I applied for my London garden plot so long ago that the application was made by post and possibly in Linear B. There are about two hundred lots in my neighborhood for just under three hundred thousand people. Realizing that a miniature Eden wouldn’t be mine right away, I figured I might at least have one in time for old age: something to look forward to if I don’t have any brilliant novels in my later years write. Then, in February of this year, an email came. I’ve reached first place on the waiting list and want to visit the potential site? I couldn’t write back fast enough. When I arrived it was pouring rain. That was a sign in my favor – I wasn’t a fair-weather gardener. I was approved and given a padlock combination number, a list of rules, and as much wood chip mulch as I could carry.
The English allotment system began several centuries ago when landowners, often fearing civil unrest, ‘allocated’ small plots to the poor. Since William the Conqueror’s auditors first examined the tax potential of each creek and hill in the 11th century, the total amount of “common” land in the country had dwindled, and a series of Enclosure Acts had made it increasingly difficult for non-landowners to subsist. In 1850, the Victorian garden author George Johnson remarked that “there are large numbers who really have no soil to till but perhaps an atom of damp earth behind their dwellings”. It would be “inexpressibly good,” he added, “to lease plots of land near every village.” Over time, legislation forced local authorities to provide such allotments. In the 1940s, there were around 1.4 million parcels of land across the country, and strict rules still apply today: keep scythes on paths, don’t sell any products, ask the authorities before you keep chickens or bees or rabbits, pigs or a goat .
In both Britain and the US, this vision of self-sufficiency flourished during World War II, when rationing made growing food a necessity. The practice stayed alive in the decades that followed, fueled in part by a hugely popular TV sitcom, “The Good Life,” about an attractive suburban couple who convert their back garden into a small farm. But the trend didn’t last. In the 1980s the plots were sold to developers. The councils evaded responsibility. Growing vegetables went out of fashion. Today there are still around three hundred thousand plots in the country; Most are permanent sites owned by local authorities, but some are temporarily built on sidings or reservoirs and are privately owned. Middle-class dreamers who, like me, dream of baking bread from homegrown grain, let alone raising a pig, stand little chance of winning a plot to sow what they can. When city dwellers want to wander through the twilight, pick berries and listen to cuckoo noises, they often have to move away.
Even the Manor Gardens, an allotment site in Hackney inherited ‘forever’ by a British aristocrat in the early 1900s, was uprooted in 2007 to make way for the Olympic Park. This came despite parishioners’ desperate attempts to save the gardens. (Among those advocates were the founders of a local restaurant, Moro, who wrote a fantastic cookbook, Moro East, about the diversity, wildlife and community spirit that allotments encouraged in their corner of East London.) In recent years Years ago, a convergence of factors – a recession, housing shortages, cursed Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine – has spurred demand for the remaining properties. Anyone can apply, regardless of income or – wrongly – available garden space. The rent on my allotment is a modest £100 a year (and outside of London the rates are often much lower). Admittedly, the plots have shrunk. Once designed to support a family of four, at ten rods, or spears, an Anglo-Saxon unit of measurement—roughly two hundred and fifty square meters—they can now be half that size, a quarter, or even less. Still, waiting lists at some surviving sites have reportedly reached forty years. There is no way to check his position on the list. One simply waits, as if for an act of God.
So you can see why it was love at first sight for me and my allotment. I changed my phone background to a photo of my sweetheart. your name? 38b. It is situated on an old farm track near Hampstead Heath on a site of about a hundred lots and is barely a fifth the size of a standard lot. When I first started tending the property, it was infested with bindweed, rotting plastic, and tufts of nylon carpet and bordered with rotting chipboard. But there was so much to admire: my own ivy! An unproductive but huge plum tree! The paths separating the plots are calculated to be exactly the width of a wheelbarrow and are patrolled by an impressive committee of energetic seventy-year-olds. My neighbors are a cross-section of Londoners, from a tiler who installed neat flower beds and a water feature, to a dentistry professor with an amazingly bounty crop of compost-free French beans. There’s a tiny vineyard, some stunningly precise trellises, and a violent she-cat named George who sleeps in a greenhouse. Many of the gardeners around me have leased their plots for decades; They know how to use the community scythe, repurpose aquariums and brew kettles, cover their cherry trees in pink recycled scaffold netting, and occasionally piss each other off. Call it Trench Warfare: Customs can be gained, but at a terrible cost.
Just being there and listening to the birdsong makes me grin from the moment I open the padlocked gate, even though the soil is what is known as ‘not of good cheer’ and the plants that Growing from kale donations from my generous neighbours, seedlings and leek thinnings have been decimated by a powerful combination of pigeons, rats and record heat in the UK. Even for my beloved, the outward journey – a twenty-minute bike ride uphill – at forty degrees Celsius (more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit) is asking a lot.
When I can, I water at night: a delicious treat for the picnicking snails. My new friend Zee built me a table out of pallet wood. Tony gave me a memorial bench that had been rejected by a London Borough Council. My allotment is my future, my soulmate, mine forever—provided I keep the trails with a scythe, don’t sell any of the eight broad bean pods I’ve harvested so far, and never attempt to raise an unauthorized goat. ♦