Blogging, painting and guerrilla garlanding are not usually activities associated with allotments. Nor is it common to have a mannequin as a scarecrow, use your pond for sailing model boats or set up a tent on your plot.
However for garden writer Matthew Appleby, these are just some of the ways to stimulate and retain interest in an allotment for those who aren’t having much success at growing crops.
In his new book The Allotment Planner, he offers suggestions for weekly projects as well as giving tips on other ways to make a difference to your plot.
The book, which is divided into the months of the year, also contains reminders of tasks to be carried out at that particular time of year and space to make your own notes.
“It’s all about how to use your outdoor space for things other than gardening if you’re not very good at gardening,” says Appleby, who has had his own allotment for seven years. “I live and breathe gardening because I write about it but I don’t regard myself as very good at it. Television programmes don’t help. It looks like hard work when you watch Gardeners’ World. Even when you watch Ground Force, it looks like there’s a lot of labour.
“The zeigeist is fun in the garden. I’m keen to give ideas to people who have got into grow-your-own in the last few years and not had much success. The option is get rid of all the hard labour and just use your plot for the things which are pleasurable.”
As a father of two, many of Appleby’s projects are planned with children in mind. Before he became a father, he says he was quite successful with his allotment because he had more time to spend on the plot.
“If I go to the allotment now I have to take the kids. It’s great fun, I’m really into gardening with kids, but you can’t get a lot done.”
In the June chapter of the book he suggests several ways of keeping children occupied on the allotment, including making a scarecrow from a mannequin, digging a hole for a sandpit and making a tabletop pond from a washing-up bowl filled with pond water.
The following month he recommends using the allotment as a natural playground with a stack of sticks and branches against a tree or a willow tunnel providing a perfect shelter or hideaway. Alternatively a rope swing or a treehouse can be fun for both children and adults alike.
Appleby was introduced to gardening himself when he was a child and remembers having his own vegetable patch.
“My mum’s always been into gardening,” he says. “They were the original good-lifers in a very unhippy way. When I was a kid we had a big back garden in Carlisle. It was just normal to dig up most of the lawn and plant lots of veg. It was normal to spend weekends looking after this stuff – watering, harvesting and rescuing birds trapped in the raspberry canes.”
In the book’s introduction, Alys Fowler describes it as “an irreverant look at keeping an allotment”.
And some of Appleby’s ideas might have allotment committee members choking on their tea – he advocates urinating in the compost to improve the nitrogen content and camping on your plot overnight.
“Who’s going to know if you spend a night there?” he says. “It’s a good way to connect to the earth in the city.”
He also likes the idea of holding dinner parties on the allotment with home-grown food in pride of place.
Another chapter which upset an allotment manager was one about how to earn money from your plot, which suggests organising a plant fair, hiring out your site for car parking, to film companies or as a campsite, or using a metal detector to dig for treasure. “I have got an anarchist attitude to this whole thing,” he says.
Appleby’s latest favourite pastime is trying to win the allotment show.
“It’s probably quite a male thing trying to get a rosette,” he says. “It’s just the success of getting third prize and a little rosette and seeing the kids’ faces happy. It gives you a warm feeling even in the middle of winter.”
With winter fast approaching, this book has plenty of ideas to keep the gardener occupied during the colder months.
For December Appleby gives advice on planting a pot-grown Christmas tree on your plot, planting hazel trees with a view to growing truffles and gourmet nuts, and an activity he describes as guerrilla garlanding.
This involves decorating the trees on a street, in a park, on your neighbour’s plot or your own trees with tinsel and home-made baubles and fairies.
“There’s not a lot you can do in the garden in winter. My big idea is making the outside festive, making it like a grotto.
“There’s this lone tree on Wimbledon Common near where I live. Some people – maybe the Wombles – had put tonnes and tonnes of tinsel and baubles on this tree. People were taking pictures of it, putting it on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. It was going viral. The people who run the common said, ‘We don’t like it’. They said, ‘It’s littering. It makes a mess’. I was astonished. I thought it would be a great idea if people put tinsel and baubles on trees in parks. That’s my thinking for winter.”
Another way to keep your mind focused on your allotment in winter is to use it to create a piece of artwork.
“Art on the allotment is great work for winter,” says Appleby who originally trained as an artist. “You don’t really go down there in winter. The idea of drawing or painting a picture of your plot is something you can involve the kids in. In the middle of winter you can look at it and think, ‘It does look good. This is what I’ve achieved’.”
So now is the time to pack away your gardening tools and get out your paintbrushes.
“Hopefully it’s a different take,” says Appleby. “There are a lot of books out there but I’m interested in having an alternative.”
• The Allotment Planner – More than 200 Ways to Enjoy Your Plot Month by Month, by Matthew Appleby, is published by Frances Lincoln on Thursday and costs £14.99.