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In Britain, a Rite and a Right
Garden 'Allotments' Go to All Who Ask, Eventually

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.

At the Stevenses' family plot, parents Sophie and Tim were putting together the frame for a greenhouse, to coax along tomatoes and melons, while two of their three children raced around. The couple spent three frustrating years on the waiting list for Weald, which at 350-plus plots is the area's largest site. The Brighton-Hove city council maintains 2,500 plots in 38 sites; all are spoken for. The Stevenses found out last July that they would finally get their allotment just as they were moving across town.

But the sale of their house fell through, and "we really, really didn't want to give up the allotment, or have to be driving over to do our veg," says Sophie, 43, a bookkeeper. They ended up buying a house that backs up to Weald.

Interest in allotments has waxed and waned. The peak of grow-your-own fervor in the United Kingdom came during World War II, when 1.4 million Victory Garden plots managed to supply a fifth of the country's food.

But after a spike in the '70s, an estimated 200,000 plots were lost to development in the next two decades. (Councils are allowed to sell the land if usage declines.) Concerned about that trend, the House of Commons commissioned a report, "The Future of Allotments," from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. The government's official comment on the report, in 1998 -- back when the Clinton White House was settling for a small rooftop container garden it barely publicized -- is worth noting: "Given the undisputed health benefits of allotments, we strongly recommend that allotment provision be explicitly noted in national public health strategy and be integrated into the local delivery of that strategy."

And it has been. However, although the government began to protect existing allotment sites and simplified legislation, would-be growers now far exceed available land. The National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners estimates that as many as 100,000 Britons are on waiting lists. At some sites in Wales, the wait is nine years long.

To relieve demand, associations have begun offering half-plots, and other groups are stepping in. In February the charitable National Trust announced it would carve out 1,000 new allotment plots on Trust and private partners' land in the next three years. It is listing its new sites on Landshare.net, which is the brainchild of Fearnley-Whittingstall, Britain's shaggy-haired, bloodstained answer to restaurateur Waters. Through Landshare's Web site, people who want to grow, people who have land they will allow to be cultivated and "helpers" for both can register. As of early May, when the site had barely even launched, 37,000 people had signed up.

Various supermarket and home-improvement chains are providing free plants and seeds as well as online advice. So is the BBC's Dig In campaign. Newspapers across the country are featuring stories of landowners -- from farmers to pubs with back gardens -- willing to turn those pieces of land into allotments.

And at least one newspaper staff is getting its hands dirty. The Observer has managed its own organic allotment plot on London's Hampstead Heath since 2007. "We've even built a fire and cooked meals," said landscape photographer Howard Sooley, one of its caretakers. "The food's just so amazing when it's coming straight off the allotment."

Bonnie Azab Powell is a freelance food-politics writer based in Oakland, Calif.

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