|Why people dig this growing trend |
IF your mental image of an allotment gardener is Arthur Fowler from EastEnders, it's time to revise your stereotypes. For you're more likely to find professionals and young families on waiting lists for Edinburgh's 966 allotments than old men in cloth caps taking cigarette breaks.
The city is currently home to 20 council-run sites and 1114 plot-holders (295 have half-plots). But with 450 people on the waiting list for an allotment, demand, which far exceeds supply, is soaring.
Now a five-year strategy has been devised to preserve and upgrade the city's allotments and create new plots at Craigmillar Castle Park.
Demand is highest in parts of the city occupied by young professionals, such as Morningside, Bruntsfield, Stockbridge and Leith, and the current shortage can mean a wait of up to seven years.
The city council's culture leader, Ricky Henderson, acknowledges demand is growing rapidly. "Allotments have proved more and more necessary in this day and age for people to have somewhere they can go and relax, as well as produce their own food. For people living in tenements or flats, whether they are young families or busy single people, the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and let off steam is vital. Allotments are a great way to do this and we know that people who have them love them."
The council-backed strategy, Cultivating Communities, is the first allotment strategy from a Scottish local authority and has been created in partnership with the Federation of Edinburgh and District Allotments and Gardens Association (FEDAGA), the Scottish Allotment and Garden Society and the National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardens. Toilets, bike racks and waste collection facilities will also be provided. A spokeswoman explains: "This creates a further opportunity for the council to promote a healthy lifestyle throughout the year that is active, socially inclusive and sustainable.
"But the benefits will not only relate to promoting health and wellbeing. The strategy aims to strengthen communities through active participation, improve landscape quality, enhance biodiversity and encourage innovative approaches to site design and management."
One of the 450 people on that waiting list for an Edinburgh allotment is 41-year-old Val Gould, who lives with her two teenage sons in a flat in Gorgie and works for an organisation that assists homeless people to get into education, training and employment. She has been on the waiting list for nearly two years. "I've been told I should get one any time between last month and the autumn," she grins. "I'm ever so excited."
Her first choice is Saughton Mains, a five-minute cycle from her flat. "I live in a flat, I don't have a garden and I really miss that from being a kid. We always used to grow veg and flowers in the garden. Being right on Gorgie Road, my window boxes don't do very well. It's very dirty.
"I really miss having a garden and I prefer to buy organic veg and fruit, so I'd like to grow my own so I know exactly what I'm eating, and for health and fitness and being in the fresh air."
The sense of community also appeals to her. "I've been round there already and chatted to an older man who was there growing and he was giving me a few tips. Everybody seemed quite helpful and I noticed they had a sign up for a communal barbecue, which is nice."
Overall, she defines the appeal thus: "There's something very satisfying about the whole process of sowing something, watching it grow, helping it develop, cooking it and eating it. You're involved in the whole process. I think we're getting to the stage where a lot of kids will think apples grow in supermarkets and carrots are all the same colour and the same size.
"It's incredibly cheap. I think there's a sense of achievement as well. I can't wait to get stuck in. I think it's for everybody; it's not just for old men and we should have a lot more of them. Children should be encouraged to get involved - maybe a school allotment. With all this stuff about kids eating the wrong diet and not getting enough exercise, give them an allotment."
Val plans to grow a "wee corner of Provence - herbs, lavender, sunflowers" and carrots, leeks, onions, potatoes, corn, soft fruit, runner beans and flowers, such as marigolds to deter pests, plus a few roses, poppies and cold frames.
Green MSP Robin Harper says: "I'm delighted they're doing this. An Act passed in 1926 imposes a duty on local councils to provide allotments as long as there's more than six people looking for them, so with 450 people [on the waiting list] it's really time Edinburgh provided more allotments. They've been under continued pressure from developers. In the present circumstances, they must resist them. Allotments play a very important part in maintaining inner-city biodiversity."
He adds: "I had an allotment myself but this job is so demanding I simply didn't have enough time to look after it, so with great regret I had to give it up. It is quite something to have your little bit of land to tend and care for."
Meanwhile, Sam Murray, 52, from Pilrig, who works for an environmental charity, has had her allotment in Pilrig Park, off Leith Walk, for 12 years. She grows blackcurrants, raspberries and strawberries, as well as potatoes, peas, beans and other veg.
"I spend quite a bit of time there all year round - probably four or five days a week," she says. "Being outside and working in an allotment feels good. You've got a bit of space in the middle of the city and vegetables and fruit and wildlife as well.
"At different times you see different people. There's a real mix of ages and people from different backgrounds. That's one of the nice things."
Full plots, measuring approximately 60ft by 32ft, or 1920sq ft, cost £31 per year for those working full time, while half plots cost £16 and pensioners, students and those on benefits pay £6 a year.
Judy Wilkinson, secretary of the Scottish Allotment and Gardening Society, says: "Every site is different. You can get some old-fashioned sites where it's all male and retired or unemployed but on most sites you do get a whole range of young people, young people with children, professionals, people from ethnic minorities."
And the 63-year-old, who has had an allotment for 30 years, says that mix has come about despite problems for any wannabe allotment holders. "It is very difficult to get an allotment. There is a big waiting list."
She says there is a wide range of reasons why people want an allotment. "It's somewhere safe for young children. You can grow your own food and know where it's come from. It also gives you a space outside in the fresh air. If you live in a tenement, as so many people in Edinburgh and Glasgow do, then you don't have access to an outside space unless you have an allotment.
"Another reason is that it's simply a place to relax and somewhere to wind down. It's very much a health thing. It's just about being outside with no stress - except for the slugs, the pigeons and the bloody foxes! It is an oasis of peace, for those who want peace.
"But there are always people gently doing things and you do get to meet people. It's one of the few spaces where you can actually meet people from across a wide range of incomes and a wide range of ages." The interest in allotments isn't confined to Edinburgh. Isabella Hodge waited for two years to get her allotment in Musselburgh, East Lothian. "But that was seven years ago - it's a considerably longer wait now," she says.
The 45-year-old says she became interested in gardening after her father-in-law died leaving her with a garden to tend. "I just got this mad gardening craze and I ended up wanting somewhere bigger."
And she says the things she relishes about her allotment are "the peace, the freedom, the good food, the fresh air. My husband, Derek, isn't interested so it's very much my patch. It's my own little bit of countryside."
The full-time mum, who lives in Musselburgh, also says it provides a good area for her children, Duncan seven, and Mairi, two, to play.
And she says the patch has quite a wide mix of people. "We have the old guard, the older gentlemen, but we also have families, young people, young couples, an American lady. The only group we don't have is single old ladies."
Susan Burns, 48, from Craigentinny, who tended an allotment for six years until she had a serious accident, also believes there is a therapeutic element to nurturing an allotment. "I had an extremely stressful job. I found that going down to the allotment and thrashing a few weeds and digging out the tatties was a good stress buster.
"Being outside with the elements in all weathers, not being interrupted by phones and getting your hands dirty is extremely satisfying."