Allotment heroes

Right across Britain local tillers and sowers have transformed slivers and strips of vacant land into some of the most ingenious and inspiring working plots you'll find anywhere in the world

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Mike Feingold is all arms, legs and enthusiasm. At his four allotment plot (half is his alone, half is a community plot where he helps guide anyone interested), he finds and communicates fascination in the detail (eg letting radishes self sow) although his vision is grand. His now well-used phrase ‘Permaculture is revolution dressed up as gardening’ pretty much sums him up.

Most of the plants in his permaculture garden are familiar – sweetcorn, apples, gooseberries etc – but this is a no-dig paradise, with polycultures dominating. More of a food forest than an allotment.

He stresses that, as much as anything, the allotments are about a way of looking at the world. “Every time you bring in inputs – fertilisers, water – you are plundering them from somewhere else, another part of the world that likely needs them more, but our whole current system depends on this. We need to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Arthur Scott

Britain’s oldest plot holder

The next time you are out in the garden, bemoaning the weather or your sore back, think of Arthur Scott. He took his own plot 60 years ago, at the age of 19, when, frankly, he might well have been excused, having better things to do. Too late. Thanks to helping on his father’s plot as a child, as his father had done before him, Arthur already had the bug.

This is no ordinary plot: it is part of the oldest allotment site in the country, having been founded in 1809 by a local rector who was making a stand against the loss of common land after the Enclosure Acts.

For Arthur, this is a place of work, pleasurable as he finds it. His allotment is orderly, productive and, in its way, beautiful.

There is no seat here. “If I sat down I’d quickly see, ‘that wants doing’ and I’d be up again. Why would I need a seat?”

Pheeraya Hill

Somerset Thai

Having grown and cooked food since childhood she wasn’t sure what she could grow when she came to England 20 years ago. “I thought I’d never grow again!”

Even though it’s too cool to grow many of her favourites in this northern climate, Nid has found a way to get the flavours. Oregano, chervil, dill and mint, while not authentically Thai, are, she feels, so close to the flavours of Thai herbs that her tastebuds aren’t missing out.

Kaffir lime leaves give the same flavour as lime zest, ginger leaves work in place of the root, and sweet potato leaves find their way into curries even if the tubers don’t make it every year.

Her greenhouses are full of plants brought back from her annual visits to Thailand as well as those grown from seed sourced by her in Britain. Lemongrass, Thai bitter gourds, Ceylon spinach, Thai basil, rats-tail radishes and chillies among them.

Nid even grows bamboo shoots, stripping out the middles when they reach eight inches long to make curry.

Brian Carter

Duke of the dahlia

There is something deeply satisfying about a flowering sea of one thing, especially if that one thing is done very well indeed. At his Birmingham allotment, Brian grows 900 dahlias of 20 different varieties.

“I like them all and I grow every type. There can’t be another plant on the planet with so much colour and so many different forms. They still get me.”

Brian and his father have grown flowers on this plot for 65 years, though Brian moved on to dahlias only after falling in love with them at a flower show.

There’s plenty of hard work behind this award-winning beauty. The tubers are lifted before frost hits, manure is spread on the ground in winter, then in January the tubers are moved to a hot bed to stir them into new growth, from which Brian takes around 1,500 cuttings.

“You get a more refined bloom from a new cutting than you do from a tuber,” he says.

Finally, in show season, comes the payoff. Though there is even a price for this as Brian must be up at 5 am to select and cut the best in the hope of yet more gold medals.

Andrew Evers

An urban vine

“Why grow food when you can grow booze?” is a question Andrew’s allotment asks and I’m not sure I’ve come up with a sensible answer.

Just inside the M25, next to the usual allotment array of veg and flowers, is a mature vineyard. Planted 40 years ago (though no one here remembers by whom) the plot had subsequently become ownerless and overgrown. There was a danger that it might be given to someone who didn’t understand what treasures lay hidden under the soil of and that it might end up being scrubbed up.

Step in Andrew and a few of his friends, who with sponsorship from Denbies, a local wine estate, have restored it to its former glory. It needed much work and some seriously severe pruning to bring vines and plot into order.

57 poles were hammered into the ground and today each row of Kerner, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Dornfelder and others, stand neat and productive.

Andrew worked on a vineyard in Italy and his Italian father in law has a vineyard, so there are personal connections to wine, but also local ones.

“Epsom has always been a centre for Italian immigration,” says Andrew, “so there are a whole stack of people around here that make their own wine. It is part of the culture.”

Chris Achilleos

A flowery plot

Chris’s allotment is a lesson in the value of shelter. Having originally taken on a plot in the open, Chris seized the chance for a corner plot when one became available. Next he fenced around the two open sides and planted climbers which have since scrambled up and over the fences to form a thick protective wall.

And what a difference it makes. Step through the door and you are met by borders of succulents, tables topped with cacti and seedlings and a huge overhead vine. From here you enter the middle section of what looks more like a garden than an allotment. This is filled with long- flowering salvias and daisy-shaped echinaceas, verbena and a whole sea of lavender. Finally, you reach the edibles and ornamentals encircling a pagoda.

The sheltered microclimate allows Chris’s plants to thrive, especially the fruits – a fig I ate was cricket ball-sized, yet falling apart with ripeness.

This is a lush, peaceful and private place: “I can properly close the world out here,” says Chris.

“The shelter isn’t just for the plants.”

How true. Standing here surrounded by such wonders you simply have no idea that busy roads and White Hart Lane are only a few steps away.

Glandel Archer

Birmingham

Being in the company of Glandel Archer, or Lee as everyone seems to know him, is a full-on experience, which may explain why he has as many children as he has had gardens and farms.

Canada, Australia, the USA, and his native Jamaica are just a few of the places he’s toiled and travelled. As he says, “Me know all about the world, and me know how things grow”.

His Brummie plot is simple, with most of it given over to a few of his favourite things: pumpkins, callaloo and sweetcorn.

In the fabulous self-construction that is part polytunnel, greenhouse and shed, Lee grows chillies, okra, yams, cucumbers and herbs. All by the moon.

To get the best from each plant, he says, “you need to become a scientist.” He is particularly proud of his yams, grown in a bottomless bin packed with mulch and compost that turns one tuber into a dozen or two (mostly for friends), with enough top growth to warrant a hole in the roof for it to grow through to take in the sun.

Beyda Mehmet and Arif Komercugil

Birmingham

Beyda and grandson Arif waste no time in getting the food out. Dolmades prepared with leaves from the huge vine that shades the seating area are instantly offered, along with delicious homemade sweets and tea.

While our stiff upper lip British weather doesn’t let Beyda grow the lemon trees and walnuts of her childhood garden in Cyprus, she has vines, vegetables, figs, flowers and hospitality in abundance. “I am always here when the weather is right,” says Beyda, “and I like people to drop in and talk.”

Having taken an allotment when she and her husband arrived in Britain, Beyda now has two: one for vegetables and one for flowers, the latter winning joint first prize in her allotment society’s Flower Garden competition. And having gardened with his grandmother since childhood, Arif continues to help her when he is home from University.

Teresinha Roberts

Dyer

I’ve never seen an allotment like Tereshina Roberts’. Everything, bar a few spuds and broad beans, is dedicated to dyeing.

To be honest I thought it might be a hardworking, fascinating, but unattractive garden. How wrong I was. Theresina grows colours. There’s woad for blue, madder for red, sorghum for burgundy, broom (used by the Vikings) and weld for yellow and many more besides.

“I love using these colours. They are softer and more natural than chemical dyes. I can grow whatever I like on my allotment, and so I grow these.”

She also grows plants for fibre and the greenhouse is chockfull of harvested flax which has to dry out before it can be woven Rumpelstiltskin-like into silky thread.

And then there are the silk worms which she keeps at home and feeds on mulberry leaves picked from a tree on the allotment site.

“I get 100 cocoons a year from them, which is about 10g silk.”

She is still saving up to make a handkerchief.