In common with much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a burst of proper wintry weather for the past few days: snow, sleet, hail, high winds and rain, usually all within the space of an hour.
Despite the inclement conditions, our back garden is showing signs of precious life. Spurred into action by a mild December, most likely, and probably regretting it just a little now, but clinging on regardless.
Here are a few snaps I took yesterday afternoon, in-between the worst of the showers:
That’s our brand new Witch Hazel. We opted for the ‘Diane’ cultivar because we’re planning on planting a Cornus mas in the same area, which has similar-looking flowers in yellow rather than Diane’s deeper reds. Hopefully they’ll coincide at some point and provide a nice contrast to one another.
We’re not sure whether this is one of the hellebore hybrids that we bought from Ashwood Nurseries a couple of years back, or one of our own hybridised seedlings. Jo has been collecting the latter from beneath their parent plants and carefully potting them up and nurturing them along. Either way, it’s particularly lovely, with that delicate purple rim on the white flowers.
One newly-planted section of our back garden is liberally scattered with primroses. This one tentatively flowered during the mild December and seems to be weathering the worst that January can throw at it since.
A fair fer bulbs and other plants started putting on fresh growth a few weeks ago. Let’s hope they’re not too badly frosted and knocked-back by the recent drop in temperatures.
Here’s an item that allotmenteers might be interested in. Researchers at the University of Coventry, in partnership with the RHS, have published the results of a study into the damaging effects of bad digging practice, along with a few suggestions as to how to improve your posture and technique to help reduce the risk of back and shoulder damage.
Using the University’s 3-D motion capture technology lab, the team assessed the impact of various digging methods in terms of musculoskeletal damage risk. In the researchers’ words: “A novel method of determining joint angles, joint torques, and contact forces, using three-dimensional motion capture and musculoskeletal modeling, was applied to the movements of a sample of workers, engaged in the horticultural task of digging, to determine if objective biomechanical data could be correlated with a subjective visual assessment to predict risk of injury.”
The general conclusion – which was also mentioned in a short article on BBC Breakfast on Monday – is that good posture and practice involves standing as close to the spade as you can, bending with your knees rather than your back, and using smooth, regular actions (top row, below). Bad technique involves stretching and reaching with the spade, bending the back and using jerky, irregular actions (bottom row).
The full study has been published in the journal HortTechnology. One thing I noticed was that the 15 subjects that participated in the study were asked to use the same spade throughout. Which makes sense from the point of view of comparing two digging methods, of course, but it would have been interesting to see if there was any difference between the standard ‘digging spade’ used and a long-handled spade or shovel, which I’m a big fan of. The latter allows for a more upright posture, provides more leverage during the digging action, and seems to encourage more leg and shoulder work, rather than back-twisting, which the study highlights as a particular danger. But that’s just my experience, and a motion-capture study might prove me wrong.
Of course, if you really want to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal damage, you could adopt Charles Dowding‘s no-dig methods and save yourself a lot of back-ache that way.
For at least the past four years, Langley Allotments Plot #79 – the one opposite ours across the road – has been a derelict eyesore. When we first took on our plot, Plot #79 was an overgrown mess of trees and bushes with a collapsed greenhouse and not much else going for it. It’s right in the middle of site, on one of the roads through to the car park at the lower end. It’s also a rough triangle shape, on a fairly steep slope, with a dug-out gulley down the middle, where a previous tenant had attempted to put in a stream.
Here’s a bit of two-year-old Google Maps imagery to illustrate the general shape of things:
Even after the committee paid to have the trees and shrubs ripped out, and the knee-high weeds regularly strimmed, nobody had shown the slightest interest in renting it. Then an idea started to form in my head, which I voiced to the Secretary this time last year: “Wouldn’t it be good if someone really took hold of that plot and turned it into, I dunno, some kind of community orchard or something…”
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had been having similar thoughts. Fellow plot-holders Christine – who has the plot on the far side of #79 and had also previously rented a strip down the side of the new plot to grow fruit bushes – and Mike, whose plot is on the far side of hers, were both keen to do something similar. And so we had a word with the committee, and a plan was born…
Stage One: Clear The Site
Here’s what the plot looked like before we started:
Mike and I were up for this part of the job, and last November we set to with a will. Of course, it turned out to be much more easily said than done. Aside from the topographical challenges mentioned above, as soon as we started digging we discovered that the plot was absolutely full of all sorts of junk.
Beneath a reasonably thick top-layer of mulched plant material – legacy of successive years’ worth of strimming, re-growth and more strimming – we discovered the remains of the old plot. Including more than one concrete slab path, buried under soil. There was also a lot – and I do mean a lot of plastic sheeting, in various forms ranging from sheet tarpaulin to patchwork quilts of individual compost sacks.
We also had that gulley to deal with: said former tenant had dug a channel and a couple of deeper pools, outlined with sand, then used what looked like a boiler insulation jacket (!) as a bottom layer, covered that with overlapping sheet plastic – rather than butyl rubber – and then lined it with assorted cobblestones. They’d probably spent a fair bit of time wondering why the water kept leaking out of the pool, too.
It took us the best part of six days’ worth of pretty hard slog to lift the slabs, clear the cobbles, drag out the plastic sheeting and pick out as much general plastic litter, broken glass and metal junk as we could. Mike made about six trips in his van to get rid of the bulk of it, and some we stacked down the bottom of the site where the skip will be at Easter, when we’ll load it all up and get rid.
And then there was the perennial weed to tackle. Every time we ripped out another section of plastic, we found a mass of bindweed stem, horsetail runners, or both. That’s the thing about plastic sheeting: it’s good as a temporary measure to kill surface growth by blocking light, but after that the perennials will start using it as a handy shelter, sending their stems questing horizontally between soil and sheeting until they find a chink of light to grow up into.
We also shifted a couple of tonnes of soil around, filling the gully back in and levelling off some of the larger hummocks as we went. Which really annoyed the fox who’d been attempting to dig holes in the soft sand of the gulley’s sides:
We burned a lot of the weed and any other wood that we found when it was dry enough, and Mike was able to run his rotivator over the surface a couple of times. By the time rain stopped play in early December – and hasn’t really let up much since then, apart from allowing us to sneak in one or two more sessions – we’d done pretty well.
There’s still a lot to do, starting with an epic litter pick to get rid of as much of the freshly-unearthed rubbish that’s now lying around on the surface. Then we’ll need to double-check we haven’t left any slab in the ground (we found another buried path right at the edge of Christine’s fruit section and started digging that out before we stopped for winter) and rake the whole lot over to check for sub-surface junk. Then we might be ready to move on to…
Stage Two: Cover It Up
The committee have very kindly agreed to fund the purchase of enough heavy-duty weed membrane to cover the whole plot, through which we’ll plant the trees. Mike’s going to get in touch with a few local tree surgeons to see if we can source enough woodchip to cover everything in a good, thick layer (we reckon 14 tonnes ought to be just enough). And then we’ll be ready to the most important – and enjoyable – phase of the project:
Stage Three: Plant an Orchard
I’ve been in touch with an active member of the Northern Fruit Group who lives in Manchester. He regularly grafts a selection of heritage apple, plum and pear trees, and we’ll hopefully be buying our initial stock of assorted young trees from him. We might have to heel them in on a spare bit of one of our plots until we’re ready for them, but with any luck it won’t be too long before we can get the beginnings of an orchard into the ground.
We’re planning to start with around twenty one or two year old trees to begin with, on dwarfing rootstock, which will hopefully grow into reasonably-sized bush / standard trees. We’ll also be re-laying the path along the long diagonal edge, which is in a shocking state, and hope to erect a post-and-wire fence along it, which we’ll use as a support for a number of diagonal-cordons as well. Eventually, our orchard should consist of between 40 and 60 trees, if all goes according to plan.
I’ll post further updates as and when I have news and photos to share.
Depending on the weather, December and January can seem like a long, long slog through some of the bleakest, wettest, least productive days of the year. But they also offers an opportunity that no allotment holder should pass up on: with no massed ranks of vegetation and no jobs much more pressing than a spot of pot-washing and plant label scrubbing, right now you have the chance to walk the ground when you can really see the site properly and get to grip with the shape, the structure, the bones of your plot.
Now is a great time to examine, assess and think ahead. The joyful, chaotic frenzy of Spring’s seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting up is still a good three or four months away. That’s around twelve weeks in which to plan and execute any essential maintenance work, infrastructure improvements or upgrades that your plot needs. Weather allowing, of course, but if all you do is continue to hibernate through to the end of March then that’s a lot of opportunity to toll your sleeves up and get stuck in that you will have missed.
Four years into our tenancy of Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A slow couple of years – due to a house move and then the complete re-development of our back garden – has meant that we’re not as far ahead of our stated goals for 2016 or 2017 as we’d like to be.
Here’s a photographic meander up the central path of Plot #59, to give you a general idea of the state of the place. As you can see, it’s far from perfect-looking at the moment, although there’s been such a huge improvement from the early days (check out some of the pics I posted here) that Jo and I can’t help but be proud of all we have actually managed to achieve.
But the past is past and it’s time to look to the future. This year I’m aiming to treat the allotment much more like a part-time job than a hobby or pass-time. The aim – again, weather allowing – is to put in three good (three hours plus) sessions a week, plus weekends, and evenings too, when the evenings are warm enough for me to venture out after tea. Jo works full-time and so will be joining me for weekends and the odd evening or two as well.
So, here are the major goals for the first quarter of the year, taking us from the end of winter through into the early days of Spring and that glorious rush to get growing.
Dig out and prepare a concrete slab base for a small shed / tool store. Buy and install said shed.
Finish as much of the central path – concrete slab again, using any slabs that are salvageable from our forthcoming driveway overhaul at home – as possible, as well as the floral planting beds either side.
Level off and roughly pave the area around the compost bins, greenhouse and shed-to-be at the back of the plot.
Finish any more bed preparation that I haven’t completed yet – I’ve already set up a couple of no-dig beds that I hope to make good use of later in the year.
Prepare a full sowing, propagation and planting plan for the year, and carry out my annual seed audit.
Of course, in addition to the above, Jo and I have also decided to completely re-develop our front garden as well as the back (although we’ll be getting landscapers in for that one, rather than attempting to do the work ourselves) and we still have plenty to do on the back garden as well.
Plus, I’ve taken on a second plot at Langley with two fellow tenants (more on that in another post, soon). There’s also chance I might be studying for an RHS Level 3 qualification (although that might end up on hold for a year). I’d like to do some more volunteering this year; maybe at RHS Bridgewater, maybe at another venue (details pending). And of course there’s my hugely enjoyable part-time job at Ordsall Hall, which accounts for the best part of at least two days per week.
So, yeah, feel free to check back in April to see if it’s been a case of Mission Accomplished or ‘best laid plans’…