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Retirement allotment gardening

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Resting for a moment from his labours, our allotment gardener has time to reflect on the fruits of his efforts.
Resting for a moment from his labours, our allotment gardener has time to reflect on the fruits of his efforts.

Retirement allotment gardening

Growing your own vegetables has to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding retirement activities. If you have only a small garden or even none at all, then with a bit of research you should be able to find a vacant plot for your retirement allotment without too much difficulty. To feed a small household you require little more than a 1000 square feet space, and very often site managers subdivide plots if required.

There are many benefits from allotment gardening. First of all you will have year round access to fresh and high quality vegetables, and you will know exactly how and where they were grown.  But on top of that you should not underestimate the social benefits.  You will quickly strike up friendships with other allotment holders with a common interest.

The cloth cap reputation of allotments is way out of date, and within our local association we have teachers, a professional artist as well as our own district councillor – a valuable contact for the future! The social benefits should not be underestimated.

All allotment holders have their successes and failures, and are ready to share their knowledge and experience with other gardeners. An informal barter system operates on most sites, where surplus produce is exchanged and ideas pooled.

On top of all that of course allotment gardening provides useful regular exercise in the fresh air – and allotments are cheap to rent. So, go on, there’s no reason not to start now.

In the meantime you might want to look at some of the best sites on this subject:

For everything to do with growing vegetables: RHS have a brilliant website for advice on growing veggies.

For anything to do with fruit trees: This is a good article to get you started.

But really there is no end of sites and articles covering every aspect of growing stuff to eat.

First step is to find a vacant allotment.

Most allotments are on publicly owned land, administered by the local District Council.  In turn District Councils leave it to the Parish Councils to look after allotment management.  One or two phone calls and a couple of emails should be enough to find out who is responsible for looking after them, but a good starting point is the government’s own website resource.

Other allotment sites are provided by private landlords, including organisations like the Church of England. Hunt out your local allotment society and ask them if they know of any available plots or who manages the land which they use if it’s not owned by the local authority. Your local parish or community newsletter will provide details of the parish council members responsible for allotments in your area.

If there are no allotments within reasonble distance and you can find five other parishioners who would like an allotment and are registered council tax payers, you can individually and collectively submit a formal letter to the local council. Send one (you can put all six letters in one envelope) by recorded delivery and one hand delivered, with at least two witnesses present. All local authorities have a mandatory obligation to provide allotment provision under Section 23 of the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act. However, there is no mandatory time scale and London has an opt out under the London Government Act.

Of course you can always wander up to your local allotment site and find out if there are any vacant plots and how to go about getting one. Most allotments are run as an association so once you have the contact details it’s easy enough to find out if there are any vacancies or whether any might come available in the near future.

If you still can’t find a vacant plot locally, then by all means widen the search. Anything up to 5 miles away is a reasonable distance for access, and you will be surprised how many sites are tucked away out of sight.

However keen you are to get started you should check out some of the details before signing on the dotted line.

Choosing an allotment plot is a big decision.  Get it wrong and you will be living with the consequences for a long time.  So it’s well worth checking out the options thoroughly before making your mind up.  Here are some of the more important factors you should consider.

Size and cost

When people start talking about the size of an allotment plot the conversation seems to turn very quickly to every unit of land measurement since the Doomsday Book – rods, perches, acres, not to mention hectares and square meters.  So let’s keep it simple.  For two people a plot measuring between 1000 and 1200 square feet should be big enough, with quite a lot left over to share with friends and family and the freezer.This is also a manageable size for 1 person spending a couple of afternoons each week, apart from when you start off and have to dig the whole plot over.

There are limits to how much you can keep in the freezer and also some vegetables do not freeze well, so realistically there may be some months when you may have to do some supermarket shopping to supplement what you grow yourselves. You can set aside about 400 square feet for soft fruit, which could include a couple of gooseberry bushes, two blackcurrant bushed and a row of raspberries. Plus rhubarb plants.

You will have to pay rent which should not be much more than £30 each year, or £15.00 every six months, although most people pay one annual sub.  For that you should get  free water on site. Some associations allow the use of hose pipes, others not.

Security

It is essential that the whole site should be fenced off to keep out deer, badgers, rabbits and any other beasts with a liking for your fresh vegetables and fruit. You can tip stones dug up from your plot along the base of a surrounding fence as an added protection from any animal that tries to dig its way in.

The site should be accessible by a farm style gate secured with a strong padlock. Allotment holders may also have the use of a shared wooden shed which should be  kept secured with a padlock. Not every allotment site is as secure as it should be, so it’s worth checking what arrangements are in place before making up you mind. Vandalism can be a problem in some areas.

Access

Good access to the site is important. You will need to take tools, fertiliser etc down to your plot from time to time, and it is a pain to have to carry them over any distance. Ability to bring cars right up to your plot for delivering heavy bags can be a real bonus. If there is no mains water supply on the site you will have to carry all the water to your plot yourself. You should think very carefully before taking on a plot with no mains water supply.

Which plot to choose

If you have a choice of plots try to select one that does not have too many stones. Stony ground is harder to dig over and obviously it takes time to get rid of rocks and any other debris. In most cases it is better to take over a plot that has already been cultivated by a previous tenant.  It will probably be full of weeds, but these should not put you off as they are a sign of soil fertility.

Most sites are on open ground, so you don’t have to worry about heavy shading from trees. A sheltered site will give protection from strong winds. If the site is totally exposed it is better to have a plot in the middle so that surrounding plots will provide a degree of shelter.

Orientation of the site is not a major problem.  Given the choice a gently sloping plot towards the South will give your plants the benefit of most sunshine.  Try to avoid the bottom of a slope because you may end up in a frost pocket. Cold air flows downhill.

Pets and other animals

Check the rules and regulations that apply to animals. You may be allowed to bring dogs onto the site provided they are kept under control and do not cause any nuisance. Some sites permit livestock such as hens and/or bees.  If you are contemplating producing your own eggs or honey you should check the terms and conditions carefully to make sure these are not prohibited.

Weeds and undergrowth

The site will inevitably be covered in weeds and undergrowth.  If these are really lush, it’s just a sign of good soil fertility. Don’t take on a site smothered in Japanese Knotweed.  It’s controlled waste, so difficult and expensive to get rid of.  Other perennials such as ground elder, horsetail, bindweed can be killed off with a good herbicide such as Roundup.

Do some research

It is well worth chatting to any of the other allotment tenants you might meet when looking over the site. People who keep allotments are a sociable lot, and you will find them more than ready to share their experience. They are an invaluable source of information about any problems that might have arisen in the past.

Soil type is important too. Pick up a handful of moist soil. If it sticks together in a hard ball it is mainly clay. If it crumbles away in your hand it is mainly sand. Silty soil feels slightly greasy.  Sandy soils can be tricky but are good for root vegetables. The best soil is a clay base with some sand mixed in. These tend slightly towards alkalinity so are good for a wide range of vegetables and fruit, and at the same time are not prone to waterlogging. Any soil will be improved by adding compost from your compost heap or well rotted horse manure.

Time to get started

Once you have found your plot and signed along the dotted line, all you have to do is roll up your sleeves and get started.

There are no end of websites and online articles covering every aspect of growing stuff to eat. Some of the best sites are :

For everything to do with growing vegetables: RHS have a brilliant website for advice on growing veggies.

For anything to do with fruit trees: This is a good article to get you started.

Or  click here for further information about getting started.

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