New allotment joy for Croydon’s green fingered residents

Roots Allotments was created in 2021 after founder, Will Gay, experienced first-hand the shortage of council-run allotments. The success of the company’s new site at Meadow Hill in Croydon shows just how sought-after these green spaces are.

Roots Allotments Site, Meadow Hill Fields, Croydon CR5 2QQ Pic: Ray Bonsall

Allotments made headlines earlier last month when a 30 metre-long artwork was unveiled by protesters outside Westminster with the number 174,183 written on it – a reference to the number of applications on local authority allotment waiting lists across Great Britain, according to an investigation by Greenpeace.

Over a thousand of these applications were on waiting lists in Croydon so when Roots Allotments released their first round of plots at the Meadow Hill site on October 13th, they were scooped up within hours.

Meadow Hill sites users range from locals to central Londoners with many unable to find a plot near to where they live. Graph: Ray Bonsall

Tabby Lemin lives in a flat in East Croydon with her daughter Evie and was one of the first people to sign up for an allotment at Meadow Hill when the first plots went on sale.

Tabby previously had a council allotment but the plot was taken away when she became unable to attend to it during her pregnancy, in accordance with council regulations.

Tabby Lemin (36) and Evie Lemin(16 months). Pic: Ray Bonsall

Tabby told ELL: “Everyone that I know that has tried getting [council] allotments have just got ones that have overgrown six feet high with brambles and weeds and nettles.”

If allotment land is provided in poor condition, it can take tens of hours of work to get the plots to a growable state. For some, the physical labour involved makes allotment gardening inaccessible.

At Roots, 'no dig' plots offer an easier approach. First, a cardboard layer is added on top of the old soil, then compost is layered on top of that. The cardboard kills any weeds and avoids disturbing the delicate microlifeforms in the soil. The cardboard eventually rots, leaving behind just high-quality soil. Without the need to dig and weed, allotments can be used for growing food right away.

Tabby is currently growing strawberries, lavender, chives, broad beans, onions, garlic, spring onions, pak choi, beetroots, curly kale, and cabbage.

She told ELL: “I'm a single mum on benefits and I'm trying to buy the best quality food for [Evie]. But it's just so expensive and I know that I can grow food for a lot cheaper."

The No Dig ethos was inspired by British gardener Charles Dowding. Pic: Ray Bonsall

Access to allotments is beneficial for more than just growing food. Spending time in nature has been found to help with mental health problems including anxiety and depression, whilst gardening can also provide an opportunity for physical activity and social contact.

For more than one in five Londoners, including 17 per cent of residents in Croydon, who do not have access to a garden, allotments can provide a space to access these benefits.

Alex, a 32-year-old PhD student who got her plot at Meadow Hill last week, said: “I spent a lot of time indoors because I don't have a garden, just having somewhere to come and spend a bit of time in the fresh air really appealed. It's nice to have the opportunity to get to grips with [gardening] as a total newbie.”

Alex and her dog Huey. Pic: Ray Bonsall

Emma Iversen, 52, from Coulsdon told ELL: “As a local resident, I'm so happy to see [the land] being used and that lots of people will come and get to enjoy it. It’s just really nice to have this community space now that you can share plots with friends or neighbours and just be a bit more social while you're gardening. I think that's really key…the benefits of being out in the fresh air and having that social connection."

"You get to eat stuff fresh, there's no air miles, there's no plastic," says Emma who shares the plot with her friend Emily. Pic: Ray Bonsall

But with 250 of 300 current plots already taken up, Meadow Hill can only serve so many. As Croydon Council sites run dry, the borough's 11 Independent Allotment Societies have also reached full capacity (though many have open waiting lists).

Whilst there is no legal minimum to the number of allotments a council must provide, local authorities have a statutory duty to assess demand and provide a sufficient number of plots.

In the coming months Roots plans to expand their site usage replicating existing work at their site in Bath with fruit and nut orchards, bee hives and community projects in the works, including donations to local food banks and free plots for community initiatives.

Founder, Will Gay, told ELL: "This year in Bath we worked with Crop Drop to distribute to the people most in need. We donate free patches, equipment and education to schools, especially primary school children and also vulnerable members of the community."

Croydon resident, Jade Jones, who started working at the site last month following a passion for sustainable living, said: “There are a couple of things that helps us as a community. And sharing of course is one of them. I think since lockdown and all of us being isolated, being back outside and being able to talk and be with people is also a great thing. But you know, sharing also uplifts the soul."

'Green Thumb' is learnt says Jade Jones. "Whether you've grown before or not, we'll walk you around, we'll let you know what to do and how to do it as well.”

Councillor Ria Patel told ELL: “The council needs to work with allotment societies, and when they are not run by societies, the council need to better manage sites to make sure they are not overgrown and are well maintained.”

"It's important people have access to allotment both from an accessibility and diversity perspective. People from ethnic minorities are often really keen to grow their own food and often have less access to green spaces. Allotments can provide such a strong community.”

Roots' allotments start at £9.99 per month plus a £25 sign-up fee for a 'mini' plot (3x4m) to £49.99 per month plus a £120 joining fee for a 'group' plot (6x8m). Discounts are offered to people on Income Assistance, Disability Allowances and Council Assistance, Students and NHS and Service Personnel (excluding 'mini' plots). Fees include a fully composted no-dig patch, starter plants, seeds and access to water, tools, training and workshops. The current rent for a full Croydon Council plot is £87.75 per year (250 sq. m) with up to 50 per cent concession rates available for those in receipt of benefits, state pension or registered disabled users.

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