Tag: clearing

Introducing Plot #79, Orchard-in-Progress

Apple Harvest
This is what it’s all going to be about…

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:

Plots #59 and #79 as of 2016?
A couple of years out of date, but not much had changed since…

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:

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner before
Looking down and across the plot from the top-left corner, with Christine’s fruit bushes on the left.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner before
Looking back down and across from the top-right corner.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner before
Looking up from the bottom corner towards the road.

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:

November 2017 - Plot #79 foxhole
Fantastic or not, Foxy was going to have to find somewhere else to live.

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.

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner during
From the top-left corner again, and looking much better already.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner during
Another look from the top-right corner, with most of the surface weed and rubbish gone.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner during
A big improvement after about six days’ hard slog with forks, barrows, buckets and rotivator.

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.

Hard Slog: Man vs. Midden

We’ve been doing a lot of general clearing and sorting down at Plot #59 this month. Jo has been hacking back her sunflower thicket and deadheading everything that’s still in flower. I’ve been clearing away spent bean plants, tidying up the brassicas and ripping out a few large weeds that have snuck in here and there. That sort of thing.

One of the bigger jobs I’ve been tackling is preparing the ground for the central path that has been on the books since day one. It’s a slow, meticulous task: for every forkful of ground turned over there’s a good two minutes’ worth of picking out of rubbish to follow, especially now I’m re-encountering the midden in the middle of the patch. Here’s a quick example of the sort of crap I’m removing, and the amounts of it:

October 2016 - the midden
On the left: a freshly-turned forkful. On the right: about a session’s worth of excavated crap.

I took the pics above a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve filled another three, maybe four large containers with yet more rubbish. Based on the sheer amount of crap (do excuse the technical term) that’s coming out – broken glass, smashed pottery and tiles, chunks of brick, stones, metal, plastic, wire, crisp packets, bottle tops, you name it; assorted junk of all kinds – I think it must have been used as a dumping ground by at least five of the previous tenants.

One current plot neighbour said that when one of those previous tenants was booted off the plot and left in a fit of pique: smashing up and burning a shed or two in the process (as well as cutting down some amazingly productive fruit trees). I think it must be the remains of that shed that I’m finding now, and I suspect that the shed was filled with extra random rubbish before it was demolished, just to make sure the resulting mess was extra nasty.

Still, it needs doing. The midden has been an unsightly hump in the middle of the plot since we took it on, and the sooner it’s dug and cleared, the sooner we can run our central path right up the middle of the plot, with pollinator-luring flower beds either side. It’ll be well worth it once it’s done.

Plot #59 Update: March 2016

March 2016 Plot #59 Update
Plot #59, looking good in a bit of early Spring sunshine

The weather in our neck of the woods was distinctly variable during March, although thankfully storm Katie largely passed us by. A couple of dry weeks meant I could go full steam ahead on digging and clearing the back section of the plot, for a while. We haven’t worked this bit since we took it over two years ago and so has been lying fallow for who knows how many years (previous tenants only worked small sections and those infrequently, so our plot neighbours have told us). The net result so far is three new potato trenches, two of which now contain nicely-chitted first early ‘swift’ tubers.

March 2016 Chitted first early 'swift'
Nicely chitted and ready for planting out.

I removed all but three chits from each tuber before planting them a good spade’s depth deep and then mounding up the earth above. Potato tubers form as modified stems rather than roots, so you want the tuber to sit deep and reach upwards through the soil, rather than spreading out on the surface, which leads to inedible green spuds if you don’t do a lot of mounding up. Too deep though, and the shoots might not be able to break surface and put out photosynthesising leaves before the tuber exhausts its store of starches, so it’s best not to go mad and dig them six feet under.

March 2016 spud trenches dug
Line and spade gets the job done, without my usual wild swerving.

The digging and clearing job is continuing forwards from the back of the plot, through some horribly bindweed- and buttercup-choked patches, down towards the fruit bush section in the middle. It’s slow, steady, fiddly work, especially when heavy rain stops play for a day or three, but we’re getting there.

Jo and I also spent a couple of hours weeding the over-wintered allium patch (white onions, garlic and the as-yet-uneaten leeks) before planting out the ‘sturon’ sets that had been started off in modules in the greenhouse. As you can see, after about six weeks of growth the majority of them had developed great roots and strong, healthy leaves; time to get them in the ground before they started to get pot-bound and run out of nutrients. Jo and I planted around 110, in three rows (plus filling in a few gaps in the white onion section from winter losses) and they should be ready to start harvesting round about late June or July, if the weather goes our way.

March 2016 - Onion 'sturon' ready for planting
Good roots and strong stems – these are ready to go in.

Progress has continued on the new asparagus bed, with free-draining ridges set up in the previously well-manured section. The crowns are arriving sometime next week, all being well, so I look forward to getting those planted before too long.

Another section of the plot has been sown with red and Persian clover for a green manure trial on behalf of Garden Organic. At last-look, the clover seedlings that I sowed in the middle of March were just starting to germinate. The Persian clover came up first, but so far the red clover seedlings seem to be more robust.

March 2016 Clover germination comparison
Persian clover seems to have the edge in germination speed.

Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing the first of our brassica and tomato seeds. It’s perhaps a little early for some brassicas, but so far I’ve just sown cauliflower (‘purple cape’ and ‘all year round’) and brussels sprout (‘rubine’, ‘Evesham special’ and ‘Bedford’), both of which need a longer growing season than the likes of cabbage or kale. They’re in a plastic propagation trays (seed trays with a domed lid) in the greenhouse, making the most of whatever sunshine comes their way.

I know a lot of folks will have tomato seedlings well on the way by now, but I’m planning on keeping a lot of ours outside this year, so given the state of the North Manchester weather at the moment, I didn’t see the point in starting anything off too soon. I reckon they’ll catch up once (or if…) the temperatures start to rise. I’ve sown five different varieties, two determinate (bush) or tumbling forms for containers: ‘maskotka’ and ‘principe borghese’, with indeterminate ‘red pear’, ‘tigerella’ and ‘gardener’s delight’ all likely to need a bit of support later in life. (I might sow one or two more varieties at some point as well, depending on how things go.) Again, they’re in the greenhouse in plastic propagation trays for now, as I don’t want them to grow too quickly and become leggy as a result.

In other news, I potted up the chilli seedlings (two weeks on and they’re coming along very nicely) and we took a few first steps in two new (for us) horticultural directions: carnivorous plants for greenhouse pest control and Dahlias for growing at the allotment and at home.

Exciting developments all round. Lots (and lots) more to come in April, weather allowing. Please do feel free to add any comments, questions or helpful suggestions down below, and check out the monthly updates archive for more round-ups from earlier in the year.

Plot #59 Update: February 2016

Plot #59, February 2016
Still a bit sparse and scruffy-looking, but a dose of sunshine really makes a difference.

After a slow start to February – mainly due to repeat bursts of very wet weather – the past week has been dry and fine enough to finally get down to Plot #59 and get on with some of the season’s prep work.

Mainly that has involved basic prep work and digging in horse muck for the asparagus bed to-be. I’ve still got some more work to do there before the crowns arrive at the end of March, but it’s definitely on schedule.

Jo and I also spent some time this last weekend weeding and clearing last year’s growing areas, around the permanent fruit bushes and along the rows of over-wintering leeks, onions and garlic. And I started in on rough-clearing the back section that hasn’t really been touched at all for at least two years. Getting on top of the weeds now will mean less to do over the next couple of months, when it will be all hands to the seed trays to get this year’s crops sown, germinated and potted on as needed.

Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing leeks and broad beans. It’s always good to get started on some of the main edible staples and these are two of my (admittedly many) favourites.

All in all, I think things are looking pretty good. There are some landscaping, organising and infrastructure jobs on the to-do list that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to. March and April should be busy and then May, June and July even more so. Bring it on.

(There won’t be a Cottage Garden Project update this month as we’ve not done much at all to the garden since the last update. Although Jo has sown some sweet pea and other flower seeds… but more on those once they’ve germinated).

Allotment Planning Notes: 2016 Edition

With the recent weather continuing in distinctly inclement mode and not a great deal of digging done, I’ve turned my attention to a spot of plot planning instead.

Last year – our second full year on the plot – we managed to achieve the majority of what we set out to do, despite the disruption of a house move over the summer. A full half of the plot was cleared for cultivation – which involved a lot of deep-digging and one full-on tree-stump-removal job – on top of the quarter or so that we’d managed to clear the year before. Also: our old greenhouse was transported from our previous home and re-erected on base of salvaged paving slabs, and the long-term fruit bush (assorted currants and gooseberries), rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry sections were planted up. Not too shabby, considering the state of the ground when we took it over in January 2014.

Stumpy, just before The Chop
Meet Stumpy, the biggest obstacle we had to overcome in 2015.

We have some pretty ambitions plans for 2016. I’m no artist, but hopefully these amateurish felt-pen jottings (nothing’s precisely to scale, although the 9.5m x 27m dimensions of the plot are pretty well-reflected) ought to offer a decent idea of the general shape of the plot as it finished up last year, alongside my outline plans for the work to come.

Plots #59 in 2015    Plots #59 plans for 2016

Click either of those two pics for a larger image.

All of which means we’re going to be attempting the following sub-projects in 2016 (from the top of the pic):

  • Remove the old, pre-takeover compost bay from the back-left corner, weed thoroughly (it’s rife with bindweed, sticky willie and dock) and replace with three plastic compost bins that we’ve bought or acquired.
  • Move the three water barrels from the left-hand side and add them to the existing greenhouse mini water-butt setup.
  • Remove the cherry tree, unless it manages an impressive display of blossom and promises some actual fruit, unlike the last two years.
  • Use our collection of various cast-off driveway blocks, assorted bricks, slabs of patio stone etc. to make a rough, patchwork paving area around the compost bins and greenhouse.
  • Clear the rough area around the base of the willow tree (W) and plant with spuds in due course.
  • Remove (and scrap) the old 3×1 metre raised bed to make way for a central path (which will be paved, eventually) up the centre of the plot.
  • Clear space either side of the path for perennial / annual flowering plants (a.k.a. pollinator magnets).
  • Dig out the asparagus bed, add manure and gravel, form ridges and plant up with newly-acquired crowns.
  • Work out how to weave last year’s willow cuttings into some sort of useful wind-break screens to help cut down on wind-rock damage for taller and/or vulnerable plants.
  • Continue to clear, cultivate and plant the rest of the plot with a lovely assortment of vegetable goodness, in rotation, with a fair amount of successional sowing thrown in for good measure…

I reckon that little lot should keep us busy enough. Of course, we’ll be finding the time to make a proper start on the Cottage Garden Project as well. It’s going to be a good year.

Establishing Shots: Cottage Garden Project, late 2015

Jo and I moved to our new home at the very end of July 2015. We’d already spent the previous eight or nine months planning and scheming to turn the back yard – an old garage-cum-shed, a patch of grass and a mini, Japanese-ish gravel area – into a quintessential English Cottage Garden. Or at least, our version of one.

The previous owners had a summer house at the back of the garden, which they took with them. My first job was to scrape back the gravel, lift the old, loose-laid flag base, dig out the masses of invading tree root from next door’s conifers, then mark out the site of our brand new, 10’x8′ greenhouse. Builders came in and re-laid the slabs as a base for the new structure, then I put down new weed membrane, re-distributed the gravel around the new base and round the back of the garage/shed, forming the utility area for our new compost bins and water butts.

Next, my good friend Steve and I spent a few pleasant mornings in late September putting the greenhouse together. The finished structure is superb and we only lost one pane of glass in the process, so we reckon we did pretty well between us. At which point, Jo and I downed tools for the winter. All the advice we’ve read on establishing a new garden says the best thing to do is to wait and observe, rather than rush right in.

That’s what we’ve done and as a result we’re steadily building up a picture of where the sunnier and shadier sections are, how much of the ground gets water-logged in heavy rain, and where next door’s apple tree drops its fruit, things like that. That sort of information will help to inform Jo’s decisions when it comes to placing our new fruit trees and perennial feature plants (Jo is very much the project leader on this one, I’ll mainly be on digging, lifting and tea-brewing.)

Here are a few shots of the ongoing work so far and the current state of the space. Not much to shout about just yet, but we hope it’s going to develop into something really special over the next few years.

Establishing Shots: Plot #59 in December 2015

My wife, Jo, and I took on Plot #59 at Langley Allotments in Prestwich in January 2014. It had been only minimally worked and by the last tenant or two and by the time we arrived had mostly gone back to grass and weed. You can see from these photos what we had to contend with (click the thumbnails for a larger version):

Our first year on the plot was one of manic weed clearance, with a bit of growing here and there as time and space allowed. We managed to grow a decent crop of staples – broad beans, potatoes, runner beans, courgettes, kale, garlic, leeks, cabbages, rhubarb, raspberries and blackcurrants – and were determined to push ahead in year two.

Of course we then decided to move house and ended up (due to all the usual palaver) doing so at the height of the growing season. This knocked our progress back a bit (it’s hard to get out and dig over your beds when you have an entire library’s worth of books to pack up, solicitors to liaise with, removal firms to book and all the rest of it), and the somewhat less than ideal weather did its best to hold us back as well.

But we persisted, and did as much as we could, including digging a truly epic spud patch (twelve three-metre rows of ’em) and clearing a tree stump or two in the process. We ended up with a handsome harvest of all sorts of good things: all of the last year’s staples, plus a few additions: sweetcorn, climbing beans, brussels sprouts, romanesco (it mostly bolted but was still very tasty as ‘yellow sprouting’ broccoli) parsnips, beetroot, redcurrants and salsify (although I have to confess, I haven’t dug any of the latter yet, so we’ll see what’s happened there after the first decent frost). Jo’s sunflowers were exceedingly lovely, and the decorative beds at the front of the plot produced a plethora of colourful blooms.

Here’s an assortment of pics from across the year (again, click the thumbnails…):

This pic was taken at the end of October. The plot wasn’t at its very greenest, with all the spuds harvested, and most of the surplus foliage cleared away, but if gives you a sense of the progress we’ve made since we took over:

Plot #59, October 2015

Jo and I have big plans for year three. The next round of clearing and digging over is under way at the front of the plot, and we’re stocking up on seeds for a big push in Spring.

I’ll be keeping you updated, so please do feel free to follow me on Twitter @nftallotment for updates.