Gardening: allotment tales

Many first-time visitors to Washington DC will make a beeline to see some of the art treasures in their wonderful galleries.

Visiting this elegant city for MY daughter Hazel's wedding, my first port of call was to check out First Lady Michelle Obama's community garden at the White House. Nestling in amongst the more formal plantings, it looked well-established with pumpkins for Halloween much in evidence.

Back in the UK, the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, affectionately called "The Fed", is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

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Originally the National Federation of City Farms, it changed its name to reflect the horticultural work which plays a large part in its current activities. Community gardens are great places to pick up new skills such as how to make really good compost.

I love walking along Gorgie Road in Edinburgh. There is a point where city smells and traffic noise give way to the unmistakable rural aroma of damp straw, a bit of mud, and a cock crowing. At the City Farm, generations of Edinburgh children first make the connection between milk and cows and hens and eggs. There's a vegetable plot, homely caf and surplus produce for sale. If you want to enjoy a bit of countryside and give the children some close encounters with four-legged friends, this beats a trip to the zoo every time for me. It's free, but donations are very welcome as vets' fees and animal feed are not cheap.

Some people assume that city farms and community gardens are simply nice places to visit where plants are grown and animals kept. But this is far from the whole picture. The Fed is also involved in orchards, schools, wildlife gardens, and allotments. I was surprised to learn that their members include more than 550 people and there are some 20,000 volunteers. With their partners, the Allotments Regeneration Initiative, there is an army of fieldworkers and mentors, prepared to help with everything from the installation of composting toilets to filling out funding applications.

Many fledgling groups thank their lucky stars for hands-on advice from Ian Welsh, the Scottish mentor. He travels the length and breadth of the country and has an encyclopedic knowledge of allotments, their problems and solutions. He told me about his recent visit to the Shetland Isles. Buffeted by the wind and barely able to stand up straight, he struggled to suggest ways of providing shelter for Scotland's most exposed allotment site.