Meet John Harrison of the Allotment Garden
As we head closer to spring, thoughts turn to our Grow Your Own planning. What better place to do that growing than an allotment? All that dedicated space for your fruit and veg! With this in mind, we thought you'd love to meet John Harrison. He is the founder of the website Allotment Garden and author of accompanying books. He shares with us how he got started and some of his allotment growing advice.
Why did you start 'Allotment Garden'?
It started almost by accident! Back around 2003 I was working in web design and decided to put my gardening diary online and use the site as a test bed for developing software.
How has Allotment Garden changed since it started?
Well, people started visiting and following my diary. Then they started asking me questions so to save answering the same thing time after time, I wrote some articles.
As time went on, my wife got involved and we added pages on preserving and storing home grown crops along with recipes.
The next big step was to put a forum online so visitors could share their experiences and so on. That proved very popular and helpful.
The last big change was poultry. It's a natural step for home growers to start keeping a few hens. My daughter was really keen on poultry – we used to call her garden JollityFarm.
I suppose you could say it just grew like a weed!
What is 'Allotment Garden' now?
It's a pretty huge site with the main aim of helping people to grow their own food. I think there's around 2,000 pages in all! We try to provide quality practical advice. I draw on my experience but I also spend a lot of time on research.
There's a lot of growing fads around – especially on Youtube for some reason. We try to stick with things that really work but also keep an open mind. The funny thing is how some of these new fads aren't new – they just seem to come back round every generation.
Where did the books come in?
I was approached by a small publisher in 2006 to update a 1960's gardening book for them. It was awful! So I wrote Vegetable Growing Month by Month and sent that in and they liked it.
It seemed to strike the right note and the book sold like hotcakes, so they asked for another. Since then we've had 7 more books published and this year our total sales topped 400,000! I think that's amazing. They've been translated into a number of languages and our home preserving and storing book was picked up by an American publisher.
The money isn't great in books – unless you're famous ‐ but the real reward is when people tell us how the books have helped them. One lady used our book on making jams and chutneys to start her own business!
What are the benefits of keeping an allotment/gardening in general?
There's quite a range of benefits to gardening and having an allotment. For me the biggest reasons are that it puts you in control of much of what you eat. I know where my veggies come from and what's gone into them. I'm not a totally organic grower but I don't use pesticides. I do worry about systemic pesticides – they are effective but quite what a cocktail of different chemicals do to us when we eat them, nobody knows for sure.
It helps keep you fit and there's medical evidence for that. Interestingly allotments have been shown to promote mental health. They also help people get on. Religion, income, race aren't important on the allotments – it's what you grow that matters.
There's a lot you learn from gardening. You need to plan but also to be willing to change those plans. The book might say to sow in March but the weather might be awful so you sow later.
How would you like to see the site grow?
I don't know, it all depends on what people want. Next year I'll be providing more advice on growing fruit because that's what people seem to be asking now.
What is the best piece of gardening/allotment keeping advice you've ever been given?
That's easy! Take your time and enjoy what you do. Never forget to occasionally sit down at the end of the day and just relax, take some time to appreciate what you've done.
What's the biggest garden regret you have/mistake you've made?
Goodness! I've made so many over the years. I suppose the biggest mistake was when we moved to Wales and achieved out lifelong ambition to have a place with a little land. I made my plans as if I was 30 but at 60 you don't have quite the same energy. I wish we'd been able to move here 20 years ago.
What's the best way of supporting your work/Allotment Garden?
I'm tempted to say “Buy our Books!” but what I'd like to see most is more input from other growers. Especially those with different views to me. I'm not arrogant enough to say my way is the only right way. In fact, where 3 gardeners get together you'll get 4 ways of doing the same job.
Visit the allotment garden here: www.allotmentgarden.org