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Living off the land

I BLAME the lure of a few packets of free seeds for our new allotment.

Katharine Capocci, Paul Capocci, Serena Capocci, Olivia Capocci

I BLAME the lure of a few packets of free seeds for our new allotment. I was vegging out in front of BBC Gardeners’ World back in the spring and up popped a feature on their Dig In campaign, a national grow-your-own-grub initiative.

And with it came the offer of a bunch of free seeds to get you started – squash, beetroot, Lollo Rossa lettuces, tomatoes and carrots among them.

Well, who could resist? All those cliches involving digging in, living off the land and filling up on super-cheap and nutritious fruit and veg, took root in my imagination.

Although we have an OK-sized back garden, an allotment would be the real deal in terms of space for growing fruit and veg galore.

So after registering for our free seeds, I followed up with a few calls to Newcastle’s allotment chiefs to ascertain the lie of the land on the city’s 60-odd sites.

It soon became clear we were not alone in wanting an allotment.

The peachy Jesmond plot with a four-year waiting list quickly hit the compost heap, but the site closest to home in Gosforth seemed perfectly pitched, with us fourth in line for our very own veggie patch.

The green and fertile Three Mile Allotments site lies less than a mile from home, alongside a tinkling river. Plus it’s rather neatly positioned just two minutes’ stroll from the Three Mile Inn hostelry.

Good exercise for all involved, I thought, roping in my husband and two daughters, ages 13 and 10, who were equally caught up in the living-off-the-land moment.

Just four months later we got the call from Barry, the allotment chairman, to pop down and see our new plot.

The allotment site itself is a belter – so serene and well-maintained, it’s an oasis of calm. With about 100 plots in total, some half-size, some full-size – in allotment-speak full-size plots are in the region of 90ft long by about 30ft wide – it’s a little paradise.

OK, it’s fair to say our half-plot is a tad overgrown with a tangle of juicy raspberries and blackberries at one end, bare ground at the bottom, with a few potatoes and lots of weeds in the middle.

But all 80ft by 15ft of it is ours for now and it’s in a secluded spot, backing on to the river Lecht, a tributary of the Ouse. We’ve already been given an introductory courgette by one of our friendly neighbours.

And only £27 for the year, with an additional £5 for a key to the site. Absolute bargain.

Everyone is so welcoming, especially Barry, who has offered to get us going with broccoli and sprouts.

First things first, though, I’ve got to persuade my husband to hire a rotavator for the weekend to clear the decks.

Then we have the offer of our neighbour’s old shed, which we somehow have to manoeuvre on to the site. Some gingham curtains up at the window and my Kath Kidston flask to hand and we’ll be set

Catch up on Katharine’s first-time veggie growing attempts via her blog, Plot of Bother, at www.journallive.co.uk/blogs

Page 3 - Frustrated smallholder >>

Frustrated smallholder

BARRY JACKSON, 55, chairman of the Three Mile Allotments, describes himself as a frustrated smallholder.

His beautifully cultivated plots are a testament to years of hard graft spent working the land.

"I have a full plot and a half plot, which goes back to the days when we had difficulty letting the plots,” explains Barry, who currently has 12 people on the waiting list for allotments.

"It's the satisfaction of working the soil and being in touch with nature and the land," says Barry, who has a daughter, 29.

"It's relaxing, it's an escape, but the satisfaction is linked with working hard, the manual input."

Barry, who is newly-retired, and from Wideopen, used to manage mental health services in Newcastle. He has been on the site for 14 years and held the post of chairman for the past five years.

He loves the fresh air and says they see foxes and a wide range of bird life on the site, which has scooped numerous awards over the years.

"We've just won 'best large site in the city' category again, which we've won three or four years running, and we've been placed for other categories." He grows half flowers and half veg on his plots, and has a greenhouse, home to his collection of tomatoes, peppers and chillies.

He also grows big fat dahlias and sweet-smelling sweet peas, and his fruit and veg collection includes cabbages, sprouts, broccoli and peas, beans, root crops and salad crops, as well as apples, pears, plums, raspberries and blackberries.

Barry explains there's a water supply on the site, and in a nod to the ladies, there's even a Portaloo for the summer months.

He's seen a big increase in women members over the years. "We now have about 50% lady members, that's a big change in recent years. We are seeing a lot more families too.

"I have just let a plot last week to a boy who is 15, and our oldest member is 93 years old. We have a lot of couples and individuals too."

But in a word of warning on the amount of work required, He says: "Often people come and get plots and they don't have an appreciation of how much work is involved, and some of the garden makeover programmes give a false impression."

Barry says: “It's a little community in itself."

Page 4 - Garden of eden

Garden of eden

ANN and Peter Wilson can be found living out a version of the Good Life on their allotment in Gosforth any spare moment they have.

In the summer, they drop in most days - along with their beloved Staffordshire bull terrier, Star - and most weekends they practically take root on their allotment. When you catch sight of their fabulous plot, which is probably best described as a mini Garden of Eden, you can see the attraction.

They occupy one-and-a-half plots in a cosy corner of the Three Mile Allotments site, backing on to the river.

Remarkably, the pair have only been on the site since 2007 but the many hours spent toiling away on their fertile patch is clearly more a labour of love.

"It’s our little haven, it’s so peaceful. We have so many trees where we are," says Ann, 63, a mother of three, who has been married to Peter, 48, a bricklayer, for 19 years. "It’s my life. I love to be in the allotment, growing the plants. It’s about growing your own, the satisfaction of eating your home-grown produce.

"For the two of us, it’s a passion - it’s great growing, buying plants and swapping plants. We eat a lot of veg but we give a lot away too. I’m there at least every other day, even every day in the summer, and every weekend.

"We go down together. We have a shed and at weekends we often take sandwiches and a flask and go down first thing and come back at night time."

The pair live in a flat and although they have small gardens front and back, they have had allotments for many years. "We have had an allotment for about 20 years now. We started off in Heaton, and we were on the waiting list for an allotment here for about a year."

The list of produce they grow reads like the contents of a fruit and veg shop, and includes leeks, tomatoes, courgettes, giant pumpkins, beans, peas, onions, potatoes, corn on the cob, rhubarb, gooseberries, strawberries, redcurrants and a selection of stunning flowers, which Ann exhibits in flower shows.


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