The struggle to secure allotments is becoming more fierce as increasing numbers of hard-up families want one of 300,000 vegetable patches across Britain.
Pitchforks are not yet flying, but with the annual cost of food rising by 14.5 per cent, the National Allotment Society says families can save £2,000 a year on supermarket bills by growing their own fruit and vegetables.
With allotment plots typically costing just £150 a year to rent from councils, demand is outstripping supply. But plots can be found.
Shared passion: Guy Barter, of the Royal Horticultural Society, says it is worth asking if you can share an allotment
How to find a plot
Those wanting an allotment need not despair. Although available plots are hard to find, this is the time of year when some gardeners hang up their tools for good as the growing season ends and winter looms.
Tyler Harris, an adviser for the National Allotment Society, says: ‘Competition for plots is at a record high, but inspectors often visit at this time of the year when crops for the year have all been picked.
‘If they discover a plot where less than 75 per cent of the ground has been dug over in preparation for next year, they can try and take it back and rent it to someone else.
‘If you already have a plot, get out your spade and start digging. Those wanting to find a space should start asking around allotment sites to see if one is available.’
Councils have sold off many allotments to developers in recent years. Traditionally, plots are measured in rods – on average 250 square metres (the size of a tennis court – but many are smaller.
Be flexible on space
Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society, believes a good way to get an allotment is not to be too picky.
He says: ‘You only need a small space to get started. Contact your local allotment association to see if an existing member might share their plot.
‘New gardeners are often better off with a smaller plot because it is more manageable.’
Harris also suggests asking the council if temporary plots are available – for example, on land earmarked for future development. There are thousands of private allotments dotted around the country – often tucked away in busy urban areas. These plots vary in size and are usually smaller than a traditional allotment – indeed some ‘micro-plots’ are just three metres square.
Local gardening groups are a good place to find out about private plots. The average waiting time for an allotment space is typically 18 months, but depending on where you live, you could wait more than a decade.
Dig out a spade
If you have just got a plot, now is the ideal time to prepare it for next year’s harvest. Barter says: ‘Start digging before the ground gets too wet or freezes over. It is not just about turning over the soil, but making sure it is fit for any vegetables you wish to grow.’
An alternative is to lay cardboard on the ground to kill off the weeds – and then to sprinkle a four-inch layer of compost on top to nurture the soil. Barter also suggests investing in a soil tester kit. Vegetables usually struggle to grow in acidic earth, but if you mix lime powder into the ground – a 10kg bag will cost £12 – it will nourish the soil to sustain fruit and vegetable growth.
Cancel the gym and take up gardening instead
- Growing your own vegetables will not only reduce your grocery bills, but will reward you both physically and mentally. Guy Barter, of the RHS, says: ‘Cancel your gym membership and the money saved can be ploughed into gardening. You not only get a healthy workout, but you will also feel a lot better for working with nature. Planning what to grow is part of the fun.’
- Bare-root fruit plants – such as raspberries and blackberries – can be purchased in batches of half a dozen for as little as £10 online or from garden nurseries. They can be planted now. Fledgling strawberry plants are available in bundles of a dozen for about £15. These can be planted between now and March and will harvest as early as June. With 1kg of raspberries, blackberries or strawberries costing as much as £10, you can enjoy a bumper summer harvest of fruit while freezing much of it to eat later on.
- Invest £20 in a heated propagator and you can start planting tomato seeds indoors as early as January. The seeds are tricked into growing early thanks to the warm soil and can then be transferred outside from March – though they often prefer life inside a greenhouse. A single plant can yield ten kilos of fruit. So a £2 pack of seeds might produce half a dozen plants that together provide enough tomatoes for the entire summer, saving you as much as £240.
- One of the best value vegetables is lettuce. You can purchase a packet of 800 seeds for £2 – giving you the luxury of being able to gamble on planting in March in the hope of early crop growth. Onions, radishes and broad beans are other staples you can grow from £2 seed packs. Over a year they can reap vegetables that would cost hundreds of pounds at the supermarket.