Friday, 28 August 2020

Social Prescribing Schemes

When we look at our growing waiting list and can’t help thinking about those in the community who would love to grow vegetables but are disabled, ill or in long term recovery. How we can help them?
My article yesterday on raised beds drew a significant response from plot holders on many social sites who were gardening and growing despite their illness, stiffening joints, back problems, arthritis etc. It was heartening to hear that despite their challenges they were enjoying working their plots and adapting them to help.

Can we do more, and should we not only help the members but also reach out further into the community?

I am currently exploring the potential for a NHS workers plot. The plot is rented by a doctor from a city hospital and during the pandemic she has bought in a little team of nurses and staff to help her on the plot. It is now looking the best it has ever looked and it’s great to see these key workers unwind and relax on the plot. The doctor remains the member and we have merely extended the use of the plot to those we all want to say thank you to.

Should we also be doing more to help those members who are finding it harder to work their plots and help fund and build raised beds for them?

What about the community and its patients, long term sick, those recovering from serious illness and those with physical or mental disabilities and can we help them?

The NHS is now supporting social prescribing schemes which include gardening. The government plans that within the next five years over 2.5 million more people will benefit from social prescribing. Therapeutic horticulture has also been shown to help improve people’s communication and thinking skills.

One garden involved in the pilot scheme has patients from the NHS Simmons House Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatient Unit, who will be working with a local allotment association which offers gardening activities for people referred by their GP to the area's social prescribing scheme.

Down to Earth a not-for-profit organisation in Gloucestershire, supports people in growing and harvesting their own fruit and vegetables. Together with local doctors they have introduced a social prescribing scheme that allows patients to tend their own allotment. The organisation is not funded by the NHS and has established some 50 raised beds, each measuring 16 feet by 4 feet. Today it has five patients and plans to increase this to 15.

The Lambeth GP Food Co-op includes 11 GP practices in south London. Here patients with long-term conditions work together to grow food, which is then sold to King’s College Hospital, enabling one set of patients to provide food for another. Other examples include ‘reciprocal’ gardening schemes, which connect isolated older people with untended gardens with those who have no garden but want to garden and grow things. Horatio’s Garden, which provides gardens for patients with spinal injuries. The effects of gardens in care homes and hospices have been particularly well studied, particularly in dementia care. The King’s Fund programme works with almost 30 hospitals and 35 hospices has a strong focus on gardens. In Shetland “green prescriptions” help islanders with depression and anxiety with doctors recommending walks and activities that allow people to connect with the outdoors.

For five years, the Bedford County Master Gardeners’ therapeutic gardening project has provided programs at local senior living facilities. The year-round programs — now conducted in four facilities — include educational workshops and hands-on activities related to gardening.

Unlike growing on individual allotments or private gardens, community gardening requires an element of cooperation and collective planning. Working together towards shared goals can create a real sense of community. Some argue allotments aren’t community gardens and forget that the land is community property and is only rented and leased as such. So perhaps Societies have to rethink membership and the community, and we all take a more holistic viewpoint.

When it comes to disabled it is often not a case of finding an area, building it and expecting a response we need to understand the needs of the users, what they are looking to grow, the frequency of their use, the supervision, the access etc.

At our Society’s AGM last year a mandate was given to explore using an area of one of our sites and create a high raised bed area for a disabled group. We also teamed up with the farm who had a similar area and were happy to work with us to make something happen. Then came the pandemic and everything went on temporary hold.

Care in the community be it on an individual or group level is something that allotments can and should consider. It may not work for some but can be rewarding for others and the one thing about the allotments is that they don’t do any harm – you can’t get any side effects!

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Are Raised Beds Essential?


The arguments for and against raised beds are like those made over dig versus no dig. You are either for or against them and you often find some support one or the other and few change sides. It is like asking a United fan to support City.

Raised beds are not new and can be traced back to medieval times when beds could be edged with wattle fences. 18th century market gardeners in Paris built up their plots with horse manure and compost. Did you ever see them in Percy Thrower's, or Geoff Hamilton's gardens? So why does it seem everyone suddenly wants a raised bed and even the big DIY store are now selling kits which tells you that it has gone mainstream. When did the current obsession with raised beds start to take hold in the UK?

In the 80s and 90s the modern organic movement raised many soil issues such as compaction on hard beds, soil structure improvement, weeds reduction and being able to isolate root disease and other soil related problems with raised beds. Now you can’t pick up a gardening magazine, watch a gardening video or even turn on a TV garden program without being faced with timber raised beds.

I can see the case for raised beds on some plots but will the trend be that all plots will have to have a shed, compost bin, rainwater barrel and raised beds. Interestingly on our site, which has a huge diversity of ethnic backgrounds and culture, only a single group of growers have adopted them.

Are they cheap? Some may say that there is masses of timber waiting to be picked up and screwed together, but if you look at the cost of new and even reused timber the answer is no. First to build a single 8 x 4 foot 1 foot deep bed you will ned some 24 feet of 6 x 1 or scaffold board and 6 foot of 2 x 2 plus nails, screw etc. Then you must fill it. So the maths is not hard and then times that by the number of beds. There are also those who will debate what sort of timber that should be used. and whether the beds need lining.

I did the maths and walked away, that’s until today. So, what has changed and have i suddenly become a devote follower of raised beds or merely a follower of fashion?

The building we live in is now having to adapt to the new building fire regulations post Grenfell and wooden decking on balconies is now out. Decking was not universally installed by owners, but it all has now to be removed. This means that there is now potentially a lot of good quality decking boards going free. Music to the allotment holder in me.

As a result, I have now got some 50 x 8 foot grooved boards and 2 x 2 treated batons for free and transported them to the plot. I could use the timbers to just create neat borders and tidy my bank, but I have decided to raise my game and beds instead.

I intend to line the inside of the timbers and treat the outside, so they have a longer life expectancy. Once the main plot area is cleared next month, deck screws will be waiting to be inserted and construction will start. I also have spoken with the farm manger and will be dumping quite a few wheelbarrow loads of horse manure to over winter. All will be tucked up into the beds and covered in tarp over winter.

As I arrive to inspect my plot or what resembles a timber yard, Lottie, my faithful whippet plot companion comes to a halt.

‘Where did that lot come from?’ asks Lottie pointing her paw towards a huge pile of timber on the allotment path.

‘I brought it across yesterday,’ I reply.

‘You’re not building another greenhouse, are you?’ Lottie asks.

‘No raised beds.’

Lottie understands what beds are and after all like most whippets she spends most of her life sleeping on them, in them and making them. So, it’s no surprise that she looks a little happy but confused.

‘But you aren’t going to sleep here overnight are you?’ she asks.

I reply, ‘No they are for growing vegetables in.’

She looks confused and turns towards the bench and exclaims, ‘Did you know there is wood under my bench too!’

I reply, ‘Yes i think I now have enough to make a few beds.’

‘Well it’s a good job the weather has turned that’s my lower bunk for when I get hot,’ says Lottie sniffing the timbers.

I simply reply, ‘noted.’

I realise that I will have start to build soon as Lottie is a whippet of habit and I have robbed her of her second bed. She looks at me as if she wants to understand raised beds but doesn’t and clearly thinks I am mad.

How do you describe a raised bed to someone who has no idea why you would want to spend the effort, money and time when you could grow vegetables without raised beds? I must admit I used to think the same, but one can’t ‘look a gift horse in the mouth’, can you?

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Rooftop Allotments: The Answer to Urban Space?

Space is often difficult to find and even more difficult to convert into allotments. The denser the housing and closer it is to the inner city the harder it gets as all compete for what land there is. In rural areas we often find the opposite and there is land but maybe not always where it is required.
We hear about space which could be made into more plots but the council are reluctant to spend the cash to do it. We hear about other councils sitting on unspent CIL reserves whilst land and allotment demand exists. The one thing that is clear is that allotment land opportunities are shrinking.

We wrote recently about the opportunity to convert some abandoned railway land in West London. The plot may be small but the community benefits aren’t. We are trying to galvanise the community to go for a disused railway viaduct in the heart of the East End of London and in doing so create an iconic ‘grow line’ for all.

However, much of today’s focus is on the traditional ground level where space is tight, and some would suggest that there is much more space available up on the roof and down under the ground. So, perhaps we should apply some lateral or even ‘vertical’ thinking to expanding our allotments?

Up on the roof…

Roof gardens and farms are not new or difficult to establish but do need vision and commitment. As this government starts to tear up some of the planning restrictions in favour of a ‘easier’ and less bureaucratic system and process do we have the opportunity to redefine community infrastructure needs, especially on those developments which contribute 106 /CIL monies?   

But let’s look at some commercial examples of farming in the air.

New York has Brooklyn Grange which claims to be the largest urban rooftop farm in the world serving the local community with fresh organic produce. Over two acres of rooftop produces over 40,000 lbs of vegetables and even has chickens and a productive apiary. New York also has Greenpoint and Gotham Greens, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and that’s without that iconic world leading High Line on its West side.

In Holland there are Dakakker in Rotterdam and Zuidpark in Amsterdam. Japan has City Farm in Tokyo which itself challenges designers in that it grows many wet crops such as rice. Canada has Lufa Farms in Montreal which has a 31,000 square foot greenhouse to survive those Canadian winters. Eastdale Collegiate Institute roof in Toronto opens onto Toronto’s skyline, high above the neighbourhood’s surrounding buildings. The farm is a collaborative project between the Toronto District School Board and FoodShare Toronto, which is a social program promoting urban agriculture and food literacy among students.

In Hong Kon, HK Farm may be small but competes in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

In Denmark ØsterGRO is somewhat different and is inspired by the concept Community Supported Agriculture. It is run by the three employees, its member families and volunteers. It has been established with support from the Copenhagen Municipality, is self-sustainable and financed through revenue educational activities and membership fees from the families involved. Some 13,000 visitors a year learn about food waste and sustainable food production as well as contribute income. Below the raised flower and vegetable beds, there is a 350 m2 water reservoir where rainfall is collected for the irrigation of plants during the growing season.

In China Sunqiao district in Shanghai focuses on integrating vertical farms and research. The majority of Shanghai’s inhabitants’ diet consists of leaf vegetables, making hydroponic and aquaponic systems appropriate and lending themselves to growing crops such spinach, lettuce, kale and watercress which don’t require specific care, grow quickly and weigh very little. The district features floating greenhouses, green walls and vertical facades for seed collection.

In Paris and under construction in the south-west of the city is approximately 14,000 sq metres and the largest urban farm in Europe. It plans to grow more than 30 different plants, produce around 1,000kg of fruit and vegetables every day in high season and will be maintained by some 20 gardeners. It will be located on the top of a major exhibition complex and will be run by Paris’s renowned chain of rooftop venues, Le Perchoir. This aerial eatery will offer panoramic views over the capital.

So what does the UK offer on our roofs? What are we doing to bring fresh right into the heart of our cities? How are we looking to involve communities and seek opportunities to fill that allotment shortfall and growing demand?

We have the Underground.

We have vegetables and salads being successfully farmed underground in London in a hydroponics farm below the streets of southwest London. Founders Richard Ballard and Steven Dring have been selling micro-herbs and baby greens to restaurants and markets since 2015. Importantly it can only be achieved on quick growing salad plants and clearly is not a model for the wider community today.
In London’s East End we are fortunate to have one of our Society’s allotment plots within the award-winning Canary Wharf Crossrail Rooftop garden. Surely planners and developers must be stretched and 106/CIL monies used to create new community spaces in the sky and covert disused railway viaducts into exciting ‘grow lines’?

Perhaps it’s time we all started to think vertical. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Celebrate and Share the Harvest

The pandemic has raised the profile for a healthier lifestyle and wellbeing, be it physical and mental exercise or better nutrition, diet and good ‘fresh’ food. Even the fast food outlets have realised that we need more fresh food and that we can’t live on carbs, processed food and heavily sweetened and salted food alone. Consumers have been increasingly wary of sugar and salt levels and supermarkets that have all but destroyed seasonality and wonky food and are now realising that ‘shrinkwrapped and perfect’ 365 x 24 may not be the solution sought by all.

I can still remember my childhood and those bountiful and colourful harvest festivals. Each autumn school halls and church halls were decorated, and everyone brought in their own grown produce of all shapes and sizes to celebrate and share the harvest. We still have Harvest festivals, but we now have less space, and many people have lost or never learnt the skills or had the confidence to grow their own.

Our waiting list, like many others, has exploded over the lockdown period and continues to grow with people wanting to grow, enjoy fresh food and improve their health and wellbeing. There are no quick fixes to meeting this demand, and understanding the true latent demand is an interesting challenge especially in the urban and inner cities.

Allotments today can often produce more than the plot holder’s families can consume. Allotments are not allowed to sell produce to the public and when all the pickling, jam, chutney, freezing and wine opportunities have been exhausted, we often find there are still excesses.

Last week there was a wonderful picture on Social Media of a fantastic harvest of food a plot holder had donated to their local food bank. This is to be commended and it was not for commercial gain. Also last week I discussed opportunities to donate on a site, or even borough basis, with a local church whose parish together with other dominations run a food bank and who this year have been supplying food boxes to those needing direct assistance. Throughout the country, allotments and plot holders have programmes to donate their excess produce to many worthy initiatives and long may this continue and be encouraged.

The question is, can we do it better?

Last year we contributed our site excess plus produce grown at our Canary Wharf allotment to a local kitchen. It’s was not always easy to collect, very unpredictable and obviously has to be delivered ‘fresh’ at the right time. We also had talks about linking the kitchen to another charity that could train youngsters how to prepare and cook the produce.

One challenge we have is that we have such an ethnic mix of cultures that there is often more exotic food than traditional and donating non-traditional food to the wrong audience can be a wasted exercise and visa versa. We spoke to some charities who ran kitchens and they declined food on the basis we could not guarantee supply and more importantly they really wanted was tinned, dry goods more than fresh. This was what both the cooks and clients expected. It is no good presenting someone who desperately needs food with a plate of patti pans, yellow courgettes, mangetout and black potatoes.

So the answers are not simple: there are no one size fits all, and often its also down to the logistics of getting the right produce to the right place, right people and at the right time. Real ‘fresh’ and organic produce often doesn’t have that supermarket extended shelf life.

Perhaps it’s the perfect time for council allotment sites to actively involve local charities and health bodies in their allotments and extend their appreciation of health and wellbeing. After all, allotment benefits are far greater than Parks and Open Space.

The balance of benefits from keeping any initiative local, against extending it to cover a borough or even larger community is an interesting one. Dealing with different ethnic and cultural tastes is another. However we should be cognisant that our allotments are community land and we are privileged to have it and work it, and finding ways to share the harvest with those less fortunate should always be on the agenda.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Allotment Behaviour and Codes of Conduct

What is a code of conduct and why do allotments need them?

When an allotment holder raised a question over water pressure and maintenance with an officer on their site, they reported on social media that they got an unacceptable response. The point was not about the response itself but the words which were claimed to have been used and the approach in which they were delivered.

We have all witnessed inappropriate or offensive language, and more importantly inappropriate attitude to others and this applies in many ways. Whether its age, sex, ethnic background, disability, physical or mental ability, demographic, status, etc. discrimination of any sort has no place on today’s diverse and inclusive allotments.

It is often hard to encapsulate principles of conduct and behaviour within either constitution and tenancy rules. It covers all members, officers and committee members behaviour and rights with respect to each other, on the governance of the Society, the Society’s business and affairs, interaction with the wider community and what is expected in all meetings.

One important point covered is the often-thorny issue of collective responsibility. All members have the right to voice their opinion and to speak openly on issues within the membership but must accept collective responsibility such that when the 'majority' have voted that the result is accepted, irrespective of individual opinion or conviction.

Some committees have wasted much time and effort because someone refused to accept collective responsibility, questioned anything and everything and without a point of reference they often believe that they are entitled to do so.

The code also may lay out how and when conflict of interest is declared, how meetings are held and minuted. We may all assume it is done this or that way but rarely is this written down and often it’s down to working practice and who holds the pen.

You would not expect a committee member to mislead or lie to colleagues but if they do, what can you do? There are many things we all expect from others, but these may not be what others do.

Codes of conduct are not easy to write and need to dovetail into the constitutional rules, tenancy rules, grievance and complaints procedures and now GDPR policy. They may seem too much and too bureaucratic to many, but wait till you have issues and start to look to find that donkey to pin the tail on.

We created a code of conduct for a number of reasons. There was refusal by an individual to accept anything other than their viewpoint even when all had voted and closed the issues. However not only that, but there were other issues where some would suggest the committee was misled, where formal complaints and legal letters were sent to the Borough offices and other third parties without even copying or informing the committee and which contained inaccuracies and false statements.

A Code of Conduct that lays down the behavior expected of all can be voluntary and if adhered to should never need to see daylight.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Get Jack's Enchanted Bean Seeds For Free

Many folk have recently received unsolicited packets of seeds through the post from China. It’s like those old ‘Book of the Month’ or special introductory offers you don’t really want but the supplier wants you to have. The premise of the old offers was that if you threw enough over the wall some would stick. In fact, I was once a Non-Exec Director at a company who believed that an 80% returns rate was acceptable – I clearly advised differently. Today the seed dumping is part of a global 'brushing' scam aimed at gaining positive social media reviews for online selling sites. The same principle, throw it over the wall and see if it sticks.
But what are these mystery seeds? Are they non-native species? Could they introduce pests and diseases? Like in the fairy tale of Jack Spriggins and his enchanted bean, they could present many surprises and even like his beanstalk reach up into the sky to meet a giant saying, 'Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.'
Government bodies are very concerned about the issue and request that all packets received are sent to the appropriate labs for testing. But that just identifies whether they are safe, not whether the practice is right and is little incentive to many who may wish to risk the free beanstalk and the giant.
Seeds for free hits an accord with many and begs the question what is the price of seeds and how can you tell a good deal from an expensive one?
If you visit other EU countries you can often buy packets of seeds far cheaper than in the UK and not only that but you also get far more seeds than in many miserly UK packets. Are they as good? Do they pass the rigorous UK quality standards? You are not allowed to import plants without licence, but a packet of seeds?
My seeds are in the main from Spain and in my humble opinion far better than those available in UK, offer far more in a packet, and often are half or less the UK price.
The other issue I can’t get my head around is why it is so easy for you to get significantly discounted seeds in the UK. Sometimes it is a club or Society price, sometimes they are just discounted but it begs the question of what is the true cost of the seeds and are we paying too much when we purchase at full RRP?
You all receive not one but many glossy full colour bulky seed catalogues. I have received four in the last month alone plus the email shots which often offer discount on the catalogue price. These are sent out to you even if you once even enquired. What about the cost of the associated mail order and list management routines and dispatch and delivery costs and what happens to the waste?
At least two national growing organisations offer members some 40% plus discount on seeds from different seed providers which would suggest the gross margins are significant.
Today the seed nurseries, distributors and household names are clearly shifting from seed to plants and plugs are becoming the safe way to get a start. Some may sell accessories too but these are often full price and easily available elsewhere at a more reasonable price.
Some say that plugs are cheating, and you need to be there from the sowing. Others that is not the first stage and you need to be there from conception and collect and store your own. I sow what I feel Iam happy to sow and have success in doing, especially from Spain. I’ll plug some plants I either have patchy success at sowing or simply can’t beat the offer on time and effort. I’ll even collect seeds and encourage self-seeding where appropriate. To me there is no right or wrong, only a full plot of healthy plants.
So what would I do if I received one of these Chinese freebies?

Like junk or spam mail I’ll ignore them, but is it safe to dispose of them or will a giant beanstalk be found growing out of the sewers and reaching up to the sky?

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Pitchforks, Spade and Trowels at Dawn

Well they say that you can't choose your family, neighbours and also who has the plot next to you.

We all know that it only takes a little spark, a passing comment, a smokie from a fire blowing in the wrong direction, or just a badly maintained path or plot and World War 3 can break out on the plots. The trenches may have been dug for the spuds but they offer little cover and if issues aren't addressed swiftly and fairly, a no man’s land will appear between feuding plots. Often a quiet word in an ear from a Site Manager can calm matters and a return to pleasantness.

We all remember back in 2017 when 80 year old Lea Adri-Soejoko, an allotment secretary and treasurer in North London was found dead in her shed. A lawnmower cord had been wrapped tightly around her neck by a fellow allotment holder she had known for nearly a decade, because he thought he may lose his plot.

Recently we read about sabotage on the plot of Joe Mills, who runs a YouTube channel called Digging for Dinner. Someone had ruined his entire crop dousing it with paint and varnish. When only one plot gets attacked then obvious questions get asked.

Last week a Twitter report said that someone on their allotments had been hit on the head by a rock thrown by another plot holder and the police were even called.

We often hear about disputes with the committee who are trying to just maintain rules but to some they are seen to be overly zealous and they may ignore the fact that the issue is often down to them breaking the rules. People may be asked several times by different people to abide by the rules but all of a sudden it's not their breach of the rules but the manner they were approached and a stream of unrelated issues surface in their defence.

There can be incidents where beans or other high and foliage plants are densely grown right along the dividing path. One party will claim it is with the intent of deliberately intending to block their light. They turn to the committee to resolve. When asked to take down and move the plants before they become an issue the others often do nothing and then it's too late to move the plants. Next year they repeat their planting.

We have had the victimisation card played and incidents where the whole family and even other non members who have never been on the plot make claims.

Then there are the cases of theft or sabotage and when inspected often little substance can be found to support the claim. There are those who throw the accusations out first with little or no substance and you discover it's not about a single issue but something that went off long before that.

When relations clearly are not going to be resolved plot holders have been given the opportunity to move. This is not a measure taken lightly or recommended but sometimes it works.

However, let’s not lose sight that 99% of the time there is peace, harmony and goodwill. Folk get on, share seeds and plants, cover for each other and pass many a sunny afternoon together over a cuppa.

That is until you mention the bindweed, the weather, the harvest, the gate locks, the rent, the….. The seemingly most innocent of conversations can bring out those pent up issues,.so today, make a special effort to say hello, have a chat and compliment them on their plot.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single plot holder in possession of a good allotment must be in want of a prize.

This time of year every social media page is awash with proud plot holders showing off their prize produce. You can almost see their beaming faces reflected in the baskets, bundles, and mountains of freshly picked stuff. It may be fruit, it may be vegetables and it may be flowers, but all are proudly displayed and adorned with well earned ‘likes’ in search of that prize.

This year we have no shows and rows of leeks and beans all lined up like soldiers waiting to be pinned with a medal. There are no enormous pumpkins being weighed or cabbages being held across a chest to prove their size. There are no potatoes in bowls being inspected for colour, skin and whatever else potatoes seek before being mashed. There are no onions with their stems tightly plaited and trying to defy size.

To those who live to grow the longest, biggest, straightest, and purest and crave the gold awards I take my hat off. Your patience and dedication for perfection is admirable but to me size doesn’t matter, and these exhibits do nothing for me - I rather like wonky, imperfect and stubby. I’ll probably get strange letters in the post and be cold shouldered at the county fair but it’s off this year.

There are also those who don’t understand why their produce has been left on the shelf and like some single woman in possession a good fortune, in want of a good man. Their efforts may not be converted like the prized ones but it’s all about the experience, experiment, learning and just growing. These deserve equal billing and it’s about enjoyment not medals.

The social media is full of those seeking help as to what to do, when and tips and advice of went wrong. Not a day goes by without a picture of tomatoes with bottomrot, cucumbers that have gone past their sell by date, insect eaten or infected produce and of course every mention of slugs, snails, flies and some horrific pictures of gigantic caterpillars.

I find it interesting that last year’s success can quickly become this year’s failure. Last year the mangetout was prolific and tasty, this year a change of variety, new location, and a dismal performance the educational board would have no problem downgrading the result. Last year, the kale experienced a plague of white fly locusts, this year a new location, different conditions, and you would be hard-pressed to find one little occupant. Growing is not about getting it perfect, but learning, reward, and enjoyment.

So if Ms Austen were a plot holder today, would she err towards Sense and Sensibility on the plot?

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Watch Out There is a Thief About

This time of year is when plants get harvested, but unfortunately not always by the plot holder.
It is frustrating for those who have been nurturing and watering their crop and expecting to reap the reward, only to turn up to find the bush has been stripped of fruit, the veg dug up and the tomatoes gone. Well it’s never as devastating as that.

‘I just want to tell you someone has stripped all the plums of one of my trees’ reads the email.

You sympathise, but wonder what on earth you are supposed to do? Can you imagine their response if you said, ‘Tell you what, why don’t you and I camp out in your shed and try and catch them? You bring the thermos and I’ll bring the biscuits. After all, there is nothing on the box tonight, is there?’

After a few lame excuses about prior engagements or the mother in law visiting that night it soon becomes clear that the fruit has already gone, along with the will to help catch the thief.
There is little anyone can do about stolen produce and the value of the goods is not monetary but about the produce and effort lost.

It’s strange that often the same plots suffer and even the same bushes. Repeat offenders repeat on the same plants every year, and clearly are creatures of habit. We have even had the whole bush lifted and yes, no one saw a thing.

‘Maybe it is the rats,’ I suggest to Lottie.

‘But we don’t have any on the site as the Freddie Fox rules the plots at night,’ she responds.

‘Maybe it’s the squirrels who are very adept at climbing even the tallest sunflower to chew off its head.’

‘Give over, they are very selective in what they eat and not that good at digging up whole potato plants and they also know I could be lying around waiting to chase them,’ says Lottie.

I suggest ‘Maybe it’ss that squadron of wood pigeons who raid the broccoli and anything not netted, or their cousins the crows and magpies?’

Lottie rolls her big whippet eyes, ‘They do like any ripe fruit but often leave it half eaten and you would see a trail of large deposits of similarly coloured poo.’

Lottie adds before I can say more, ‘It’s certainly not Freddie and his foxes who may poo, play and dig everywhere, but aren’t veggies at heart.’

So that leaves other plot holders whose harvest may not be up to scratch or in need of a supplement. But the damage is often overnight and when plot holders should be tucking into their food not stealing it from others.

There are the outsiders who, on seeing free food, could clamber over two metre steel fences and barbed wire. Surely, they would clear all the plots and not selectively pick on one lonely but overloaded tree. You would think that they would have a shopping bag and take as much as possible, after all it’s like a bank robber turning over a bank and only taking a tenner and leaving the rest behind.

‘Of course, it could be a gang of wild youths,’ I suggest to Lottie, thinking back to my long lost youth and pinching apples from neighbour’s gardens.

‘Yes,’ Lottie says with a broad grin. ‘I can see them looking at yellow courgettes and patti pans  wondering what to do with them. After all they don’t get them with a Big Mac do they.’

Having watched Naturewatch and those fascinating night cameras, some believe CCTV cameras are the solution and that the grainy picture will capture the culprit infra-red handed. But to place cameras on every plot and to cover every angle would be a worse infringement of privacy than our High Streets today and it’s only an allotment and a bit of produce.

‘So what’s the answer?’ I ask Lottie.

‘There is no answer’ she responds. ‘And if you think you can get me to camp out in the shed every night and all night you can think again. It’s too cold and I need my bed and I guarantee the night I have off, the phantom thief of the plots will strike and the next day the complaints will fly and fingers will be pointed at me.’

Some say that locks on sheds invite thieves. When my daughter and her site were experiencing lots of shed thefts she removed her lock off her shed. Surprisingly she didn't have any more unwanted visitors, perhaps they already knew what she had and moved on to pastures new, but they went elsewhere.

Personally i have marketed all my tools with a permanent marker to state my ownership. Obviously there are many options here and some tools aren't worth marking whilst some are difficult to do bur I would suggest its a deterrent to many an opportunist. 

Personally, if someone is desperate enough to steal my produce, as long as they leave me some, so be it. If it is a plot holder and they get caught they will lose their plot. If it’s an animal, action may be taken to protect stuff in the future. If it’s outsiders, then again action to protect plots needs to be taken.

Also you can't mark your plants and produce.

But it’s not the end of the world, and there’s always next season.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Back to Quarantine

Having returned from holiday a week ago we find ourselves in quarantine.

As we left Mallorca I looked down at my neighbour’s vegetable patch. Juan is a retired construction company owner and is always pottering around outside in his shorts spraying his plants, picking his harvest, blowing leaves off his drive and even rotovating his plot. His tomato and bean frames are bamboo he cuts down from the back of his garden where these monsters can grow some 30 feet tall. It may not be the classic English plot, but it certainly produces for his extended family. He also has a very big Avacado tree laden with hanging fruit and a half lemon and half orange tree at his gate entrance which is fun to watch fruit. Well it is the orange and lemon valley of Mallorca so a half and half tree makes sense.

Fortunately, my volunteer plot ‘buddy’ off our waiting list has been attending my plot, my neighbour’s who’s shielded and our Site Manager’s plot and enjoys the watering and harvesting produce. On our return there was a huge bundle of fresh pickings and an update on the plot. She also has agreed to cover the isolation period. It’s great to be able to share the plot this way with someone who is keen to volunteer and help. Now what would we have done without her?

My plot ‘buddy’ personifies the people who don’t have the opportunity today to grow at home. She may have windowsills and a very small balcony, but that is hardly enough space. She will have to wait years on our waiting list to get to top and it’s a shame folk like her can’t get that plot of land they deserve. She even helps often volunteering at our plot at Canary Wharf Crossrail station.

So as we wait to be let out it is time to reflect on those without plots, on long waiting lists and desperate to grow. We have to do better and whether its community gardens, garden lets, open space provision and we must not ignore the demand or the benefits. It’s not about being a member of a society, it’s about being a member of a community. It’s not about allotments over there, community gardens over here, open space gardens in the middle, it’s about gardening provision for young and old, fit and disabled, and maybe allotment buddies are one option.

Today we are 250% over subscribed on our waiting list and it isn’t getting better. Boroughs throw their hands in the air and say no more land, ministers say housing comes first, there is a clear urban versus rural divide and little is done for those unable to work a full plot or recovering from injury or long term illness or mental health issues. It isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s all our problem.

Juan in Mallorca has land, there is plenty of family land there and in the mountains, but surely some would suggest it’s far too hot to work it. The point is Juan is not overlooked by Europe’s densest residential housing staked up in ever increasing skyscrapers. He lives in a close-knit community which has its own ‘buddy’ system and yes they had a stricter lockdown but they have land and can grow.