In 2019 I got an allotment plot – well, half a plot. My space is about 8 m by 20 m and one of about 180 plots on a gentle slope on the edge of town. It was part bare, part brambles and I thoroughly enjoyed growing vegetables bought as seedlings on half the half in that first summer and getting to know others who worked and grew things there. Over winter I added a paved path, pond, planted lawn chamomile under the crab apple, planted a tiny wildflower meadow, and burnt the excavated brambles from the other half of the plot in a bonfire.
When the UK first went into a lockdown to try to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I started a writing a bit each month about my plot. I stopped after three months and this post has been languishing in my draft folder for nearly a year. I’m hitting the ‘publish’ button now as it’s interesting to look back now and appreciate how valuable the allotment was to me, particularly at that time.
I’m one of the younger allotment holders, and I was concerned that I could unknowingly be carrying the virus and infect others with tragic impacts. In early March there was no need to visit the site, so I largely stayed away until I could buy some hand sanitiser and the weather warmed up. I made one careful visit, though, to fill a large plastic bag with as much soil as I could carry, as many pots as I could fit in my backpack and a large handful of buddleja prunings. I also panic-planted my potatoes, thinking that if I couldn’t return to my plot again, at least some potatoes might make it. I learned later that many others did the same with their spuds.
Having already bought seeds through the allotment society, I planted them out in pots at home in the garden, bringing them inside each night when the weather was cold. It was reassuring to be able to protect and look after something when there was nothing I could do for loved ones far away. I made bird protectors from the pruning and string. Seedlings would appear overnight, and so the pots were ever-changing, rather like the news. Checking on the seedlings’ progress was a welcome distraction from worry and a break from working from home at my kitchen table.
With a better understanding of the situation, and hand sanitiser, I began going up to the allotment a bit more. I walked up about three times a week as my daily exercise – visiting allotments was specifically allowed in government restrictions, perhaps in part due to fears of later food shortages. Some other growers noted on the allotment social media page that without being able to see family and on furlough from work, the allotments were a daily lifesaver. I thought they needed to be there more than me. While working on individuals plots posed little risk of infection and we had clear advice against sharing tools etc, the gates in and out were a potential site of risk. I didn’t need to go more frequently.
It felt heavenly when I did go up there though – sun, fresh air, and to be out of the house. There were no planes in the sky, the traffic noise was minimal – it was very peaceful with birdsong the dominant sound. It was so nice to see others – a wave across several plots, a shouted conversation across tens of metres. I planted the seeds to be sown direct, trained hops along a trellis, weeded, prepared beds for my seedlings and picked what seemed like endless purple sprouting broccoli. To see people carrying on as normal in that space was very reassuring, and getting my hands dirty and watching things grow also helped maintain perspective and motivation.
One of the things I like about the allotment is the feeling of custodianship. I have a plot that is mine for now, but it belonged to another and it will to someone new one day too. I can grow whatever I like, but I also want to leave the soil rich and ready for the next person, as someone left it for me. I feel the same about the pandemic. I’m vigilant to protect myself from potential infections – food shopping carefully and infrequently, choosing routes to walk that are quiet and without gates, working from home, socialising online instead of in person. But just as with my allotment, my behaviour now effects others. It is not just about washing my hands after I do something, but before too.
Although I made no more notes, I recorded the mass of the produce I grew and harvested. It was over just 100 kgs not including the crab apples and several trug-fuls of veg that I forgot to weigh before eating. I had been able to grow the majority of my food for several months, greatly reducing the need to organise frequent shopping. I enjoyed dropping off surplus vegetables on friends’ doorsteps when that was allowed and learned new recipes to preserve the excess (see video below). At Christmas time I gave away many jars of jellies, jams, pickles and chutneys.
I attribute my good physical and mental health across the long lonely months of 2020 in large part to having an allotment, in addition to the support of family, friends and colleagues (to whom I talked a lot about my vegetables anyway).