Broccolli growing on my allotment

Table of Contents

What is allotment?

An allotment garden or community garden plot is a piece of land allocated or rented to an individual to allow them to grow food and flowers for themselves and their family.

Allotments allow certain activities and buildings like greenhouses and shed to erected on the site without planning consent and some have a water supply and toilets. Some places allow limited livestock keeping.

Below: My first look at my new allotment. Heavily overgrown but with apple and plum trees.

Allotments and community gardens vary greatly in size and can be council or authority controlled or private. Here in the UK allotments and what you can do on them is governed by the allotment acts of 1922 and 1950 and their provision is a legal requirement.

Why is an allotment called an allotment?

It is your allotted piece of land. They were known as enclosures in the 1600's and have always provided land for the common labourer.

See for more details.

How does an allotment work?

You rent a plot and are entitled to grow fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers for as long as you obey the rules and pay the yearly rent.

My allotments allows me to raise fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, bees, fowl and rabbits. Depending on the size and location of the site, it might not be practical to keep bees or hens, so please check first.

Other landowners may restrict you to plants, so check there, too. Legally allotments cannot be used for commercial purposes, although it is usually OK to sell off genuine surpluses.

How big are allotments?

Allotment plots vary in size are measured in perch, pole or rods, with 5½ yards equal to 1 pole. In allotment terms 1 pole is equivalent to 272.25 sq ft (roughly 30 sq yds or 25 sq metres)

Provisions allow allotments to be 250 square metres (10 X 25 metres) in size or a different size that is to be agreed between the person requesting an allotment and the local authority.

The average size for London is 5 poles. This is around half the size of an average plot elsewhere in the country.

Sizes do vary and a lot of councils have halved the sizes of their allotments so as they can satisfy more plot holders on their land. This is not necessarily financially motivated but a way to cut waiting lists. My allotment is approaching a third of an acre, which is huge in allotment terms.

The Act also requires fair rents to be set and allows tenants to sell surplus produce grown on an allotment as long as they don't make a business out of it.

What is the purpose of an allotment?

Allotment holders love their plots for the fresh air, healthy exercise, organic fruit and vegetables, supportive friendship networks and knowledge of where their food comes from they get when they grow their own.

For me the benefits of having an allotment are:

  1. Fresh eggs - I have a few ducks and chickens.
  2. Fresh food - I produce about half of what we eat.
  3. Its all local - There are no food miles on allotment produce.
  4. Community - Sharing seeds, produce and knowledge is common practise.
  5. Health - Exercise and fresh air.
  6. Good for the land - Allotments improve the soil.
  7. I can grow different varieties and heritage types not found n the store.

Allotment Frequently Asked Questions:

What are the disadvantages of having an allotment?

Allotments can be hard work and you will need to visit on a regular basis. There may be people you don't like or get on with and what you can do is sometimes limited.

How do you get an allotment?

You put your name on a waiting list and get patient. If you can find 6 or 8 like minded individuals you can get together and try to force the council to provide them. Legally they have to but it can take time and money.

Can I keep chickens and animals on my allotment?

You can keep chickens rabbits and bees on allotments with permission on up to 50% of the space. See for more information.

Can you build on allotments?

Permitted Structures are allowed on allotments, raised beds, potting sheds, greenhouses and poly-tunnels are all examples of permitted structures. You aren't allowed to build anything permanent on your allotment.

Can I put a shed on my allotment?

Yes, a small shed is a permitted structure. The size will be limited. I have an 8 X 10 foot shed but my allotment is large.

How do you clear an allotment fast?

Clearing an overgrown allotment plot often requires a lot of work or help from friends.

Below: The weeds and trees on my plot were as tall as me when I took it on.

On the plus side stacked turf makes excellent compost in a relatively short time.

What's best to grow on an allotment?

It is always best to start with the vegetables that you and your family will eat and that easy to store and make the most of. Don't grow beans if you don't like them.

Why are allotments bad for the environment?

They are not bad for the environment. Allotments are full of people growing food without pesticides and chemicals and making naturally enriching the soil over time.

Is an allotment hard work?

The amount of work involved really depends on just how keen you are, but if you're taking on a vacant plot in autumn you should expect to put in at least half a day per pole just to clean and dig the soil.

The better your preparation, the less work you'll have to do in spring (planting) and summer (growing and harvesting). The key is to build up a good, humus-rich soil - your plants will be healthier and require less watering and attention.

Some crops (potatoes, root vegetables, onions, runner beans) are relatively low-maintenance, and with these you might get away with a couple of hours a week during the growing season.

Others require more care and attention (tomato plants, for instance, need tying to supports frequently, need side shoots pinching out, need more feeding than many plants and you must keep a watchful eye for problems like tomato blight) and for a good mixed plot of around 5 poles you should allow at least 4 hours a week. If you get into projects like building compost bins and sheds, or you decide to raise all your own seedlings, say goodbye to your social life!

The important thing to remember is that it shouldn't become a chore - it's better to give up a bit of ground and enjoy what you have left than to struggle on, resenting the time you're putting in.

What happens if I can't cope?

The sensible thing to do is ask for some help. If you don't, eventually you'll get a non-cultivation notice asking you to get some work done quickly. Newcomers often find the first year difficult, probably because it isn't easy to estimate how much time is required. But anyone can run into difficulties, perhaps because of a change of job or an addition to the family, or just because the years are taking their toll. There's all sorts of gardening advice available, and fellow allotment-holders are usually a good source of information.

If you find you can't cope and you think this is just temporary, then don't try to do the whole plot. Set some aside and either cover it with woodchip or some other covering to suppress the weeds, or grow a cover crop (mustard, clover, lupins, alfalfa) which will protect the ground you aren't using and can be turned into the soil after flowering, giving you better soil when you do come to plant it up.

If you feel that the plot is just too much of a commitment, give up part of it. There is no set size you have to garden, and it is far better to enjoy using a small plot than it is to regret the work involved in a large one.

My neighbour can't cope and I'm getting all his weed seeds!

People get into difficulties sometimes. Bring this to the attention of your local site manager, who will take the appropriate action. Your neighbour may be ill or caring for someone, but whatever the cause don't expect an instant solution.

Gardeners get 30 days to show some interest, and usually a further 30 days to take anything they want from the plot. And if no-one wants to take the plot over after this, you might still have the problem of the weeds. If you're following our advice about mulching, the weeds and their seeds aren't going to be so big a problem anyway.

When can I dig my allotment?

As a rule during the hours of daylight. I have never come across any other restrictions. I used to be that if you had an allotment you were not allowed to dig it on Sunday mornings so as you could attend church. This is no longer the case.

Why can't I use a sprinkler - it would save me a lot of time?

There are two reasons.

  1. There is a limit to the amount of water that can be provided and if everyone decided to water their allotments this way, they'd all find that there wasn't enough pressure to keep the sprinklers going.
  2. The incredible waste. Most of the water applied this way is lost through evaporation, which doesn't help the plants and doesn't help the allotment budget. The more gardeners use water inefficiently, the less likely it is that there will be any money for allotment improvements like new fences, repairs to trading huts, path maintenance.

My neighbour complains about my bonfires, what can I do?

Stop annoying him/her! Bonfires can be a useful way of getting rid of diseased plant material, but they are not really necessary and they should never create smoke. Let materials dry out before you burn them, and always put the fire out if it starts to smoke. And don't leave it burning when you go home - lots of fires have been started by bonfires that were "just down to a few ashes". On some sites, bonfires are only allowed in the evenings - even so, respect others by making sure there's no smoke.

Who cuts the grass on the paths - mine is getting really long?

You do. The same goes for hedges and ditches and other features around the site. Take care of these simple tasks and the council will take care of getting the water to you when you need it.

The paths are sown with grass because the long roots hold the soil together and ensure a stable path in all weathers. If you think cutting the grass is a nuisance, think what it would be like if there were no path to or around your allotment.

Can I use weedkiller and slug pellets on my allotment?

The rules forbid the use weedkiller on paths and allotments. Metaldehyde slug pellets will be banned soon and their use will not be allowed either.

I'd like my plot rotavated - will the council do it?

The rent on a 10-pole plot is around £55, and the cost of rotavating is around £350. It simply isn't economic to rotavate plots for people. In any case, the benefit is questionable.

Rotavators don't dig deep, so the soil still needs digging over. They grind the surface very finely, which ruins the soil structure and allows moisture to evaporate more quickly. And they chop up weed roots into little pieces, which in the case of couch grass and bindweed, means that they spread that much faster. Double-digging may take time and effort, but it is a far better way to prepare a plot.

There's no water in the winter, and I need to water in my greenhouse!

Then rig up a water butt to catch the rain from the greenhouse roof. The water is turned off to protect the pipes from splitting in cold weather. We have a lot of rain in winter, and a small butt should provide for all your additional needs.

I can't be bothered with composting - will someone please take my waste away?

No. If you don't compost, you aren't much of a gardener and you'll just be giving yourself more work in the long run. It's easy to make compost, it is just about the best thing you can do for your soil

I keep hearing about woodchip - doesn't it just rob the soil of goodness?

No it doesn't - you can add it to your compost pile and it will quickly rot down to produce a good soil improver, and you can use it as a mulch to to keep down the weeds and to reduce the amount of watering you need to do. Plants in soil covered with a 3in (75cm) layer of wood chip generally only need watering every fortnight, which saves a lot of effort.

I'd like to build a really big shed out of materials I've salvaged from a skip!

You can't do whatever you want - we want to stay friends with neighbours on the site and with the people who live nearby, and big ugly sheds don't help. If you want to put up a small wooden shed from B&Q, fine - just keep it well away from the edge of your plot. If you want to put up anything else, you have to ask. If you don't, you may be forced to take it down.

I come a long way and there's no toilet on site - why can't I have my own?

Most do not but some of the older, more established allotments may have facilities.

Otherwise you can't. It's just too unhealthy. One day you'll give up the plot, and the next tenant will come along and turn over the soil and ... you get the picture. Or it'll get hot one weekend when you're not around, and the neighbours will wonder what the awful stench is. We're really serious about this.

You put in a toilet and you'll lose the plot. If you're serious about it, get together with your neighbours and put in a bid for a composting toilet. They're environmentally friendly, easy to maintain and don't cost a packet to install and maintain, unlike conventional toilets connected to the sewage system. If you can't be bothered to do that, it can't be that serious a problem for you.

I'd like to build a fence around my allotment to stop people walking over it?

Some allotments are already fenced, mine is and some are not. If yours is not then Don't. It simply makes it difficult for others to use the path. How would you like it if you couldn't wheel a barrow to your allotment? And don't use the argument that no-one ever uses the path. Often that's true only because it has been made difficult to use, and anyway the situation might change with a new tenant or if the plots are divided up differently. If you put up a fence, you may have to remove it - or pay to have it removed.

Why don't you deliver horse manure any more?

Because it's so expensive and there's no way to see that it is distributed fairly. The council used to be paid by local riding schools to take horse manure away, but now they can get rid of it by letting people come and collect bags for themselves. The council won't pay the cost of delivering a load to site because usually it all goes to the handful of people present when it is delivered - and that's not a fair way of using precious resources. If you can think of a way to guarantee that everyone gets their share, tell the Allotments Manager and maybe we'll think about it again.

In the meantime, your best bet is to pop along to the local riding stables with a few empty sacks, but tie them up once they're filled or the car might need a good clean afterwards. Alternatively, get into composting.

My shed's been broken into, my tools have been stolen, and someone's swiped my tomatoes!

Sorry about that. Allotments are vulnerable places, and there are selfish and spiteful people around. If you suffer damage or a loss, make sure you report it to the police - they can't do anything if you don't.

They won't bring your tomatoes back, but they may increase patrols in the area if they get sufficient reports and they may just nab the culprit. The police have had some notable successes on allotment sites in Ealing. You could also help set up a Plot-watch scheme - a bit like neighbourhood watch, but for allotments.

One of the things that attracts thieves to allotments is the knowledge that they'll find a petrol strimmer or a rotavator in a shed somewhere. Don't store these on the allotments, however inconvenient it is to take them home.

Not only do you stand to lose something of value, but a whole load of gardeners get their sheds damaged while the thief looks for something of value. If you keep tools away from site, we'll put up signs warning thieves that they're wasting their time (a bit like the stickers on the back of vans saying "No tools stored here overnight").

Allotments are in high demand from city dwellers without garden space to grow their own fruit and vegetables! This DVD takes the beginner and the experienced allotment holder through the growing seasons, step by step, with useful information and fun!

This article was updated on July 31, 2023

John Hayes

I developed a love of gardening at a young age and would often help my grandfather in the garden. I like to think I am a a talented gardener with a passion for plants. I have a particular interested in growing native plants and wildflowers without the use of chemicals and artificial fertilisers. I think most people can grow something for themselves even in the tiniest spaces and that doing so has many benefits for the mind and body.

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