Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

HOME GROWN TALENT

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

This is, or perhaps should be, the age of the allotment. These beautiful, modest places offering answers to some of modern society’s biggest questions. Concerns over the environment, health and social cohesion are being quietly addressed on small plots of fertile soil across Sherborne and the country at large. These are spaces where individuals can commune with both earth and neighbour and return with armfuls of food for the table. Just a few spuds, beans, artichokes and raspberries will do it. I tried it myself this year, with rainbow chard, beans and kale and was surprised at how liberating it is to be freed from the treadmill of supermarket food.

“I just wanted my children to know where food came from,” says Rachael Brooke Witton. She took her allotment – based at the Westbridge Park, where the old pig sties are now used as sheds – four years ago, when her youngest was only six months old. “My mother-in- law bought me a book on the allotment calendar and away I went,” she smiles. “I do all the digging myself. It’s better than going to the gym – and a lot cheaper.”

Rachael has made a point of allowing for grass paths between her vegetable beds, in order to allow the children run around and enjoy the produce. As we chat, her children Rufus, six, and Phoebe, four, have found a green shield bug and are letting it wander over their hands as they nibble on the raspberries. “They pick the fruit and vegetables and eat them on the spot, if they can. It doesn’t matter that it is a little bit dirty – that’s how vegetables come. They are happy to try anything,” explains Rachael, while supervising the release of the bug.

Rachael visits the allotment at least two or three times a week. When her youngest starts school, she hopes to work on it more. “It’s all been trial and error,” she admits. But she is adamant that she wanted to teach her children that you can grow vegetables yourself and are not obliged simply to go to the supermarket and pick them off a shelf. “The children love being outdoors, it’s like an extension of the garden.”The allotment is certainly bountiful. There are raspberries, apples, black- and redcurrants, rhubarb, tomatoes, onions, a variety
of salad leaves, kale, beans, carrots... The list goes on. Rachael clearly relishes the opportunity to grow as much as she can. “It’s also a great community here,” she adds. “The kids go and help on other allotments and some people have been here for 30 years. I did it for the kids at the beginning, but now it is also for me. I love it.”

Bill Anderson agrees. “Working the earth is almost spiritual,” he says. “When you plant a seed in the ground, something magical happens. And it is having that connection that is important for me.”The rain is hammering down and Ruby, his dog, is waiting patiently as rivulets of water run off her shiny black coat. Bill is gathering runner beans for lunch. Not too many – just enough so there won’t be waste, and they will be utterly fresh with every vitamin still intact when they reach his family’s table in an hour or so. With beans in hand, he makes a run for the car that’s parked just outside the allotment. “I must build a shed for these moments,” he laughs, as the tropical-sized raindrops hammer on the roof of the car.

Bill took over the allotment nine years ago. “I was working in an office at the time and I wanted a link to the outside, so I took it on.” For Bill, gardening is in the blood. “My Dad had also always grown his own veg, so I learnt a lot from him as a child. I still have his hoe and, as I work, it always reminds me of him.”

At first, he says, it was like a rubbish dump. “I spent hours removing old bedsprings and the like. It’s five lugs, which is approximately 25 square metres, so there was quite a bit to do. I read John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency and adopted the no-dig method.”

Bill’s allotment already absorbs a lot of his spare time, so he restricts what he grows. “Raspberries are good because they tend to look after themselves.” He finds the autumn fruiting varieties more successful. Then there are the beans and the pink fir potatoes, squash and artichokes, onions and elephant garlic, whose sheer size gives a globe-trotting swagger to any allotment.

As his family has grown up the need for an allotment has become less, but Bill still likes the community spirit. “There is always somebody up there and we all share our surpluses,” he says. “It’s a combination of the satisfaction from growing our own food, plus the community habit that keeps me going.”

Community is something Robin Debell is hoping to extend through his allotment. He took on three extra allotments in 2004 and planted a vineyard. “I had always fancied having a vineyard in the south of France and this is my version of it,” he explains. “We planted in April 2005 and got our first harvest in late September, early October 2005. We took 180 bottles of still wines that year, but subsequent harvests have reaped on average about 350 bottles of sparkling wine. The best year has yielded 600 bottles.”

The site had not been used for 23 years and was “covered in stinging nettles” before Robin took over, so the work to bring the soil up to vineyard quality was heavy. First a farmer was enlisted to plough the plot, then Robin dug it over twice by hand to level it. While he worked the soil he kept the rocks, which have now been repurposed to protect the roots of the vines. “We manually moved 40 tons of rocks,” Robin explains – but it was worth it, as they now keep the warmth in the soil.

Climate change seems to be working to Robin’s advantage and the vines look incredibly healthy and are groaning with fruit. “Our climate is good for acidity. You need the acidity for sparkling wine, which is what my allotment vineyard largely produces,” he says. These welcome changes are clearly why the French are now investing in English vineyards, but the vines are a labour of love, requiring more than 200 hours of work from Robin and his friend José. They are hoping to find other keen volunteers, the reward being take-home quantities of this high-quality artisanal ‘garage’ wine. “If anyone is interested in mucking in and sharing the bounty, please do contact me,” he says.

Paul and Helen Stickland are a couple whose allotment took them on an unusual journey. They took over three allotments eight years ago at a site close to The Gryphon School. “We were rubbish at vegetables,” grins Helen. “It wasn’t until dahlias came along that we got ignited.” Paul agrees. “We love colour and flowers in the house and it is a stipulation of our relationship that flowers should be in our life.”

When the allotment came up it was Paul and Helen’s ‘eureka’ moment and, since they find gardening in their courtyard at home more of a challenge, the space has essentially become their garden. For their daughter Tabitha, eight, it is a home from home. “She is always out there with us,” says Helen. “We grow some fruit and berries and she spends her time grazing. Nothing comes home with us.” However, it was the dahlias that did it. “Helen bought me a whole set of dahlias from Penzance National Dahlia Collection,” says Paul, “and that was it.”

Their allotment became a plentiful mass of glorious flora and people began to take notice. People began to ask if they could use their dahlias in decoration and last year Helen created a decorative installation in Eype church, where the band she sings with played. A few pictures went on Instagram and before the Sticklands knew it, florists were contacting them.

Right now there is a movement towards flowers with provenance. As with food, people are moving away from flowers imported from far-off places; florists in particular are seeking ways to source this demand from the UK. “We can’t sell from our allotment,” says Paul – that is one of the rules – “but this has given us the opportunity to try our skills as flower growers.” So with an acre of land rented from Peter and Amanda Hunt of The Toy Barn and Blackmarsh Farm, the couple have launched ‘flowers from the farm’, under the name Black Shed. “We are starting very small as we want to keep it manageable, but our hope is to provide flowers for the local community,” says Paul. “We don’t ‘force’ flowers, but plant what grows naturally in our climate,” he explains. The result of their toil has been spectacular and is already quite the local attraction. In the meantime, Paul and Helen’s beloved allotment along with those of their many green-fingered neighbours, will continue to provide a regular source of food, health and happiness, not to mention years of magical childhood memories for Tabitha and friends.

If you would like find out more and register for an allotment in Sherborne, contact info@sherborne-tc.gov.uk. To join Robin in his vineyard, contact robindebell@hotmail.co.uk. For further information on Paul and Helen’s flowers visit blackshedflowers.blogspot.co.uk