Monday, 27 July 2020

A Plot Break

Normally I would not worry about going away and leaving the allotment for a week or even two, but this year has been different, and we haven’t been away since February and that seems an age ago. During that time Lottie and I have been at the allotments most days and it’s looking good and been a sanctuary for all in these difficult times.

So now Annie and I are off for two weeks and Lottie is off to her doggie hotel. I think she knows as she is not letting me out of her sight. She too has grown accustomed to going to the plot every day and having us both around all the time. With dogs it is all about routine.

So what will happen? Will the plot suddenly become bare and unloved? Will Lottie be lonely? Will the birds, squirrels and foxes plunder all the food?

The site is very lucky in having a good group of allotment volunteers. Maite is one of these diamonds who just loves gardening and helping out. She is on our waiting list but like many just can’t wait so she often helps out at the Canary Wharf Crossrail allotment and rooftop gardens and has also been looking after our Site Manager’s plot while he has been in lockdown. Now she is going to take care of my plot while we are away.

My neighbour, who I wrote about a few days ago, will be back next week but I don’t want to burden her with two plots as she gets back from 16 weeks of lockdown so I’ve asked Maeite to water mine but keep an eye on both plots. It’s back breaking work watering two plots that are full of produce and I often give up counting the number of watering cans used and just turn into ‘robowaterer’.

‘Why are you arranging for her to have your key?’ asks Lottie as she watches Maite walk away down the allotment path.

‘She is doing something for me next week.’ I reply quickly looking the other way.

‘Why were you showing her what to water?’ Lottie gives me one of those doleful looks, ‘You’re not leaving me are you?’

‘Just going on holiday’ I reply.

I quickly move over to the beans and pretend to inspect them noting the blackfly are at last no longer taking over but that the snails are now heaving their houses up the stems to take over and experience skyscraper life. I pick one big one off and send it flying across to the disused bank area. I wonder if he will make a soft landing in the brambles and join the little estate I have rehoused there?

Glancing at Lottie she still has that unfinished conversation look on her face but is now flopping down on her cushions for a nap.

It’s strange to go away just as everything is coming into its own. But that’s life, and it is good to be able to let Maite have whatever is ready to pick for her kind labour.

I look around the plot and wonder, should I have sown those lettuce and beetroot seeds and will she remember to water them? Will she remember to water the vines on the bank and Cape gooseberries on the deck? Will I have any tomatoes or French beans left to harvest? Do Spanish water as much as we do?

I remember a few years ago my daughter looked after the plot while we were away. The sweet corn looked great and nearly ready when we went away and when we returned it had all been picked.

‘What happened to the sweet corn?’ I asked.

‘Had to pick it before it went past it sell by,’ came the response.

I said, ‘Any left?’

‘No but it tasted really good. You should grow more next year.’

I said, ‘I’ll have to, but sow later I think’.

You have to let those who care for your plot have some reward. It would cost a bomb to pay someone and they would still want the pickings.

Well it’s off to sea, sun and friends and see you all again later in August. 

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Railways and Allotments

It may be surprising to know that in 1950 British Rail owned 75,000 allotments covering some 4,000 acres but by 1967 this had reduced to 26,076 allotments covering 1,541 acres and reducing at the rate of some 3,000 per annum. However, British Rail was then still the largest single allotment operator.

Hanging baskets and containers of flowers on station platform to welcome all travellers were the norm in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gertrude Jekyll considered stationmasters to be “public benefactors” for providing gardens, and platforms edged with borders of flowers and shrubs, to “refresh the weary traveller”. 

The railway companies historically were significant landowners. They confined their own planting efforts to a few hedges and trees alongside their tracks, and low maintenance broom and gorse on embankments.  They did however establish many allotments on their land. The land adjacent to stations was often rented out to employees for gardens and allotments, and sometimes provided a house to their stationmasters. Any bloom and bedding were generally down to the stationmaster and flower-loving assistants, guards and porters.   

In 1896 a reader wrote in The Garden of the railways being “a refuge” for wildflowers being lost in the landscape due to agricultural expansion and the spread of towns and cities.  Today, both wildflowers and garden escapees can be seen growing along the railway, but the plant most often seen is Buddleia. 

For over 100 years the London Underground has even been blooming with planters and illustrations. Around the time of the First World War, the District railway created a gardening competition for its staff and, with many stations being above ground, flowers bloomed. in 1933 a wider competition started and continued during the Second World War. During the Second World War as every piece of land was utilised, railway banks were often used to provide space in the nation’s ‘Dig for Victory’. The competition still runs today with now broader categories including a community garden one which recognises partnerships between staff and customers.

Unfortunately, the romantic days of steam and stations in blossom with their allotments died many years ago. They impact of Richard Beeching's 1960s deep rail cuts originally proposed the closure of 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line. 55% of stations and 30% of route miles may have been dilutand it spelt the decline of rail. In parallel the then Transport Minister, Ernest Marple set out a road building programme to shift freight and passengers onto the roads which resulted in the decline of rail, coupled with a decline in in demand for allotments, resulted in a decline in Railway allotments.

Our railways are now in the hands of individual companies and they are responsible for most of our railway stations and their profitability, while Network Rail maintain the 20,000 miles of track, and the 10 million trees growing alongside.

Ask the rail commuter of today about railway horticulture and they will probably start a long conversation about ‘leaves on the track’ or high winds bringing down trees onto the track or snow bringing down trees and knocking out powerlines. Few will talk about the stations in bloom or the station allotment. The only colour to adorn many stations today often comes from an aerosol in the form often illegible and meaningless graffiti.

Have we lost this land and simply made the stations functional and plant free? Will HS2 be just a track through the land and like many of our motorways today, just provide a route from A to B bordered by high fencing to dull the sound and block off the countryside?

Land is valuable and we already see stations being built over to accommodate housing and retail, and railway banks are understandably in many cases fenced off and not planted and left wild or covered in the low cost option of wire meshed bolder cubes or sustainable concrete.

So today we still have railway space opportunities, but these are often not obvious or require significant vision, determination, and good connections to make changes happen. In London there are still abandoned spaces and opportunities. Here in the heart of the East End in the densest housing area in Western Europe and what some say is the poorest borough in London we have a 700 square metres of  railway line viaduct which has lain derelict for many years and once provided the north south passage through the Isle of Dogs. Some have proposed using the upper elevation to provide community gardens as part of a holistic growing strategy for the Borough, but so far there is little traction. There are significant issues to be addressed but it is there today and provides an opportunity to create an iconic ‘High Line’ or ‘Grow Line’ with unique views over the Island to Canary Wharf, over the Thames to Greenwich and towards the City.

There are other railway partnership opportunities in many urban areas where growing space is scarce. Today, large infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and the Kings Cross redevelopment are providing roof gardens or ‘pocket parks’. Our allotment Society proudly has a small allotment plot in the Crossrail roof gardens which shows the partnership that can exist.

Can Network Rail still hold the key to unlocking some land for allotments?

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Plum Gin

Never mind the excess fruit from the plot, what about the excess fruit all around us?

The Mudchute farm that surrounds the allotments has tens of plum trees which have been left unattended and are now quite large. As you walk along the paths and under the trees you can’t help stepping on the fallen plums that litter the floor.

I presume what the birds don’t get first the squirrels get and store them away. This time of year the paths are covered in purple, plums all waiting to be saved from the soles of shoes.

I often pick fresh fallen fruit checking that they are ripe and within no time have a bucket full of them. The question is what to do with them once washed and dried?

Frankly, the stones take up the majority of what is collected and de-stoning the fruit is not a rewarding or exciting job and yields are questionable for the effort expended.

So, it was great to discover a solution which preserves the fruit whilst adding a twist to your favourite tipple and a boozy complement to rich custard on a winter evening.

Plums and damsons ripen at the same time and can be preserved in gin, grated quince in brandy and rhubarb with orange in vodka.

You leave the skin on just piercing it with a fork or silver pin and leaving the stone as it can add a nice almondy flavour to the gin. An alternative to the piercing is to leave the fruit in a freezer for a few days. You then get a wide mouthed Kilner type jar that has been thoroughly cleaned and add the fruit.

Next you add around 80g of caster sugar and vary this according to the sweetness sought. Then a 700ml of gin is added, the lid sealed, and the jar given a quick shake to dissolve the sugar. Store in a cool dark place for 3 to 4 months.

‘What are you doing with that gin?’ asks my wife Annie as she sees me taking the bottle from the cupboard.

I reply, ‘Just giving this old Larios gin a shot in the arm, dear’.

Her eyes narrow and she comes across to the worktop where I am about to drown the sugary plums in gin. ‘I can get cordial if you want to flavour the gin.’

I respond, ‘But this is making use of these plums.’

‘Better taste good then and you owe the cupboard one bottle of Larios.’ Annie is obviously not enthusiastic about the use of the gin and I see Lottie is shaking her head and tutting in the corner too even though she doesn’t drink alcohol or eat fruit!

I continue and ignore the protests, after all its only Larios from Spain.

You can shake the jar and taste the sweetness every now and again. Finally strain through a sieve into a bottle using a funnel and you have gin infused with plum.

I offer, ‘The fruit can be served as a boozy extra treat dessert with ice cream or custard.’

‘As I said you owe the cupboard one bottle of gin and given the waiting time, make it a good one and not the Larios we bring back from Majorca.

You can’t win and I think I’ll leave the plums to the birds and squirrels next time.

I wonder if it works with cherries and brandy?

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Should every Allotment have an ACV?

Assets of Community Value (ACV) were established under the Communities Act of 2011 and were aimed at identifying and nominating buildings or other assets such as land that have a main use or purpose of furthering the social well-being or social interests of the local community. Like a listed building it affords them some rights and protection but only part of the answer. Many of the first people to take advantage of this new registration were real ale pubs under the CAMRA umbrella.

Local authorities must validate ACV applications to a stringent critique but once registered, the local community will be informed if they are listed for sale, disposal, or a change of use within the five-year listing period. The community can then enact the Community Right to Bid, which gives them a moratorium period of six months to determine if they can raise the finance to purchase the asset. However, it does not give the right of first refusal to community organisations to buy an asset that they successfully nominate for inclusion on the local authority’s list.

Does it replace the 1925 Allotment and associated acts? No, it complements the statues and adds extra gravitas and a bit of extra protection.

Does it stop Local authorities or other freeholders from selling off allotments? No, but it gives allotments a say and right to bid and stops the rug being pulled literally from under their feet. Importantly it puts a clear stake in the ground which can warn off developers and other land grabbers.
However, one the biggest benefit it gives individual allotments is a framework to fully evaluate and document their value and how they fit into the community.

In order to get our ACV we had to research our history and current status and separate the urban myth from reality. We had to think about the environment and contribution to its improvement. We had to think about our involvement with local groups, with schools and with the heath and well-being of plot holders and their families and the community. Just documenting this and structuring it to compete the ACV submission was an eyeopener not only to what we did but also what we could potentially do.

For some it may be the first step on the road to self management.

This work and wording is also vital to being able to secure sponsorship, grants and can influence funding decisions irrespective of what type of allotment you are. It can also support any appeal to a local authority and even to the Secretary of State.

We were one of the first allotments to go through this process and had to do it because we had an incorrect lease imposed over us in 1994. Under this lease some would say the Borough effectively disposed of us incorrectly. The granted lease was effectively unworkable with respect to the allotments and resulted in 20 years of friction and misunderstanding between all parties. When the leaseholder wished to enter into a new lease with the Borough and extinguish the current one in favour of a longer-term lease, we said no. We wanted a separate lease and clarification on our status.

The Borough formally acknowledged that they had not disposed of the allotments. They fully recognised them and that any disposal would have had to go through a section 8 notice to be signed off by the Secretary of State. In other words they accepted us as being Statutory under the 1925 act which up till then they had always avoided admitting. When the negotiations were getting heated and the leaseholder tried to say they wanted to go ahead without us being separated, we just pulled out the ACV and reminded the Borough of our statute status and the ACV. The result gave us a 99-year lease, peppercorn rent, self-management and full recognition of our statuary status. This could not have been achieved without that ACV.

Today you may think you don’t need one, you do. You may think you can wait until a developer comes knocking, but an ACV is only effective if it is in place before the developer submits an interest.

So why wouldn’t all allotment sites get registered as Assets of Community Value? It costs nothing but some time. The National Allotment Society has now got a lot of experience with the statute, submissions and can help. Sites such as ours are also willing to help and give guidance. 

Today a growing number of sites all around the country have done it, so look up the process as listed under your local authority and do it – you know it makes sense.  

Monday, 20 July 2020

Sharing What You Grow

‘So, what are you going to do with all this food?’ asks a neighbour whilst eyeing up the large carrier bags in my hands which are literally bursting with produce from the allotment.

‘We eat it, freeze some and give some to friends and family’ I reply watching his eyes calculate the amount and what all the different produce is in the bags. ‘Would you like some courgettes and beans?’

‘Well I’ve never seen courgettes like those, how do you cook them?’ he says quickly accepting four large yellow courgettes and a handful of French beans.

After some cooking hints and tips he leaves with some tomatoes and potatoes and I have somewhat lighter bags.

‘Better come home at a different time and by a different route tomorrow,’ says Lottie with a broad grin.

‘I don’t mind sharing some stuff’ I reply.

‘Mugged, and you know I eat those beans,’ says Lottie under her breath.

Lottie puts her nose to the ground and I can hear her chuckling under her breath all the way home.

Dogs only share inside the pack.

‘Not so much today?’ was Annie’s greeting as she examined the bags and started to take out the vegetables for their wash and brush up. I didn’t say anything but caught Lottie smiling in the corner of the kitchen.

At this time of year we all have gluts and famine at the allotments as everything tends to mature and ripen at the same time. You sow every few weeks but it still keeps coming at the same time. It is impossible to eat it all and you find a mountain of salad alongside another mountain of vegetables and then there is the fruit. We certainly eat well and fresh and buy little from the shops from early Spring to late Autumn and then during Winter the freezer supplies us with all those bags of goodies that we squirrelled away during Summer.

We wash chop and freeze in lots of small bags of tomatoes, courgettes, spinach, kale, cabbage, French beans, beetroot etc. The lettuce doesn’t take kindly to anything but being eaten fresh.

The last couple of years my Vice Chair has come into her own with her community programmes and has been brilliant at collecting excess produce donations off plot holders and supplying a local community kitchen but as simple as this sounds, it is often far from easy. All the produce from our community allotment at Crossrail roof garden is donated. However just collecting the produce from plot holders and getting it to the kitchen at the right time and in the right state can prove hard.

Donations can often be that overgrown courgette that resembles a marrow, or other vegetables which maybe are past their prime. Also kitchens want certain produce that they are familiar with and the sight of even a patti pan may not be greeted with the expected enthusiasm.

It was great to see my neighbour’s reaction when she came back to her plot last week after 16 weeks of lockdown. They have been getting special food parcels every week as well as home deliveries but a bag full of fresh produce off our plots plus a large bunch of sunflowers put a broad smile on her face. But she did ask what to do with the patti pans!

My daughter is Chair or a women’s shelter and a Director of a large homeless charity and I asked if they wanted excess produce. The response was interesting and was dependent on what produce, when, and if the cooks knew what to do with it to make dinners the clients wanted to eat it. Fresh was also an issue and I realised that convenience often could trump fresh.

We set out this year to donate more excess and learn from previous experience as to where, who and how to make a difference and to step up the internal awareness on the plots. Folk like to give but want to know where its going and who is benefiting. We had several discussions with community groups and one really was interested in not only taking the donations but also into using them to help training their clients into cooking with them. We also spoke to Cross-London organisations with a view to potentially widening a relationship to other sites which obviously meant dealing with the associated logistics, communication, and supply. If a pilot was successful, then it could be potentially roll.

Then came the pandemic and lockdown. This effectively scuppered this year’s ideas as the focus shifted to maintaining the allotments and looking after those unable to work their plots. We also weren’t allowed access the Canary Wharf plot during lockdown and our big plant giveaway and seeds swaps were impacted. Also, my appointment as London Representative for the National Allotment Society was deferred so effectively scuppering those discussions this year.  As lockdown eases we are just starting to look at some localised donation opportunities again but the one we used last year is still not back up and we may have to be more ad hoc in any donations until a new normality starts to take shape.

Meanwhile Lottie tucks into her doggy biscuits, meat and French beans. Her favourite vegetable is broccoli, even the chopped-up stems!

Friday, 17 July 2020

The Great Plot Divide

Its great to read every day about folk getting their first plot. The enthusiasm and raw desire to get started is clearly conveyed in their postings and brings back memories of when we all got that starter plot. Often overgrown and neglected, full of weeds and with a shed which often was a living tribute to the adhesive properties of gaffer tape and DIY skills, it still a plot. That first plot was for all of us our first step on the ladder to so much.

The time it takes to get a plot varies according to where you live, in some cases plots are waiting to be taken, in others you may have to wait twenty years and still may never get one. Demand varies significantly with metropolitan and inner city plots being the hardest to get. Some say that's life, others something needs to be done, but the disparity between plot rich and plot poor is growing and plot poverty exists even today in our enlightened, environmentally and community world.

Some will say 'so what' and we don't have a problem and ignore the high waiting lists and latent demand that exists in some areas. It's no longer acceptable to view allotments in isolation and growing food is becoming a need that allotments alone can't solve.

Allotments were created and enshrined in law because the social economic and community benefits were seen and the need to give a better life, nutrition and escape for many caught in the squalor on the poor industrial areas of the late 19th century or working in rural areas with little or no space within the land hierarchy of the day.

So what about today?

At least four application every week are added to our already long waiting list. They ask, 'How long do I have to wait?'

You have to respond that you can't say and that the current top of the list has waited four years, but its impossible to predict because there are so many factors and virtually all are outside your control. The one certainty is that many will never see that starter plot and those that do will have had to wait a very long time.

Still they want to be in the list.

The only other waiting list that springs to mind that is similar in length is for social housing and again there is huge variance between different locations and again metropolitan and inner cities have the longest lists.

Interestingly and not to be overlooked, allotments are often the only place where diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds, together with a wide range of ages and social backgrounds, all mix together with a common interest and love of growing. This in itself demonstrates what a great social leveller and integrator allotment growing is today.

Can anything be done or is it just a sign of the times and down to the multiple demands for and availability of land?

Some are against cutting plot sizes down, which is a nice luxury to support and easily in plot rich low waiting list areas, but is it supportable in plot poor high waiting list areas? Like many urban and metropolitan sites our full plots are not 250 square metres but 100 square metres maximum and 10% of our plots are half that and our waiting list is over 200% oversubscribed today.

There is little hope of any new open space, the competition for civic open space is acute and we have to do things differently and work differently and not ignore those waiting but embrace them and find ways of involving them or getting them gardening. Perhaps we have to look at different forms of membership, working with other groups and unlocking this great demand and not ignore it. A helping the local authorities and planners to think holistically at the issue.

Some have said community gardens are not allotments and nothing to do with allotments. The spaces used are often temporary and open to all. I say this is both naive and disingenuous to those who just want to grow. Perhaps we need to help embrace community gardening and work with others to create a new community model.

Some say that they wish they could organise transport and bring the long waiting lists for some areas to areas with little or no waiting lists. This fails to recognise that allotments and communities are joined at the hip and the close proximity of allotments to housing is key and 'busing' folk to land breaks that important connection.

The solutions, the initiatives, the awareness and changing or starting to address plot poverty will be different for different areas. If we try to find ways to engage with and involve the waiting list the rewards could be significant for all. Can we afford to turn our back on the issue in some resignation  that we
are ok and its someone else's problem. We must end this inward looking perspective otherwise we are in danger of loosing the very essence of why allotments were enshrine and protected in statute.

Let's work at at least reducing plot poverty and closing the divide between plot rich and plot poor. 

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Welcome Back to the Plot

You may recall the BBC covering our programme to buddy up plot volunteers with plot holders who had to self-isolate, were shielded, or classed as vulnerable during the Covid 19 crisis. We had some half dozen plots being maintained and I took over my neighbour’s plot whilst she was locked down.

Now some 16 weeks later and Anna has returned, and we met up once again.

Anna was like a child in a sweetshop with her eyes darting from one plant to another examining everything on the plot and she was very pleased it wasn’t a jungle. Opening the shed which had also been in isolation took up new meaning and watching her once again become reunited with its contents was a joy.

It’s the first time in all these weeks she has ventured onto public transport or even very far out of the house. She still has yet to visit a supermarket and she is alert but safe. You can see the spring in her heels as she takes it all in.

She now plans to come a couple of times a week to ease herself back and maybe it may take some time but the plot will be looked after irrespective and even while I am away, cover has been arranged for both plots.

The one aspect I never realised at the beginning was the amount of watering and weeding two plots take.

Anna left with a broad smile and a big bag of produce.

‘What do I do with these flying saucers?’ she asked holding out some big yellow patti pans that I had picked for her.

I reply, ‘Eat them like courgettes. Slice them, cube them, grill them or steam them. They are lovely.’
‘Ok ’ she said still looking at them rather quizzically.

Lottie was pleased to see her and acknowledged her with a wagging tail and a nuzzle and she passed the sniff test. When she had left he said, ‘Nice to have her back. There’s always cake when she’s around.’

‘Did I miss the cake?’ Lottie asks.

‘No, it was just a short visit and it’s cake and a cuppa tea next time’ I responded.

‘I don’t drink tea’ she replied and flopped down disappointingly onto her cushions on the bench.

As folk start to come back onto the plots you meet old friends and although it’s just a few months, it’s different and great to meet up again. They certainly appreciate the work their buddies and that they are returning to a maintained plot since they have been away.

Next week sees the return of our Secretary who despite being in isolation a couple of hundred miles away , she has done a fantastic job managing many issues, the exploding waiting list and sorting out the National Society’s Kings Seeds process and insurance cover. Just need our Site Manager back and I can start to relax!

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Foraging, Liquid Feed and Garlic Spray

My faithful whippet Lottie and I walk to the plot along the well-worn path at the top of the old railway line through the Farm. On either side the path is straddled with nettles four feet high or brambles now full of blackberries starting to turn and inviting to be picked. It’s as if someone came down here with a machete and cut the overgrowth back. It now takes a good extra 15 minutes to get to the plot and often a good half hour getting home.

‘Can we get a move on?’ asks Lottie impatiently.

I reply, ‘Just got to pick some more Blackberries.’

‘You already have a pot full!’

‘Yes, but you have to pick them when they are ready.’ I reply quickly withdrawing my hand from a very thorny bramble which didn’t take kindly to being pushed aside.

Lottie sniffs at a clump of grass at the side of the path and mumbles, ‘You mean before anyone else gets them.’

‘I heard that…’

I look at the extra large yogurt tub full of blackberries and decide maybe it is time to quit and leave the rest till tomorrow. After all they are all starting to turn so there will be plenty more. It’s as if the brambles never stop giving and we just need a spot of overnight rain and more blackberries will plump up and be ready for me to pick this week.

‘Come on then.’ I say to Lottie as I squeeze into my bag the pot of blackberries and pick it up, now bursting with new potatoes, French beans, salad and some sticks of rhubarb.

‘I don’t know when you are going to eat all that lot.’ declares Lottie and she trots obediently behind me.

‘We’ll freeze some and eat the rest.’ I reply feeling the weight of the large plastic bag and hoping the straps will hold on till we get home, otherwise it will not live up to what is says on the side, ‘a bag for life’.

This afternoon we took a different route to the plot and one that Lottie likes – down squirrel alley. The cinder bridle path here is heavily shaded either side by trees and under these there is a sea of nettles. Squirrels are often to be found darting from tree to tree and traversing the path to explore the other side. Of course, other folk are taken by these furry rats and feed them nuts and take selfies with them posing in the background. The squirrels love the extra food, often do tricks in return for some nuts and like the attention that they are given.

Lottie has other ideas and believes these are her toys to be caught. She ignores the couples busy ‘coo cooing’ at the little squirrels and taking their selfies with them. She also ignores the little child with their parents trying to converse with the squirrels in some weird gibberish. Really, as if you can talk to animals!

‘Come on, leave the squirrels alone today,’ I say to Lottie who by now is transfixed, staring at her prey.

There is no response and then she is off with cinder dust in her wake and at a speed only a whippet can attain. The child is now frozen at the sight of a whippet in full stride. The parents take a sharp intake of air and hold their breath.

The squirrel quickly turns and leaps onto the tree trunk sinking in those claws and then quickly scurrying up to safety. Lottie skids to a halt and lets out a defiant bark, ‘Ok, next time!’

Everyone is relieved, the parents breathe again, the child now looks admiringly at Lottie who now wanders off looking for the next squirrel and the squirrel catches his breathe, his heart racing as he stares down on all of us.

Lottie has never caught a squirrel yet and long may that continue. The thought of what she may do to it is not for the faint hearted and her toy dog and its stuffing will testify to Lottie’s carnage.

A bit further down the path I get out my gloves and secateurs and start to cut some nettles and pop them into a plastic bag.

‘You can’t eat them!’ Lottie says looking at me with a quizzical look.

‘I’m not going to eat them, but I am going to make nettle soup.’

‘Nettle soup?’ says Lottie now wondering if she should she go back to her hunting of those squirrels or try to understand if I am going mad.

‘It’s like comfrey soup and for feeding the plants,’ I respond.

‘I hope it smells better than that comfrey,’ Lottie says pulling a face as if she has just eaten some lettuce.

I decide to avoid the question and keep cutting the nettles.

When we reach the plot I twist the leaves and steams to bruise them and place them in a bucket weighed down with a brick and cover them with water. I put this at the back of the plot so Lottie and I will not be able to smell the soup as it slowly turns into a boggy mess. After a few weeks I will then apply it as liquid feed diluted in water 1:10 or spray as a foliage feed diluted 1:20. At that point I think I may leave Lottie at home as her sense of smell is far greater than ours and the tirade of objections may be hard to deal with. The plot will smell like a farmer has just sprayed slurry all over it and I hope I can get home without passing too many folk.

Finally, I am reading that Garlic spray can combat many little bugs that do their best to literally eat your lunch.

You just crush three cloves and add to a pint of water. Let it stand for a couple of days then strain it into a spray bottle and store in the fridge. When you apply take care to avoid getting it near your eyes and hands, and hold your nose!

Apparently, it is best applied in the evening and by the morning the plot will not smell as if a group of French travellers have stayed the night!

Maybe I will give the garlic spray a miss for now as the smell of garlic and nettle soup may be a bit too much for the neighbouring plots.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

A Rare Visitor to the Plot

Sometimes you spot something you have never seen before on the plot and before you can get the mobile out to take a photograph it’s gone.

Yesterday was a hot humid morning down on the plot. The sort of day you do a lot of watering and take lots of breaks on the bench with Lottie. She sleeps and you admire the plot and work out what to do next.

I have a big visit due this week. My neighbour who has been in lockdown and isolation since March is coming to look over her plot which I have been maintaining for her. So I must ensure its fully weeded, everything is tidy and tied up and she doesn’t need to do anything except sit down have a cup of tea from the farm cafĂ© and have a long chat with me and Lottie.

I was watering the back of her plot I got my mobile ready to take some pictures of the many butterflies and bees taking over her marjoram next to her shed. The usual crowd were there, some Comma butterflies, a couple of Red Admirals and a solitary Peacock butterfly and at least half a dozen Bumble Bees. It amazing how these pollinators all gravitate to this one bushy herb in flower and drink out on its nectar.

Suddenly, my eye caught sight of a quite different coloured butterfly. No not those White ones who eat the cabbage, but something hugely different. He wasn’t interested in the marjoram but seemed very interested in the Patti Pan squash in the corner.

One moment I saw black and white wings and the next orange. It was as if he was a cape crusader. I had to get a closer look.

I adjusted the zoom lens on my phone. Then tried to get it focused as I moved closer.

Just as i got him in my sights he flew off!

‘Missed another one?’ shouts Lottie with her whippet head looking over the back of the bench.

I replied, ’He was camera shy.’

‘What with a coat like that.’

I said, ‘Yes he obviously didn’t want to be captured.’

Lottie gazed over the plot with those sight hound eyes. ‘If I were you I would turn around right now and very carefully and look at the next plant along.’

I turned just in time to see the butterfly fly under a large leaf and disappear into the maze of twisted squash leaves and stems. I advanced slowly camera ready and there he was sitting as bold as brass on the main stem. Click and click again.

I wanted to be like those famous photographers and direct him into a pose. ‘Lift your head and look straight at me. Great now open those wings.’ Click, click, click.

But he didn’t move to my wishes.

I turned to thank Lottie to only find her head had disappeared and no doubt she was back napping and dreaming of squirrels.

I turned back. He had gone.

I looked all around there was no sight of him. I looked at the photograph I had taken and was pleased it was in focus and now had to discover who he was and more about him.

It turns out he wasn’t a butterfly, but a moth and he is a Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctariaiger).  

Apparently, the adults can be found flying on warm days and visiting flowers, such as Buddleia. They also fly at night and come to light. They have a wingspan between 52 and 65 mm, so are fairly large Their caterpillars can be seen from September to the following May, overwintering as small larvae. 

Importantly they are quite scarce nationally and are well established along the south coast of Devon and Dorset, and inland to the edge of Dartmoor. They have only recently been recorded in Kent and parts of London. So not common to these parts and the only cliffs around here are those glass and concrete ones at Canary Wharf. 

Its strange seeing something for the first time and you wonder how long before you see them again. I also wonder what other little gems are living and visiting the allotments.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Do All Allotments Have the Same Opportunities and Challenges?

The current pandemic has given so many allotment holders up and down the country, exercise, sanctuary, social friendship and interaction and some fresh produce if lucky within a lockdown void and also demonstrated the value of allotments within the community.

As we all grapple with the social and economic impact and the route back to some sort of normality outside the allotments, we all know things will be different tomorrow. It is therefore vital that allotments are fully supported, and their role within the growing, health and welfare and educational infrastructure is acknowledged further and strengthened.

The public purse and resources will be under increasing pressure and it is hard to predict the implications this will have on allotments tomorrow. Many allotments are managed by local authorities but will the resources to do this as before still be available?

Many civic allotments have ‘temporary’ status whilst others have separated themselves from the local authority and are now self-managed, and land leased to them. Is this the future model for others to now follow? The remaining allotments are classed as ‘private allotments’ and outside local authorities and the allotment statute and the future security of these will always be a risk.

Allotments, whether they are statutory, temporary or private should be registered as Asset of Community Value (ACV) under the 2011 statute. This doesn’t secure the future in perpetuity. It doesn’t provide 100% protection in the five years of its terms, but it does grant certain rights to be consulted, bid and more importantly fires a significant shot across development bow. It also forces the allotment body to think hard about what it does, what it gives to the community and its environmental, health and well-being credentials and makes the local authority evaluate and respect these formally.

Today we all use the term allotments and probably have a different picture in our mind what they look like and who uses them. The rural allotment is very different to the urban one which may vary significantly to the metropolitan inner city one. They are all allotments but it’s like we are all looking into the same house through different windows. Some will see a kitchen, others a bedroom and if asked to describe it can only describe what they have seen. However, it’s the same house but viewed from different perspectives.

If we look at our allotment here in the middle of Docklands and Canary Wharf in London, we see allotments sitting in the middle of an urban farm smack next door to the densest residential housing in Western Europe and in Tower Hamlets itself which has the densest housing per square kilometer in all the UK. There are literally thousands of flats all sitting on top of each other reaching up to the sky.

Many of these new boxes have a very small private balcony and communal small manicured grassed area below. No gardens, none or little opportunity to grow anything unless in many cases the plants like wind and high altitudes as some tower blocks are over 50 storeys high.

So how do these tens of thousands of families in this mini Manhattan experience growing, cultivation, the physical and mental health and well-being and fresh natural produce from plot to pot?

The plots we have in many metropolitan sites are called full plots but are often less than half the size enjoyed in many other areas and our half plots …. but they produce sufficient food and are fully utilized.

So, in areas of the country we have relatively short waiting lists, large 250 square metre plots and even folk allowed to have more than one plot. In our area we have often less than 100 square metres, huge waiting lists and no one is allowed a second plot. It’s the same house but from a different perspective.

The question we return to is describing that house in same way and understanding that we are all at different starting points with different opportunities and priorities. We may be diverging in the routes we may each have to take and speed we must travel, but we all share the same aims, enjoyment, community spirit, health and welfare benefits and much more.

This is why a national organization is important and can support local organisations and their initiatives as well as national ones with equal weight and understanding. No site is an island, and almost everything we may wish to do has been done before and if not, some else wishes to do. It is this strength that the National Allotment Society have the potential to bring to all our tables.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Allotment Composting, Recycling and Rubbish

Allotment holders are often very adept at using and recycling material that otherwise would end up in landfill. Often you look and see ingeniously built sheds, greenhouses, cold frames and the current flavour of the month raised beds are certainly using much timber which may otherwise have been burnt or discarded. We see old builder’s netting being recycled, used scaffold boards, skips turned into a wide variety of objects, scaffold poles, wooden pallets and used water dispensers converted into cloches. 

Some often collect material for that rainy day and often the intent to reuse it tomorrow avoids the thought of buying new. Allotment holders are in the main a very resourceful and inventive bunch.
There comes a time when that scaffold plank becomes rotten, that plastic sheet or tarpaulin has come to the end of its life, those plastic pots and containers are too many to use and need culling, that netting no longer is capable of keeping out the birds, those empty plastic bags of compost become a mountain with no useful purpose. What happens then?

Some sites hold an annual ‘amnesty’ and in comes the skip and out it goes overflowing with every conceivable piece of rubbish that every lived on the site. This provides a great vent but is it the right approach and does it reward good housekeeping, or simply perpetuate bad or questionable hoarding?

For the last three years we have not had a skip on the site, and yes some have complained. The skips were filled not just with junk but much green material and instead of encouraging composting we were in fact encouraging the opposite. The other question we faced was why we were paying for a skip that was often used by the same folk to clear out their unwanted stuff whilst others continually disposed of theirs and ended up subsidizing the few? Skips are no longer cheap and as they can’t be housed within our fence, we also found that they invited a host of local tippers and grew mysteriously full if left overnight.

‘You give us dogs a bad name and everyone goes on about our poo. Just look at the mess around here after a weekend.’ Lottie lifts her nose and scans the park with litter scattered all around.

‘I am just grateful I don’t have to pick all that up as well,’ I reply.

She says. ‘You would need a few poo bags to do that.‘

I look over to the farm entrance and see two compost bags sitting next to the bin and walk across to find that they are full, or appear to be full of ‘green stuff’, plus some old plastic grow bags and a odd used bug spray and clearly this rubbish is off the plots.

We walk towards the plots and there outside on the other side is more mixed rubbish dumped in the overgrowth as if it would just disappear and be hidden by the grass and weeds.

Of course, no one knows whose rubbish it is, or when it was dumped. The only thing that is certain is that we will have to move it. What is galling is that the individual items could have easily been taken home and put into the refuse. There is no great single mountain but lots of small items.

This kind of dumping has always happened and even took place when we had skips, but not to the extent it has happened this year. It’s as if folk have spent longer time on the plots during lockdown and decided to have a Spring clean. Some of the rubbish mixed in with the green waste is certainly past its sell by date and was probably hiding at the back of the shed refusing to come out.

There are therefore two interlinked but separate issues, the disposal of rubbish and the recycling of compostable materials.

The easier of the two is the rubbish. When we get back into plot inspections we can focus on the storage of excess junk which is not being used; wood, metal, boards, tanks etc. This we ask is disposed of at home not on the farm, not in the public bins set aside for normal rubbish but taken home and disposed of correctly. In fact doing this on a regular basis soon gets on top of this and is far better than the Spring clean. Good Site Management will also ensure stockpiles of rubbish are kept on top of. What’s inside the shed is not our concern but what is outside is.

Obviously, anyone found fly tipping on the farm or outside the allotments may find their actions have consequences.

Composting of green materials is a given to many but not to all. We even provided some communal bins last year and frankly little thought was given to what went in them and we failed to educate and control their use. We learnt the hard way that communal composting is hard as often there is always one that doesn’t think or know better and puts in unsuitable materials, unchipped wood, hard to breakdown materials etc. into the bin, fills it to the brim and walks away.

Last week we had green allotment waste in two large plastic compost bags tossed onto farmland. We had to retrieve it and interestingly it fitted nicely into the communal compost bins!

Allotment fires have always been an emotive issue with some defending their right whilst others objecting to the smoke in what is a open area. Fires are currently banned because of the respiratory nature of the current virus but you can see piles of material that could be composted sitting waiting for the ban to be lifted. Fires will have to be collectively discussed once we return to normality and potential time and month restrictions will be sought by some, whilst others may want a total ban and some fires all year round.

Yesterday I had a long telephone call within the Cabinet Head of Environment and Public Realm, or to you and me Refuse and Environment. They were very responsive to suggestions made which included issuing a compost bins, wormeries and brown household buckets to each plot as part of the plot’s inventory. We can then actively edcucate, demand and promote composting. We also discussed how we could potentially have access to the Borough’s recycled compost, leaf mould, chippings etc and much more. We are not a council run site and are self-managed but with a 99 year lease they see us a sustainable environmental opportunity in which to create pilots, hold joint educational programmes and promote best practice.

So as I read the front page of yesterday’s paper and Boris’s plea to clean up Britain, I say yes we can do our bit. Hopefully we can start to address the causes and not just today’s visible symptoms.

Monday, 6 July 2020

The Colour Flies onto the Plot

All our smaller flying friends have arrived on the plot. No not the birds, but the colourful flies, bees and ladybirds.

We first spotted a dragonfly a few days ago and he was big and just took up residence on the red cabbage and took in the rays. These are like the giant military Chinook helicopters but without that constant rotor blade noise which always reminds me of the opening sequence to the film, Apocalypse Now. They look like some prehistoric beast with their large heads and eyes, long bodies and those Leonardo Di Vinci inspired wings. This one was extra-large but not as luminescent as some of the others flying around.

Today all the family went to the plot - Annie, our whippet Lottie and me. We were only going to water the greenhouse but an hour later with a bag of lettuce, rocket, courgettes, spinach, kale, chard, French beans and some fruit I asked, ‘Do you want any flowers?

Annie smiled, tilted her head and said, ‘Yes please.’

‘Sweet peas?’

‘Yes please.’


‘Yes please.’


‘Do you mean the masses of Orange and yellow flowers?’


‘Well they are a must.’


‘Maybe not today.’


‘Not today.’

It’s like going to a florist and picking over all that is on offer.

With my order in, off I went with my scissors in one hand and a ball of jute in the other. I always tie the flowers into little bouquets so then can sit inside my large old yogurt pots in my bounty bag for the journey home. To me it’s about bringing home the colour and fragrances off the plot, but Lottie says she believes cutting flowers brings home my feminine side and I should stick to the spuds.

As I collect the various flowers, I spot a couple of ladybirds nestling in an unopened sunflower bud. They won’t get much there I thought and carefully tipped them into my hands and carried them across to the French beans. Here I deposited them in among a patch of black aphids and I think I made their day. It certainly made mine with the thought of them chomping through the little black bugs and avoiding me having to take action myself. As I looked down the string, I noticed there were already a couple of ladybirds busy banqueting out. I bet that bean is bug free tomorrow!

‘What’s so interesting?’ I ask as I return to the bench to find Annie and Lottie staring across to my neighbour’s shed. I am looking after her plot whilst she is shielded and wondering if Freddie Fox is asleep under the Squash plants.


‘What is it?’ I ask

‘They can’t hear us.’ I comment.

Annie says, “We don’t want to disturb them.
I look over the my neighbour's shed and a clump of flowering Marjoram and see half a dozen butterflies adorning it. I fumble in my pockets for my phone so I can photograph them. It’s often crazy you see something and next minute it’s gone and the photo with it.

I approach gingerly down the path with four eyes burning in my back as I approach the back of the plot with camera app poised to click. Quickly, I spread my fingers to get the zoom on to the plant and having final found them in the frame I take a picture.

There is a Peacock, a Red Admiral and two Comma butterflies all feasting on the nectar and oblivious to me. A Large White tries to get in on the picture but senses danger and alerts the others. I hate the White large and small and they are the reason all the broccoli and cauliflower plants are living behind nets. The Red Admiral flies off and I decide to leave them to drink in peace.

I think allotments are fascinating natural habitats and amazed what makes it to and resides on the island, it being surrounded to the west, south and east by the Thames and north by Canary Wharf and its towers.

I think the Peacock was my favourite.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Managing an Allotment Site in Lockdown

So as lockdown eases will we get back to a more normal life on the allotments?

Since lockdown we haven’t had a Committee meeting and the allotments have literally been run by email, Whats App and the odd face to face. Our Secretary has been performing all the administration in isolation up North, our Site Manager has been in isolation caring for his mother and our Vice Chair has been looking after her mother, growing 400 plants for our plant swap and maintaining our community allotment. I have been juggling several balls and also maintaining my neighbour’s plot who has been in isolation. To top it all the barrels on the locks on two gates broke and we ended up having to change the locks and reissue keys top all plot holders. Lockdown has proved a hard time but the plots in the main have never looked better. Our guidelines were implemented early and have been followed by all.

All but a few plots are now being worked by their plot holders and the vast majority have been ever present throughout lockdown and although the social distance has now been reduced, this has not been a problem on the plots.

By reissuing keys and changing locks we proved to all we can change things and distribute stuff to individuals and still not compromise social distances and the health of all. We are fortunate to have a large pavilion and it looked good with a snake route of chairs for folk to follow and we also have two doors and so an entry and exit door. We also went cashless for the first time and will remain so into the future.

Three months is a long time. After all, its only just over three months since all our world’s changed with lock down. So, what will the situation be in three months from now?

In three months, we are scheduled to perform our rent collection days and the distribution of new shares and tenancy packs. We should also hold our AGM. But can we do all this, or do we need to delay and when is the last day to make that decision?

The rent collection and share payments should not prove a big issue and it is hoped that many will now be by bank transfer leaving the rest to card payments on the day. Distributing the new share certificates and tenancy packs should be a repeat should be on the same day and similar to the key distribution, not a problem to perform.

The big issue is the AGM and associated Committee meetings. First the committee must formally approve the accounts, agenda, and report to the AGM. This can be done virtually but there are several items we need to discuss and agree prior to the AGM. Again, we can do this even if this means getting the agreement offline then holding a small meeting that complies with the quorum rules. We then must issue call in notices, distribute certain papers, and comply with our nominations and election process. All sounds simple but involves lots of admin and conforming to schedule.

As an incorporated entity we don’t have the latitude we had previously to just cancel the AGM today as it must be held within 15 months of the last one so must be performed by the end of the year. We have yet to get formal guidance from the FCA on our obligations re accounts sign off and AGM actions in these circumstances.

Today, will all members be willing to attend an AGM? Can we facilitate all or must restrict numbers? Even if we get the required 25% quorum is the potential exclusive of others democratic?
Some will say, ‘Do it all by Zoom.’

But not everyone is a Zoomer, internet savvy or even connected.  There are many who rightly today wish to observe the social bubble guidelines so that presents a problem on all meetings. There is also the more vulnerable, high risk and ethnic groups who understandably would wish to avoid the risk.
With a virus which is unpredictable and could flare up at any time in any place we have a situation in which all plans must be fluid.

Finally, we are just an allotment.

Rent and distribution of shares etc. will take place but it is increasingly difficult to see an AGM at the beginning of October.

The temporary restrictions on fires will have to remain but the question of plot inspections may have to be revisited but take account of individual’s situation.

Since the lock down our waiting list has increased by some fifty people and on average we are now getting four applications a week to what was a list which was close to 200% oversubscribed
As the pubs, restaurants and cafes reopen this weekend we watch on with interest.