Ripe time, ripe place: In England, a groundswell of food growers outstrips supply of land

My piece about allotment gardening in the United Kingdom has just been published in the Washington Post food section. If you’re not familiar with allotments, they’re the English version of America’s community gardens, only the plots are much, much bigger (averaging 2,700 square feet), and they have long enjoyed government support thanks to the complicated history of landownership in Great Britain. Just like here, demand for plots has skyrocketed, and waiting lists are years long. But in the U.K., numerous public and private entities are engaged in a massive nationwide push to expand the acreage of available land.

The Post had asked me to make sure I included a D.C. as well as a U.S. angle, and I had submitted a short sidebar on the state of community gardening on this side of the Atlantic. They ended up not having space for it, so I’m publishing it here.

Maia Radcliffe shows off last fall's bounty.

Top: The Radcliffe family at their allotment in Hove, England. Above: Maia Radcliffe shows off last fall

America’s community gardens are overgrown, too

First Lady Michelle Obama had no choice but to dig up the South Lawn for her vegetable garden. The waiting lists for the District of Columbia’s 43 community gardens are just too darn long.

“I don’t know of any public community gardens in the area that have openings,” says Nancy Oswald, manager of the Rock Creek Garden, which has 120 plots measuring 10×20 feet each. The Rock Creek wait list has jumped in the past six months to more than 50 names. And as turnover is very low, that could mean a wait of up to five years. The 220-plot Newark Street Community Garden Association, meanwhile, doesn’t even keep a list beyond what it can fill in two seasons, says NSCGA Vice President Linda Blount Berry, because too often people are no longer interested or can’t be tracked down. (Washington Gardener has a downloadable Excel list of all D.C.’s community gardens.)

The situation is the same in other major cities. In Portland, Oregon, “we can’t make space available fast enough,” says Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, director of Portland Parks and Recreation. Portland just opened its 32nd community garden; about 1,000 people are waiting to join the 3,000 who have plots.

Even in arid El Paso, Texas, the Welden Yerby Senior Citizens Garden has been so successful that residents under 65 are clamoring for ones they can join. “We would love to see it spread more,” says Keith Hall, recreation coordinator at the El Paso city parks department, which maintains the garden. “It’s such a beautiful thing for seniors, but we’d love to get young people involved. Everybody’s got to get their hands in the dirt, and get to know how collard greens and Brussel sprouts grow.”

The biggest perk of a community garden, besides the fresh food, is the community, say longtime gardeners. Blount Berry has been a member of the one on Newark Street since the mid-80s. “I’ve attended weddings, funerals, and graduations of children who gardened along their parents and suddenly grew up,” she recalls. “Being a community garden member is the best way to meet your neighbors. In DC where almost everyone wants to be a power broker, Mother Nature is a great equalizer.”

7 Responsesto “Ripe time, ripe place: In England, a groundswell of food growers outstrips supply of land”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Bonnie, did you talk to Bea Trickett, who put together the list of gardens and contacts in D.C.? Last time I spoke to her, she said there were plot available in gardens in the Northeast quadrant of the city, and especially at the huge Ft. Dupont garden across the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C.

  2. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Ed: I did not talk to Bea, no. My understanding from the three garden heads I talked to was that there were no gardens where you could sign up and immediately receive a plot. For those who want to see if Fort Dupont does in fact have some openings, here’s the website with contact info.

  3. Tana says:

    2700 feet for one family sure does seem extravagant, given the desire for the plots.

    Anyway, WONDERFUL piece, Bonnie. I sent the link to my husband’s computer for him to enjoy.

  4. Too bad they skipped the side-bar, your piece in Food was excellent — I’m often pointing out the UK system and German system (Love that 99 year lease!) that I’m familiar with from my overseas’ realtives gardens.

    Bea has just started a new project as Co-coordinator of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative – just outside the District. A bit diff than community garden rental plots though.

    And no, can’t think of any current community gardens that aren’t filled and with waiting lists at this point.  I’m now directing flks to the CityFarmDC and SharingBackyards web sites to see if they can get space in private yards to garden.

  5. Congrats on the Post piece. Community gardens can be wonderful opportunities for those in apartments or otherwise landless as I was decades ago. I managed the ones in Hanover/Norwich, VT for years. Families generally took one to four plots. I think the plots were about 600 sq-ft each but it’s been a long time, 25 years, so I’m not sure. We had an attack of the Jerusalem artichokes – a perenial that puts out an edible root and a sunflower like head but is very invasive. Good eating. :)

  6. Great piece in the Post Bonnie. If one is serious about food gardening and eat a lot of vegetable (like we do and with almost all our meals prepared at home), then 2,700 SF – while large is adequate for a family who wants to raise 100% of their veg and fruit. It’s only about 50 ‘ x 54′. I am aiming for such myself and slowly building up my rocky sloppy eroded soil in my 2 garden plots (about 2,000 SF and growing…). It sure is work, but it’s so … rewarding?… Hooray for victory gardens, community gardens and allotments!

  7. DBX says:

    You should also probably mention that the supply of land for allotments in the UK has declined precipitously since World War II, as part of a broader trend of local governments reducing the amount of open space.  Look at the current situation as sort of a backlash against local governments’ often dismissive approach to open space.