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The Allotment Sourcebook


Caroline Foley - New Holland Publishers - 2010

review by Adrian Moyes


You might expect a ‘Sourcebook’ to be a book about sources. This one is, but it’s also much more than that - it’s a source in its own right.

It’s also about much more than allotments - it’s about any piece of ground that you want to cultivate for vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers or even wood, or wildlife. It’s true that there are sections on the history of allotments and on the law and allotments, but most of the book is about growing things anywhere. Anywhere in Britain, that is - the book assumes our (by global standards) gentle climate and fertile soil.

The early history of allotments is surprisingly early - 1649 and The Diggers (or ‘True Levelers’), anticipating today’s Green Movement. It’s not surprising that allotments are still measured in old-fashioned measurements - rods, poles, or perches (they all mean the same) - the distance between the nose of an ox and the heel of a plough.

And recent history is surprisingly recent - the Dig for Victory campaign of WWII, and current worries about pesticides, climate change, food miles, and peak oil. No wonder so many people want to grow their own. No wonder so many people want to have an allotment, a patch of subsidised land, surrounded by other people doing the same thing, and willing, even eager, to share their experience.

Carline Foley’s book shares her experience with you. She’s obviously got plenty of it. She’s a freelance garden writer who contributes to newspapers (including the Guardian/Observer) and various magazines. She’s written five other books - four specifically on allotments.

She tells you extra things about what you thought you already knew - like how to water (watering at night encourages slugs, so water in the morning), sowing seeds (rows should be north-south to avoid the plants shading each other), pre-testing seeds (with a germination test) - and some you maybe didn’t - like the Heritage Seed Library (you can get, for free, up to six types of unregistered seeds a year), or the story of Henry Doubleday’s Russian Comfrey, which led to the establishment of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) to promote organic gardening, or parsnip seeds (which don’t keep, and need to be bought fresh each year), or National Beanpole Week which encourages the use of locally grown beanpoles, which, if you’re so inclined, you can also grow on your allotment.

The book is just choc-a-block full of useful advice and tips, to say nothing of Francesca Foley’s lovely photos (worth the price on their own). It has tips on paths (make them straight from A to B - otherwise people will prefer a running jump over a bed), on making comfrey or nettle tea as a fertilizer, on saving seed, or attracting wildlife, on growing herbs.
It starts right at the beginning - with advice on getting an allotment, on dividing it up, and on how to grow almost everything you might want to grow (including beanpoles).

But it doesn’t seem to have so much on what (and what not) to grow - in some ways the most important decision of all. Our own, personal, criteria are:
- maximum output for minimum input (thus rhubarb, globe artichokes, fruit)

- difficult to buy - or less taste when you can (thus spinach, salad leaves, herbs - not potatoes or onions)
- pesticide free if possible (thus not brassicas - too many pests and diseases)

We also grow leeks - which don’t fit any of these criteria - but we get a perverse delight from harvesting them in the deep midwinter.

Obviously everyone has their different tastes, equipment (greenhouse, window-sill, cold frame, etc), soil, and capacity for digging, so everyone else’s criteria will be different from ours. Even so, it would be nice to have had a prominent discussion of principles in such a comprehensive book.

There is another point. A book so full of practical advice and tips on so many topics needs good navigation. Unfortunately the index doesn’t live up to this need - it is just too comprehensive; Beetroot, for instance has 22 entries, Brassicas 29, and Broad Beans 31.

Which makes it difficult to find your way about.

But these are very minor gripes; The Allotment Source Book is a real treasure trove. It’s ideal as a present, ideal for a group library, ideal for yourself.

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The Allotment Source Book is available from New Holland Publishers, price £20.00. Enter the discount code EAA at the checkout to receive20% off and free P&P. (Offer valid until 31st March 2011.)