Guardian and Telegraph writer Lia Leendertz has written a brilliant book for gardeners both armchair and real, which would also appeal to travellers and cooks: a pilgrimage through allotments, ferreting out stories and characters.
Once someone gets an allotment, which in London, can take years on a waiting list, they become understandably territorial. I've noticed that with my allotmenteer friends, that bitching is no longer about outfits and boyfriends but ugly fences and unacceptable insect eradication methods. Some seem quite scarred by their allotment wars but undoubtedly it is a lovely way to garden and make friends. I'm lucky enough to have my own garden but it can be lonely. Allotmenteering has its own culture and community.
Lia writes of the history of allotments, how common land, widely available, which the poor depended upon for fuel and food, was given to rich landowners under the Enclosures Acts of the 1800s. Allotments were meagre but welcome compensation for free common land. She visits the oldest allotments in the UK and the oldest gardener still working on them.
The book is a series of interviews with allotment holders some of whom, reflecting our multi-cultural society, come from Tokyo, Cyprus, Thailand and Jamaica. The stuff they grow reflects their background and the food they cook.
Riverford cottage gardener Mark Diacono is the photographer for this book, capturing the diverse, often grizzled, faces of the characters, for instance the mad-haired permaculture guru Mike Feingold, looking like Einstein crossed with Wurzel Gummidge.
We meet the glamorous titian coiffed Alys Fowler in her plot, where she goes every afternoon, lights a fire and makes tea. She grows with a view to fermenting, sauerkraut and kimchi. Lia writes of a dahlia fetishist in Birmingham and a floating garden near Amiens. I was ignorant of forest gardening and the book visits Martin Crawford's woodland allotment. There is a fascinating chapter on a plot that concentrates on growing plants for dyes such as madder and woad. Lia also explores community projects, an edible bus stop,a school allotment where gardening is part of the curriculum, an edible office garden and a skip garden.
My only, albeit minor, reservation about the book is the design. It is part of a series, perhaps they all have the same look. It would have been helpful to have each allotment holder clearly identified and where their allotment is located. The typeface is hard to read and the background colour of the paper is unattractive. I've learnt as a blogger, when at first you experiment with black backgrounds and the like, keep it simple! You want readability so stick to white or pale backgrounds and black type. The publishers should also consider that people tend to get interested in gardening over the age of 35, and small tight fonts are not easy for older people to read.
It's frustrating because this fascinating book deserves to be big and plush with lots of room.
Buy my cool allotment here.