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‘It’s given me a new lease of life’: How people are turning to allotments during lockdown

By Tom Dare | Great Barr | Features | Published: | Last Updated:

Allotments plots have been snapped up amid the coronavirus pandemic as people seek solace during the lockdown.

The Walsall Road allotments - image courtesy of Betty Farruggia

Vacant plots allotments on the Great Barr and Birmingham border have been taken up over recent weeks.

The allotment site recently fought a successful campaign to remain in place amid the plans to redeveloped the neighbour Alexander Stadium for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

And now the thriving centre is boosting a bustling community of budding gardeners - and its own resident cat.

Demand for the allotment plots has sky-rocketed over the past few months due to the coronavirus pandemic, with six vacant plots quickly snapped up and a waiting list of ten people looking to get started on theirs.

And in Dudley inquiries about allotments have increased by 38 per cent.

Councillor Karen Shakespeare, cabinet member for environmental, highways and street services, said: “Within the borough there are 36 allotment sites, the majority of which are self-managed by allotment associations.

"Allotments are always popular but in recent weeks we have seen a 38 percent increase in the number of people enquiring and we have been able to add people to our waiting list.

"We’ve currently got a small turnover of vacant plots, which we are looking to halve in size so we can increase the number available and support more people in our communities to grow their own.”

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Over in Stafford, the borough council said they have received more enquiries than usual.

A spokesman said: "The trustees that manage the sites on the council’s behalf have received more enquiries about allotments than usual since lockdown began but the actual take up of plots is not significantly higher than the same period last year.”

Interest in allotments in Walsall has also increased "significantly".

Councillor Stephen Craddock, portfolio holder for health and wellbeing said: “Since lockdown, interest in our allotments has significantly increased - and we are really encouraged that more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

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“There are so many benefits to this and managing an allotment is a great way to help you stay fit. As you watch your produce grow, it can also help improve your mental wellbeing and once you’ve harvested your hard work, you can then enjoy the nutritional benefits of your five a day."

Sandwell Councillor Maria Crompton, deputy leader, said: “We always receive a high number of applications at the start of the growing season, but yes, we have seen a large increase in the number of requests for allotment plots since lockdown was announced.

“We’ve also seen an increase in the number of visits by existing allotment holders to their plots.

“It’s encouraging to see that people want to get out into the fresh air and grow their own fruit and vegetables.

“There’s nothing like the taste of home grown produce.”

Susie Jackson, aged 55, had barely planted her first seeds in the ground when the lockdown was announced, having only taken on her plot on Walsall Road in Birmingham recently following a brain haemorrhage.

Susie Jackson and Mark Foster on their allotment plots in Walsall Road

And she says that having her plot to turn to in the current climate has been an "absolute saviour" for her – though she admits that she came across the allotments completely by chance.

“I’m a bit of a gardener, I’ve got a nice garden at home, but I’ve always wanted to have an allotment,” she says.

“I was just driving past one day and there was a huge poster on the fence saying ‘Save Our Allotments’, and I thought "there’s allotments there?"

“Can you imagine? I’ve been born and bred in this area and didn’t even know it was there. They just happened to have a tiny plot available that became a half a plot, so I think it was meant to be.

“Bearing in mind I’ve been through a pretty life-changing situation with the brain haemorrhage and everything, I thought ‘this is fantastic, I’m going to focus on this.’

“Because it’s great exercise, and because of the operation on my leg I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff I used to do.

“I just love it, I absolutely love it. You do feel like you’ve done something productive, you know it’s healthy.

“You can still chat with people at a very safe distance – probably five metres away when you’re chatting, because they’re on their plots.

“And they’ve got all these cats that I love as well. Robert the allotment cat comes to my plot every day and rolls in my soil, which is another bonus.

Robert the allotment cat - image courtesy of Betty Farruggia

“So it’s kind of ticking all my boxes. And I just think that it’s a far far better way to live.

“It’s just really really fulfilling. There’s nothing better for your mental health than feeling tired after a day in the fresh air.

“You sleep better, you’re going to be eating better, you’re getting exercise. It’s like a little enclave of nature that gives you a lot of time to create and nurture.”

Betty Farruggia, site manager for the Walsall Road allotments, is the brains behind the Robert the Allotment Cat Twitter page which led the fight against the council.

And she says that, while little has changed for her, she thinks more people are beginning to wake up to the possibilities owning your own plot can bring as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“Usually we don’t get that many people asking for a plot, but we added a 10th person to the waiting list last week,” she says.

“It’s all since the virus and the lockdown and shortages of food, and people seem to be realising that you can grow your own food.

The Walsall Road allotments - image courtesy of Betty Farruggia

“The new plot holders are absolutely fantastic. There’s one chap who’s taken over a really badly overgrown plot, and in three weeks he’s dug it from one end to the other.

“And he’s got it nearly all planted up. He works like a machine on it, and it’s amazing.

“If you’re lucky and you’ve got a good site like ours – I shouldn’t show off, but it is a good site – you’re going to get people making friends with each other, and sharing their experiences and their knowledge.

“And people say ‘oh I’ve got a garden at home I can grow stuff there’, it’s not the same – not the same at all.

“It’s the sense of community. It’s really good, you can learn so much, and because we’ve got so many nationalities you learn about what they grow in their own country, and how they grow it and the different ways they grow it. So there’s lots to learn from different people.”

One of the youngest plot holders is 28-year-old teacher Kate Millington, who often invites children with disabilities down to the allotments to meet her pet chickens and learn more about gardening.

And she says that, were it not for the allotments during lockdown, she would have gone "stir crazy".

“I’ve always liked having gardens, and then I moved into a flat and I didn’t have any outdoor space at all,” she says.

“So it was a way of having a little space outdoors for me, and also I wanted to start growing more of my own food.

“The allotments have been invaluable over the past couple of months. I haven’t been working, I’m a supply teacher and the school is closed, and if I didn’t have the allotments to come to I’d have gone stir crazy I think.

Plot holder Kate Millington at the allotments - image courtesy of Kate Millington

“I like to come here when I’ve had a busy day at work and be by myself, but at the moment I’m just loving having people around. Cause I live on my own as well, and it’s having that place to come, and you can safely see people because there’s plenty of space.

“You can come and either do stuff quietly by yourself or you can just say hello to people in passing.”

And this sense of community is something which is also valued by 36-year-old Mark Foster, who’s had his own plot for just over a year now.

“We’re kind of used to being at home a lot, but it has been good to get out and get a change of scenery,” he says.

“Not a lot of people get the opportunity to get that bit of fresh air and exercise. And even though we’re socially distancing you’re still keeping in touch with the people at the allotment, you get used to the faces of the people that should be there, what their routine is, and it’s quite good to stay in touch with people.”

So what would the allotment users say to someone thinking of indulging their green fingers by taking on a plot of their own?

“I’d say definitely go for it,” says Kate.

“You can get different sizes of plots, you can get quarter plots, half plots – I’ve got a plot and a half.

“So it kind of depends on what kind of time you have – if you’ve only got a little bit of time, you can have a small plot and plant a few things, but everyone can do it.

“I come every day, and I just think the benefits are absolutely worth it. I often come for ten minutes and I’ll end up staying for hours!”

Tom Dare

By Tom Dare

Local Democracy Reporting Service

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