From retired police officers to an ex-European welterweight boxing champion - A look at the wonderful world of Norfolk’s allotment owners

Derek Cosbey in his productive plot.

Derek Cosbey in his productive plot.

Allotment holder Chris Bishop digs into the ups and downs of growing your own fruit and veg.

Its not just veg. Canny Jones with some of her flowers.

Its not just veg. Canny Jones with some of her flowers. - Credit: Archant

No-one's sure where the dreaded tomato blight started. But as summer stuttered to life on the allotments, neighbours' plants began keeling over.

Reg threw all his vines out. James and Kim followed suit. Bracketed by the outbreak, I thought it was only a matter of time before my pride and joy followed them to the big sauce bottle in the sky.

If you thought growing your own veg was a stress-free, relaxing pastime, think again. It's a cruel world out there if you're a brassica or a broad bean, where one slip by yours truly can spell oblivion.

Anxious mornings followed, carefully watering the toms so as not to get a single drop on the leaves. Two plants ended up in the composter all the same after the first tell-tale brown patches appeared. Two more survived, but failed to reward my efforts with a single fruit. And were the ones which survived to decorate our dinner plates up to much? Not especially. Not a patch on last year's, to be honest – either size or taste-wise. Back to buying them, then.

Chris Bishop receives a gold award for his allotment from judge Pat Richardson (left) and Hunstanton

Chris Bishop receives a gold award for his allotment from judge Pat Richardson (left) and Hunstanton mayor James Johnson. - Credit: Archant

Sweetcorn? Now that's another story. Once again the darling buds of maize came good with a bumper crop, even though I only planted half the number I set out last year. We'd still got some of that crop left in a freezer as the tassels turned on this year's husks.

A bad year for one thing isn't necessarily a bad year for another. Beetroot, cucumber, chilli peppers – if we could live on these and corn, we'd be in clover until New Year.

Most Read

What gets you through – apart from the odd sneak visit to the supermarket, double-checking the car park for fellow allotmenteers' cars before dashing in for a bag of early spuds or salad – is cameraderie.

We are a diverse bunch, which bucks the stereotype of gents of a certain age puffing on their pipes while they debate the best way of foiling the dreaded carrot fly.

A good year for the sweetcorn.

A good year for the sweetcorn. - Credit: Archant

Our plots at Hunstanton are tilled by retired police officers, road menders, lorry drivers, an ex-European welterweight boxing champion, a charity shop manager and a surveyor. There are also teachers, artists, a social worker, a ship's engineer, retired firefighters, young (and not so young...) mums, retail workers, a steel sales executive, a plumber, two retired engineers and a bloke who used to paint houses for Uncle Sam.

Some are 100pc organic. Some aspire to be.

Some wage war on weeds, while others pin their faith on mulch and the no-dig system, where worms do all the work in return for decent helpings of humus.

Humus as in rotting vegetable matter, as opposed to the Greek delicacy made from chick peas, which worms will run a mile from because its high lemon content makes it too acidic.

Allotment-grown garlic going great guns.

Allotment-grown garlic going great guns. - Credit: Archant

If you're the bean counting type, it kind of stacks up financially. You pay £25 a year for your plot, which includes water.

Seemingly limitless horse muck can also be obtained for free if you know where to ask. So well-rotted, it hardly hums.

One neighbour reckons to have pulled getting on for £300 worth of asparagus at farm shop prices. Get it right and in the simplest financial terms – cost of produce if you'd bought it, minus rent, seeds, fertiliser, sundries etc can show a healthy surplus on paper.

But when you factor in your time spent digging, hoeing weeds, watering, covering things, uncovering things, hunting slugs by torchlight and wheeling barrow-fulls of horse muck, and it might not look quite as lucrative.

There are other reasons why we do it, aside from the root of all evil. Visit a deli, farm shop or market and you might find half a dozen varieties of tomato.

Flick through a decent seed catalogue and you'll find 10 times as many varieties, offering every conceiveable permutation of colour, shape, size and taste. Ditto early, second-early or main potatoes. Or carrots, peas, cucumbers.

How about Transylvanian garlic or Japanese bunching onions? It's fun growing the exotic or the unusual, along with experimenting. You can't transplant Florence fennel, apparently. I did and it roared away, bulbs swelling to the size of tennis balls.

You can't pickle cucumbers without salting them, they reckon in all the books. Oh yes you can – along with spicing every jar exactly how you want as long as you hot pickle them, cool the jars and refrigerate.

I have no idea how long the stuff lasts, before you ask, because it never survives more than a few days once we open it.

Ask three people the best spud to grow and you'll get three answers. All three will probably give you a few to try when they're ready, to prove the point.

Giving and sharing is embedded in the DNA of the allotmenteer, along with helping your neighbours with everything that needs carting, digging or repairing.

Despite this bonhomie, taking on a plot's not for everyone.

It's hard work for starters, while it definitely takes commitment to keep tending your crops right through the ups and downs of the growing season.

I rashly thought it would take me a week or two to tame the unkempt plot the chairman showed me around when we reached the top of the waiting list for a 'lottie two years ago.

I still haven't quite managed it. But I've got to know people who live doors away I'd seldom spoken to before I began hacking back the couch grass and the stinging nettles, eaten so much corn on the cob I should by rights have turned yellow by now and enjoyed some priceless laughs and banter along the way.