“Your Own Allotment - How to find and manage one and enjoy growing your own food”, by Neil Russell-Jones, 370pp, Spring Hill Books, £12.99.

Reviewed by Adrian Hill

This book is written by a Dulwich allotment holder and its sub-title summarises what it sets out to achieve.  It appears to have been written after the author had worked his  allotment, his first, for only one year, such appears to be his desire to lose no time in sharing his enthusiasm for growing his own vegetables and fruit, something not possible on any scale in the small garden of his house.

After many years of decline in the allotment movement, allotments are now in demand again and most sites have long waiting lists (two years being commonly quoted), as the author found when he decided he wanted to grow his own food.  Fortunately, he was able far sooner than expected to locate a very overgrown plot that was available at the Dulwich Horticultural and Chrysanthemum Society (DHCS) site (at one time known as the Alleyn’s Nursery allotments) alongside Cox’s Walk.   Soon afterwards he as able to add to this a neighbouring plot to give him the traditional 10 rod plot (in his case 130 feet by 20 feet).  This is far larger than most allotment holders nowadays will wish to take on, five rods now being the norm on many sites.  With the help of his wife and two daughters the author seems, however, to have coped with a full ten rods.

He gives a brief history of the allotment movement and of its decline after WWII.  He states that by 1973 9,400 plots were being lost each year in England.  Most sites in the country are run by local authorities, though not his site or the other four allotment sites in Dulwich, which are all privately run by allotment societies on land leased from the Dulwich Estate.  

The book gives advice on how to set about finding a plot and, when successful, how to bring it into production and to plan for future years, including crop rotation.  His approach is strongly from an organic gardening point of view, disparaging the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers.  Unlike most books on vegetable growing this one has no long chapter on the medicine chest. Instead, there is advice on dealing with pests, weeds and the like in an organic manner, for example encouraging ladybirds which have a voracious appetite for aphids, eating up to 500 a day we are informed.  The DHCS requires all its plot holders to garden organically, though this is not a requirement of any of the other allotment sites in Dulwich.  Again, unlike other local allotment sites, the DHCS enforces a ban on the growing of tomatoes because of their proneness to blight and the risk of this spreading to potatoes.  To this reviewer, this seems rather drastic as open-air ripened tomatoes (given the right varieties) taste vastly better than supermarket ones which are likely to have been picked green in southern Europe to avoid damage in transit.  Allotment grown potatoes, on the other hand, are unlikely to taste much better than bought ones, except perhaps in the case of first earlies which will have been harvested long before there is any risk of blight.

In line with organic principles, he gives much sound advice on improving the state of the soil in accordance with the maxim “Look after the soil and it will look after you”.  He also gives useful tips for successful compost making and other soil improvement techniques.  The author has not succumbed to the questionable fashion for no digging but his advocacy of double-digging (two spits deep) seems back-breaking advice for Dulwich’s London clay.

The book describes the different plant types, their life cycle and the plant families that allotment holders are most likely to be interested in, together with methods of propagation of vegetables.  There is much of interest here, even to old hands. There is a short section on fruit suitable for allotments but no advice on pruning, a topic which can be something of a mystery to allotment holders.

The author is realistic on how much effort needs to be devoted to make it worthwhile to take on an allotment.  He does not suggest any particular minimum time, though in this reviewer’s opinion a minimum of five hours per week is probably required in the busy months.     As he neatly puts it: “An allotment is not a destination - it is a journey.  You never arrive - you just keep going”.   Depending on what financial value one places on one’s time, own-grown food is unlikely to be cheaper than bought food.   He is however clearly of the view that, with some luck and sufficient devotion to the task, the effort is well justified in terms of the pleasure derived from growing one’s own food and the superior taste of most fresh home-grown produce.  On this, your reviewer is in complete agreement.  

The reviewer is chairman of the Camberwell & Dulwich Allotment Society.

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