Winning a London Garden Allotment

I signed up for my London garden allotment so long ago that the application was by post and possibly in Linear B. In my borough of the city, there are about two hundred plots for just under three hundred thousand residents. Understanding that a miniature Eden would not instantly be mine, I imagined that I might at least have one in time for old age: something to look forward to when I was not writing brilliant novels in my later years. Then, in February of this year, an e-mail arrived. I had reached the top of the waiting list, and would I like to visit the prospective site? I could hardly type back quickly enough. When I arrived, rain was pouring. This was a mark in my favor—I was no fair-weather gardener. I was approved and given a padlock-combination number, a list of rules, and as much wood-chip mulch as I could carry.

The English allotment system began several centuries ago, when landlords, often fearing civil unrest, would “allot” small parcels of land to the poor. Since the eleventh century, when William the Conqueror’s auditors first surveyed the tax potential of every stream and hill, the country’s total quantity of “common” land had been shrinking, and a series of Enclosure Acts had made it ever harder for non-landowners to feed themselves. In 1850, the Victorian garden writer George Johnson observed that “there are a great number who really have no ground to till, except, perhaps, an atom of damp earth behind their dwellings.” It would do “unspeakable good,” he added, to lease out “pieces of land near every village.” Over time, legislation forced local authorities to provide such allotments. By the nineteen-forties, there were around 1.4 million plots throughout the country, governed by strict rules that hold to this day: keep the paths scythed, don’t sell your produce, check with public officials before you keep hens or bees or rabbits or pigs or a goat.

In the U.K., as in the U.S., this vision of self-sufficiency thrived during the Second World War, when rationing made a necessity of growing food for oneself. The practice stayed alive in the following decades, fuelled in part by a wildly popular TV sitcom, “The Good Life,” about an attractive suburban couple who turn their back garden into a small farm. But the trend did not last. In the eighties, the parcels began to be sold to developers. Councils dodged responsibility. Vegetable growing fell out of fashion. Today, there are around three hundred thousand plots left in the country; the majority are permanent sites owned by local authorities, but some are temporarily established on railway sidings or reservoirs, and are privately owned. Middle-class dreamers who, like me, fantasize about baking bread from homegrown grain, not to mention keeping a pig, have little chance of scoring an allotment to sow what they can. Often, if city dwellers want to roam through the gloaming while plucking berries and listening to cuckoos, they’ll have to move away.

Even the Manor Gardens, an allotment site in Hackney that was bequeathed “in perpetuity,” in the early twentieth century, by a British aristocrat, was uprooted, in 2007, to make way for the Olympic Park. This was in spite of community members’ desperate attempts to save the gardens. (Among these advocates were the founders of a local restaurant, Moro, who wrote a fantastic cookbook, “Moro East,” about the diversity, wildlife, and communal spirit that the allotments fostered in their corner of East London.) In more recent years, a convergence of factors—a recession, a housing shortage, cursed Brexit, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine—has sent demand for the remaining plots rocketing. Anyone can apply, irrespective of income or—unfairly—existing garden space. Rent at my allotment site is a modest hundred pounds a year (and outside London the fees are often much lower). Granted, the plots have shrunk. Once designed to feed a family of four, at ten rods, or poles, an Anglo-Saxon unit of measurement—roughly two hundred and fifty square metres—they now can be half that size, a quarter, or even less. Still, some surviving sites’ waiting lists have allegedly reached forty years. There is no way to check one’s position on the list. One simply waits, as if for an act of God.

You can see, then, why for me and my allotment it was love at first sight. I have changed my phone background to a photo of my precious one. Her name? 38b. Situated down an old farm path near Hampstead Heath, she’s on a site with about a hundred plots, and is barely a fifth the size of a standard allotment. When I began tending the plot, it was infested with bindweed, decomposing plastic, and nylon carpet tufts, and bordered with rotting chipboard. But there was so much to admire: my own ivy! An unproductive but enormous plum tree! The paths separating plots are precisely calculated to fit the width of a wheelbarrow and overseen by an impressive committee of energetic septuagenarians. My neighbors are a cross-section of Londoners, from a tiler who has installed neat flower beds and a water feature to a dentistry professor with an astonishingly productive crop of compost-free dwarf French beans. There is a tiny vineyard, some breathtakingly precise espaliering, and a violent she-cat called George, who sleeps in a greenhouse. Many of the gardeners around me have rented their plots for decades; they know how to use the communal scythe, repurpose fish tanks and brewing vats, cover their cherry trees in hot-pink recycled scaffolding-net, and occasionally enrage each other. Call it trench warfare: inches can be won, but at terrible cost.

Simply being there, listening to the birdsong, leaves me grinning from the moment I open the padlocked gate, although the soil is what’s known as “not in good heart” and the plants that I’ve grown from my generous neighbors’ donations of kale seedlings and leek thinnings have been decimated by a powerful combination of pigeons, rats, and record U.K. heat. Even for my beloved, the trip over—twenty minutes uphill by bicycle—is a lot to ask in forty-degree-Celsius weather (more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit).

When I can, I water at night: a delicious treat for the picnicking slugs. My new friend Zee built me a table out of pallet wood. Tony gave me a memorial bench that had been rejected by a London borough council. My allotment is my future, my soulmate, mine forever—provided that I keep the paths scythed, and don’t sell any of the eight broad-bean pods I’ve harvested to date, and never attempt to raise an unauthorized goat. ♦

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