“Land designated for use as allotments was usually simply land which did not find a more profitable use. It was seldom chosen for its horticultural potential, though of course the labour of the cultivators and their manuring of the soil have improved it over the years. For the sites were usually just the spaces left over, behind the houses or factories, limited in access from roads, or in the floodplains of rivers, or enclosed by the sweeping curves of railway lines.” — David Crouch, author of The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture
Long before community gardens began to pop up across America, there was the allotment. More than two hundred years ago, England began a social experiment, one whose goal was to give the landless laborer the means to provide for himself. And so, the allotment movement was born.
World War II gave new urgency to the movement as Britain sought to achieve self-sufficiency for the uncertain struggle ahead. Britain’s famous Dig for Victory campaign was launched, as seasoned gardeners and raw novices alike were recruited into a new allotment army.
Garden historian Twigs Way has written a fascinating history of those years, Digging for Victory: Gardens and Gardening in Wartime Britain (co-authored by Mike Brown), full of history, stories, photographs, and the rich imagery from the entire Dig for Victory campaign.
Twigs Way has also written a second volume, Allotments (pictured above), a very entertaining history of the allotment movement over the centuries.
Little by little, the Land Library has built up one of our favorite sub-sections devoted to a particular subject — books focused on allotments & community gardens across the globe. Here’s just a few of those volumes:
Allotment & Garden Guide: A Monthly Guide to Better Wartime Gardening, Twig Way’s annotated reprint of the monthly guides published by the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture. As in her other books, Twigs has added many wartime graphics and posters, including the most iconic image of them all, the foot & spade Dig for Victory poster (pictured above).
Digger’s Diary: Tales from the Allotment, V. Osborne’s entries, originally printed in The Daily Telegraph, The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture by David Crouch and Colin Ward (an indispensable and fun-to-read guide), and City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America by Laura J. Lawson
Following World War II, allotments saw Britain through the many years of austerity that followed. More recently, there has been yet another home-grown renaissance spurred on by the organic and grow-local movements. Allotments are alive, well, and here to stay — on either side of the Atlantic!
“Making space to look after, to show friendship and care — and other values not understood by the contemporary market place, allotment holding gives us a means to get out of our own home and join others in making good our future environment.” — David Crouch
And here’s a very fun film clip on a Royal visit to an allotment in Great Britain. It’s a fancier allotment than most, but we couldn’t pass it by, as it features Prince Charles — a longtime champion of both nature and vanishing rural ways:
Closer to home, for more on community gardens in the United States, here’s two good links:
—The Garden Resource Program (great things are happening in Detroit!)
And here’s a few past posts on the vibrant intersection between land, food and community:
—A Gentle Rebellion, where some dirt will fly (school gardens!)