Gardeners continue path of city’s growing tradition

Woodseats Allotment Society: Josie and Colin Wright on their winter allotment
Woodseats Allotment Society: Josie and Colin Wright on their winter allotment

As allotment rents are set to go up by 60%, David Bocking visits a city society whose first members were digging more than 100 years ago.

A CENTURY ago, note the records of the Woodseats Allotment Society, a member was ‘cut to the quick’, by the theft of several rose bushes intended as a gift for his wife. Luckily, the thief was apprehended, whereupon three committee members marched him to Woodseats Police Station to receive his punishment. He was duly ordered back to replant the rose bushes. And, of course, he lost his allotment.

The record books dating back to 1912 are lovingly stored in the society’s ‘distribution centre’ (aka The Shed), along with an assortment of cut-price feeds, seeds, composts and anti-slug weaponry.

“We say to people come and talk to us,” said secretary Joan Newfield. “We’re not bothered if you don’t buy anything.”

The allotments at Woodseats have nurtured 100 years of potatoes, carrots, onions, chickens and dahlias (and much, much more) said Colin Wright, winner of numerous prizes over the years, and speciality producer of the 2012 ‘Woodseats wonky carrot’ crop.

“They just grow that way because of little stones in the ground,” he said. “They’re very tasty, but I’m not sure they taste good because they’re wonky.”

2012 was not a good year for vegetables, said Julie Hinksman. “My sprouts were eaten by pigeons,” she lamented. The weather was unpredictable, again, added Joan Newfield.

Many of the current society committee have been growing at Woodseats for a generation or more. Joan’s parents had a plot and she and her husband David took over their allotment 30 years ago.

“We’d spend the day here. We’d bring the kids down and they’d build dens in the wood or work on their own garden while we worked on the allotment,” she said.

Joseph Palfi has also put in over 30 years of allotment keeping. His large terraced allotment, like many of the committee plots, has been honed for a full year of vegetable production. “I think you probably need to come down every day,” said Joseph, who’ll be 80 this year. “When I was working I’d often come down at 6.30 in the morning before I went to work.”

Josie Wright and husband Colin took over their plots after helping an elderly gardener 15 years ago.

“Working on an allotment is a social thing,” said Josie. “We all help each other.”

Josh Jones is a good example. He took an allotment eight years ago after a life of physical work in the salvage industry. “I wanted to keep fit and healthy, but I hadn’t done much gardening before,” he said. “I was welcomed by the society, and Joseph told me how to get started with the right feed and everything. Without Joe I wouldn’t be here. Now I have a neighbour in his 30s and I’m passing on my knowledge to him, and he’s doing well.”

Colin Wright said that there’s been a big increase in newcomers to the site over the last few years, probably due to media excitement about growing your own. But not all the newcomers think of asking for advice, said Josh.

“New people don’t always realise how much hard work there is, so after about six months they often stop coming and it gets overgrown. They seem to think you just plant it and leave it.”

The council’s allotments service has instigated some changes over recent years, which most WAS members think may help new plot-holders – new payment arrangements may deter untended allotments, and the new policy of splitting plots into two will enable younger people in work to take control of an allotment when they don’t have much time available.

There are mixed feelings about the recently announced rent rise of 60%, however. Pensioners pay half price which means a current annual rent of about £25 a year including water, but Julie Hinksman pointed out that rent is only part of the expense of running an allotment, and costs of plants, seeds and feed are rising.

“If we’re paying more I’d like to see the council improving the roads and tracks, for example, and making people stick to the speed limits on allotment sites because it can be quite dangerous.”

Better management of the site hedges and support for the Sheffield Allotment Federation wouldn’t go amiss. Veterans are also bemused by some of the regulations imposed recently, and would welcome some floral flexibility at Woodseats, not least because flowers help vegetables thrive anyway, said Colin Wright .

He said: “If you’ve had 100 years of onions and potatoes, why not grow flowers?”

Colin and Josie Wright grow decorative and productive plants on their adjoining allotments, both have put in many hours of work for the WAS committee over the years, and tend their allotments virtually every day. The rise in rents may affect some people, but it won’t deter them.

Colin was vehement: “Renting an allotment is worth every penny.”

l Advice for new growers from the WAS veterans: Call in at your local allotment society office – members are keen to help new growers; Start with potatoes to break up the ground; Don’t forget to feed the soil; Don’t try and do everything in a mad rush – it pays to be patient.