As part of the H&DAA 100 celebrations we wanted to get answers to some basic questions. What are plot-holders growing on their allotments in 2017? What sort of vegetables, fruits and flowers How has this changed, if at all, over the years since 1917? If there have been changes we wanted to explore why these changes occurred.
This section looks first and briefly at what might shape the choices which a people make about what they grow on their allotments. These choices are shaped by who they are and also by the context in which they are living, and by local conditions and practicalities .
Available evidence points to some changes in the people involved in allotment. School children were allowed small had plots in the very early days. However, the allotment site rent books and early photographs from the 1920s seem to suggest that the plots were predominantly worked by men. At the end of WW1 as ‘allotmenitis’ swept the country Way (2008) suggests that women were also to be seen for the first time in public vegetable gardens. During WW2 it seems likely that there were more women involved in cultivating allotments as many younger men were in the Armed Forces and engaged in war work.
Way (2010) states ‘photographs, propaganda and written accounts give plentiful evidence of women working on plots’ though she also points to discouragement to women after the war in the 1950s who no longer felt welcome on the allotments. We have found no record of the number of female plot holders on our sites during the war.
According to those with longer memories of the sites more women are working the plots. Certainly women are far more visible on the allotment plots now in 2017 than they were a few years ago.
Other changes are just as difficult to read. In the 1930s with high levels of unemployment, the government Unemployed Assistance Scheme helped the unemployed to work on HDAA allotments with grants of seed potato and other seeds.
Way (2008) argues that at the end of WW1 (the early days of our allotments), people of all classes participated in allotment cultivation, not exclusively the labouring classes. We have no evidence for our plots, though it is unlikely that HDAA was an exception to this general trend.
By the 1960s allotments seem to have been associated in the public mind with pre-war notions of philanthropy and poverty (Thorpe, 1975). The term ‘leisure garden’ was employed for ‘allotments’ as a way to encourage the middle classes to take them up and associated with this was a desire to change what was grown, with less emphasis on food growing and more on flowers.
In the context of wartime, national policy initiatives have been important in the food that is grown, both during WW1 and notably during WW2 when food shortages and food rationing was predominant. There was strong encouragement to those with allotments and other land to ‘dig for victory’ with explicit advice on what vegetables to grow. Here there was an emphasis on growing food to provide for the needs of families throughout the year. This thinking was probably why many allotments have rules governing what could be grown or about the proportion of plots to be devoted to different uses.
Back in the 1950s with more children to feed there might have been an interest in ‘quantity’ and growing more basic foods than in recent years. The ‘baby boomers’ of the 1950s & 1960s have probably become many of the allotment holders of the 21st century and might be more interested in ‘quality’ rather than quantity. Growing prosperity over the post war period has also been associated with an interest in consuming a wider range of foods.
Plant breeding developments have added greatly to the range of crops to grow and the varieties of any given crop. Technological change has given plot-holders the ability to erect relatively low cost poly-tunnels providing shelter and warmth for crops which previously, given the local climate, were not very reliable, or not grown at all e.g. chilli peppers.
Along with technological change the ability to store and transport food vast distances has resulted in the availability of foods of all sorts throughout the year. Now it is said that there is no or little seasonality in the availability of fruit and vegetables. Strawberries were only available at one time in the summer, now they are available all year. These trends might influence the choice of crop to grow though now the issues can be more about sustainability or ‘food miles’, organic practices and the ‘taste’ of foods which may reinforce the desire to grow crops even though they are also available in local supermarkets and shops.
Local factors, and practicalities may also be significant in affecting what is grown. These could include the local Bristol climate, warmer and wetter than further east, and the micro-climate on the different Fields as well as how much time people have to devote to their allotments (a perennial issue).
Thorpe, H. (1975) ‘The homely allotment: from rural dole to urban amenity: a neglected aspect of urban land use’ Geography, 60, 3, 268, pp.169-83
Way, T. (2008) Allotments Shire Library: Oxford