Dig for Recovery: Allotments Boom as Thousands Go to Ground in Recession
Dozens of National Trust properties join scheme to bring life to disused land
In the boom times of the 1980s, councils sold off allotments in their tens of thousands as it seemed no one in the Britain of conspicuous consumption could be persuaded to grow a single leek of their own. But as recession bites, the growing enthusiasm for homegrown veg has seen more than 100,000 people join waiting lists for a patch of land as demand hits an all-time high.
Today, following the initiative of chef and "real food" campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the National Trust is throwing its weight behind a campaign to share unused land, creating up to 1,000 new plots for use as allotments or community gardens.
The trust, the UK's biggest private landowner, also wants to help bridge the skills gap by recruiting an army of green-fingered volunteeers and matching growers with its own expert gardeners.
Each of the new growing spaces will be created within a range or rural and urban communities throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and will be registered through the landshare website set up by Fearnley-Whittingstall, an online "matchmaking" database which pairs prospective gardeners with available spaces.
The new National Trust spaces will be available at about 40 locations. They will vary in size, from smaller plots suited to new growers, to larger areas suitable for community growing schemes and even refurbishment of dilapidated walled gardens. The spaces have been found in places such as restored kitchen gardens, farmland and vacant land near to National Trust properties.
The plan has been drawn up to avoid conflicting with the trust's conservation objectives, meaning land which is protected or of special scientific interest would be deemed inappropriate. The trust said yesterday that the new spaces could produce up to 2.6m lettuces or 50,000 sacks of potatoes a year. The allotments will incur a rental cost, but it is likely to be minimal, the trust said.
The total number of allotments in Britain has decreased steadily since the end of the second world war as they fell out of favour. In the late 1940s there were 1.4m allotments. By the late 1970s there were around 500,000. In the 1980s and 1990s, almost 200,000 plots were sold off by councils around the country unable to find takers for them. Today about 300,000 allotment plots remain.
The trust's director general, Fiona Reynolds, said the scheme tapped into a mood in which, as a result of the recession, people's priorities were changing from materialism towards "real" things such as spending time with family, and homegrown food.
Reynolds said: "There's something in the air. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn't just about saving money - it's really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour. By creating new growing spaces the National Trust can help people to start growing for the first time."
Reynolds said using existing expertise was important. "We're also looking to recruit many more volunteers with fruit and vegetable growing skills and knowledge to join us, so that we can offer even more practical help and advice to new gardeners," she added.
"Our main aim is to help those who are new to growing to find the space they need - but we also want to help them learn how and what to grow."
As part of the initiative the trust is even turning over the back garden of its office in Queen Anne's Gate, central London, to be transformed as an allotment for its staff to use.
The trust will launch a wider campaign this year - called Food Glorious Food - in an attempt to involve more people in the growing, preparation and enjoyment of fresh food. This will include activities and demonstrations at many of its properties, including a "chutfest", to be held at Barrington Court in Somerset, to celebrate chutneys and pickles.
It also plans to publicise the plight of the country's traditional orchards, which it says require conservation because of their importance as a habitat for wildlife.
Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, said: "The demand for allotment sites is huge and it is great that the National Trust is able to use some of its land to help people grow their own. The growth in demand has been happening over the last few years, and though the credit crunch is helping to stir interest, the main reason more people want to grow their own is to improve their quality of life."
Fearnley-Whittingstall said: "This pledge alone has the potential to make a difference to many thousands of people - not just those who grow, but those with whom they share their wonderful produce."
Some of the new National Trust growing spaces can be used immediately, for example at Gibside, near Gateshead, Minnowburn, near Belfast, and Wembury in south Devon, but others need work, which means they will take longer to create. The trust is aiming to have all the new spaces up and running by 2012 and will review the situation then to see if there is a case for further expanding it. It will encourage schools, community groups and charities to make use of the new sites, as well as individuals and families.
Referring to the impact of the credit crunch on the National Trust's revenues, Reynolds said visitor numbers were holding up well, but people were spending less money in its shops and cafes. There were 14m visits to its properties last year, and 100m to its parklands and gardens.