I have recently take possession of an allotment, well half an allotment to be precise.
It is a truly fantastic thing, the opportunity to be out in the countryside, to be close to the earth and to have the chance to grow your own food. I’ve already planned what I’ll do with the courgettes and beetroot and the other vegetables I hope to grow. These are early, exciting days but while I am really enjoying having my allotment, I’m already persuaded that this is the wrong way to go about things. Maybe not the wrong way but certainly not the best way.
I’m not sure how big the piece of land is that houses the allotments, or how many allotments there are, but my guess is between 25 and 30. Whatever the exact size, I am sure that it is in excess of the ¼ acre at Garden Cottage.
I mention this apparently random fact as I studied for my permaculture design certificate with Graham Bell at his home, Garden Cottage, and in the forest garden he and his family have created there. Within a forest garden every piece of land is productive and this small piece of land yielded over a tonne of edible crop last year, plus wood fuel for fire and oven.
Contrast this with the allotments.
Then there are the paths. Since everyone needs access to their plot the land is a network of grass paths, which we take turns to mow to prevent the grass getting too tall and out of control. And, of course, there are fences. Pretty nearly everyone has marked the perimeter of their plot with a fence.
A massive amount of growing space has been lost to this need to stake out a territory.
When everyone has a few plants on the plot they have to be netted against the birds. Consequently,despite being sited next to a small woodland, there are no birds on the allotment. I haven’t had a single robin hopping around my spade as I’ve turned the turf. In the forest garden there are no nets and many birds of many species. When this last years soft fruit crop ripened there was still boxes of fruit in the chest freezer harvested the year before such is the abundance created. Abundance is created by allowing the whole ecosystem to flourish. For the land to be at it’s most productive, and at the same time sustainable, we too should act as a community to create a broader ecosystem and not just be a collection of individuals. But while everyone has their own shed, wheelbarrow and fenced off plot, this will never happen.
Clearly everyone who takes the time and pays the annual fee has an interest in growing food. There is common interest. We all make an undertaking not to use pesticides and to keep the allotment space organic. By desire, but also as a requirement of the Climate Change Fund that helped raise the money to get the land, we are required to share surplus and expertise. So we share values in this respect.
So what stops people with common purpose from coming together to create a community rather than working small pieces of land as like-minded individuals?
I spent a year working in and with dissimilar groups but who shared the common aspiration of creating an intentional community on a piece of land from which they would grow much of their own food. In every case, despite being supported by volunteers with the time, energy and the expertise required to start and grow such a community, none of them did. In each case the communities floundered as individuals were unable to cede land, control or both in order to achieve a shared vision. The sum should have been greater than the sum of it’s parts never was.
The same is true of the allotments. Rather than creating a cohesive community who could come together and decide what to grow and how to grow it in order to maximise output and minimise input, the land is simply partitioned into plots of equal size and everyone gets on and does their own thing.
Likewise in the wider space. I don’t have a garden with my apartment, which is currently up for sale. I do have a magnificent view over the Strathearn Valley and look over the beautiful and well-maintained garden which is owned by my neighbours. For me, being able to enjoy the view without the burden of ownership is a massive positive. If I want to sit outside I do so in community spaces, the golf course, the local hillsides, the town park, the beer garden of the hotel next door. In doing so I am not fenced in to my own garden but have the opportunity to meet new and interesting people. Not so most house buyers it would seem.
Yet when I walk along the street I see so many neglected gardens. Not neglected in the sense of being filled with rusting shopping trolleys and abandoned kids toys, but neglected as in unused, or at best woefully underused, hosting a barbeque once or twice a year on well mowed patches of grass.
So we are back to the ownership issue; needing to have a garden for the sake of having a garden. We fence ourselves off in our towns and villages. It is that same need to own the land that ensures that all new houses are built with tiny, tiny green patches and prevents the allotment from being used to create real abundance.
As kids we hardly ever played in our garden. We were at in the park, out on our bikes, playing on the tiny triangle of land which was really just a big grassy intersection between three roads but which we called The Green. There were trampolines in the park, but now each garden seems to have it’s own. We walked to school and home again, or caught the bus, but now if my local school is a reflection of wider society, children are individually chauffeured in their parents 4×4. The streets were full of footballs in winter and ramshackle cricket stumps in summer but now when I pass through places such as the East End of Glasgow, former nursery of generations of Scottish football stars there are only Ball Games Prohibited signs. And when you do see kids on bikes they are forming careful crocodiles with adults to front and rear.
So yes, there is waste of growing space in the allotments but even more importantly, a big opportunity to create community is being missed