A patch works for vegetables
No-dig allotments scheme now aiming for the North
No-dig allotments scheme now aiming for the North
Ed Morrison describes the creation of Roots as less of a eureka moment and more a slow burn.
The kindling beneath his idea to overhaul traditional allotments began, as so many good ideas did, during lockdown and a trip to his local Tesco in those dark days of 2020.
“It was right at the start when people were panic buying,” he said. “It was really odd to see so many shelves bare and it got me thinking about how reliant we had all become on the big supermarkets.
“It was a bit of a wake-up call and I started to wonder whether there was another way.”
Back home, the Yorkshire-born entrepreneur, who at the time was living with his grandparents in Devon, looked at their back garden and saw an untapped resource of fruit and vegetables.
“I had such a transformative experience,” Morrison said. “When most of the things I was used to filling my time with were no longer available, that little patch of land became a bit of a salvation. It was really therapeutic watching things that I had put in the soil grow and when we weren’t able to do anything else it gave me a real sense of purpose.”
When Morrison returned to London and his marketing job, he was keen to continue the experiment. With no outside space of his own he enquired about the possibility of an allotment with his local council but discovered he could end up waiting more than a decade before securing a plot.
“Over recent years a lot of council-owned allotments have been sold off for housing development so there just isn’t the supply to meet the demand,” Morrison said.
“I started doing my own research and the more I did, the more I realised that the traditional allotment template wasn’t quite right for today.
“Historically, the plots were quite large, but that was when people had more time to tend them and often lived closer to them. Now many people find these larger plots completely unmanageable and when they struggle to keep the weeds under control it becomes quite demoralising – people just don’t have the knowledge or time to keep it going.”
The number of allotments in the UK stood at around 600,000 in the late 1960s. Today, that figure has halved, yet they still yield about 215,000 tons of fresh produce every year and the waiting lists show that interest hasn’t waned.
Convinced there must be a solution to the problem, Morrison began talking to friends – twin brothers Will and Josh Gay and Christian Samuel – about his plans for a very different style of allotment, one which would allow people the satisfaction of growing their own while reducing some of the legwork.
“It was clear right from the start that Ed was onto something,” said Will Gay, who grew up on a farm in Bath. “We had all been thinking quite a lot about the need to be more sustainable and the more we talked about setting up our own allotment, the more it seemed like a good idea.
“However, we didn’t just want to give people the opportunity to rent a piece of land – we wanted to give them the access to the tools and the knowledge to make that plot really successful. The idea was to use a subscription model, but one which created a community of growers at each site.”
The first Roots Allotments opened last year on redundant meadow on Gay’s parents’ farm and its success has led to the opening of a second site in Bristol. Now there are plans for a third in Leeds.
“Having an allotment can seem like a lovely idea, but it can also be really daunting,” said Gay. “We want to remove that fear by giving everyone who signs up everything they need to start growing, from their first packets of seeds to the trowel they need to start planting – it’s about making it as simple as possible.”
What’s significant about Roots is that they are also promoting the “no dig” approach, which means you don’t even have to own a spade. The ancient gardening technique has been promoted in recent years by horticulturalist Charles Dowding and proponents believe that it is a much more efficient way to tend small holdings.
“It’s about rediscovering the ancestral skills that we have lost and about showing that having an allotment doesn’t need to be back-breaking,” said Morrison. “There is a common misconception that you need to prepare the soil by digging, turning and forking and it’s just not true.
“In fact disturbing the surface kills the amazing micro-lifeforms which live in the soil and help feed your plants with good nutrients. With ‘no dig’ we lay compost on the top of the soil and let nature do the rest.
“The results are amazing. It not only reduces the amount of time spent weeding and prepping beds, but it also requires less watering and produces larger yields. The method we use is also chemical-free so the fruit and veg is completely free from the dozen or so different pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers commonly found in supermarket veg.”
Dowding is now a supporter of Roots which also offers members access to online masterclasses, seasonal tips and advice throughout the year, and the ability to book weeding and watering services.
“When you sign up for a traditional allotment, that’s it – you are left to go it alone and that can feel quite daunting,” Gay said. “Our allotments have a very different approach – it’s about encouraging people to grow their own but also accompanying them on that journey.
“It’s also about appreciating that modern lives can be really busy and by being able to book in someone to water or weed your plot means you don’t have to worry or feel guilty when you go on holiday.”
Just before Christmas, Roots began gauging interest in its site in the north of Leeds. Stretching across 30 acres it is hoped Roots’ first Northern allotments will officially open next year and it has already had more than 300 expressions of interest.
“We recruited a number of Bath’s Big Issue sellers to help prepare our very first site and we have also partnered with a number of schools and community groups in the area to offer workshops and taster sessions,” Morrison said. “We all believe that these allotments are not just for the individuals who have a patch but that they can make a much wider environmental contribution.”
At each site, a minimum of 15 per cent of the overall area is set aside for native UK wildflowers as part of a bid to boost the natural habitat.
“That was something that we put in place after discovering that the UK has lost 98 per cent of its wildflower meadows over the last 100 years,” Morrison said. “Since we established one on our Bath site I have seen bats feeding over it, bees and butterflies sucking up endless amounts of pollen – it’s such a simple thing, but it makes a real difference.
“We are looking at how we can also establish more native hedgerows at each of our sites to further boost biodiversity. Roots is not just about allotments – it’s about creating a community to care about and nurture the environment.”
Photo: Ed Morrison (left) and Roots colleagues.