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Trench Warfare

The first in a series of monthly Ecologist columns on the joys of allotmenteering

The Ecologist, February 2006

Three years ago, I got myself an allotment. I didn't know the first thing about growing vegetables, but I persevered because I was enchanted by the thought of growing my own food, of understanding the soil and of being at least in some way self-sufficient in an increasingly consumerist society.

And it worked. Now, though by no means an expert, I know what I'm doing. Getting an allotment was one of the best decisions I ever made and, like all converts, I am in evangelical mood.
So now I want you to get an allotment too; or, if you've already got one, I want you to get another one, or to tell a friend about them. Allotments are one of Britain's best-kept secrets, and it's time they became the basis for a popular movement of people sick to death of the industrial food machine. So let's make it happen.

Every month I'll be writing about allotments in this column; what I'm doing on mine, what others are up to, what's good for the time of year, how to avoid stupid but easy mistakes and the various trials and tribulations of growing your own food. This is emphatically not a gardening column - I couldn't give a stuff about herbaceous perennials or how to achieve a weed-free lawn. This, like owning an allotment itself, is a political act. Come, take a stand with me; you won't regret it.

Let's start from the beginning, then: how do you get an allotment, and what can you do with it? The first question is easy to answer. Every local council has an obligation to provide allotments, and unless you live in one of the big cities there's usually no waiting list. You pay a minimal rent every year - mine costs me sixteen quid - and that's it. You're in.

As for the second question - mostly, you are only limited by your imagination. Each allotment is run by an association which decides its rules, so each has different guidelines, and sets of dos and don'ts, which are worth checking out before you decide to rent a plot. But between them, the diversity of things that people get up to on their plots is amazing.

Aside from the standard lines of cabbages and sprouts, I know allotments on which people keep chickens, make public sculptures and experiment with creating new species of pea. I've heard of plots used entirely to grow tobacco or breed prize rabbits. Rent yourself a plot and you have yourself a source of food, fun, exercise, experimentation, retreat and general mucking about. Hidden behind your raspberry bushes and compost bins you can get up to anything you like, assuming it's legal.

So what do I get up to? Naturally it depends on the time of year. On my vegetable
plot, not a lot grows in the deep midwinter. I currently have some leeks in - they seem to withstand everything the weather throws at them - and some broccoli plants, which are being attacked daily by pigeons, despite the nets I've put over them. I'm also having a running battle with an unseen rat which has been digging its way into my compost heap and eating my lovingly-collected kitchen waste.

But mostly, the early months of the year are a fallow period for veg growers, as you wait for the spring to arrive. My veg plot, though, is only one of my projects; I have another plot as well on which, with a few friends, I'm establishing an orchard of rare fruit. Mostly we're growing apples. The native fruit of England is having a hard time; of the 6000 traditional varieties, only a few are sold in supermarkets, and many are in danger of extinction.

So we're growing 24 varieties of apple, all of them rare and unusual, their very names a poetry of place: Kingston Black, Miller's Seedling, Irish Peach, Rev W. Wilkes, Ribston Pippin. And it's not just apples. We have gooseberries, plums, damsons, figs, medlars (a strange medieval fruit) and berries of all kinds. Within a couple of years we'll be self-sufficient in fruit all year round. This is the perfect time of year for planting fruit trees, and our orchard is now fully laid out. I can't wait for autumn.

But I'm going to have to. While I do, please send me any allotment stories, tips, questions or suggestions you have and I'll share them out here. Food and freedom here we come!