This part of the web site aims to provide useful information, to help members manage their plots well. The information here is not covered in the 'News' section, but is general advice which does not date, and gardening tips most relevant to our site.

Bees and beekeeping

Tenants are allowed to keep bees on site, as long as they follow the rules laid down by the Town Council (contact SITC for further details). Further information on beekeeping is available from the following links:

If you find a swarm of bees either on site, or in the town, please contact a local beekeeper who will come and collect them. These are the following numbers to ring:

Allan Lewis: 07739 884145

David Hetherington: 01480 393262

There is also a number on the cbka link above. While waiting for a beekeeper to arrive, do not be alarmed; the bees do not have a hive at this stage, therefore don't have anything to protect. Swarming bees will not sting unless overtly threatened.

Taking over a new plot - advice

The first temptation when taking on a plot is to buy a rotavator. In most cases you will be wasting your money! On the heavy clay soil that makes up the site, there are only a few days of the year when a rotavator will work, probably one weekend in the spring when it begins to dry out and once in the autumn when it wets up again after the summer. Otherwise the soil is wet and heavy in winter and baked hard like concrete in the summer. Best to dig it by hand in the autumn, and leave it to break down over winter. Unless you are lucky enough to be retired and can go up frequently to pick the right day to work the soil, you are unlikely to make much progress with a rotavator. Dig it by hand - you'll get some exercise too.

Picture of someone digging by hand

What grows well on the site?

The heavy clay is excellent for certain crops: Autumn/winter-sown broad beans are excellent, and the 'classic' crop to grow on this soil. Garlic does well and should also be planted in the autumn and then left to look after itself. You will notice from looking at some of the better plots that outdoor tomatoes can do well, as can onions, potatoes, sweetcorn, squashes, assuming that you can get a good seedbed in the spring. Most of these crops also need plenty of water, so be prepared.

Weed control around the site

When you take over a new plot you will inevitably find that it is either full of thistles and related species like Bristly Ox-tongue, and/or full of thick matted grass. The temptation is to spray everything off with weed killer. Experience shows that this doesn't help very much. What you get once you have removed the top growth is a huge flush of weeds which germinate once exposed to rain and light. In many places there is a huge seed bank of Bristly Ox-tongue in the soil resulting from years of neglect. It is best to try and keep these undisturbed - rather than digging over the whole plot, try working beds first and then between the beds, try to encourage grass to grow - mowing or strimming it to keep it in check. It is really as simple as having a lawn at home, grass will be encouraged by mowing, thistles will give up the ghost, and the remaining seeds will die slowly over time.

Trees and hedges

In recent years much of the natural hawthorn and other trees have been removed. If you have a tree or shrub on your plot, try and leave it there. It will be used by nesting birds and the allotment site as a whole acts as a real wildlife reserve - an area like this is really not available anywhere else within the town. For example Linnets are quite common on the site, as are Goldfinches and Greenfinches. Also, House Sparrows like to nest in groups and need fairly big trees or areas of hedging to make their nests. An old apple tree may not provide fruit which is very attractive to you, but there is bound to be a blackbird around who will enjoy it. Trees will also act as a windbreak, and you will realise after your first winter, that it is very nice to have some protection from the elements on the fairly open aspect, particularly on the west side of the site.

Pest Control

The allotments being in a country area, are home to many pests including pigeons, pheasants and rabbits. Most of these can be 'lived with', using scarers, fencing around plots and using netting over sensitive seedlings at the critical times. Small rodents like mice and voles are controlled by the kestrel which you will often see hovering over the site.

However, there is one persistent pest which we all need to control: rats. If in August you suddenly find you have lost your sweetcorn, it is probably due to rats.

Rats are everywhere, and the allotments provide the perfect hiding place for them - under sheds, under piles of pallets, in compost bins, under any old piles of rubbish. Compost bins are a particular favourite - they tend to be warm, and full of food at the same time - perfect for a rat. Ideally, place your compost bin on a layer of bricks, and pile bricks around the bottom edge. Free standing rotating bins with air holes in the side are also well known haunts - the holes may be small, but a rat will soon enlarge the hole so he/she can get inside. One way to control this is by putting a wire mesh 'liner' inside the bin. Keep an eye on compost bins - check weekly through the winter and look for holes and fresh piles of earth around the base of bins.

Getting rid of them is, like any allotment activity, a matter of persistence. If you have a problem with rats please ask a member of the Association or the Town Council groundsmen for advice. If you keep chickens, keep the feed in metal containers.

It is said that two adult rats left to breed will eventually produce around one thousand new rats within the year! Even if you only catch one rat all winter, then you will have done a good job. Finally if you do catch or find a dead rat, bury it as quickly as possible and avoid touching it directly.

Access, parking and driving to your plots

Given the heavy soil, the roadways deteriorate quickly once the soil has wetted up in the autumn. Leaving your car at the bottom of the allotments, and walking up the tracks is by far the best approach at any time of the year, but please do not drive on the tracks between the end of October and the beginning of April. This will make the allotments a pleasant area for us all.

Evidently the roadways need much work to improve them. This is the source of ongoing debate between HRAA and the Town Council, so please check on the 'News' section for an update on progress.

History of the allotments in St Ives

The allotments were the brainchild of Potto Brown (1797-1871), miller at Houghton and a prominent Nonconformist, involved in many local good causes. He bought land for allotments at Houghton and Warboys as well as St Ives, as part of a general campaign to help working people (and keep them out of the pub).

The Norris Museum has a map with details of some plots of land in Ramsey Road sold by auction in June 1848. Writing on it shows that two plots of about an acre each were bought by Potto Brown for £485. They are on the east side of Ramsey Road immediately north of Slepe Hall, about where Westfield School and its playing field is now. Potto paid £485 for the two fields. The area of allotments expanded later.

By the time of the first detailed Ordnance Survey map of St Ives in 1887 another 8 acres had been added to the south of the original plots, on the site of the present-day Langley Close, Langley Court and Norris Road, including what is now the Police Station. And by the time of the 1901 OS map the site of Eastfield School had been added, together with another area on the east side of Ramsey Road and north of St Audrey Lane, where All Saints Green and the Pound are now. The area of all these plots amounted to nearly 35 acres.

Air photographs show that all these areas were still allotments in the 1950s (but it's not possible to see from the photos how tidy they were being kept!) They must have disappeared bit by bit under new buildings as St Ives expanded in the 1950s and 1960s. All Saints Green and the Pound had been built by September 1961 but the other allotments were still in being then. A photograph of 1966 shows Westfield School (looking very clean and new). By 1972 Eastfield School, Langley Court and the Police Station had all been built and there seem to be no allotments left in this part of the town. The allotments were moved to Hill Rise and re-sited on the heavy clay we now know and love.

It is fair to say that through the 1990s the allotments suffered a period of neglect, and much of the area recently opened up next to the cemetery had reverted to natural shrub. In the early 2000s, plans were put in place to extend the cemetery and the Town Council began to remove the vegetation (mainly hawthorn which had self-seeded), and the original allotments plots began to disappear. However, around 2002 there was resurgence of interest in the allotments, and we now have a healthy waiting list, despite the council opening up a number of new plots in the last couple of years.

HRAA would like to thank Bob Burn-Murdoch for the above information