‘The courgettes were so good last year, I got a tattoo of one’: life on a Birmingham allotment

<span>Azeem Choudhry and Ibrahim on their plot. All photographs by Khuram Qadeer Mirza for the Observer.</span><span>Photograph: Khuram Qadeer Mirza/The Observer</span>
Azeem Choudhry and Ibrahim on their plot. All photographs by Khuram Qadeer Mirza for the Observer.Photograph: Khuram Qadeer Mirza/The Observer

On Dads Lane, where several Birmingham suburbs meet, there is a gap in the houses, no wider than a driveway. If you didn’t know what was hiding in there, you would walk straight past. It is a brisk, bright Sunday in late March, and behind the gate, a narrow road stretches out into a busy haven of growth and greenery. The city centre is less than four miles away, but it might as well be on the moon. After a long, wet winter, the sun is out, people are digging, mowing and cutting, and everyone has something to say about the badgers.

“Men’s piss!” I’m having coffee in the pavilion with John Beynon, a warm, 71-year-old Welshman, who has been chair of the allotments since last summer (“I’m not a president! That makes me think I’m a Trumpian!”), and secretary Bryan Foster, 60, who opens his jacket to reveal a COR-BYN T-shirt, in the Run-DMC font. The allotments got national lottery funding a few years ago, and they put up this hub, which will host the monthly Sunday afternoon poetry reading later, as well as a compost toilet next door. They also paved the road and built two disability plots. Apparently, the only thing that will deter a hungry badger from nibbling the crops is men’s urine. They joke that they might start selling it in bottles at the next open day.

Birmingham has a vibrant, multicultural, transgenerational allotment community. The Birmingham Allotment Project has spent the last three years documenting it, holding an exhibition last year at the Birmingham Library and building a wonderful website stuffed with oral histories, case studies and photographs. According to the council, there are nearly 7,000 plots in the city, across 113 different sites, the most of any local authority in the UK. Each has its own character, and over the course of the day I start to get the gossip. There is talk of sites that are neater, quieter, boozier, but Dads Lane is proud of its identity. “I put a net over my cherry tree one year, but it just looked horrible,” says Bryan. “I thought, bloody let the birds have the cherries. I don’t need them.”

John came to Dads Lane in 2003, when it was mainly older men, but now it’s more diverse, with younger people, families and friends taking on plots together. And this is not the kind of place that keeps a judgmental eye on your weeds. There’s only one rule here, says Bryan. “The rule is, do something.”


‘It has been a really important part of improving my mental health’

  • Emma Rabbitt, 42, and her children Patrick, 14, Lydia, 12, and Seren, 11

Emma took on her plot in January 2023. She is a single mother to three children, and was working full-time as a bookkeeper, so for a while, she couldn’t get to the allotment as often as she wanted to. Like many first-timers, she began to get overwhelmed. “It’s just so big, isn’t it? With how busy I was, I just wasn’t getting out to it.”

By July, she had grown self-conscious. It was the allotment’s AGM, and John had found out what Emma did for a living. The previous treasurer, Sue, was retiring, and Emma was recruited as her successor. But, she says, her own plot had become “a jungle”. “At the meeting, I started to get panicky. The woman beside me tuned in to that, and took me under her wing.” Emma admitted that she was worried about how bad her plot was looking. “And she was so lovely. The next week, we took a day, and she came and helped.” The woman, Jackie, brought some pallets to build compost beds, and roped in Simon on the plot next door, who strimmed it all before Emma arrived. “It really pushed me forward.” Emma drastically cut back her work hours, practically on the spot, giving her more time. “It has been a really important part of improving my mental health, as well.”

Most of the people I speak to talk about a sense of wellbeing, and how calming the environment is. Emma agrees. “Just to be out in nature is really helpful.” She says that she has even been able to stop scrolling on her phone, which marks “a huge change” in her life. Over the course of the day, at Dads Lane, I realise that the only phone I’ve seen out is my own.

Best thing about allotment life?
“The peacefulness, and the feeling of being in the countryside, especially when we live in the middle of a city.”

Any allotment fails?
“The entire time I’ve been here, how about that! This entire bed didn’t work out. There was broccoli, cabbage, radishes, and you can see it has just been eaten.”


‘I’ve got a plant from Derek Jarman’s garden in my greenhouse’

  • Bryan Foster, 60

“I’m not a Brummie, I’m from the Black Country,” says Bryan, who is originally from Wolverhampton. (“It’s down the road,” teases John.) He is allotment secretary, and he works part-time as a fundraiser for a youth charity. He got his allotment in 2006, and has one of the larger plots, tucked away at the top. He was looking for a space where they could plant a damson tree that his wife had been given, so they could make damson gin. John showed him a site that had been untouched for 15 years. “It was impenetrable,” Bryan says. “John said, you can clear it, but you probably wouldn’t want this plot, because there’s about 16 damson trees!” He laughs. “We’ve been making damson gin ever since.”

They grow more than damsons now – he’s trying grapevines this year, and the famously patience-testing asparagus – but Bryan says you could easily grow nothing and still come away with armfuls of stuff: sheds, greenhouses, tools, produce, plants and advice are all shared freely. His fellow gardeners John Beynon, Dads Lane chair, and Clive, a member of the Windrush generation who had a plot until he died aged 100 last year, have inspired him. “John’s a great gardener. I sunbathe fabulously well,” he jokes. “I’ve got a lovely sunbed, I get a great tan, and lovely damsons.”

Later in the day, Bryan wonders if he could have his ashes scattered here. Technically, it’s not allowed, says John, though I suspect that if he were to turn a blind eye, it would be very much in the spirit of Dads Lane.

Best thing about allotment life?
“It’s about tenancy. Too many people think they own the land. We don’t own the land. Somebody had it before me, and I like to think I’ll leave it in a better condition than when I took it on.”

Top growing tip?
“Don’t make life difficult for yourself. Rhubarb is really easy, marrows are really easy.”

Gardening hero?
“Derek Jarman. I knew him from the mid-80s until he died. I’ve got some pebbles from his beach and a plant from his garden in my greenhouse.”


‘We tend to do more eating and drinking than gardening’

  • Tom Hull, 37, Ashleigh Ahlquist, 37, Lucy Kane, 30

Tom and Ash are a couple, 15-month-old Ernest is their son, and Lucy is one of Ernie’s “death parents”. “We don’t have godchildren, so we nominated Lucy as death parent. In the event that we die, they get Ernie,” says Tom. “You say we get him like it’s a prize,” says Lucy. “Also, please don’t die.” This group of friends are half of the plotholders of 35a. They share it with three other people, and in summer they come here to barbecue food and drink wine. “We tend to do more eating and drinking than gardening,” says Lucy.

Tom is a pilot. During lockdown, he wasn’t sure if he would work again, so every day, he came down to the allotment, dug soil, and found it “really therapeutic”. He’d met Lucy in the pub, and found out that she was keen on gardening too, so he got her and other friends involved. “We’re not that good at it, or really serious. But Lucy is really good at flowers,” he says. Like Liz and Lydie across the way, she plans to grow the flowers for her wedding next year.

Tom pulls his top away from his neck. “The courgettes were so good last year that I got a tat,” he says, showing me a big courgette, one of the ones they grew, inked over his collarbone. Ash says that they had so many, they got really good at leaving bags of them on friends’ doorsteps. “The courgette-and-run.”

Best thing about allotment life?
Tom: “The pace. You can’t go quickly, and that’s beautiful. You can’t cheat.”

Any allotment disasters?
“The badgers got our sweetcorn. And the beetroot last year! It was so shit. I love beetroot. I’ve got a tattoo of a beetroot as well, because the first couple of beetroot went really, really well.”


‘I’d never heard of chard … we couldn’t eat it quick enough’

  • Gemma Choudhry, 34, Azeem Choudhry, 38, Ibrahim, two, Lena, one

Ibrahim Choudhry will be three in May. His father, Azeem, and his mum, Gemma, took on their plot just after Ibrahim was born. “So we couldn’t get in for six months,” Azeem says. Once Ibrahim started toddling, they got digging in earnest. In a small cage made from panels of scrap fencing – a makeshift badger-deterrent – Ibrahim and his little sister Lena are pulling up carrots. “Wash it first!” says Gemma, as Lena yanks a muddy carrot out of the ground and moves it straight up towards her mouth. “Dada! Look at this carrot!” she shouts.

Azeem explains that part of the reason for taking it on was a growing awareness of how disconnected people have become from the food chain. “Everything comes in a packet, apples are chopped and peeled for you. I wasn’t brought up with that connection to where food comes from, so the thought of being able to do that with my littles…” His children seem very happy among the carrots and the dirt. “That was a big part of it, to be able to grow our own food, and for it to be a normal concept and practice, for our little ones to know where it comes from.”

Any allotment fails?
“Plenty! But I wasn’t seeing them as that, I was seeing them as lessons. It can be disheartening when you see that a few things have been munched, but you’ve got to give back to nature, as well. The animals are more than welcome to eat it, because that’s how it works.”

Favourite thing to make?
“I’d never heard of chard until we had the seeds. We couldn’t eat it quick enough. I gave a lot to my mum, who spread that to her neighbours.”

Any gardening heroes?
“Sue next door. She’s so helpful. She’s a proper dude.”


‘Gain from other people’s knowledge’

  • Derren Cresswell, a volunteer at The People’s Plot

The People’s Plot belongs to the community. “It was just bramble and rubbish. We filled a skip, just bags and bags of rubbish,” says Rob Tilling. You wouldn’t know it today. Rob’s community initiative, Fruit & Nut Village, was founded in 2018 and works in more than 40 sites in Birmingham, with the aim of establishing and developing perennial food-growing spaces such as orchards and forest gardens. This one is a demonstration garden, set up to show people how they might use space like a back garden or a scrap of land to grow food.

It is a collaboration with Incredible Surplus, a local pay-as-you-feel project, which redistributes produce that might otherwise have gone to waste. Rob says that this plot is more about building community than growing produce, but the idea is that on other sites, when the fruit trees mature, they’ll be able to distribute what they do grow through Incredible Surplus. He shows me the area where they demonstrate fruit-growing techniques. They adopted the pear trees that were on the plot before they arrived, in 2020. “We’ve been looking after them. We put in these beds, with whitecurrants, some ground cover, Nepalese raspberries and arctic bramble…” The volunteers get to nibble the fruit straight from the vine. “It is very popular,” Rob says.

Top growing tip?
Rob: “Grow with other people and share your knowledge, and gain from other people’s knowledge. Perennial food is no-dig. We use a lot of mulch, so we’re adding to the soil. We try not to disturb it unless we really have to.”

Favourite thing to make?
“It would have to be something that is a little bit harder to find – gooseberries and rhubarb, which are becoming more rare.”

Gardening hero?
“The first forest gardener I heard of was Robert Hart. He was out in Shropshire and his garden was well known in the forest gardening community.”


‘There’s beauty but there’s mess as well, and higgledy-piggledy-ness’

  • Sangeeta Soni, 60, and Kathryn Carter, 60

Sangeeta and Kathy met at a protest outside a Barclays Bank in the 1980s, when they were both students at Durham University. “We were in the anti-apartheid movement. Here was me, an Asian woman, and she turned out to be a white South African. It was one of those quirky things,” laughs Sangeeta. They became roommates for a while, and more than 40 years later they remain firm friends. For them, the allotment is as much about spending time together and catching up as it is growing produce.

Sangeeta is a former youth worker turned senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, where she trains youth workers, while Kathy works at a daycare centre, with adults with learning disabilities. In their 20s, they set up an award-winning community project together, Envirochange. Sangeeta would bring people from youth services, while Kathy would bring people from the daycare centre. “We’d get them together to grow plants from seed,” says Sangeeta.

The project has wound down, but five years ago they took on part of the plot they have now, and have gradually amassed extra areas, adding them to the fold. Kathy loves that it is the antithesis of a manicured garden. “Allotments feel very life-ful,” she says. “People are growing things, and there’s beauty but there’s mess as well and higgledy-piggledy-ness, and compost heaps, and it’s all jumbled up together.” Sangeeta agrees. “I’m a Hindu, so the chaos of Hinduism is nicely transferred here, in terms of the symbolism.”

Best thing about allotment life?
Sangeeta: “It just changes your mood. You come here, maybe you’ve had a stressful day, and you just sit for a minute and meditate on what’s around you. Take some deep breaths, and you’re OK.”

Favourite thing to make?
Kathryn: “Last year, it was the blackcurrant cordial. It was really delicious, and it felt like it was almost for free, you know? And you can make loads of it.”


‘It’s better than going to a gym. You’re digging, you’re lifting, you’re pushing’

  • Annie Healey, 63 (and Mac)

Annie’s allotment is one of the biggest and most ambitious plots on the site, tucked away and broken up into areas: woodland, flowers, veg, fruit, a double greenhouse, sheds. She points out a green woodpecker and says we will probably see the kestrel at some point this afternoon. There is frogspawn in her pond and they get dragonflies in the summer. “Every time I come down, the world just… lifts,” she says.

She got her first allotment elsewhere, in 2002. “I had a lot to get out of my system then. I’d had a huge bereavement,” she says. Both of her younger brothers had died within eight months of each other, and she didn’t know what to do. “Getting an allotment was the perfect thing.” Every inch of it needed to be dug and tended and worked. Eventually, she realised she was ready for a new, bigger space, and a different challenge. She took this plot on five years ago, and after turning wasteland into woodland and much, much more, she has made a paradise at Dads Lane.

Plenty of people talk about the sense of wellbeing that an allotment can bring. For Annie, it’s about being able to connect with nature, but giving back to nature, too. “So the pond to get the creatures in, and putting up bird boxes,” she says. Even when things don’t work – she has a hard time with peas, and last time she did carrots, the badgers got them – it all goes back into the compost, to be used again, in a different way.

She might be hidden away, but people wander up the path and come and see her for a cup of tea or a beer. If someone is on holiday, another plotholder will do their watering. In the middle of winter, she will still be at Dads Lane. “It is awe and wonder, all the time. I come down here all weathers, just to be outside, to move about. It’s better than going to a gym. You’re digging, you’re lifting, you’re pushing, you’re carrying,” she says. “It’s got a quality that you can’t man-make.”

Top growing tip?
“I always say to new people, don’t try digging it all out in one go. Do a small amount, plant it out so you get a reward, then dig out the next bit. If you try and do it all at once, you’re just weeding then forever, and you never get around to enjoying it. And put some flowers in!”

Gardening hero?
“Cleve West. He has a fabulous allotment as well as making wonderful show gardens. He also has a delicious blackberry dessert recipe in his allotment book.”


‘It’s a safe, quiet, peaceful haven, right on our doorstep’

  • Helen Hodgson, 41, Tim Hodgson, 37, Raphael, two

When Helen and Tim bought a house that backed on to the Dads Lane allotments, they became curious about them, and put themselves on the waiting list.

They were keen to grow their own food, but they keep rabbits at home, which makes growing in the garden tricky. “And we end up buying them loads of kale from Tesco,” says Helen. It’s one of the crops they’ve now planted in abundance. Tim, meanwhile, is curious about fruit. “Most of my fruit doesn’t taste of anything, so I am looking forward to seeing how much of that is in my mind,” he explains. They’re in the early days of their very first growing season.

When they first showed interest, John Beynon, the Dads Lane chair, was beginning to realise that with his arthritis, he wouldn’t be able to keep working as he once did. He invited Helen and Tim down for a tour on Bonfire Night, and after meeting them, suggested they skip the small waiting list and tend to his plot instead. In January, they got stuck in. I ask John if will be easy to not get involved. “I feel I’ve done my bit, in terms of establishing it,” he says. “For me, it’s a new venture. For somebody who’s getting old to say, right, I’m not just going to pack up and go, I love this plot dearly, I’ve put a lot of myself into it, and I’d like to see it continue.”

Best thing about allotment life?
Helen: “It being a safe, quiet, peaceful haven, right on our doorstep. Raphael loves to come here on the go-kart, and I can just stand at that road and watch him, knowing I don’t need to race after him.

Favourite thing to make?
Helen: “When we took it on, we dug up John’s leeks. He didn’t want them, so on that first day, we took them home, and Tim made a delicious leek and potato soup for lunch.”


‘Lydie’s getting married in June - with flowers from the allotment’

  • Liz I’Anson, 54, and Lydie I’Anson, 28

Liz I’Anson comes from a gardening family. Her mother gardens, her sister gardens, and her father has just given up his dream allotment at the age of 85. “I garden a bit at home,” she says, “but I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I feel as if I’m playing.” Liz has had her plot for two growing seasons, and she uses it for flowers. “I’m not really a vegetable-eater,” she admits, adding that she likes to give away whatever she grows. “There was a time last year when everyone in our family had three vases of tulips in their house,” says her daughter, Lydie.

This year, they’ve got a big project on their hands. “Lydie decided she was getting married in June, and wanted the flowers to come from the allotment,” says Liz.

“You initiated it as well! You wanted to. She’s trying not to remind me of it, in case it goes terribly wrong,” Lydie shouts back.

They’ve had to research what flowers in June, as opposed to later in the summer. Liz loves growing dahlias, but she’s taking a year off, as they wouldn’t be ready in time for the wedding. “And madam takes precedence this year,” she smiles.

Best thing about allotment life?
Liz: “It feels like a haven in the city.”

Any allotment fails?
Liz: “Probably! I spent quite a lot on these peonies, and only one’s come through. But if something doesn’t flower, I don’t care, really. I am just playing.”