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Caroline Foley divider

The Allotment Source

Publisher: New Holland Publishers
Published: 2010
Pages: 384


Brighton and Hove Allotment Society

Some of you may know of “The Allotment Handbook” by Caroline Foley. It was one of the first books I bought when I got my plot – it has a great “whats going on this month on the plot” section which was really helpful for a new gardener who had no idea what they were doing, and a real step up from my first year’s planning (reading the back of seed packets!). Well Caroline has a new book out – its called The Allotment Source Book.

The good:
Essentially its the Allotment Handbook’s bigger, cleverer sister. This really does seem to be everything you want to know if you are a beginner (or even before you get your plot). Its got beautiful colour photos and drawings – of real people and their plots, and it really starts from square one. Allotments – what are they, how are they run, what are the rules, how do you get one, how do you decide which one to take? After years as a site rep, introducing newbies to allotment life I found that Caroline’s advice on these issues really rang true for me.

Then it goes on to more traditional gardening topics – equipment, germination, growing, watering, pests and diseases, harvesting, etc. It seems to me to be an excellent book for beginners, as it covers many aspects of gardening that some books take for granted. It has a monthly section – what’s in season, what do do, what to watch out for and (for the swots), what you can do to “get ahead” (oh I wish I was that organised!). Its all about re-use and recycling too (how very “now”!) – I have a problem with birds on my plot and can’t wait to try making a bird scarer from a plastic bottle, wire coathanger and two margarine tub lids (it spins and rattles apparently!).

The bad:
My gut feel is that the trained horticulturalists or experienced gardeners will not learn an awful lot from it. But I’ve been gardening 10 years and still consider myself a beginner and I found it useful.

The ugly:
Nothing really. This is a beautiful book which means I will never take it to my plot – which is a shame. But there are other books for that – and I will try and cover them in future reviews.

Melanie Matthews

Review on

You might expect a ‘Sourcebook’ to be a book about sources. This one is, but it’s also much more than that – it’s a source in its own right.

It’s also about much more than allotments – it’s about any piece of ground that you want to cultivate for vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers or even wood, or wildlife. It’s true that there are sections on the history of allotments and on the law and allotments, but most of the book is about growing things anywhere. Anywhere in Britain, that is – the book assumes our (by global standards) gentle climate and fertile soil.

The early history of allotments is surprisingly early – 1649 and The Diggers (or ‘True Levelers’), anticipating today’s Green Movement. It’s not surprising that allotments are still measured in old-fashioned measurements – rods, poles, or perches (they all mean the same) – the distance between the nose of an ox and the heel of a plough.

And recent history is surprisingly recent – the Dig for Victory campaign of WWII, and current worries about pesticides, climate change, food miles, and peak oil. No wonder so many people want to grow their own. No wonder so many people want to have an allotment, a patch of subsidised land, surrounded by other people doing the same thing, and willing, even eager, to share their experience.

Carline Foley’s book shares her experience with you. She’s obviously got plenty of it. She’s a freelance garden writer who contributes to newspapers (including the Guardian/Observer) and various magazines. She’s written five other books – four specifically on allotments.

She tells you extra things about what you thought you already knew – like how to water (watering at night encourages slugs, so water in the morning), sowing seeds (rows should be north-south to avoid the plants shading each other), pre-testing seeds (with a germination test) – and some you maybe didn’t – like the Heritage Seed Library (you can get, for free, up to six types of unregistered seeds a year), or the story of Henry Doubleday’s Russian Comfrey, which led to the establishment of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) to promote organic gardening, or parsnip seeds (which don’t keep, and need to be bought fresh each year), or National Beanpole Week which encourages the use of locally grown beanpoles, which, if you’re so inclined, you can also grow on your allotment.

The book is just choc-a-block full of useful advice and tips, to say nothing of Francesca Foley’s lovely photos (worth the price on their own). It has tips on paths (make them straight from A to B – otherwise people will prefer a running jump over a bed), on making comfrey or nettle tea as a fertilizer, on saving seed, or attracting wildlife, on growing herbs.

It starts right at the beginning – with advice on getting an allotment, on dividing it up, and on how to grow almost everything you might want to grow (including beanpoles).

But it doesn’t seem to have so much on what (and what not) to grow – in some ways the most important decision of all. Our own, personal, criteria are:

  • Maximum output for minimum input (thus rhubarb, globe artichokes, fruit)
  • Difficult to buy – or less taste when you can (thus spinach, salad leaves, herbs – not potatoes or onions)
  • Pesticide free if possible (thus not brassicas – too many pests and diseases)

We also grow leeks – which don’t fit any of these criteria – but we get a perverse delight from harvesting them in the deep midwinter.

Obviously everyone has their different tastes, equipment (greenhouse, window-sill, cold frame, etc), soil, and capacity for digging, so everyone else’s criteria will be different from ours. Even so, it would be nice to have had a prominent discussion of principles in such a comprehensive book.

There is another point. A book so full of practical advice and tips on so many topics needs good navigation. Unfortunately the index doesn’t live up to this need – it is just too comprehensive; Beetroot, for instance has 22 entries, Brassicas 29, and Broad Beans 31.

Which makes it difficult to find your way about.

But these are very minor gripes; The Allotment Source Book is a real treasure trove. It’s ideal as a present, ideal for a group library, ideal for yourself.

Adrian Moyes