In Britain, Gardening Your 'Allotment' Is a Rite and a Right

By Bonnie Azab Powell
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

HOVE, United Kingdom -- Last summer, the all-vegetarian Radcliffe family of three did not buy a single courgette. "And neither did anyone we knew," laughs mother Kate Radcliffe about their plentiful harvest of the vegetable that Americans know as zucchini.

U.S. gardeners can sympathize with a glut of summer squash in the back yard. But the Radcliffes, like an estimated 300,000 other Britons, tend their tomatoes, garlic, berries, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and more about a half-mile from their home, on what is called an "allotment." It's akin to a community garden plot in the United States, only much bigger.

Both England and America are in the grips of grow-your-own fever, inspired by TV food personalities Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver on one side of the Atlantic and first lady Michelle Obama and Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters on the other. The trend is driven partly by economics, partly by the desire to eat locally grown food and reconnect with the seasons.

There are ever-longer waiting lists for community plots on both sides of the pond, but England's allotment system has stronger and deeper cultural roots, thanks to long-standing government support.

As in other European countries with a feudal history, the system came about as a pragmatic way to help the working poor feed themselves once the public land on which they had formerly relied fell into private ownership.

The first appearance of "allotment" in reference to a food garden was in 1845, the same year as the United Kingdom's General Enclosure Act, which mandated that quarter-acre "field gardens" be set aside for landless laborers. But the act had few teeth. Neither did subsequent ones, until a 1908 law firmly required parish, urban district and borough councils to provide food-growing space wherever there was demand for it.

Since the 1950s, councils must provide such space to any group of six or more residents that petitions for it, regardless of income. Most allotment sites are owned or leased by the local authorities and rented to allotment holders for a nominal annual fee, which can be as low as £8, or about $12.

The typical allotment size is about 2,700 square feet, including a shed, and some are double that, according to the National Allotment Gardens Trust. (In comparison, the new White House garden plot is 1,100 square feet; the average size around urban Washington is 48 square feet.)

In Hove, a small town near Brighton on England's southern coast, the courgette-blessed Radcliffes rent their plot at the Weald Allotments for about $50 per year, or slightly less than the national average.

"We'd gladly pay three times that," says Kate Radcliffe, 46, who heads the occupational therapy program for the National Health Services trust in the region.

"It is a lot of work, but it is a great pleasure as well," she says. "Often you think, 'Oh, I can't be bothered.' But once we get here, it takes quite a lot to tear us away."

On a recent spring Saturday at Weald, dozens of adults and assorted children had braved the stiff wind and threatening gray skies to pull weeds or build fruit cages.

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