A taste of the 'Good Life' on the allotments

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of a law which requires local authorities to provide allotments for their residents.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a law which requires local authorities to provide allotments for their residents.Today, with the interest in organic gardening and food miles, enthusiasm for growing your own is stronger than ever.

Hannah Gray Digs deeper:

Total control over which chemicals do or don't go on your food, a chance to meet new people, get some exercise and spend time in the fresh air with mother nature – the list of benefits to growing your own fruit and vegetables is a long one.

Holding an allotment may have gone out of fashion for a while, once we had recovered from the austere war years and popping to the shops seemed an easier alternative, but today it's very much back in vogue.

Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver extol the virtues of growing your own and more and more young people are taking up the spade.

In Peterborough, the people renting the 1,300 allotment plots from the city council range in age from 20 to 90.

Three years ago the occupancy rate was 50 per cent, but today it is 78 per cent, and at least nine of the council's 24 sites have waiting lists.

And allotments are growing in the area.

Two new sites are currently under development, and there are two further plots to come.

The Oundle Road site was recently expanded.

Peterborough City Council is one of the few local authorities which asks for new allotment sites to be put in with new developments.

As well as the city council's sites, parish councils also run allotment sites in the unitary authority area, taking the total available to 53.

It is quite common for groups of younger allotment holders, perhaps in their early 20s, to get together to run a plot.

The allotments are a mix of organic gardening and traditional gardening, and rent on a plot is 50 a year, although discounts are available.

Nick King is the community engagement officer for Peterborough City Council, and as part of this job co-ordinates the allotments. He has been an allotment holder for six years and currently has two plots. He grows soft fruit, including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blackcurrants and vegetables including asparagus, cabbage and carrots.

Related: How to... tips on having allotment success

Nick King's tips for budding allotmenteers.

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Nick works on his plot three or four times a week.

So why do he and his fellow allotment holders like it so much?

"It's the food, the fresh air, the people that are on the sites. You make friends and pull each other's legs. There's a good bit of banter and friendship on there, it's a good place to be," he said.

But it's not all fun and friendship, there is hard graft to be done, as Nick confirms.

"The first three months are the hardest," he said. "We do get people who pack up in their first few months, so we are now trying to encourage people to take on a half plot."

Nick said the hardest thing to start with is doing battle with the weeds.

But he added: "If you can get through the first year you will be alright."

He advocates not trying to clear your plot in one day.

"Do a little at a time and often. Get a piece cleared, start another piece and go back and weed the piece you started on. It's a bit like plate spinning, you have to get one lot going and then keep it going," he said.

After all the hard work, there is of course the pleasure of eating your own, home-grown produce.

But because their crop may all be ready at once, allotment holders can sometimes end up with a surplus.

Allotment holders are not supposed to sell their excess crops, so often people swap with their neighbours.A bit of countryside in the city

The Claytons and the Lewins, from Walton, have turned their allotment into a very neighbour affair – the couples manage their allotment as a group and even keep chickens together.

Neil and Alice Clayton and Nigel and Fran Lewin have had their allotment for nearly two years, and now have two plots between them on the Fulbridge Road site.

The idea first came about as Nigel and Fran wanted more space to exercise their green fingers.

Neil said: "Nigel and Fran had been thinking about moving because they hadn't got a big enough garden as far as they were concerned.

"We just got talking about it and we said 'why don't we try to get an allotment?'."

Between them they grow a wide range of vegetables, including corn on the cob, beans, peas, carrots and salad crops, fruit including raspberries, and they also keep eight chickens.

The couples do mostly farm organically, but are not strict about this. Depending on the season, the two couples can spend between five and 40 man hours a week on the plots, but a regular session is Sunday mornings, as the chickens need cleaning out.

Their hard work is paying off as they have had good crops of corn on the cob and courgettes, and the chickens lay eight eggs a day between them.

But it's not just the food that keeps the couples going.

"I think the main thing is you don't realise how great it is until you get down there first thing in the morning, and there's nobody about, it's like being in the country,"

Neil said. "You're nearly on a main road, you wouldn't believe you were nearly in the centre of Peterborough, it's just peace."

Neil's fellow allotment holders have also been very helpful.

"We were good friends with the neighbours and I would say we're even better friends now," Neil said.

"It's great, it really is, I recommend it."

A great place to just relax

Colin Rose (68), a retired JCB driver from Werrington, is what would generally be regarded as a more traditional allotment holder – one who has been doing it for years, regardless of trends.

He has held a plot at Fulbridge Road for a few years now but he has been keeping an allotment for about 28 years in total.

Colin is a site representative for Fulbridge Road and said it is a popular site, with 28 people currently on the waiting list.

He uses his plot to grow a range of vegetables, including potatoes, cabbages and leeks, and he and wife Ann (65) very rarely have to buy veg from the supermarket.

Colin's top tip for new starters is to dig the plot by hand before you start planting. Although he has been growing vegetables for nearly 30 years, he remains as enthusiastic as ever. "It's relaxation, you get down there and get to know people and you meet your friends there, it's ideal," he said.

More information:

To find out about allotments in the Peterborough area, call 01733 747474.

The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners Limited helps protect, promote and preserve allotments for future generations and provides advice and information in respect of sites under threat. For more information, visit www.nsalg.org.uk