Allotment life

Sandy and Gemma's allotment at Redbridge Lane West, WansteadSandy and Gemma's allotment at Redbridge Lane West, Wanstead

Gemma and Sandy Sanderson have created their own self-sustainable oasis at the Redbridge Lane West allotments. Paul Donovan, a member of the Wanstead Transition Initiative, meets them.

The original motivation for Gemma and Sandy to take up the allotment came from Sandy's doctor. A former publican, he suffers with the rheumatic disease ankylosing spondylitis, affecting the joints. "The doctor suggested fresh air and exercise were a good idea, so we began looking at allotments," said Sandy.

Gemma works for Barclays in Canary Wharf. She sits at a computer screen for much of the week, so was also looking for a way to get outside and do something different.

The couple have lived in Gants Hill for the past seven years. "This site is well placed for us, on the bus route with toilets on site," said Sandy, who remembers that the plot was originally just grass.

The transformation of the 60ft x 60ft site in four short years has been amazing to behold. It has literally been customised for Sandy and Gemma.

The couple put in a number of raised beds with wide paths between, thereby enabling Sandy to work on his hands and knees. The area has a lot of stone in the soil, so it has been a common site to see Sandy's backside in the air as he tunnels down removing stone. The stone has then been used for the paths.

Gemma and Sandy have a big commitment to sustainability in all that they do. This means growing the crops in organic fashion, without bringing in any pesticides or other chemical agents. They have also tried, wherever possible, to recycle materials. This has meant using wood reclaimed from skips to build all the border fences and raised beds. "When people do loft conversions there is always a lot of wood going spare. If it is in a skip, you can knock on the door and most people are quite happy for you to take it away," said Sandy.

One of the great advantages of allotment life is the readily available social circle of information. One piece of advice was to stew comfrey leaves and use the resulting liquid as a feed for tomatoes. Another tip concerned filling trenches with cardboard, soggy newspapers and manure as preparation for growing things like sweetcorn and squashes.

Sandy and Gemma were given cabbage and broccoli from fellow allotment holders when they first started work on the plot. Now many allotment holders come to them for advice. They recently received a highly commended citation in the Redbridge Allotment Awards.

"In the summer months we don't buy any veg or fruit," said Gemma, who admitted that in the early days they tended to get gluts of certain crops, like runner beans, but they have now learned to stagger things.

There is also a lot of storage at home. Tomato chutney and jams require preparation. Then potatoes and onions can be stored away once dried off. For crops like beans, freezing is the way to keep them for the lean winter months. "We need to look at buying another freezer now," added Gemma.

Another striking element about the allotment are the flowers on display. Most have a purpose, like the marigolds for keeping white fly off the crops. Then there are the imposing sunflowers, which as well as presenting a striking image also provide seed to feed the birds. The plot is also well stocked with fruit. There are strawberries, logan berries and raspberries. There are also lots of blackberries around the borders of the plot along with five compost bins and a number of water butts.

In the push for self-sufficiency, Gemma and Sandy are now looking to move into bees and chickens. The chickens will have to be at home, though the bees might yet be seen in Redbridge Lane West. "Sandy bought me a bee keeping course for Christmas last year. We finished the course in June and got some bees and a hive in July. There will be honey next year," said Gemma.

Many allotment sites have bee hives but they are not permitted at Redbridge Lane West. "At one site production doubled when bees were introduced," said Gemma, who hopes that bee hives may, in time, be permitted at the Wanstead site.

Gemma and Sandy certainly recommend allotment life. They spend most of their weekends at the plot, with Sandy making the odd visit in the week during the summer. "We love it. We come down with coffee and sandwiches and make a day of it. There are decent people around to chat with so there is a social network as well," said Gemma.

"They call allotments green gyms, what could be a better way of getting healthy," said Sandy. "There is the exercise involved in working on the plot, then the goodness you get from the food produced."

One day, when the couple retire, they hope to get a bigger area to push the self-sufficiency dream on further. It would then also be possible to keep animals, like pigs and sheep. That though is for tomorrow, today Gemma and Sandy continue to work their oasis in Redbridge Lane West.

Gemma and Sandy pick runner beans in their allotmentTomatoes growing at the allotmentsGemma and Sandy's allotment

For more information on renting an allotment, contact Redbridge Council on 020 8708 3091


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