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Like the idea of an allotment garden? A thicket of rules and a years-long queue await

Many city dwellers dream of rolling their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty in a community garden. However many in Helsinki find themselves queuing for up to 10 years for the chance to show off their green thumb – and only the sturdiest can survive the thicket of rules and regulations that come with a city allotment.

Annaliisa Naskali
Veteran green thumb Annaliisa Naskali has been gardening for 16 years. Image: Ilkka Loikkanen / Yle

Helsinki gardeners working the land in city allotments must observe clear rules. The city enters into rental agreements for vacant lots with various associations, which then sub-let plots to city dwellers and supervise their use of the land. Both agreements clearly set out the responsibilities and obligations of tenants.

Newly-minted farmers find themselves saddled with a pile of regulations and instructions that they must observe. The associations that rent the land set out to nip poor farming practices in the bud by conducting inspection tours a few times each year.

Annalan viljelypalstat
Lupines are not an indigenous species, so blossoms have to be collected before they can spread their seeds. Image: Ilkka Loikkanen / Yle

"In mid-June we make sure that farming has begun at the end of May in accordance with the rules. During the summer we check on those plots whose tenants have received a citation. In October we make sure that crops have been harvested and that autumn work has been done," said Seija Ahola, chair of the Elontie allotment farmers’ association in Pakila, a northern Helsinki district.

Garden variety infractions

But that’s not all. City inspectors also get involved in the spring surveys and if they deem it necessary, they may perform other visits and issue instructions on farming activity in a bid to root out undesirable practices.

During these visits, some amateur farmers may find themselves in a pickle, as inspectors dish out warnings over infractions like unattended weeds, insufficient cultivated land or their use of herbicides. If gardeners don’t step up their game after several warnings, the association can evict them.

Annalan viljelypalstat.
Flowers and a strong community spirit flourish in some allotments. Image: Ilkka Loikkanen / Yle

"Of course we aim to ensure that farming is pleasant for everyone. We don’t want people to be gritting their teeth while following the rules. We first give constructive feedback and talk about things," said Vuosaari community garden leader Kari Loman.

In most areas, allotment farming associations usually evict just one or two gardeners every year. 

Hundreds waiting in line

Allotment groups want to ensure that untended lots are actively used, as hundreds of residents queue for free plots in many areas. In some cases, wanna-be gardening enthusiasts can find themselves waiting anywhere from a few years to up to a decade for a plot.

"Unfortunately there are a few cases where people want a plot to themselves but then they don’t do anything with it. Ideally all of the plots would be actively farmed," said Katja Uski, head of the allotment association.

Salaattipenkkejä Annalan palstaviljelyalueella
Many plots are devoted to producing food crops. Image: Ilkka Loikkanen / Yle

City denizens with a yen for the land are better off looking for a plot a bit further afield. For example, the Elontie association in northern Helsinki’s Pakila district has managed to find plots for everyone who has come asking — and there are still a few places available.

"At the end of each season we reward a so-called conscientious farmer, who has tended his or her plot with care. The winner gets a waiver from paying the allotment fee the following year. We always have several candidates up for the award," remarked association chair Ahola, proving that when it comes to city garden allotments, you reap what you sow.

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