This week I'm handing you over to Rachel of Wittgenstein's Watering Can who's dug her way out from under a mountain of soft fruit to give me a "week off"!
"It's been nine months. The first few weeks were exciting and a bit scary. The following months have been amazing, frustrating, hard work, fulfilling. There's been aches and pains, some very messy moments, doubts and minor squabbles. But it's all been worth it.
Nope, I've not had a baby. Nearly nine months ago, I got my allotment. I got an allotment because I love gardening - gardening of the 'growing things to eat' variety, that is, I'm not good with flowers. I'd done some fruit and veg growing on a minor scale but was frustrated by the small quantities I could produce in the back garden. Growing your own is often touted as a way to save money, and you can make a dent in your food budget on a small scale - pots of herbs on the windowsill instead of pricey packets in the supermarket, soft fruit growing up your garden fence. But if you're not careful it can end up costing you more than it saves. By the time you add up seeds, equipment, compost, etc, you might wonder what the point is.
The point for me was always the enjoyment of growing, the sense of achievement and knowing exactly where my food came from and how it was grown. But I've been on a tight budget for more years of my life than I'd like to admit, so I've become slightly obsessive about how much things cost and making savings where I can. And I was trying to not spend too much (all gardeners know the lure of the seed catalogue!)
I started keeping a list of produce from the allotment just out of interest. But then a debate on my allotment site's Facebook page about rising rents got me thinking. Was this a hobby that was costing me money or did it actually save me some?
So I did the sums...
Allotment rent including water supply (which I've only used once when the water butts ran empty) - £100 for the year
Tools and equipment - I had most of this already, I asked for some as Christmas/ birthday presents, and I bought some using vouchers gained from doing online surveys. My main outlay has been rubber gloves as I find these much easier to work in than gardening gloves (apart from those jobs where you really do need good protection from spiky things - loganberry bushes, I'm looking at you). I'll estimate about £20 for this.
Compost - £0 - I compost fruit and veg scraps, tea bags, paper etc at home and transport this up to the allotment (yes, there probably are slugs in the car - see below). There's also two big heaps on the go on the plot.
Seeds and plants - £40(ish) - again these were mostly bought with vouchers, acquired as freebies, or kindly donated by friends. I did buy some fruit trees which were on a Groupon offer for £25 and I've bought the odd pack of seeds, garlic for growing, fruit bush along the way.
Petrol - to actually get an allotment, I had to leave the waiting list for the ones nearest to my house, and join a site further away. It would be a good hour or so walk, and not too convenient carrying a fork and a tub of compost. The car has become something of a travelling shed. I've not the faintest idea how much this costs per journey though.
So £160-ish plus petrol costs.
I have to say that I was lucky here - it has been a fantastic growing year, and I inherited an extremely well-cared for allotment, with great soil, and already established raspberries, rhubarb and blackberries. But it does show what can be achieved. This is (sometimes accurately, sometimes approximately) what the allotment produced:
Potatoes - 34kg
Onions - 57
Garlic - 25
Beetroot - 43
Leeks - 100
Turnips - 10
Radishes - 100
Chard - lots
Kale - endless kale
Rocket - about 1kg
Broad beans - 500g (not terribly successful)
Rhubarb - 2kg
Little Gem lettuces - 24
Carrots - 35
Fennel - 4
Swede - 10
Raspberries - 16.8kg
Blackberries - 16kg
Strawberries - 4 (yes, 4)
Sprouts - enough for Christmas dinner
Peas - some, but the mice ate them
I worked out the price of the fruit at the time - mainly because it was a huge amount of fun to pick 3kg of raspberries then go into the supermarket and realise you had about £30 worth of fruit. The rest I've estimated using mysupermarket.co.uk, and the total for produce comes out at.... £489!
In the last couple of weeks there's been some festive additions to that too - the giant evergreen tree yielded some branches which were turned into a Christmas 'tree' and a wreath (with the addition of ivy from the garden and holly from the local park). They may not be quite as picturesque as those you can buy (and that angel refuses to stand up straight) but a tree that size and a wreath would come to at least £30 I reckon, tipping the final total over £500.
Surprising, and quite impressive, although it's worth pointing out that the raspberries and blackberries alone make up £328 of that. It's also worth pointing out that I have never in my life bought that much fruit - so I certainly can't claim to have 'saved' that much on berries. But it has meant that I've not bought other things, different fruit, or puddings. I also used some of the fruit to make jam and wine. The maths gets a bit tricky here as I had to buy sugar and yeast for this, but I suspect that the end product (especially the 30-odd bottles of wine) still works out cheaper than buying it.
This looks like a fabulous advert for rushing out to get on the allotment list NOW (and I'd certainly not discourage anyone from doing that) but it's worth adding a few disclaimers. Not every year will be as good as this year. If you get a run-down, overgrown plot, it's not going to produce this lot in its first nine months. It's not just about the money - it takes work and time, and if you costed your 'man/ woman hours' the total wouldn't be anything like as high. The above was grown and harvested by two people who spent a half-day every week on the allotment, plus lots extra in July and August (and have the scruffiest plot compared to all the retired folks around us who are there every other day). But that's not really the point - even though sometimes it feels like too much work, the joy of being out there and doing it outweighs that (most of the time). You could argue that the physical activity saves you money on a gym membership (but you have to bear in mind that you will probably eat far more crumble than is really good for you).
Next year, the allotment rents go up, and I'll be paying £160 for the year. There's been lots of lessons learned this year, so I expect some crops to do better, but we're always at the mercy of the weather/ slugs/ mice/ diseases/ pigeons/ the pheasant who likes to hop around our plot nibbling stuff. It's certainly not an 'income' (we aren't allowed to sell anything we grow), but it has - to my surprise - turned out to be well worth the investment.
Oh and the messy moments? Lots of mud, blackberry-stained everything, and my other half falling - yes, actually falling - in the water butt!"