Tending an allotment is not only good for mental health but helps to create friendships
“Allotmenteering is a relaxed approach to life,” said Malcolm Kesterton, illustrating his point by sauntering through his Highcliffe plots in the rain wearing a straw boater. Carrying a scarecrow, named Ernest.
“An allotment shouldn’t be too tidy. It should be ramshackle, it should be made from stuff you find in skips. In an allotment people should be able to experiment and do what they want.”
Malcolm wants Viking scarecrows, provided this year by ‘scarecrow consultant’ Dr Elspeth Whitby, who was organising her team of five and a half scarecrows around Malcolm’s plots last week in readiness for the judging panel of Sheffield’s Bolton Cup, awarded each year to the city’s best allotments.
“I’m in it to win it,” said Malcolm watching from the window of his ‘Little Red Writing Hut’ as Elspeth hauled her scarecrows around in the pouring rain.
“But I’ve only visited other plots on this site so I’ve actually no idea. I wonder if they come round with clipboards or iPads these days?”
Sheffield Council currently have over 3,000 allotment holders, with a waiting list of almost 700 people.
More families are now running local allotments with their children, and students are signing up too, although there are still more older allotment holders than other age groups.
A big rise in demand 15 or so years ago levelled off for a few years, say the council, but there has been a small surge again in 2019.
“Not only does tending an allotment have a huge impact on people’s mental health, it’s creating friendships, it’s allowing people to meet others within their communities, with shared interests and it’s a fantastic activity for family and friends to get involved in,” said the council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure, Mary Lea.
“We have a diverse range of people using the allotments who are all growing their own fruit and vegetables – long may this continue.”
Plots can be taken on with a co-worker, or as a community group, and there are half size plots available for people who can’t manage the full version.
Which is not a problem for Malcolm, who’s been allotmenteering since retiring from the teaching profession nine years ago, and now runs two plots, based on the ancient kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia.
(He was a history teacher. Nearby High Storrs comes from the old Norse word ‘storth’ for plantation, the Bolton Cup judges learned).
In his mid 60s, he recognises the benefits for retired people: he’s met older allotmenteers using their plot to take a break from caring for sick family members, and he’s a big believer in the physical and health benefits of relaxing in the semi-wild with your vegetables, your books and the passing wildlife (except pigeons - his major foe, he says).
He says organic gardening and growing for biodiversity are now common among allotment holders, and he also propounds the no-dig method: leaving the soil alone and feeding it by mulching and composting.
“If you dig the soil regularly you undo all the good the animals in the soil do for you. It’s a self regulating system.” It also saves time for more relaxing, he notes.
In his self built study, he likes to ponder how land reform could benefit the British population. “Only 1 per cent of the English population own half of our land,” he fumes.
“What’s best, 10,000 acres of barley produced by three men and a tractor or 1,000 ten acre smallholdings where a thousand families can live a self-sufficient lifestyle?”
Two arson incidents nearly made him give up, but after a week or two of being ‘really down’ he says he weighed up the benefits to his well-being, and got back to work on the crops of Mercia and Northumbria.
Bolton Cup preparations have taken well over 30 hours a week this year, and as one of the hopeful 50 competitors, he says if he does win, he’ll scale back his time.
“I won’t be like those Premier League teams who always have to get into European football,” he said, watching Elspeth at work as the rain pattered onto his reading room.
For more information contact: 0114 2734528 or see http://bit.ly/SCCAllotments