A cunning plot to save you money

1 March 2016

Growing your own fruit and vegetables on an allotment is a great way to get exercise, meet like-minded people in your community and get some fresh air. But how much money can you save? And what’s the best way to keep costs down?

Getting started

The best way to find out about allotment plots near you is to contact your local authority. Keep a look out in local newspapers and magazines too, as new plots will usually be advertised here.

You can also find out about local plots in England and Wales at Gov.uk/apply-allotment and via Sags.org.uk in Scotland. Those living in Northern Ireland need to contact their local authority for information.

The National Allotment Society (NAS) says that plot rental costs vary greatly – but are usually between £20 to £200 a year.

A traditional plot is 10 ‘rods’ long – around 250 square metres. However, local councils have been renting out smaller plots to suit people with busy lives.

Read how to Cut the cost of gardening.

Waiting times

The NAS estimates that there are 330,000 plots in the UK, which are run by the council, housing associations, or by private landlords such as the Church of England. It’s fair to assume that waiting times differ greatly depending on the location and that those in more densely populated areas will have to wait longer for a plot.

The NSA last collated data on waiting times in July 2013 – at that time there were 152,432 plots in the UK and there were 78,827 people on waiting lists, working out as an average of 52 people per 100 plots. It estimates a further 90,000 plots are needed to meet demands.

Remember, if you take on a plot, you have a responsibility to keep it up. If you let it become overgrown or don’t use it, there’s a possibility you will lose it.

Alternative plots

If you can’t find a plot that is available and you don’t have any garden space, then you could look around for land in your local area that could make an allotment site.

Find out who owns the land and ask away, it might just be possible that you can use it for growing vegetables.

Read Five steps to growing the value of your garden.

How much can you save?

If you have time to dedicate to growing your own fruit and veg, it’s possible you could save money.

On average, a family will spend £85.91 a week (£4,467 a year) on their weekly shop, according to grocery comparison website MySupermarket.co.uk. However, this comparison includes 35 essential household items, such as cleaning products and meat, not just the cost of buying fruit and veg.

The grocery comparison website’s data suggests that families do a big shop (online or in store) once a fortnight and then top up with fresh items in between. Therefore, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much is being spent on average.

The NSA estimates that someone with a full-sized allotment plot has the potential to save up to £500 a year. This would require a certain amount of dedication and doesn’t account for poor weather, dud crops or bad luck. Plus the cost of running an allotment differs depending on the size of the plot and the tools, plants or seeds that the gardener uses.

So while it’s possible to have an allotment to save money by producing your own food, it would require a reasonable amount of time and your own money to achieve this.

Diane Appleyard, spokesperson from the NAS, says: “Although you may have to wait a few years to rent an allotment if you live in some areas of the country, in other towns and cities plots are available if you are prepared to travel a few miles or clear a neglected plot.

“Disciplined gardeners can save up to £500 a year growing on a full-sized plot but inexperience, weather, pests and diseases conspire against many plot holders.”

Arrange a seed swap

The cheapest way to grow crops is usually from seed rather than paying for starter plants. A cheap way to pick up seeds is to get involved in a local seed swap.

This is where gardeners sign up to share seeds they have collected from their own plots. Keep a look out for information on local swaps in your area on notice boards in shops, council buildings or in the local media.

Forum users at fruit and veg magazine Grow Your Own’s organise informal seed swaps online with other users. Visit Growfruitandveg.co.uk/grapevine/seed-swap for more information. You never know: you could end up getting a really interesting mix of fruit and vegetables.

“We freeze our crops and make them last all year”

Jamie Corney, 44, and his partner Fiona Sheridan, 41, have had an allotment for three years and use it to grow all their fruit and vegetables.

The couple, who live in Bassingham, near Lincoln, have a full-sized plot in their village, which is managed by the local parish council.

Jamie, who is a senior rental manager, says: “We found out about it from a local village magazine. We grow everything from salad to vegetables and fruit. I’d say our best crop is beetroot.

“We probably spend just over £3 on beetroot seeds, then £37 on ingredients to pickle and preserve, including sugar and vinegar and out of that we get about 172 jars.”
“We buy hardly any fruit and veg now. We try to make it last by blanching veg and then vacuum packing it, then we put it in the freezer. We buy all our seeds online.

“We spend about £40 on seeds and £12 on seed potatoes a year, then a little bit on manure and plant food. Along with the pickling ingredients, I’d say we spend in total about £100 a year.”

The couple eat most of what they grow. Jaime adds: “We give a lot away to family and friends. This Christmas we made hampers. We’ve also been thinking about selling it at the local village fair.

“It’s hard work, good exercise, very rewarding and great for community spirit. I’d recommend it to anybody.”

A plot is often about health and social benefits rather than just money saving. For instance, all that digging and planting is good exercise – and could save you money on gym membership.

The NSA says that just 30 minutes of gardening can burn around 150 calories – the same as doing low-impact aerobics. Many allotments have a thriving social scene and sense of community that is even more important to regulars than the produce they grow. Some have additional benefits, such as social club membership included as part of the rental.

Ways to keep costs down

Once you’ve hired a space, it might be tempting to splash cash on getting it up and running, but Emma Crawforth, gardening editor at BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, says there are ways you can keep down costs. She shares her top tips:

  • Buy seeds, rather than buying plug plants, and then save seeds from your own crops. 
  • Make your own compost. Collect and compost your old plant debris, but never put in material that has seeds or disease in it. To kill off weeds before adding them to the compost heap, you can leave them sealed in bin bags so they turn into a sludgy mess and can no longer propagate themselves.
  • Know when to recycle shop-bought compost. Use new compost for seed sowing as seedlings can be attacked by disease when sown in less than pristine conditions. Old bags of opened compost are fine for the bottom of large pots or mulching round established plants.
  • Make your own ‘bird scarers’ to keep pigeons away.
  • Put nets over vulnerable crops such as salad leaves, fruit and cabbage family members.
  • Use fine netting to keep off cabbage white butterflies and larger netting to keep birds away.There’s no point growing lovely crops to have them ruined before you can eat them!
  • Get good pollination for more and better fruit. So encourage pollinators by growing single flowers such as lavender and research pollinating partners when buying fruit plants.
  • While you won’t want pigeons in your allotment, you do need to attract natural biocontrols such as ladybirds and birds that eat pests. Limiting the use of harmful chemicals will help. Add bird feeders and insect homes.