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.
This year we’re growing three Andean tuber crops down on Plot #59: Oca, Yacon and Ulluco. It could also be the last year that we grow the third of that trio. DEFRA – the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs – have issued a biosecurity warning, because some Ulluco tubers imported into the UK may be infected with several non-native viruses.
The situation is a serious one: the viruses could potentially infect plants of three major families: Amaranthaceae (spinach, beets, chard etc.) Cucurbitaceae (squash, pumpkin, courgette, etc.) and Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) so that’s a number of our major food crops. I double-check with the head gardener where I work – Lindsay Berry, M.Hort – and she confirmed that yes, this sort of warning should be taken very seriously indeed.
Frustratingly, DEFRA haven’t updated their website with their own biosecurity alert, so I can’t point you straight to the source, but Emma at the Unconventional Gardener blog has posted details of the warning, along with a copy of the DEFRA document that was issued to tuber suppliers and sent on to me by the folks at Incredible Vegetables, from whom we bought our tubers this year.
This is the relevant section of the DEFRA document, with instructions to Ulluco growers:
Ulluco should only be harvested for personal consumption and should not be sold or transferred to other sites (and all tubers should be removed from the soil).
Tubers of ulluco should not be saved for planting in the following year.
If potatoes and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae are also grown nearby to ulluco, these should only be harvested for personal consumption and any seed/tubers should not be saved for planting in the following year.
Any remaining waste from the vegetables, including peelings, can be disposed of in general waste bins to go to landfill and should not be composted.
Remaining plant material (leaves and stems) of ulluco, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
Remaining plant material or potato and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae, which you have grown, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
The planting area should be cleared of all plant material, including weeds.
If any ulluco and potato plants regrow in the following year, they should be destroyed as for the plant material above.
The viruses are potentially transmitted mechanically (on people, clothes, equipment etc.), so hygiene best practice should be followed:
Wash hands with soap before and after working on a crop.
Clean any tools and equipment which have been in contact with ulluco thoroughly to remove all plant material and soil.
Once again, rather frustratingly, there’s no information on how to spot signs of a definite viral infection, or whether the viruses are likely to persist in the soil next season, which of course would prevent growing any crops from potentially infected species. Although, as DEFRA hasn’t told us to immediately destroy all Ulluco crops and remove the soil, it would seem that the viruses in question might need a living host to persist?
In any case, because of the potential risk for mechanical transmission, I spent an unpleasant couple of hours on Sunday dragging half-decomposed vegetable matter out of our large compost bay – to which for the past few weeks I’d been adding the foliage from this year’s squash plants, which had been growing right next to the Ulluco – then bagging it up and taking it to the municipal tip.
So that’s an entire year’s worth of compostable material destroyed, because DEFRA haven’t specified the precise conditions under which the viruses can persist. Still, better safe than sorry, eh? I’d rather loose a year’s compost than risk a future year or more’s potato, tomato, squash and beet harvest.
I just hope we have a decent Ulluco crop this year, to make up for all the hassle.
I’ve been growing leeks using the same method for the past three or four years now and it seems to be working quite nicely.
Rather than tray-sowing and then pricking out individual leeks into modules, I use deep plastic troughs – the sort of thing you can find in most large supermarkets at this time of year or online of course – about half filled with general purpose compost. On top of that I layer about 5cm of seed compost, and sow the leek seed thinly on top, before covering lightly with seed compost and watering with a fine-rose can.
A few weeks later, the leek seedlings should be about 15-20cm tall and looking rather grass-like. This is when I like to thin them out and give them a trim.
If there are two or more seedlings growing within about 1cm of each other, then one or more of them has to be plucked out. Be ruthless. Better to have one good seedling with enough room to grow to planting-out stage than two or three that eventually compete each other to the point of uselessness. Plus, the leek-trimmings can be used like chives, in pasta, fritatta or anything else you fancy.
Next, take a pair of sharp scissors and give your leeks a hair-cut. I gather up a small bunch and then chop the lot off at around 10-12cm in length. Trimming the main growing shoot(s) helps to prevent them becoming hopelessly leggy and tangled. It also encourages the growth of new leaves from the basal plate at the bottom of the leek, and that’s what you want: a thickening of each seedling to roughly ‘pencil thickness’, ready for planting out in June or early July.
If you’re thorough (and brave) enough then you might only have to thin your leek seedlings once before planting out, although a second trim may be needed in another three or four weeks.
How about you? Is this how you grow leeks, or do you use a different method? Let me know via the comments.
Successional growing – staggering the sowing and planting of crops – is a great way of to extending the harvest over a longer period and avoiding those “help, I’ve run out of chutney recipes” gluts.
It tends to work best either with fast-maturing crops like salad leaves or radishes which, with a bit of experience and also luck, can be sown every few weeks so that just as one batch has been harvested, the next ought to be ready to pick. But it doesn’t always work for slower-growing crops, which can often just sulk when the weather is poor and then put on a burst of growth and catch up when the weather improves. I’m thinking beans, courgettes, that sort of thing.
Another successional method, which does work well for slower-maturing crops, is to extend the season by over-wintering hardier varieties; sow and plant out in autumn, provide protection against winter frosts and/or rain, then watch them grow like the clappers as soon as spring rolls around.
Last year, we tried over-wintering a batch of broad beans. We planted out 20 ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ – a recommended hardy variety – under enviromesh, and only lost two to the winter weather. Here they are just a week or so ago:
They’ve already flowered and are setting beans, and we’ve been picking the leafy tops as a bonus veg crop as well.
We then sowed another batch – this time a mixture of ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, ‘The Sutton’, ‘Rd Epicure’ and a mangetout variety called ‘Stereo’ – and planted them out in mid-April. Here they are in a pic taken at the same time as the above:
They’re just about starting to flower but they’re a good few weeks behind the over-wintered batch. That should mean the beans are ripe much later, so we might have had a chance to eat all the over-wintered ones before the new ones are ready.
Other crops with cultivars that over-winter well, or that can be harvested in the winter months, include onions, cabbages, kale, leeks, peas, sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and of course garlic. We always plant our garlic and elephant garlic cloves in September as a couple of sharp winter frosts will help the bulbs to form properly. The same goes for strawberries; the best time to plant them out is in the Autumn.
How about you? What have you over-wintered from last year and is it doing well? Let me know via the comments, below.
Compost, rich in organic matter, is one of the essential building blocks of good soil. It helps retain moisture and adds nutrients as well as binding mineral particles into a lovely crumb structure. It’s great to add to sandy soils to help them clump together, and clay soils to help them break down. Or any soil, for that matter, to improve its overall condition.
Making compost at home is incredibly easy. Not all of us have room for the sort of multi-bay composting setups that Monty Don or Charles Dowding have access to, but the good news is you don’t need a huge amount of space to run a really efficient composting system.
Having experimented over the past few years, I can highly recommend a rotation system using either two or three of the standard black compost bins. They’re available from most DIY stores and garden centres, but you should definitely check online with GetComposting.com to see if your local authority has a subsidy scheme that could get you a couple of standard bins at a very good price.
We have enough room in the utility corner behind our shed for a three-bin setup. The two bins on the right at the ‘current’ and ‘resting’ bins. The ‘current’ bin is the one we’re adding new material to at the moment. They’re open-bottomed, placed on bare soil (or in our case, sand) to allow worms and other organisms easy access to the contents. They’re technically ‘cold’ bins, as they’re not insulated to retain internal heat (like the pricier but more efficient HotBin composter), but they are sited in a spot that catches the sun (as you can see) so they do heat up pretty quickly on a warm day.
There’s a vast amount of information and advice available as to the right mix of nitrogen rich ‘green’ (living or recently-deceased plant matter) and carbon-rich ‘brown’ (long-dead plants, cardboard, paper that isn’t too glossy or heavily inked) material to add your your compost. The RHS advice page on composting suggests a 25% – 50% ratio of greens topped up with browns.
We add all our kitchen peelings, including eggshells, and garden clippings, but not perennial weed roots1 or potato tubers, as well as the contents of our shredder, ripped up egg-boxes and cardboard tubes, along with regular sluices of water. We aim for a 50/50 mix, but it probably skews towards green due to the large amounts of veg trimmings we produce, even though we’re just cooking for the two of us.
The ‘current’ bin is gradually filled over the course of a year. Then it becomes the ‘resting’ bin for the next year. Nothing new is added to the ‘resting’ bin, and the mix is checked monthly, to make sure it’s moist enough and to give it a good stir around with the garden fork to get plenty of air in.
The switch-over between the two happens any time between now and the end of April, whenever I can find the time to scoop out last year’s compost and bag it up until it’s ready to use on the garden. I started on the job yesterday, and this is the sort of thing I found at the bottom of the bin:
As you can see, everything has broken down quite nicely over the past 12 months, into a dark, crumbly, odour-less mix that will make a great soil improver. There are a few clumps of egg-shell that haven’t fully disintegrated yet, but they can be plucked out and dropped back into the newly-designated ‘resting’ bin before the lid goes on for 12 months.
I think there’s between 120 and 150 litres of compost in just the one bin. Whilst that might not represent a huge monetary saving over bought compost, it’s still the value of a couple of potted up perennials or a few packets of seeds. So in terms of the return on the cost of the initial investment in plastic bins, I’d reckon it will pay for itself in around three or four years.
The third, left-hand, bin is for woody waste: tougher plant stems, clumps of grass, anything that you know will take a longer time to break down. This bin will be left to do its thing for at least three years, allowing as much time as possible for the thicker plant material to break down. At the end of three years the contents will be scooped out and sieved. Any usable compost will be extracted and the rest of the material will go back in the bin for further decomposition.
The main advantage of running two bins side-by-side is that you can ensure a full breakdown of the contents of the ‘resting’ bin over the course of twelve months – especially if you switch at the start of Spring, to really get the temperature up over the summer – without the problem of having to add fresh new material on top of the compost you’re trying to extract from the bottom. That’s always a messy, smelly way to do things, not really recommended if you can avoid it. And you can manage perfectly well without the third bin, but you may have to spend a bit more time picking woody chunks out of your ‘resting’ bin at switch-over time.
Finally, a quick pro-tip re: tea-bags. It’s very tempting to assume that they’re entirely biodegradable, but experience – and much sieving – has taught me that’s not the case, as many tea-bags contain artificial fibres. I’d rather not spend extra time spent picking chunks of half-rotted bag out of the finished compost before it can be used, so instead I invest a smaller amount of time in splitting the tea-bags open and dumping out the spent tea before it goes in the compost:
I dump them in the sink to rinse, then squeeze them out and leave them to dry in a dish on the side before ripping them open when they’re reasonably dry. It doesn’t take too long to do – you can always split a few while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or your next cuppa to brew – and it’s a lot less fiddly than all that picking-out.
Either that or you could always drink more loose leaf tea, which always seems to taste better anyway.
What are your experiences with composting at home? Do you have any suggested improvements on the way we’re doing things? Please do let me know via the comments, below.
1 Kevin at epicgardening.com subsequently got in touch (Nov ’17) to point me at an article on his site on composting weeds, if you’re interested in trying a method or two.
Don’t you just love this time of year? Okay, the weather can be pretty atrocious – the ground tends to swing from too wet to walk on to frozen solid – and maybe there isn’t much colour around to speak of. But hey, that’s just outside. Plenty of time for outside later in the year. Now is the time when you have the perfect excuse for some inside jobs (with hot beverage of preference and biscuits of choice to-hand). And right now, one of the most exciting inside jobs you can get on with is… your annual seed audit!
Trust me on this, there’s nothing like sorting through your seed box on a cold, dark, February evening to get you excited about the horticultural year ahead. All those brightly coloured packets, so full of the promise of wonderful things to come. Here’s your favourite variety of runner bean – remember how fresh they tasted, picked and steamed within half an hour? – and those tomatoes that actually managed to stay blight-free, and a few seeds left from that squash plant that did so well, and oh, yeah, there’s that paper wrap of “special herbs” you picked up at the farmer’s market… er, maybe the least said about that the better. Look, leeks! (You’re on much safer ground with leeks). And beetroot, and courgettes, and callaloo, and calabrese, and okra, and physalis, and kale, and cabbage, and spinach, and… and…
You get the picture. So many seeds. And the best thing to do with them right now is give them a proper sort out. Otherwise, how will you know what you need to go seed shopping for..?
Here are some general, rule-of-thumb criteria that I apply during my own seed audit, offered as a starter-for-ten.
Criteria #1 – Did You Grow These Last Year and Did They Taste / Look Good?
If Yes: You’ll probably want to grow those again, then. If you have any seeds left, move to Criteria #2. If you’ve kept the empty packet to remind you to buy more, add them to the shopping list. Unless you’ve found another variety that’s likely to taste even better, or just fancy a change, of course.
If No: Let’s face it, life’s too short and space is probably too tight to grow crops you know you’re not going to eat (unless you’re growing them for someone else) or flowering plants that just aren’t as attractive as you’d hoped they’d be, or don’t fit in with your overall schemes and plans.
Put them aside and then, when you’ve been through your whole seed collection, donate the unwanted ones to someone who might be able to make good use of them. There ought to be a local school, charity garden, Incredible Edibles group, youth organisation or someone who’ll put them to good use.
With everything that’s left (probably still at least 90% of the total…) move on to:
Criteria #2 – Did You Pay Good Money For Them?
If Yes: You probably had an idea at the time that this was something you definitely wanted to grow. Or, like me, you thought that it would be interesting / challenging / too bizarrely wonderful-looking to pass up on. Whatever your reason, you should really make an effort to sow them this year, before they do go out of date and fall victim of Criteria #3.
Do your research: read the instructions on the packet, or the printed sheet that came with your order, or Google sowing methods, and then make a few notes. Plan ahead so you don’t miss the best sowing window and get those seeds in when the time is right. The results could be amazing.
If No: Magazine freebie? Donation from a well-meaning friend / neighbour / fellow allotment holder? A momentary whim that you’ve de-whimmed on second thoughts? Again, if it’s surplus to requirements, add it to the donation pile.
Criteria #3 – Are the Seeds Still in Date?
Now Then: I know a lot of you folks will swear that stored seed can and will last a lot longer than the dates on the packet and yes, this is probably true in a lot of cases. But having done a couple of RHS courses and been taught a fair bit about plant biology, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as ‘seed viability’, which varies according to the type of seed, its ripeness at picking and the conditions in which it has been kept.
If a seed is viable, it should germinate under the right conditions, unless it’s dormant and needs to have its dormancy broken by scarification (scratching the seed coat) or stratification (a period of cold treatment), or soaking prior to sowing. If it isn’t viable, nothing whatsoever will make it germinate, because it’s dead.
If Yes: If a packet is still in date then there’s a good chance that the seed inside should be viable.
If No: If you take best-by dates on seed packets as a general guide then yes, you might get away with sowing them a year or two (or more) beyond the suggested ‘sow by’. Or you might not. The safest way to tell, if you have enough seed, is to perform a seed germination test. Which is very easy to do, and all fine and good, but depending on how many packets of older seed we’re talking about, and how many seeds are left in the packet, germination testing might not be practical.
By way of a compromise, I’d suggest re-buying or swapping for new stock of your very favourites – why risk disappointment? – running germination tests on anything you’ve got spare seed and time for, and then anything you’d like to grow but won’t be upset if you miss out on, you can just sow anyhow, and see what happens.
Don’t Forget to Organise and Take Notes!
Checking through your seeds obviously offers the perfect opportunity to organise them into some sort of order and compile some sort of a ready-reckoner to help you remember just what’s in that overflowing seed box of yours, and when you need to sow it.
I think the easiest way to organise a seed collection is in rough sowing-date order, with monthly dividers to give you a clue as to where you’re up to. At the end of the month, simply move everything you haven’t sown yet that’s still within its sowing window into next month’s section. Leave everything you’ve sown, or honestly aren’t going to get around to sowing, in the current month’s slot, for sorting out in next year’s seed audit.
You may prefer to organise by lifespan (annual, biennial, perennial), height, colour, the section of the garden they’re destined for, or something else entirely. Whatever works for you is fine, of course.
As for the ready-reckoner, my favourite method is to set up a Google spreadsheet and record the pertinent details: veg type, variety, sowing dates, and any specific germination conditions, temperatures, stratification requirements and so on.
If you’d like to take a look at my seed list for 2017, you can visit it here. It’s locked for editing by anyone other than me (no offence, I trust you really, but accidents will happen) and if you’d like to ask questions about anything you see on there, please do feel free via the comments below.
Finally, it’s Time to go Seed Shopping
Of course, the best part of taking stock of the seeds you’ve already got is working out where the gaps are. This gives you the perfect excuse (as if one was ever needed) to start browsing through the seed catalogues, looking for replacements for that all important favourite variety you’re now missing. And while you’re there, it’s a chance to see what’s new and interesting, which new varieties look like they’re worth a try, which old heritage varieties have been rescued from obscurity and might be good to grow.
Here’s a quick link-list of some of the seed suppliers I’ve bought from in the past, or know of from Twitter or online browsing. You’ve probably heard of most of them, but there might be a few independents that you haven’t come across yet. And of course, if you’re a seed supplier that I haven’t become acquainted with yet, or your favourite online seed shop didn’t get a mention, then please do feel free to add a link in the comments, below.
(All suppliers listed are UK-based unless otherwise stated. Links provided for information only – inclusion in the list does not constitute a personal endorsement of a particular supplier.)
With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.
Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.
We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.
Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.
I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).
Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.
We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.
Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.
Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.
Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.
Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.
Japanese WineberriesFruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…
The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.
Blueberries:Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.
We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.
And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.
If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.
What’s that? You’ve just taken on an allotment for the very first time? Hey, congratulations! You’re about to start on something that could be truly wonderful; great for your health (physical and mental alike), your diet, your shopping bill, your social life, you name it. Just wait until you lift your first potatoes, or start picking your first raspberries, or see your first sunflowers unfurl, or… well, the possibilities are endless.
Jo and I started out on Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments back in January 2014. Here are a few things we’re either very glad someone mentioned, or wish someone had sat us down and properly told us, before we launched ourselves at the plot and got stuck in.
1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
On the Facebook allotment groups people sometimes post before & after pics of the scrubby patch of ground that they’ve transformed into a ready-to-go allotment in, oh, around a week or so. If you’ve got the time, the energy and maybe a small enough plot, then that’s great. The feeling of achievement after that week of intense toil will be incredible. (As will be the back pain, most likely, unless you take suitable precautions.)
On the other hand, if like us you’re not really keen on (or suited to) the ‘going at it hammer and tongs’ approach, then remember: it’s fine to eat the proverbial elephant in nice, small bites. Pick a manageable section to work on and sort it out properly. And then pick the next section, and repeat until you’re done. Because…
2. There are Very Few Short-cuts to Long-term Success
Yes, a quick strim and a once-over with a rotavator might seem like a great way to quickly make your new plot look lived in (and of course you get to play with power tools, which is always fun).
But once you realise that you’ve just chopped up a huge patch of calystegia sepium (better known as bindweed) – which re-grows into a whole new plant from even the tiniest fragment of root – and liberally distributed it across a large section of your allotment, you really will wish you’d taken a bit more time and been a bit more thorough with your hand-weeding.
Luckily, Jo’s folks told us this before we started a so we’ve dug and cleared thoroughly and diligently from the beginning, but lots of other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice.
Likewise, Glyphosate-based weedkiller might seem like a handy solution to a problem patch, but, well, it’s been banned in several countries for being probably carcinogenic, and although its license has been temporarily extended by the EU, the debate is raging across the rest of the World.
Your health, your risk, your decision, of course. Personally though, I’ll only ever use the stuff on path areas that I know won’t be used to grow any food crops, ever. And then only on a still, dry day, to avoid the stuff blowing into areas I might actually want to grow on.
So what to do about those tricky, problem areas..?
3. Dig, Cover, Repeat
On a year-one (or -two, or -three) allotment, your very best friend might just turn out to be a large, dark-coloured tarpaulin or a long, wide roll of heavy-duty weed membrane. Beg, borrow and, er, acquire as many as you can, and then cover over as much of the plot as you’re able to.
All plants – including weeds – need light to thrive. Block the light and you prevent photosynthesis. No photosynthesis means not enough energy for the plant to grow, whilst respiration continues to consume its internally-stored resources. Net result: dead plant.
Black is best, blue and green let a bit too much light through to be totally effective, white and/or clear are next-to useless, but putting down a layer of cardboard under a lighter-coloured tarp is a good combination; the cardboard blocks the light and a well-weighted tarp on top prevents the cardboard ripping up and blowing around in the wind.
Leave those covers down until you’re ready to tackle a section – a year or more, if you can – and when you lift them, you’ll find the job of clearing whatever might have survived is much, much easier.
Two-and-a-half years on, our patch is looking a whole lot better than when we started. We still have a section in the middle that needs properly clearing, plus the central and border paths to sort out, and some sort of seating area to set up at the back, and… well, it’s still very much a work-in-progress is what I’m saying. But we’re getting there. We were lucky in that our allotment secretary told us to think of it as a three year project just to get the basics sorted out. Which took a lot of the pressure off, so we’re grateful for that.
But along the way, we’ve tried very hard not to lose site of the need to…
4. Love Thy Neighbour
I don’t just mean that in a ‘have a chat, make friends, share a flask of tea, swap surplus produce’ kinda way, although all of that is important (and great fun) too. I’m talking about the responsibility that you have to your neighbouring plot-holders not to let your patch get out of hand.
In my previous advice to would-be allotmenteers post, I mentioned that weeds have no respect for boundaries and borders. None whatsoever. If you ignore those persistent dandelions, or that rapidly-spreading clump of creeping buttercup, or the gnarly mess of bindweed clambering up your apple tree, or the forests of dock leaves that are sheltering a thriving population of slugs, then before too long the stuff will be making a bid for freedom and heading for pastures new and plots next-door. And that’s not going to make you a popular plot-holder.
You’ll be given a bit of leeway to start with, especially if you’ve bravely taken on a plot that’s been an absolute nightmare for a while (as we did). But if all you do is turn up at the beginning, dig a bit, weed a bit, promise yourself you’ll be along again shortly, then disappear off for a nice long holiday abroad during weed-growing season (which is any time from March through to October) then you might come back to a few less-than-friendly mutterings about your spreading weed problem, or maybe even a pointed chat with the allotment Secretary about the need to improve standards or move on.
Keep things under control with the aforementioned covers. Dig, clear and plant when you need the space and then make an effort to keep that planted space as weed-free (or at least, as low-weed) as you can, and everyone will get on just fine.
Speaking of planting, here’s something I’m only just getting to grips with after two-and-a-half years:
5. Don’t Get Greedy!
When you first start growing your own, there’s an awfully strong temptation to assume that more means… well, more. Cramming an extra fruit bush into a gap, or planting up eight kale seedlings in the row instead of six or generally ignoring the spacing instructions on the seed packet and assuming that it’ll probably be okay.
Fooling yourself you are, Padawan. Those spacing guides are there for a reason: namely that the experienced plantspeople who come up with them know how big those plants will get in time. Plants need enough space to ensure an adequate supply of light (see photosynthesis note, above), water, nutrients and root-room if they’re to grow and expand to their full, adult, food-producing potential. Healthy plants are also better able to fight off the almost inevitable pests and diseases that will afflict and attack them during the course of the growing season. Deny them the essentials and there’s a good chance that the plants will suffer, maybe even die, and overall yields will be reduced.
Also: you need to remember to leave room for you. Jo is constantly telling me off – and quite rightly – for forgetting to leave adequate walking and working space between rows of crops. How is she supposed to get in to weed the brassica patch – she quite reasonably wants to know – if there are so many brassicas in the patch that there’s nowhere left to step, stand, crouch, or perform any of the other necessary weeding manoeuvres? Good point, well made.
One job we’ll need to do this winter is re-spacing the fruit bush section. When I planted out a few blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants etc. a couple of years back, I didn’t take eventual sizes into account. We now have a patch of highly vigorous gooseberries right in the middle of our blackcurrants and redcurrants, making it extremely difficult to harvest either of the latter without risking severe puncture wounds from the spines of the former. Note to self: when Carol Klein says, in her Grow Your Own Fruit book, “space blackcurrant bushes six feet apart”, she doesn’t mean “ah, go on, three feet will probably do”.
There are exceptions, of course. A lot of the spacing recommendations have been handed down from Victorian kitchen gardens, when maximum yield was the absolute goal. James Wong, in his book Grow For Flavour points out that not all the Victorian guidelines will produce food crops with the best flavour and that sometimes, treating them mean badly make them produce better-tasting results. And in last year’s series of Beechgrove Garden, Jim demonstrated that cabbages will grow to fill the space you assign to them, so if you want smaller, two-person plants rather than leafy beach-balls, then planting them closer is the way to go.
So, yes, your mileage may vary. But generally speaking, my advice would be to go by what they tell you on the seed packet, plant larger specimens with enough room around them to prune, harvest, water and weed under them, and bear in mind that anything else you do is an experiment and that results may not be guaranteed.
Above all, though, the most important piece of advice I can offer to any new allotmenteer is:
6. Stick At It!
Because once you’ve put the hours in, covered over, dug and cleared the weeds, planted out your seedlings, done your very best to guard them from pests and diseases, nurtured them through droughts, floods, tornadoes and hailstorms (if the average British summer is anything to go by)… you’ll finally get to the really, really good part: harvesting the fruits of your labours.
If your fingers are even vaguely green, or you have any sap in your blood whatsoever, then the feeling of picking, cooking and eating your own is a truly great one. Whether you get your buzz from doing your bit to eliminate food miles, putting good food on your family’s plates, a renewed connection to the Earth, or just a tiny bit of (understandably slightly smug) self-satisfaction at a job well done, then it’s a really great feeling to have. You can and should be justifiably proud of yourself, because whichever way you look at it, you will have achieved something good, wholesome and genuinely beneficial to you and those around you.
Appreciate it for as long as it lasts – pretty much all year, if you get your crop planning right. Then, once the harvest has slowed to a winter-trickle, sit yourself down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and start planning for next year’s growing season. As you steadily move from novice to experienced allotmenteer, you’ll find that there’s always more work to do, more mini-projects to dream up, more lists of new must-grow crops to jot down, and so much more to learn. It all starts again in the Spring and, with your first season under your belt, you’ll be desperate to get on with the next one.
Don’t forget to make good use of the off-season as well. Work out what jobs you can usefully do – remember: you shouldn’t dig when the soil is wet, because you’ll destroy the structure and limit its potential – and set yourself up with an action list. There are tools and pots to clean, equipment inventories to check, maybe a greenhouse to scrub in February or early March. Plenty to keep you occupied.
You can develop your allotmenteering skills and knowledge during the winter break, too, by reading and researching. There’s a huge amount of information out there, in books and magazines, on websites and blogs, to be had by picking the brains of the old boys from your allotment site over a pint or a cuppa, and if you avail yourself of that you’ll be in a much better position long-term.
It’s fast-approaching changeover time at our allotment site. September is when the next year’s rent falls due, so anyone who’s thinking of giving up their plot is most likely to do so before they have to fork out another year’s subs. This means a steady trickle of potential new allotmenteers being shown around our site – and I’m sure a fair few others – by the Secretary, and a series of bright-eyed, enthusiastic newbies taking up their tools and getting to grips with growing their own.
If you’re one of those would-be good-life seekers, then congratulations! It’s a wonderful way to tick all sorts of healthy lifestyle boxes: fresh air, exercise, mental wellbeing, community spirit and of course all that lovely produce that you’ll be picking and plucking from your plants in due course. You’ll even save a bit of money on your shopping bills when harvest season rolls around (although it’s really not about turning a profit).
But before you rush off to sign up to your nearest waiting list, here are a few things to ponder. (Disclaimer: the following is intended as a dollop of tough love. Some of it may sound as though I’m trying to put you off the idea of allotmenteering completely. I’m not. Unless, of course, I do manage to put you off the idea, in which case, maybe allotmenteering isn’t quite right for you. At least, not right now. If so: you’re welcome.)
1. Forget What You’ve Seen on The Big Allotment Challenge
So, yeah, you remember that two-season BBC show (now cancelled, it seems) in which a bunch of folks turned up on day one to be given the metaphorical keys to a perfectly turned, absolutely weed-free patch with a sparkling clean greenhouse? Odds are that won’t happen to you.
Unless you’re extremely lucky and end up inheriting a plot that’s been lovingly tended right up until the moment before you signed the paperwork – which can happen; sometimes folks move house, or switch plots, or sadly pass away with spade in hand – then it’s far more likely you’ll be shown around something a lot closer to the state of ours when we took it over back in January 2014:
As you can see: a grass-covered, weed-choked patch of little more than scrub-land. And that was in winter. Once the weeds started growing again in Spring… well, it would certainly explain why in the early days our plot neighbours and several passers-by shot us the occasional pitying look when they thought we weren’t paying attention.
Are you ready for that sort of challenge? Are you sure? If so…
2. Be Prepared to Put the Hours In
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but an hour or so every other weekend (but, hey, only if the weather is nice, but not going-to-the-beach-nice) really isn’t going to get the job done.
If you’re thinking of allotmenteering as a part-time hobby that you can fit in around your salsa classes, triathlon training, guitar lessons, weekly shop, Munroe bashing, Sunday morning lie-in, or whatever else you already have to cram into your too-busy schedule, then perhaps you should think again. The chap who had our plot two tenants before us was dubbed “the half hour gardener” by one neighbour for his habit of turning up once a week, poking around for 30 minutes, then declaring he’d had enough and disappearing off again (and they’re still muttering about him four years after he left).
Here’s the thing: nature won’t wait for your timetable. Weeds will grow, water will evaporate, blight spores will spread themselves around and slugs will munch their way through anything that looks tasty, whether you have time to do anything about it or not. And those weeds, pests and diseases definitely won’t just stay within the boundaries of your plot; they’ll rapidly spread to your neighbours’ meticulously tended patches. Your overgrown, cough grass stuffed and dandelion-choked disaster area won’t endear you to anyone close by and could earn you a few pointed words from the Secretary at Inspection time.
For everyone’s sake, if you’re going to take the job on, you must be prepared to do it regularly and do it properly.
Oh, and speaking of time-sinks…
3. “Kids and Allotments Don’t Mix”
…is what someone told us in passing when we started out. And, based on observation since then, I have to say that it’s generally all too true.
Now, before any doting parents take extreme umbrage and yell at me for horrendously slighting their own precociously green-fingered offspring, I will admit that there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Every so often, you will see a plot taken on by an adult (or two) with a kid (or more) in tow and yes, the nippers will quite happily help mummy and/or daddy out with a spot of weeding, or wander around wetting things with their little plastic watering cans. Which is adorable, and great to see, and offers hope for the future of humanity, etc.
But it usually doesn’t last. There’s a reason that most allotment holders are either retired folks, or (like us) child-free types with enough free time to dedicate to the calling. That’s free time that doesn’t involve football practice, dance class, birthday parties, swimming lessons, school parents’ evenings, karate club, band practice, drama school, or any of the many, many other demands on parental time that always seem to be just a tad more important than getting down to the allotment for a session.
Empirical evidence: in our two and a half years to-date, we’ve seen a number of plots taken on, poked around on a bit, then abandoned again after a few weeks or months, and the majority of those have been the ones leased to families with young kids. And no, I don’t remember seeing a teenager helping out with anything on any allotment on our site, ever.
If you want to get your kids into growing their own food, connecting with nature and eating healthily, that’s great. My advice: start with a couple of raised beds in your back garden, or just some large plastic tubs if you don’t have much space, and take it from there. If they’re really, truly fascinated and stick with it, then you might want to think about moving up to an allotment in due course.
Still With Me? Good.
If you’ve just read, digested and – most importantly – nodded along to all of the above; if your determination to be an allotmenteer now burns more fiercely than ever, then that’s fantastic. I do believe you might me made of the Right Stuff.
Next step: get in touch with your nearest (or rather: most highly recommended local) allotment site and ask to be put on the waiting list, if you haven’t done so already. If it’s anything like ours then you might be on said list for the next 2-3 years, but once your name rises to the top and you’re shown around your potential plot of weed-choked, grass-smothered, barely-cultivatable land (that’s nevertheless full of so much potential), you’ll know your time has come.
In a future post I’ll suggest a few top tips for novice allotmenteers, based on the experience that Jo and I have gathered in our first three years on Plot #59.