For those not blessed with a large garden, allotments provide the opportunity to harvest some home-grown crops – but the fruits of your labours don’t stop there…

Grow your own

According to The National Allotment Society (NSALG), allotments have existed in some form or other for centuries. But the plot system we recognise today stems from the 19th century, when land was given to the labouring poor so they could grow food.

Of course, the system has evolved further since then, but growing fruit and vegetables is still a key part of allotments. And it’s a blooming trend – the home-grown share (as opposed to shop-bought) of all fruit and veg consumed in the UK rose from 2.9% to 5% between 2008 and 2011.

When the recession hit, waiting lists for council allotment schemes saw huge surges in demand, as the appeal of making pennies go further with home-grown grub rocketed.

Dig and de-stress

The benefits of allotments are rooted far deeper than just providing fruit and veg. For many, their allotment is a little corner of the universe where they can escape to unwind and relax, away from trials and tribulations. Gardening and tending to seeds and plants can, in many ways, be a form of meditation too.

“Working outdoors also gives plotholders a sense of the seasons and contact with nature,” says Diane Appleyard, mentor co-ordinator at NSALG.

“Many garden with wildlife in mind and spend time sitting and enjoying the greenery and bird, amphibian and insect life – apart from the pesky ones that eat their crops!”

[Read more: Allotment holders – it’s time to get fruity!]

Weed for wellness

All that relaxation and fresh air, as well as the exercise gardening provides, makes allotments a recipe for better health – not to mention the fact you’ll have no trouble achieving those all-important five-a-day fruit and veg targets, if your crops are a success!

“The healthy lifestyle they encourage helps to combat several of the challenges facing 21st century populations,” says Appleyard. “Obesity, inactivity and mental health problems resulting from social isolation cost the UK economy billions every year; £9 billion is spent dealing with adult depression alone, and obesity costs the NHS £5 billion. I work remotely and pop up to the plot most days after work for a chat and some social contact.”

Community roots

For some plotholders, peace and quiet is the main appeal. However, allotments can also be a great way of nurturing links with your community and getting to know other people who live in your area. If you’re on a waiting list for an allotment – or simply if it’s the community aspect that appeals to you most – how about checking out community garden projects?

“A great idea before you take on an allotment is to visit a community garden, so you can get advice from other gardeners, learn some of the basics and get to grips with getting your hands dirty,” says Jenny Teasdale, who’s been involved with her local Tooting Community Garden, run by the area’s Transition Town branch. “Great fun – and you get to sample the produce and meet new people!

“For beginners, herbs, chard, courgettes, beans, peas, tomatoes and salad leaves are all super-easy,” Teasdale adds. “I would recommend the RHS growing guides, and also buy a month-by-month gardening book.”

Getting started with an allotment

- How easy it is to get an allotment will depend on where you live. Some allotments are leased by local authorities, which are protected by the Allotments Acts (statutory allotments), though councils may also offer ‘temporary allotments’, on land which could later be sold. “The first place to look is the relevant page on your local council website, and get yourself on a waiting list,” says Appleyard.

She notes that waiting lists can be lengthy, ranging from months to even years in some areas: “If you are prepared to travel a bit further, you may be able to get a plot quicker than waiting for space at your nearest site.”

- And if there aren’t any? “If more than six people in a parish want an allotment, your council’s obliged to consider the request, but there’s no time limit to how long they can consider without actually doing anything!” Appleyard adds.

“Forming an association and working with your council to find land is a positive alternative.”

- Another option is to rent an allotment from a private landlord. “If they [the council] don’t have any allotments, ask around or look on Google Earth, as there may be a private site that you could call into,” says Appleyard.

- What about the costs? “Again, costs vary across the country, and generally speaking they’ve risen in recent years due to the financial pressures on councils, but some private self-managed sites are still only charging about £25 per year for a full plot,” says Appleyard.

“Council run sites vary from about £50 to £110 for a full plot, but many have split full-size plots in half; I pay £43 for a half-plot in Bristol.”