Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.
That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.
I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.
Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.
Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.
This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.
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.