Keeping safe on allotments

Your allotment, or garden, may be a place to enjoy a peaceful hobby and relax, but like all things it does have some hidden dangers.

Accidents do happen. Our ground alone has seen three heart-attacks (one fatal), someone falling through their greenhouse and an injury caused by a petrol strimmer. On another groud we heard of a gardener who jerry-rigged his rotovator controls and then fell over, with the machine running over his leg. Even a seemingly innocent insect bite can lead to infection.

So now you are suitably alarmed… let’s see what we can do to make you allotment a safer place.

General safety
Allotments are big places so a little common sense is needed. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Allotments can be busy and time flies when you are having fun, but you can also be alone on an allotment site quite easily out of peak season. Ideally take a mobile phone with you so you could call for help if needed. We have personally heard calls for help a number of times on our site – from people in need of medical assistance – in some of these cases the person did not have a phone themselves and they were very lucky that others were around at the time. Keeping your plot as tidy (as possible) is good practice – remove trip hazards and set up pathways that you can keep clear. Keep a first aid kit in your shed.

Don’t over-do it or you could cause an injury.
Gardening can involve a significant amount of physical exercise. New plotters are especially prone to throwing themselves into the task at hand and then over-doing it. Clearing a plot, digging or barrowing compost is very physically demanding, and you don’t want all you hard work to go to waste because you cause yourself an injury.

Whenever you are introducing a new physical activity into your life you need to build up your tolerance to that activity. Some gardening tasks can be demanding on your energy levels, strength and endurance. Break up the large jobs into smaller ones. Even though they are the same area, clearing four 4ft by 10ft beds is easier than clearing a section of ground that is 8ft by 22ft, and if you clear three beds but are tired or your back is aching, you feel less obliged to do the fourth. Of course the opposite is true, you can clear you set task and then think “you know what, I’ll clear another bed”

Take your time, have regular rest breaks, even if it just to stand up and stretch a little, and make sure you drink plenty of fluids.

Clothing and Footwear
Clothing – wear sensible clothing for the job you are doing, if you are going to be clearing brambles, or working around spiky/stinging plants, then shorts and a T-shirt may not be the best option. In the summer, the chances are you will be wearing shorts, t-shirts and the like, so remember the suncream.

Footwear – flip-flops and a garden fork is an accident waiting to happen. Garden shoes, wellies, rigger boots; there are loads of much better options for your feet- especially as they can have much better grip in wet and muddy conditions.

You have probably heard the saying “A sharp knife is a safe knife” when in the kitchen. Well the same is true for tools. You wouldn’t think of a spade as being blunt, but the edge of the blade will be dulled over time meaning you have to work harder to achieve the same result. A quick swip with a metal file can bring the edge back and will make digging or slicing through roots much easier.

Use the correct tool for the job. Just because you found a spade in the shed, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be right for you. The difference between a garden spade and a border spade is a great example. A border spade is often marketed as a ‘ladies spade’, purely because it is shorter and has a smaller blade. This is wrong, kind of, but I’ll get to that. A border spade is designed for, you’ve guessed it, working in flower borders where the smaller blade and shorter handle gives you more maneuvrability.

When choosing a spade, the things to think about are your height, what you can lift and leverage. If you are tall, digging with a border spade is going to play merry hell with your back. In the same way, using your grandads spade that you found in the shed will have the same issue. People used to be shorter than they are now. I acquired and old fashioned push cylinder mower, it did a brilliant cut but I was always knackered after using it. Not because I was unfit, but because it was designed in a time when the average man was 2 or 3 inches smaller than today. This brings me to the point about leverage. If you have a spade with a really long handle relative to your height, then turning the soil can be much easier as you are not bending as much, digging is just like a giant fruit machine lever.

What, you said you were ‘no dig’? there is lots of talk about digging here?!
Yes, that is true, but even in a ‘no dig’ system you often need to dig a hole to plant something or use a spade or shovel to move compost/manure.

When using power tools wear the correct clothes and footwear with eye protection and ear protection if needed. Don’t worry about looking silly, you won’t be the one with hearing problems or a missing eye. Strimmers can throw debris a very long way.

Let’s be honest, on an allotment it is everywhere. The obvious place is your greenhouse, but every plotholder will have found broken glass on their plot. Be careful in and around the greenhouse and if you find glass in your soil, wear gloves. When considering the layout of a new plot make sure you give yourself reasonable paths and turning circles around the placement of glass structures.

Chemicals: organic or not.
We avoid using non-organic methods on our plot, but even with this you are often adding additional products to your plot: organic fertilisers like blood, fish and bone or powered lime are not particularly safe if inhaled! If you are choosing to use any fertilisers, pesticides or soil additives, make sure all these are stored in their original containers if possible. If not, ensure they are clearly marked and try not to keep them in old food or drink containers.

When applying any products, pay attention to whether it needs gloves. Is it windy (where will it blow) and do you need a dust mask?

Manure – It is normal for manure (and soil) to contain E coli . This bacteria is not killed by hand gel so it is important to wash hands with soap and water before eating. Tetanus is caused a bacteria that lives in the soil, especially manured ground, and can get into your body via cuts or grazes. You may wish to consider getting an up to date vaccination.

Water – Never drink water from your water butts or tanks, and try to avoid leaving bottled water from one day to the next. Only drink from taps on the ground if you know they provide safe drinking water. If working around stagnant water wear waterproof gloves and clothing to protect against Weil’s disease. Ideally avoid leaving areas of stagnant water on your plot – it attracts mosquitoes and isn’t pleasant. If you wish to steep various plants or roots in water to produce your own liquid plant feeds get a specialist container or make your own with a tight fitting lid.

Insect bites – most of us have had insect bites at some time or other. They are uncomfortable, but usually resolve quickly. However, rarely, an insect bite can cause Cellulitis which is an infection in the soft tissues under the skin. This causes increased redness, swelling and inflammation around the bite. If any insect bite doesn’t calm down quickly or if the redness/swelling looks like it is spreading it is essential you get this checked at your GP or walk in centre ASAP. If the infection does spread it could lead to sepsis which is a medical emergency.

Composting – lots of fungi are involved in composting which you do not want to inhale. When turning a heap ensure there is a good air flow. If you are dealing with a very dry or dusty heap, especially one containing dried bird manure then it would be sensible to wear a face mask.

All grounds have different rules regarding fires. The time of the year you can have fires may be restricted.

Lighting fires – don’t be tempted to use an accelerant (eg: petrol). You can find plenty of examples of people trying this on YouTube and whilst spectacular, it rarely ends well!

Use a burning bin, it is easier to build your fire and burns more efficiently. If you get a fire going really well, it won’t put out a huge amount of smoke anyway. Look at the weather and surroundings, be respectful of neighbouring plotholders and properties. No one wants smoke blowing all over the place.

Never leave a fire unattended and always ensure it is completely out before you leave using water if necessary.

Use of camping gas stoves for cooking
Having a small stove is great for making a hot or drink or cooking lunch whilst at your plot, but make sure you do not use these in poorly ventilated areas. If you do use a stove in a shed ensure you have an open window/door with good air flow.

Access and emergency services
Know your ground layout, know your grounds postcode and access points. Imagine you had to explain to the emergency services how to get to where you are.

Many grounds have a rule that gates have to be locked at all times, even if people are on the ground. Not really an issue if there are people to open the gates, but what if you were alone, and injured? If you call the emergency services and the gates are locked make sure they know and they can then come prepared with the right equipment to gain entry.

There is a app on your mobile phone called “what3words” this can provide you location to a 10 square meter block. So this may be a consideration especially if you are on a very long open site.

Keep safe and enjoy your hobby!

  1. Don’t over-exert yourself, the plot will still be there the next day.
  2. Take a mobile phone and ensure people know you have “popped to the plot” – time flies when you are busy.
  3. Know your site postcode and access points.
  4. Keep a first aid kit in your shed.
  5. Ensure your tetanus vaccination is up to date.
  6. Maintain your tools and use the right tools for the job
  7. Dress appropriately
  8. Wash your hands!