children and visitors.

Earlier this week the gentle breeze brought us a sky full of seeds floating over the allotments from their parent plants and in search of a safe landing place. It almost looked like snow as the fluffy seed parachutes were carried in the wind and I found myself sneezing with the high pollen count. I wanted to shout out, ‘Don’t worry it’s hay fever not the virus!’ But who would have heard me? A day later the seeds were gone and no doubt the next time I’ll see them they will be young weed seedlings sprouting up and begging to be weeded out of the plot.

Yesterday was strange. In the morning there was real heat in the early morning sun. You realised it was going to be hot and the plot needed an early drink to help it through the day. The greenhouse already resembled a sauna and the door was wedged open much to the relief of all inside. I merely moved out the Sweet Corn and found sweat pouring across my face and trickling down my back. It was clearly time to go home and Lottie panting, agreed.

Late in the afternoon we returned to rehydrate the plot and bring the Sweet Corn back in.
Sitting on the bench contemplating life as Lottie and I do, I sensed a change, something different. At first I could not put my finger on it but then I realised what it was. The air was clean and with the bright sunshine you had that light intensity you don’t normally have, or ever see in London. As a painter you appreciate the light intensity you get in places like the Mediterranean but to see that sharpness of contrast and clarity in London, we must have lost a lot of air pollution! Perhaps I should put the jigsaw and books to one side and do some painting in London while it lasts.

Today I planted out the Sweet Corn and as I put my hands into the soil it was warm, or should I say a lot warmer than normal. Perhaps I don’t normally notice it, perhaps it is no different, but I sensed that the plants would enjoy their nice new warm surroundings and a cool drink. It makes you realise that the science of ground heat source probably has more to it than a few Grand Design buildings.

How long will this new environment last? China has returned to smog and it would appear inevitable that we will return to our noise, air and general pollution levels, but today at least we can enjoy what we have.  

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Name that Vegetable

All allotment sites are worked by an increasingly diverse cultural and ethnic group of plot holders. They bring with them their own growing methods and often their own plants. Some plants are remarkably like those we are used to seeing, some of which are very exotic, some we may regard as weeds. But often they are an introduction into something very new and different. I think back to the knobbly yellow courgette I was introduced to growing last year and that stayed firm when cooked and had a nutty almond taste.

We share, embrace the new and all learn from each other. We are long past the longest carrot, straightest bean and now it is about different varieties of fruit and vegetables some of which many of us may have only seen on our travels.

Mainstream TV continues to present us with the classic English varieties and if you are very lucky a smidgen of something new. This more establishment perspective is often accompanied by a quick introduction into the plant’s genealogy via their Latin name. If you are lucky enough to know Latin great, but if not in true BBC style, they give you five seconds to write it down by giving you it as a subtext at the bottom of the screen. Now who goes into their local garden centre or B&Q and expects them to understand Latin? This strange reverence to the plant’s genealogy appears to change when they refer to vegetables. Here the common name is often the prevalent one used. Some may suggest that this is somewhat down to the BBC RHS culture and expecting us all to know our veg, but to look for higher meaning when talking about our flowers.

I am dyslexic, so Latin goes in one ear and frankly comes out the other and means nothing to me. I rely on the common names and glossy pictures on the seed packets and seed catalogues. I must also admit today I only look at the fruit and vegetable pages as I now only have an allotment and what flowers I do grow have to have purpose. I don’t think drifts of Lunaria annua, or Hesperis matronalis or even Matthiola incana  (old fashioned stocks, sweet rocket and Honesty) have a place unless they are complementary to the vegetables, can be cut, or serve as a pest deterrent around the vegetables.

Today’s ethnic diversity of plot holders will vary from site to site, borough to borough, town and city and within a county. On our site we have Chinese, Bangladesh, Turkish, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish to name a few and even an American. So, finding a common language to describe the simplest of vegetables can be a challenge but naming something you are unfamiliar with is even more of a challenge. We discovered recently that a plant we class as poisonous is regarded as perfectly harmless and when prepared correctly is eaten by one group.

An interesting issue relates to cross-border commerce and the international designations or codes given to be machine read and language independent. There are government pages which list this and it’s refreshing they reference them by their common name, listing alternative common names their Latin name and the heading code which can have many subheading extensions. They also distinguish between fresh and frozen, roots and tubers, families such as legumes and herbs and spices. Fancy referring to your tomatoes 0702.

The song says, ‘I say tomato, you say tomato.’ If we ignore Esperanto which I came across in this research and even all the various names in the different Indian languages. What are these European named vegetables?

1.       German: Kartoffel, French: pomme de terre, Spanish: patata, Italian: patata, Portuguese: batata, Dutch: aardappel, Polish: ziemniak, Latin: Solanum tubersum
2.       German: Lauch, French: poireau, Spanish: puerro, Italian: porro, Portuguese: alho-porro, Dutch: look, Polish: warzywo cebulowe, Latin: Allium ampeloprasum
3.       German: Tomate, French: tomate, Spanish: tomate, Italian: pomodoro, Portuguese: tomate, Dutch: tomaat, Polish: pomidor, Latin: Lycopersican esculentum
4.       German: Paprika, French: poivron, Spanish: pimiento, Italian: peperone, Dutch: paprika, Polish: strąk papryki, Latin: Capsicum annuum 
5.       German: Gurke, French: concombre, Spanish: pepino, Italian: cetriolo, Portuguese: pimento, Dutch: komkommer Polish: ogórek, Latin: Cucumis sativas
6.       German: Kürbis, French: citrouille, Spanish: calabaza común, Italian: zucca, Portuguese: alóbora, Dutch: pompoen, Polish: dynia, Latin: Cucurbita

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Working in Lockdown at the Allotments

We are all a bit Covid 19 worn out. Newspapers cover every aspect of it starting at the front page and ending on the back Sports page. TV do not restrict it to the News but spread it across the schedules between repeats and old films and subject us to those Skype ‘talking heads’ from their own homes. It’s interesting to see what the homes look like, or what they want us to see. Zoom has become the big Social media winner facilitating exercise classes and conference calls. But has much changed down on the allotment?

It was soon made clear that allotments were exercise and could be attended but as with every allotment up and down the country we all had to quickly adapt and implement new temporary guidelines and rules. The farm which surrounds us went into lockdown around its core animal areas so restricting our site access but bringing home the need to exercise common sense and protect ourselves and others. Our allotment at the new Crossrail gardens at Canary Wharf became out of bounds and still is today. We had to work with Canary Wharf Group as we still grew the plants but could not plant them as things were on hold. It has been like growing for Chelsea, or several Chelsea’s without the show.

Meetings were cancelled and some would suggest little missed. Seed swaps and Plant swaps had to change but still were.

There were more notices pinned to noticeboards, gates and sent via email. We found ourselves generating notices as things evolved but thankfully are now able to consolidate these onto one A4 sheet (see the consolidated sheet at end of this article).

When folk were uncertain, worried, and often unable to attend their plot there was little point in plot inspections and they were cancelled.

We had to establish who was ‘shielded’, who was caring for someone in the high-risk category and who for whatever reason were wishing to stay away. We then established if those plot holders were happy for use to organise ‘buddies’ to look after their plots so when they did return it wasn’t a jungle and back to square one. Today we have around a dozen plots being looked after and authorised via our Secretary in advance. (T the top of the article is a picture of my neighbour's plot which is being looked after while they are unable to get to the plot).

We quickly restricted site access to plot holders and their children under 16. Fires and BBQs were banned. Social distancing, cleanliness processes, non-sharing of tools and use of water trough and tap guidelines posted.

One challenge many faced in the early weeks was getting compost and other essentials when the stores were closed.

Weeks later we have most of the site looking better than ever, and folk helping each other out. There have been some issues, but these have been quickly resolved and this is with our Secretary in isolation and stuck up North, out Site Manager in isolation with his mum and others juggling many challenges.

Coming out of lockdown it isn’t going to be hard. We are pleased to state that to date we have not had any casualties to the virus.  Some may choose to not come back to their plots but I expect the majority will and a new normal life will pick up.

The things we have probably learnt through this is the value allotments bring to our physical and mental health and wellbeing, the neighbours and community we can rely on to help and the privilege we have in having our plots when many others have so little space.

Applications to join have sky rocketed over the last period and surly it now time local authorities, together with housing associations, care groups, schools and others started to take a holistic strategy on use of open spaces and community growing, education and care.

Important Consolidated Notice 14/05/20 With the continuation of the current Lockdown it is important that we all follow the temporary measures that we have put in place and that are in line with both Regional and National guidelines.

YES keep working your plots, YES keep social distancing, YES use gloves if possible 
NO fires or barbecues, NO visitors

1.     No visitors are allowed without written authorisation from Secretary, (please supply plot and name details), which will not be unreasonably denied but not be brought to suite on all visits. Registered plot holders can continue to attend their plots. No social access will be granted.
2.     Children under 16 may attend with their parents as long as they reside at same house and must be supervised at all times and not go wandering around the site and onto on others plots.
3.     No fires or BBQs are permitted until further notice
4.     Over 70s or either have an underlying health issue, are pregnant, or have received a ‘shielded ‘ notice from government should notify inform the Secretary and follow guidance and information updated daily by the government and are not encouraged to attend and it will be at their own risk and they will not be insured.
5.     Social distance must always be adhered to 
6.     Please pay attention to the notice boards on entry and take note of any notices posted as information can change on a daily basis. 
7.     No Working on other plots is permitted unless authorised in advance.
8.     Gloves are recommended on entry and retained during stay.
9.     Cleanliness is vital so please do not share tools with others and only take water from the troughs and avoid touching ballcocks. Use the taps that are on site provide clean water for medicine and washing hands but please wipe the tap handle clean after use.
10.Access to upper plots is currently restricted to upper gate
If you are unable to work the plot due to government restrictions and would like someone to help maintain it then please contact the Secretary, Site 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

‘Would you like Coffee on the Allotments?'


‘What’s that noise?’ asks Lottie sitting up and alert after her little nap on the allotment bench.

‘What noise?’ I reply.


‘That noise. Sounds like someone spitting out something they don’t like, or a cat with a fur ball.’ Lottie says staring over towards the back of the plot.


‘There it is again!’

I get up off my kneeling pad and stand and stretch. One must stretch after being on one’s hands and knees with a trusted trowel weeding between the rows of lettuce and rocket. I never did enjoy hoeing and rather selectively eject the weeds from the plot.

Lottie has now decided that she has my attention and I will investigate for her. She drops back down onto her pillows and day bed on the bench satisfied that she has performed her warden duties. It’s hard being a faithful whippet at the allotments, as it involves disturbing one’s sleep and being ever alert to keeping strange and unwanted guests off the plots, and that is mainly Sidney Squirrel and that moggy cat with no name. She stretches as all whippets do, closes her eyes and curls up and goes back to her nap.

‘Thanks,’ I mumble to myself as I walk over to the back of the plot. There between the compost bins is our good friend Robin. He is clearly unhappy and hops up to the top of the open bin and stares down into the abyss.

‘I am very grateful you left the lid off after topping it up but...’ The look in his eyes clearly indicates something in there is not to his taste.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask, adopting my caring voice. I was thinking he probably didn’t like the orange peelings, or maybe the cabbage leaves were….

‘Do I look like a café bird?’ he asks puffing up his red breast to make the point.

‘Do you look…’ I could hardly get my sentence out before he burst into a tirade about coffee, its foul tastes, and why I wanted to spoil his fine dining with the stuff.

‘Sorry, we got three tons of coffee grounds from Canary Wharf and I like to sprinkle some and mix it into the compost to help break it down,’ I responded.

‘Even the slugs don’t like it!’ he exclaimed.

‘That’s the point’ I said.

‘Apparently cat’s don’t like it either’ I offered, wondering what his reaction would be to it being a deterrent to his nemesis the moggy from the farm.

He stood thinking with his head cocked to one side. It’s a thoughtful look he has before he finally offers ‘Well it has to have some good points but Lottie is the best cat deterrent you have here.’

Lottie looks up at the mention of her name. Dog’s hearing is very good, and you don’t see any with hearing aids now do you? She gets off the bench, shakes herself and goes to now have a nap under the bench. She does this sometimes when she gets too hot on top, but sometimes just for a change.  

Robin and I return our attention to the coffee grounds.

‘You’ll be sprinkling all over the plot next,’ with a questioning look which begged a negative response.

‘Yes, I was going to…’

‘Do you want me as a friend and fellow labourer, or not?’ Robin asked now, clearly demanding a coffee ground ceasefire.

‘I can’t put it near the seedlings as it can kill them off.’ Coffee grounds contain allelopathic properties which attack young seedlings vying for space. You could argue that could help suppress weed seedlings, but Ii doubt that Robin will accept that as a positive.

‘Surprise, surprise, someone’s has got the message,’ Robin casually stated hopping down to the floor to wipe his beak clean and take a sip on water from a bowl I leave for the birds.

I was going to tell him about the Civet and how he makes the most expensive coffee in the world but thought as he would never see one around here it would be a wasted story. Also it might upset his sensitive feelings if he knew exactly how the process of making the coffee involved collecting the Civet’s poo.

‘I tell you what. I will only put it around the fruit in the fruit cage for now and maybe dig some in in autumn before I put the plot to bed.’ I thought this was a reasonable compromise and looked at him for approval. I don’t have blueberries and high acid loving plants so I don’t need to give plants a caffeine boost.

‘We’ll see. I am not bothered about the fruit cage as it is netted to keep out that squadron of pigeons and frankly the fruit is a bit tart for me.’ He was certainly more relaxed now and hopping around searching for some fresh food.

‘Mind you keep to that, though. I don’t want my dinner spoiled’ he said looking over his shoulder. 
‘Otherwise you’ll be looking for a new plot-mate.’

He flies over to where I had been weeding to examine the turned soil for some decaffeinated food.

Well, it looks like there will be no espresso on the plot this year.

I wonder what he thinks to peppermint tea leaves?    

Monday, 18 May 2020

ReBuilding After the Gales

Have you ever received a call or message where you wish you had not picked it up as you were powerless to do anything?

The message read ‘All plots are bearing up in storm. Just a couple of bits of damage.’

Great, as I was out of the country, it was nice to know the there was little damage.

However, an hour later ‘One polytunnel blown off frame and one of small greenhouses is damaged. Trying to see if we can fix or secure it.’

Not so good news but still manageable.

Then I received the photo from my plot neighbour of my greenhouse lying flattened. I rang the Site Manager who said, ‘It was ok when we left, I’ll check tomorrow and secure it.’

Three days later I returned to the wreckage and stood with Brian our Site Manager. wondering what to do.

‘I don’t think you’ll be able to put that back together,’ he said.

‘I doubt if the Repair Shop would do it on TV,’ I joked.

‘You could put some emotion into it and claim it was an heirloom.’

‘An heirloom from B&Q?’ I replied with a chuckle.

I agreed it was beyond sticky tape and plaster and as I looked at the twisted aluminium frame. I was at least heartened that all but a couple of the plastic panels appeared ok and the roof appeared in one piece albeit out of shape. We laid it to rest under some tarpaulin and I set off to plan what I was going to do.  

They say, ‘once bitten, twice shy’ and having had two previous disasters with polytunnels versus the wind they were never going to be an option again. The problem is my plot sits on top of a steep bank and a strong gale in the wrong direction can cause havoc.

I could ill afford another greenhouse, nor did I feel it would be a wise decision. I had done an inventory of what was salvageable and apart from a couple of side panels and some of the frame supports, all appeared reclaimable. I took the brave decision to repair and rebuild but with a stronger timber framed base and sides.

Brian offered to help and without any plan we went in search of what timbers we had. The Farm also gave us some of their spare old timbers and these pieces of 4x4 help establish a new base, which had to be of a size to replicate the dimensions of the old greenhouse. After all it would be stupid to build a frame, panel it and then find the roof did not fit. The new greenhouse also was going to reuse the old door.

I then worked out how much timber I had to buy and planned in my head how I was going to do it. Perhaps I should have done a detailed engineering drawing, but there again that wouldn’t have allowed me to improvise, would it?

Then our ex Chair Paula offered me a complete end panel she had surplus from her new shed. It was half glass and although a different height the lower frame was perfect and saved me having to replace the damaged panels I had. So, improvisation number one.

Brian kept popping along and supervised me and helping fix the frame. He likes to saw and hammer things in and it was a two-man job.

The frame soon was up and even the door fitted perfectly.

The apex end pieces to support the roof had to be bespoke and match each other and the acid test was to put the roof on and ‘top out’. It is a fantastic feeling when the final piece of the jigsaw fits like a glove and you are only left with the tidying up, painting and inside flooring.

Blow as you might, you’ll not blow this greenhouse down……      

Friday, 15 May 2020

What Does A Path Tell You About the Plot?

Allotment paths are the boundaries between plots. You can’t grow anything on them, but you have to maintain them.

On induction, the Site Manager Brian tells you, ‘The path to the left of the plot is yours and you must keep it clear and maintained at all times.’

You look at something that resembles a small dyke or a road with a very heavy camber. It has a good foot of grass and weeds growing all over it. Obviously, it was not kept ‘clear and maintained’ by the last tenant. But you nod, agree, and turn your attention to the plot. Your thoughts turn to what you are going to grow and the plot layout you are going to adopt. The path is not something that will be addressed as a priority or occupy your thinking today.

The site Manger looks at his notes of things he must cover. Paths, tick, we move on.

Our plot paths between plots  are a minimum of 18 inches wide but can be some 60-foot-long and can come in a variety of different material.

The lucky ones inherit a flat and well laid paved path with solid edging. The unlucky ones can inherit something resembling an overgrown jungle with no clear edging and clearly demanding some hard work. 

When you finally start on the plot you soon realise the decision on what to do with the plot has to be taken on. What options do you have?

There is grass which obviously will need constant attention, weeding and edging. You don’t want Wimbledon but you must have something practicable. The questions come thick and fast. How do you cut it? Do you have to pick up a cheap mower? Do you buy a powerless strimmer and run the danger of spreading clipping all over your new neighbour’s plot? Do you get down on your knees and cut it with some cheap clippers? Some would say that the only good thing a grass path gives you is clippings for the compost bin.

There are paving slabs which if laid properly are low maintenance and maybe only need a weeding between the slabs each season. However, if not laid properly they can become an obstacle course and a nightmare. Mind you, they do offer our friendly slugs and snails a quick and easy entry and exit route between plots.

There is then the natural look of bark chippings. First you must lay a lining and construct a gravel board edge. If you don’t, then those chippings will go everywhere. Bark chippings may look attractive but can soon weed up. Chippings will also need replacing as they break down. You will find that new chippings are required annually. An alternative is gravel chippings which are also somewhat rustic. Both chippings, especially gravel, deter the slugs and if placed on top of lining can provide a good weed-supressed path. However, the chippings can soon get trodden into the plot, or the plot soil trodden into them.

My preference is artificial grass laid over a lining. It may appear expensive and getting off cut strips harder than you imagine, but it does look good, is practical and is low maintenance. The only thing you need is lots of pegs to ensure it remains in place and does not decide to try to fly off in the first high wind. Best still, slugs do not seem to like sliding over artificial grass, but unfortunately foxes love to poo on it.

On my induction I remember asking Brian our Site Manager, ‘What about carpet? My daughter had carpet paths on her allotment and there is always a carpet in some skip.’

Brian sways a little, draws a sharp and long intake of breath and as if measuring out each word said, ‘No carpets allowed, they are dangerous and not permitted.’

‘But..’ I was about to say it didn’t say anything in the rules but found Brian’s stare from his eyes enough to realise carpets were not to be used or discussed. On reflection I did understand his point. What may look a very luxurious path when first laid can soon became a mudslide and slippery hell. It is a pity I had my eyes on some lovely deep blue twist pile in a local skip.

Then comes the question of internal paths.

Some like a fixed layout with well-defined sections, each bordered by a path. Others like myself have a more flexible plot layout which changes most years and needs more flexible paths. So I use scaffold planks which double up in winter to holding down the tarpaulin that covers most of the plot. Yes they only last a few years but are cheap and easy to come by.

I have acquired some long strips of artificial grass off cuts. These make great internal paths and I have gone one better and attached the artificial grass to some of the planks and now have some very posh internal paths. A couple of paths are artificial grass on top of some lining. If they get dirty I just wash them with a can of water and they look as good as new. It does look nice and I bet some folk think I mow it once a week!

Thursday, 14 May 2020

It’s a Dog’s Life at the Allotments

This article was written before the sad news of the passing of Monty Don's Golden Retriever Nigel this week but i hope reflects the true bond between man and dog.
I turn and see Lottie trying to catch a bee in her mouth.
Clap! She misses again as her jaws snap empty and the bee goes off grinning, bored and in search of his forage.
‘I’ll get one, one day,’ mutters Lottie to herself as she flops down onto her pillows on the allotment bench.
Lottie is my seven-year-old whippet and like Monty Don’s two faithful Golden Retrievers Nigel and Nellie, she comes with me every time I go to the allotment. But unlike Monty’s two, Lottie does not wish to follow me aimlessly around the plot and is satisfied snoozing on her bench and quietly keeping watch over me and occasionally waking up to snap at the odd low-flying bee, out stare Freddie fox and his friends or bark to clear off that farm cat.
Unlike Golden Retrievers, whippets and other sight hounds require a good fast run out once a day then sleep, eat, demand love and generally nap. They are like cats in many ways except they don’t have attitude and don’t go out in the dark.
‘If you ever catch a bee it will be painful,’ I suggest.
She ignores my advice, stretches as if practicing some new yoga position which usually involves exposing herself in an un-lady like pose and then starts another nap.
My red breasted friend Robin perches himself on the back of the bench and looks down on Lottie. ‘I bet she isn’t aware that Sidney Squirrel is on the plot,’ he says cocking his tiny head to one side.
‘Leave her be,’ I reply turning to look at the pair of them taking over the bench. ‘She’s already had a lot of excitement to day chasing squirrels on her way here.’
I look over the back of the plot to see Sidney poking around under the climbing rose.
‘Now where did I hide that stash of sunflower seeds?’ he asks himself as he continues to search. He took enough sunflower heads to seed half the Island and already self-seeding sunflowers are coming up all over my plot, next door’s plot and half the plots on the site.
‘I bet she didn’t catch any squirrels,’ offers Robin looking at Lottie.
‘No. I am glad to say she didn’t, but she did come close. There was a Mexican standoff with one and they were some six feet apart and they both froze. They tried to out stared each other. It was if they had never been here before and wondered what to actually do. The squirrel blinked first and scurried left and up a tree before Lottie could get her running shoes back on.’
‘Was she wearing her red coat?’ asked Robin.
‘Of course, that’s why she has it on so they can see her coming,’ I respond, trying to whisper so Lottie can’t hear.
‘I can hear every word you are saying,’ pipes up Lottie hardly stirring and wondering if there is something in what I have said.
‘I could have caught her, but I only chase those that run away,’ Lottie says with a somewhat proud expression now across her face.
‘It’s just a game to you, but what about the squirrel?’ asks Robin.
‘Did you say Sidney is here?’ Lottie asks raising her head off her pillow, quickly changing the subject and looking straight at Robin and then attentively around the plot.
‘Was here,’ responds Robin and with a broad grin and with a wave of his wings flies off.

At this Lottie looks at me, then at her pillows and decides its time for a nap.
‘Tell me when its time to go home. I am hungry,’ she says Lottie shifting both the subject. 

A short while later Lottie adopts a new pose which mimics the ‘downward dog’ yoga pose. She then looks over to me and has a wake up shake. This is like a wake up call to her body and I know I am being to told allotment time is up. I dutifully obey Lottie's request and start to put away my tools and finish my daily allotment chores.
‘Pillows,’ she reminds me as she promptly jumps off her bench.
I pick up the two pillows which are warm to the touch where she has been sleeping and deposit them back in the shed.
On leaving the plot Lottie has a little ritual. First, she nibbles some goose grass as I lock the gate then 20 yards or so later in the same spot as yesterday and the day before, she relieves herself. A further short distance and it’s time for a poo and that means a poo bag collection. It’s as if she knows the dog litter bin is only five yards away and wants to save me having to carry a bag to the next bin or all the way home.
Strange, Lottie can be on the plot all day and never relives herself once, but as soon as she is outside the gate it's time to go. I think I have Lottie ‘Lottie Trained’, or is it she that has me trained?