Ruth Bratt often daydreams of having an allotment, but decade-long waiting lists, Black Death fingers and a lack of plant know-how are holding her back.
I’ve always wanted to have an allotment. When I was about seven, I demanded a patch of the garden and grew Brussels sprouts. I was quite an odd child. My friend’s dad had an allotment and I was so jealous, and really disappointed that no one in my family had one.
Much later, when I won some money in a standup competition, I bought a gardening fork and a compost bin, and then my housemates and I had a sunflower growing competition. That was the last home I had with a garden – I live in north London and if I ever want to get some outside space I need to either win the lottery or become a (very, very successful) banker or become a squatter in a house with a garden.
When I got my flat, I started looking into getting an allotment. There are a few within a mile or so, including some amazing ones in Alexandra Palace. Four of them had closed their waiting lists because there was such demand, and the only one that was open was 10 years long. TEN YEARS!
I didn’t know I’d still be in the same place for that long – this is the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life – so I didn’t put my name down. I really should have. If I had, I would have just got my plot and I’d be starting to plant things, and I’d have a little shed, with a kettle in it, and a comfy chair.
I’d be growing green beans (like my grandmother used to) and I’d have some rhubarb too (transplanted from my parents’ garden so that they don’t have to keep sending me rhubarb).
It’s the closest I’ll get to living in the country. I’m so resolutely a city girl: I love the idea of the countryside, but I can’t breathe outside zone 6, and once I get into the country, I realise my limitations.
We recently visited friends who have a cottage next to a farm in Wales, and they invited me to help them feed the lambs. It sounds idyllic. It’s dirty, frankly. Messy, aggressive (really!), and dirty. Once was enough. But an allotment would allow me to have the tiny bit of country living that I like, in the city that I love.
My lack of foresight is one of the reasons that the city is good for me. I can buy milk at 1am. But I can’t put my name down on an allotment waiting list. Lack of foresight.
So, I am making do with a geranium in the stairwell, which is growing in a very interesting way trying to find the light, a couple of aloe vera plants which grow like triffids and regularly uproot themselves in what I can only describe as suicide attempts, and an amazing plant that I’ve had since I was 18. How it is still alive is a mystery.
This is the other reason an allotment is not necessarily a practical plan. I don’t have green fingers. I have Black Death fingers. I have killed almost every plant I’ve ever owned. My mum and dad have tried to help me, with both my allotment dream and my fingers of death, by planting a window box with un-killable plants. They are all dead.
“I love the idea of the countryside, but I can’t breathe outside zone 6, and once I get into the country I realise my limitations.”
There is something growing in it, that I definitely didn’t plant in there. I’m convinced it’s the start of an oak tree. Oh, here’s another reason an allotment is impractical. I know NOTHING about plants.
Last year, I got in touch with North London Cares, a charity that creates a ‘community network of young professionals and their older neighbours’ – it’s really fantastic. You get to hang out with older people who might be lonely or need help.
I helped a lovely old bloke called Ray on his allotment. He can’t get down there as often as he used to because his wife has Alzheimer’s and he is her main carer. I had a great day using a machete, cutting down persistent weeds and digging up all the things he told me to dig up and leaving all the things he told me to leave. I have no idea what any of them were, but with time I could have learned.
I was really sad that I couldn’t continue to help him out on a regular basis – my job doesn’t really allow for that, and I didn’t want to let him down, particularly as his timetable was very strict given his wife’s condition.
But those couple of days were exhausting and fun and gave me an insight into the workings of an allotment. I know there are all sorts of politics – and Ray didn’t like all the new people coming in and bringing in their middle-class ways, and their committees. But I like that. I love seeing committees getting all het up. From a distance. With my head down.
So for now, until I get on that waiting list, and finally get my allotment in 2026, I’m going to keep dreaming of my city sanctuary… and watch the Big Allotment Challenge, which is like Bake Off for gardening… and try to grow one thing successfully in my window box.
And when I do get my allotment, I’ve got a fork and a compost bin just waiting to be employed.
National Allotments Week runs until 14 August.
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Ruth is an improviser, comedian, actor, writer and the short half of double act Trodd en Bratt. She is rapidly becoming a middle class cliche who likes to bake and knit. Ruth is in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical currently in Edinburgh and about to embark on a West End run. www.theshowstoppers.org