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Fiona Barrows and the joy of the allotment
Fiona Barrows explains how she left the daily grind of London for tranquil Frome, and the joy she has found in tending to her own allotments.
What is it you do as your ‘day job’?
I work for myself as a brand strategist and creative business mentor. It’s a business I’ve built literally entirely around my desire to get outside for a long walk or to my allotment everyday. And one that will let me make the most of beautifully sunny days as well! I used to work in book publishing in London but left five years ago, initially to travel around Asia by myself, and then to live and work in Bali and then Italy. During this time abroad I thought a lot about the kind of lifestyle I wanted when I returned to the UK, and freedom was very much top of the list. I also didn’t want to go back to London, or any big city really, and wanted a simpler, slower life where I could really appreciate and find joy in the everyday.
Where are you based?
I’m based in Frome, in Somerset. I moved to Frome knowing literally no-one, and solely on its reputation as being a small but very vibrant and creative town. I wanted to live in the country, but being single and still fairly young I was wary of living too far out in the sticks and isolating myself. Frome seemed like the perfect compromise. And it hasn’t disappointed! I adore it here, and have met so many lovely people. I love that there is always something going on, and it’s really close to Bristol and Bath, but I’m also only a 10-minute walk away from beautiful woodland and extensive farmland. It’s a really special place.
What are your early memories of gardening?
I grew up in Kent, and it’s only recently that I’ve realised just how amazing our garden was! My dad had his own vegetable garden, four beds on rotation, and I remember chasing after him in the summer evening sunshine to pick and eat peas straight from their pods! We were pretty much self-sufficient in potatoes, and possibly apples as well, but I don’t think I really appreciated how unique that was. I used to help him a little, but I don’t remember doing that much - I think I was just happy to eat his hard work!
We also had a greenhouse, and that warm, musty, tomatoey smell always takes me right back to my childhood. My mum also had beautiful herbaceous borders and as a family we would be outside most of the weekend. I have odd senses of deja-vu sometimes on my allotment when I find myself doing a job in the same way as my parents.
Is your allotment your first garden?
It’s my first garden that is fully my own, yes. I spent a year living on a sustainable farm in Italy and got involved in planting and harvesting there, but obviously it was a communal effort and I didn’t really see much through from beginning to end which meant I felt far less ownership over it.
Why did you decide to apply for an allotment?
I applied for an allotment before I’d even found somewhere to live in Frome! I knew I wouldn’t find anywhere with space to grow my own, and after Italy I was really keen to. The waiting list was quite long so I have to admit to knowing I wouldn’t get one for a while, so it was perhaps a case of putting my name down without really thinking through the reality.
But then early last year I just became sort of obsessed with the idea, and desperate for one. I’d started to follow a few gardeners and allotment-owners on Instagram I think. I called to check where I was on the list and was told that space would probably come up on a certain group of plots on the outskirts of town. So I went on a recce to see it and just loved it out there. The space looks out over Cley Hill and Longleat, and there is a stream running along the bottom. It’s beautiful and just being there is calming.
There is something really special about allotments I think. I love the community aspect of them, and I think even if I were to get a garden in the next few years with space to grow vegetables I’d keep mine on. I genuinely believe that everyone who wants one should be entitled to an allotment - they are so great for so many reasons: mental health, fitness, community and reducing the environmental impact of the food we eat.
Do you grow elsewhere - do you have any growing space at home?
No, I live in a top floor flat. I have access to a communal garden but it is all taken care of. I dream of one day being able to open french doors from a little kitchen onto a terrace laden with pots of lavender and rosemary, and sit down at a wrought iron table to drink my coffee. I’d also love a greenhouse, and to be able to grow more tomatoes as well as cucumbers and perhaps aubergines, but they are not really practical on an allotment as you need to open and close them, and water them, so often in the summer. One day!
What state was the allotment in?
It was a mess! I think the previous owners hadn’t done much the year before, and had generally been quite haphazard with it. And then it had just been left all winter as well. It was covered in thick weeds, and this horrible black matting that was meant to suppress them but had actually done no such thing, and they had just grown through and anchored it to the ground! It was a nightmare to pull up! It had a few old wooden structures on it that I needed to take down before they fell down, and for the first few months I kept finding nails and bits of plastic in the ground. The soil was really inconsistent in nourishment as well: some parts were fine, others were completely compacted and felt very thin. So it was a lot of work getting it sorted!
Who did you turn to for advice?
I turned to my parents for advice mainly, but I was also determined to do most of the hard graft myself and I got so much satisfaction out of those first few weeks when every time I went I could really see my progress. I also bought a couple of books but I found that they didn’t really make much sense as it was all so theoretical at the time. So I just decided to treat the whole year as an experiment, and to see anything I managed to grow as a bonus. I think taking the pressure off really helped as I just let myself make it all up as I went. I think I read somewhere that plants want to grow, you just have to help them, so it is not as complicated as you think it is or is sometimes made out to be. Other than my parents’ help for a couple of weekends (mainly clearing and digging, and my dad made me a compost heap) I’ve done everything else on my own, and I’m really proud of that.
How did you choose what to grow?
Using my books I came up with a whole plan about what I was going to grow and where everything was going to go, and it just went totally out of the window! As I didn’t get my plot until April and had so much clearing to do, I planted as I cleared which meant everything ended up in odd locations!
I’d literally clear a space and then go to Homebase to see what seedlings or seeds they had. I felt on the back foot all year and always felt like I was behind getting stuff in the ground. There was no forward planning and this is definitely the biggest thing I want to rectify this year (I’ve already ordered all my seeds!). The only thing I made sure of was that I didn’t grow anything I didn’t love to eat (so no parsnips!). I also had no idea what would do well in my soil so it was just a game of potluck really!
What have been the successes?
I had really good crops of peas and beans which I was really happy with. I was given some pre-chitted new potatoes by a fellow plot owner and they tasted delicious! I’ve also had a constant supply of chard since I started, and really good crops of spinach and lettuce. My beetroot was amazing as well, and I’ve recently grown swede which tasted amazing! I also loved my sweet peas…
What have been the failures?
Fennel is the one I’m most upset about as it is my favourite vegetable and I would love to grow it successfully. I think I put it in too early (a victim of my buy and seed straight away approach). I also lost runner beans in the first few weeks as they went in too early too. I had a good crop of tomatoes from just one plant (another gift) but they took forever to turn red and I picked most of them green and made chutney.
I also lost 70% of my carrot crop overnight to rabbits (I took the net up thinking they were strong enough… and carnage. An absolute massacre). I’ve also tried to grow pak choi twice, once from seed, once from seedling and both times it has failed. I don’t think I’ll try again!
Is there a community at the allotment?
There is, but in the winter I’m often there on my own! My plot is at the top of the space and surrounded by people who have had their plots for a really long time so know what they are doing and I often turn to them for advice. I was so excited when I found my first broad bean that I was running around telling everyone and I think they thought I was slightly strange! I was also given a few gifts of chard and asparagus in the first few weeks, as I think they felt bad I was working so hard but not taking anything home with me!
What is the biggest benefit about having an allotment? Do you think growing things is a ‘good’ thing in itself or is it about taste or the environment or exercise?
I don’t even know where to start with this question! There are so many benefits, and I definitely agree that growing anything is a good thing in and of itself. Even if I couldn’t take home what I grew I still think I would because I love the process so much. I think of being at my allotment as just being really nourishing, both physically and mentally, and then again when you actually eat what you’ve grown! I adore spending time outdoors, but there is something specifically wonderful about gardening. About taking care of plants and paying attention, and seeing what it is they need. It’s also very mindful and focusing. I rarely think about anything else when I’m there and I’m definitely not on my phone.
And then there’s the environmental impact… the food I grow myself is undoubtedly the best in terms of carbon footprint, and I think if more of us did the same then we could make a real difference. It’s also made me even more aware of the other food I buy, and keeping everything as seasonal and local as I can.
You share photos of your allotment on Instagram - what has the response been?
A bit ridiculous! It’s all anyone wants to talk to me about! I get a lot of messages from people saying they are living vicariously through me, and a few really sweet messages from people who are struggling with their mental health saying they have been inspired to start growing their own, and that it’s helping them which is just amazing. It’s been really positive essentially, and definitely something that I’m going to do more of this year!