July 13, 2008

Long History for Kew Short Lots and The National Garden Scheme (NGS)

A giant juicy blackberry beckons me to pluck it and pop it in my mouth. Furtively, I look around and see no one. For a moment, my mood brightens but reluctantly I resist.

Kew “Short Lots” is the first allotment site in London to be opened to the public by NGS and I do not want to be the reason the public is not invited back next year.

One man picking gooseberries (for “jam, pie, and crumble”) tells me a “full plot” should be sufficient to grow enough fruit and vegetables to feed a family. I doubt this until I chat with a woman planting shallots in a half-plot overflowing with asparagus, apples, chilies, victory plums, figs, squash, beans, and berries.
Another man entertains a small crowd by demonstrating how he is re-cultivating his new plot. He claims the previous renter had only enough time to cultivate berry brambles. I notice a small brown neighborhood cat doing a little digging of her own, just out of view of the proud new planter.

According to notes published by the Short Lots Users Group (SLUG), Short Lots covers “one acre, one rood and 28 perches”. Short Lots history parallels the history of many allotments in England. It was common land for over 200 years until it was “enclosed” in 1824 and given as private property to King George IV.
In 1917, Short Lots was divided into just over 50 plots for families to cultivate and feed themselves during WWI. Allotment holders joined forces in 1938 to raise funds to provide a permanent water supply and distribution.
Interest in allotments spiked again during the WWII “Dig for Victory” campaign, and now, because of renewed interest in “good food”.

Over 70 people have Short Lots applications on file and each expects to wait at least seven years for an allotment. Annual rent for a half-plot (5 rods or 2700 square feet) is £34 and full-plot (10 rods) is £68. If you are slow to pay your rent or do not cultivate your land for three months, you get a “letter”. Current allotment holders live in fear of losing their land to waitlisted applicants unless they conform to strict SLUG standards.

NGS organized the afternoon opening of Short Lots and has an interesting history of its own. At a time when visiting gardens was reserved for the privileged, NGS asked individuals to open their private gardens to the public for a small fee and donate the proceeds to the Queen’s Nursing Institute. Since its founding in 1927, NGS raised over £40 million to support training and pensions for nurses as well as cancer and gardening charities. Because of NGS (www.ngs.org.uk), we can now visit over 3600 gardens across England and Wales.

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