Tag: digging

Plot #59 Update: July 2016

Plot #59 Update: July 2016
Masses of lush green foliage and summer colour this month.

July was a hugely busy month on our allotment plot, with regular picking and harvesting added to the usual rounds of planting out, cutting back, dead-heading and weeding. The weather wasn’t too bad on the whole – mostly overcast with sunny spells, a few hot, dry days and some rain here and there – so we were able to get on with a fair bit of work.

We were away for a few days though – which of course gave the weeds a head-start – so we’ve not had much time to clear and prepare the last few sections of rough ground as we would have liked. That might be a job for the Autumn, along with laying the long-awaited flag path up the centre of the plot, but we’ll see how the rest of the summer goes. August isn’t too promising so far.

Here’s what else we got up to in July:


July 2016 - Cabbages under cover
Netting any brassicas is essential to keep the ravenous pigeons at bay.

I was able to dig over one new section to plant out cabbages. They’re netted against pigeons and (hopefully) cabbage white and seem to be doing okay last I checked.

Growing On

Our turnips have been thinned and are coming along nicely, but I think I’ll need to re-sow the swedes. The Brussels sprouts and walking stick kale that I planted out in June are growing strongly, to the point where I had to take the enviromesh cover off a couple of rows. The sweetcorn seems to be doing well again this year: each of the twelve plants I put in have both tasseled anthers (male) and silky stigmas (female) on display, so I’m hoping for two or three decent cobs per plant. And we have squashes:

July 2016 spaghetti squash
Still young but developing nicely.
July 2016 - 'Turk's Turban' squash
I love the two-tone effect on these squashes.

I actually have no idea how big either of those needs to be before they’re ready to be picked, or how long they need to ripen and cure before they can be stored. More research needed, clearly.

Our fruit section is also doing very well. Although the strawberries have finished and are sending out runners, and the last few gooseberries have gone over, the Autumn raspberries are just getting into their stride, we have bushes full of blackcurrants that need picking, and we had enough ripe redcurrants to make jelly.


July 2016 - three beans
The first (of very many) beans have been picked.

So much good stuff! (Deep breath…) potatoes, courgettes (so many courgettes), carrots, peas, beans (runners, broad and French), onions, garlic, elephant garlic, gooseberries, raspberries, Japanese wineberries (just one or two so far, more to come), redcurrants, a small squash, a small head of purple cauliflower (that actually turned out to be calabrese), and handfuls of sweet peas.

July 2016 - redcurrants
A big bowl of juicy fruit destined for the jelly pan.

We’ve been busy in the kitchen as well, making batches mixed fruit jam (raspberry, blackcurrant, strawberry and gooseberry) and chutney (courgette and tomato, then courgette, runner bean and tomato). And we’ve discovered three bean and courgette ratatouille, which is a great way to cook up a surplus.

Floral Department

July 2016 giant sunflower
Thoughtful sunflower is thoughtful…

Jo’s sunflowers are looking particularly good this year, despite the general lack of sunshine. We’ve also got rampant nasturtiums running through the beans (and across the side path, into the neighbour’s manure bay), towers of sweet peas, mounds of dahlias and plenty more besides. All of which thoroughly deserve their own post, which I’ll get around to before too long.

That’s it for last month’s update. Hopefully this month we’ll get on top of the summer weeding and make a start on sowing some more winter veg, oh, and get the leeks into the ground. They’re definitely ready for planting out.

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Cottage Garden Project Update: July 2016

With the weather holding reasonably dry at long last, I was (finally!) able to make a start on some rough measuring out and actual digging in our new back garden.

Having lifted and disposed of the old crazy paving patio we’d revealed an expanse of builders’ sand, and I was eager to get a spade in and see what state the soil was in underneath. The answer, based on an initial test-hole, was: what soil?

July 2016 Test Hole
Not looking promising so far: sand, sand and more sand…

Well, I reasoned to myself, maybe that’s because it’s the area near to the solid concrete base that the old garage was build on. Undeterred, I began excavations for our fig pit. This will house the Brown Turkey that we’ve ordered from Grow at Brogdale (along with three apples and a morello cherry) in what is the sunniest spot of the garden for the longest part of the day, and the tree will hopefully be trained espalier-style up and along the outside of the shed in years to come.

A fig pit – roughly two-feet deep, lined with concrete slabs (and old roof tiles by the time I’m done) and part-filled with rounded stones (to aid drainage without damaging the roots) – will restrain the roots of the fig, encourage fruiting and prevent the tree from becoming far too large for the space. The finished result looks okay, despite my stacking the far end and left-hand side slabs a bit wonky (but who’ll ever know once it’s back-filled, eh?)

July 2016 Fig Pit
Restricted root growth and a sunny aspect – ideal for figs.

The next section I decided to tackle was the top end of the planting bed that’s planned to extend out from the corner of the shed towards the house. Again, I was hoping to find soil under a top layer of sand and again I was disappointed. A couple of inches of builders’ sand, then between four and six of compacted silt (caused by years of run-off from the back of the house, I reckon), then more builders’ sand, down to a depth of about twelve inches or so. Then it’s hard-panned, compacted silt and clay all the way down, as far as I can tell. I found a few small traces of actual soil in and around the masses of tree roots from next door’s Prunus, but otherwise: nothing worth the name. Joy.

July 2016 - Soil Horizons
Barely a scrap of organic matter in sight…

This poses a number of problems, the main one being – as I learned on the RHS Level 2 course earlier this year – that although sand is good for drainage (until the water hits a solid sub-surface pan and starts backing up, of course), that’s about all you can say for it. It’s inert, so doesn’t hold on to mineral ions, and for that reason is pretty much infertile. And of course, excellent drainage means drastically reduced water holding capacity, which isn’t great either. There’s really not much you can do with it, except add an awful lot of organic matter in an attempt to bring both the nutrient levels and useful water levels back up again, so that’s what we’re going to have to do.

I’ve started the process with a spot of ‘bastard trenching’. This is a technique for recycling turf that I learned about at Ordsall Hall, during the RHS course. It involves digging a trench, putting the soil aside, then taking the top layer of turf from the next section to be dug and laying it upside-down in the bottom of the previous section of trench, before back-filling with the soil below. Repeat until you’ve dug over the entire target area, using the soil from the first section to fill in the last.

My version is a variation on the above: I started by digging out the rough shape of the planting area, piling the sand up to the side, picking out tree roots and stones (rounded ones into the fig pit, sharp ones set aside for a sump that I’ll be digging at the far end of the shed). Then I used the fork to break up the hard-pan underneath, to about a spit-depth, in an effort to sort out those potential drainage issues and give whatever we plant a fighting chance of getting its roots down deep enough to do some good:

July 2016 shed-side planting area
Hard going – double digging through compacted clay/slit is tough work.

Then I started slicing off the turf from the grassy patch (I can’t in all conscience call it a lawn) and inverting it into the dug area, and back-filling on top. I was hoping for a bit of decent soil underneath the turf, but close to the shed there’s not much at all; it’s pretty much sand all the way. (Although I did dig a 6′ trench where I’ll be siting a trellis over by the boundary fence furthest from the shed, and it seems there’s a decent amount of soil in that section – where the neighbours’ apple tree and Fuchsia have been contributing leaves over the years – so that’s a lot more promising.)

July 2016 - bastard trenching in action
Turf off, inverted and buried, giving a much-needed organic matter boost to poor soil.

Generally though, bastard trenching is a process I’m going to have to repeat for pretty much the whole garden. Except for the path sections, which I can just de-turf, coat with a layer of sand and level off before putting down weed membrane and gravel. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, and we’re going to have to invest in a lot of compost and composted bark to help the process along, but it will be worth it in the end.

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Working on the Compost

I spent a couple of sessions earlier this month clearing out an old compost heap that we inherited when we took on the plot. After a couple of years of neglect by us it was rife with bindweed and cleavers, plus the occasional deep-rooted dock, but I was sure there must be something worth salvaging in there, too.

April 2016 Old Compost Heap
All sorts of unwelcome weeds lurking in here…

Nothing for it but to fork it all loose and dig it all out. I went at it methodically, rough-sieving each spadeful through an old bread crate into the wheelbarrow:

May 2016 wheelbarrow-sieve
A rough finish, but good enough to get out the worst of the perennial weed.

The compost was quite dry and broke up easily, so this sort of rough sieving was fine for picking out the larger lengths of bindweed root. A quick fingertip-search through the contents of the wheelbarrow then turned up any smaller bits and pieces that had made the grade.

You can see what I was up against:

May 2016 Bindweed root mass
This lot is probably enough to give any gardener nightmares.

Whichever previous tenant built the heap had done their best, putting down polythene sheeting and a couple of old flags at the bottom. But they hadn’t quite reckoned on the amazing (and frankly terrifying) power of bindweed to go over, around, under or (if all else fails) through whatever barrier you try to put in its way.

Once I’d finished rough-sieving I dug over the area of the heap to get at as much more of the bindweed root as I could find, then levelled it off. I moved in the black plastic compost bins that I’ll be using as the final stage of my own compost rotation (more on that in another post) and set up what an old bath that will eventually become a worm farm (all being well).

May 2016 New Compost Area
Looking much better after some hard work and t.l.c.

After all that sieving and sorting, I was left also with a large pile of good soil improver. Most of it went on the courgette patch and the rest was used to earth up the potato rows.

I knew it was a job that was going to be worth the effort.

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My Top Ten Bits of (not the usual) Allotment Kit

A good array of essential, basic garden tools
Not my actual tool shed. You can tell – this one’s a lot more organised than mine ever is…

For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that even if you’re a novice allotmenteer or gardener you’ve already identified and invested in some essential equipment. We’re talking spade, fork, hoe, rake, shears, secateurs, hand trowel, that sort of thing. If you can pick it up in your local supermarket at this time of year, then it’s classifiable as ‘basic kit’ in my book.

Once you’ve tended an allotment, or a large enough garden plot, for a couple of years, you’ll realise that there are some extra bits and pieces of less-obvious kit that, once you’ve identified a need for them, quickly become essentials in their own right. Some might be right under your nose, others you won’t find unless you got looking for them, either online or at your friendly, neighbourhood garden centre or nursery. But once you do discover them, you’ll wonder how you managed without.

Here are my top ten (that I’ve discovered so far…)

1. Long-handled shovel

Long-handled shovelMade by: All the usual suspects
Price: Around £20 – £30
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, various, any good garden centre

A couple of the old boys down the plots strongly advised me to get myself one of these, and by heck I’m glad I did: it’s quite possibly the best £20 I’ve spent for a long while. The extra length in the handle – I went for the Spear & Jackson 54″ model (pictured) as I’m 6’2″, but you might want to get a shorter one if you’re not as lanky as me – allows you to adopt a completely different digging position. Instead of stooping and lifting primarily with your knees and lower back (danger! danger!), you can take a much more upright stance and spread the effort across your shoulders and thighs, as well as your whole back. Short version: much quicker to dig large volumes of soil, longer reach, less back pain. What’s not to like?

2. Japanese Razor Hoe

Japanese Razor HoeMade by: Burgon and Ball
Price: Around £10 – £15
Sold by: Burgon and Ball, Amazon.co.uk, various

I first read about this little beauty a couple of years back, in a ringing endorsement by Alys Fowler. It’s the best form of hand-weeder I’ve used to-date. The hook-shaped blade and extended neck enables you to skim along beneath a surface weed like creeping buttercup, slicing through the roots as you go. Or you can use the point for even more delicate, tricky work, such as furtling out hairy bittercress from between the roots of fruit bushes.

Looking at the manufacturer’s website, it seems they also do both left- and right-handed versions as well as a long-handled one (and a new device they’re calling a weed slice, which looks rather interesting for larger areas…)

3. Two-Pronged Weeding Fork

Two-pronged weederMade by: Burgon and Ball
Price: Around £10 – £15
Sold by: Burgon and Ball, Amazon.co.uk, various

This one is very handy indeed for getting at those hard-to-extract perennials: dandelion, dock, bindweed comfrey and the like. The narrow, two-prong shape means you can focus on a single weed without too much disturbance to nearby plants (not always do-able with a border spade or even a standard hand-fork). You can then dig around the tap root, loosening soil until the thing can be levered out or, in conjunction with the aforementioned razor hoe, sliced off deep enough down that it won’t bother you again for a good while yet and will hopefully die for lack of stored carbs before it breaks surface. Also great for chasing down long runs of bindweed rhizome.

4. Vacuum Flask (large)

The Legendary Stanley vacuum flaskMade by: Stanley PMI
Price: Around £25 – £35
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, various

Unless your allotment site is blessed with a brew room (which ours will be soon, as it happens) then chances are you’re going to need to supply your own hot beverage of choice. We started out with a Thermos flask, which turned out to be a bad idea. Four months into ownership, I was giving it a clean out and the inner glass container shattered, explosively. According to various product reviews that I subsequently read, this is quite a common problem. So to replace the self-destructing model, we opted for a stainless steel Stanley Classic Vacuum Flask instead of another Thermos. It’s shiny, tough, cleans up nicely and, most importantly, keeps a brew – four or five good-sized cuppas in our 1L version – nice and warm for a good three or four hours at least (we’ve not needed to test it for longer just yet). I’d say it’s worth spending a bit extra for something a lot more robust.

5. Swiss Army Knife

The Hiker Swiss Army KnifeMade by: Victorinox
Price: £15 – £20, up to £250+
Sold by: Victorinox, Amazon.co.uk, various

There are knives for all occasions, if you want to get really specialist about it. But when it comes to a general-purpose knife-plus-multi-tool setup, there’s still nothing to beat the good ol’ Swiss Army Knife. I have a Hiker model (pictured) which when I bought it had seemed to have the best selection of bits for allotment use: two knife blades, two screwdrivers, small saw, bottle opener, can opener, stabby thing (for punching holes in plastic pots, etc.) and a toothpick (er…) as well. If you want to go mad, check out the SwissChamp XAVT, but a Hiker has been fine for my use and never leaves my pocket, whatever trousers I’m wearing. Speaking of which…

6. Cargo Trousers

Lee Cooper work trousersMade by: Various
Price: £15 – £40
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, pretty much anywhere else that sells clothes

I’m no allotment work clothing purist: I firmly believe you should feel free to garden in whatever you find most comfortable and/or useful. But for me, you can’t beat a good pair of what they’re now calling ‘cargo’ trousers (they used to be ‘combat’ trousers when I was a lad because you had to go to the army surplus store for a pair, but times have changed). It’s all about the pockets for me, and the range of easy-access leg pockets on a good pair of cargoes will beat the limited options on a pair of jeans any day, particularly at seed-sowing time. The ones I’m currently wearing are cheapish pairs from ASDA but I’m sure higher quality alternatives are available (like the Lee Cooper bad boys pictured and now on my Wishlist) if you want something a little longer-lasting (and with even more pockets!).

7. Builders’ line

AmTech Builders LineMade by: Various
Price: £3 – £4
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, any DIY or hardware store

“What’s wrong with a bit of garden twine, or good old string?” I hear you cry. Well, nothing whatsoever, but builders’ line has a couple of small-but-significant advantages when it comes to edging, marking out etc. For one: it’s bright yellow, which aids visibility a tad. And for two: it comes on a handy spool, which makes winding it back up and then storing it – without it magically transforming into a tangles rats’ nest of knots overnight – a breeze. For a few quid, it’s worth grabbing a couple of spools’ worth and keeping them in your shed, greenhouse or allotment bag.

8. Large metal sieve / riddle

Metal sieveMade by: Various
Price: Around £10
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, any good garden centre or nursery

You’ll often see the smaller, potting-sized sieves, or larger plastic models, in supermarket selections. But what you really want – if there’s a particularly stony or weed-debris choked patch on your plot that you need to break down to a lovely fine tilth for direct-sowing – is a more robust, metal-and-wire job. Far less likely to break if you accidentally step on it (although much more likely to whack you in the shin and leave a hell of a bruise if you tread on the rim, so do watch your feet, folks) and tough enough for you to really smush those clods of earth through the mesh.

9. Demolition / Lifting Bar

Roughneck lifting barMade by: Roughneck
Price: £20 – £25
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, builders merchants, DIY stores

A tweet from Rob of @RobsAllotment switched me on to this one. It’s a recent purchase, but I already know it’s a good one. I’m not lifting or demolishing anything with it, but I am breaking up a fair few pallets. As any allotmenteer knows, a good bit of pallet timber comes in handy in so many situations: for bed-edging, path-edging, compost-bin making, and anything else you choose to do with it. Previously I tried breaking them up with a hammer and pry-bar, but it was a pain in the neck (and back, shoulders, legs) and I ended up taking a saw to the damn things to chop out various bits here and there… a right dog’s dinner. With a lifting bar, it’s a case of position, tilt, wrench free and you’re done. A couple of minutes per pallet, with a lot less wastage.

10. Cold frame

Made by: Various, or build your own
Price: Varies, depending on materials, size &c.
Sold by: www.greenhousepeople.co.uk, various

Tanalised cold frameHardening off your precious seedlings can be a bit hit-and-miss at the best of times, but you can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process with a decent cold frame. Open the lid when the weather’s toasty to make sure your young plants get plenty of air, and close it again when inclement weather threatens and you’ll be helping them acclimatise properly without (hopefully) running the risk of encountering the sort of heavy, seedling-shredding hail showers we had yesterday. We invested in a tanalised timber model from The Greenhouse People a couple of years back and yes, it did cost around £200, but we’re thinking of it as a long-term investment. With any luck it will still be providing essential protection for our seedlings for a decade or more. Cheaper versions are available (but sometimes you get what you pay for – our previous, plastic cold frame lasted about two seasons) or if you’re the handy type, then of course you could reclaim some timber and glass and make your own.

That’s my selection of non-standard allotment gear that’s well worth investing in. Do you have anything to add to the list? Questions about any of the above? Something you’d take issue with, or a counter-suggestion to make? Let me know via the comments, below.

Image Credits

Garden Tools: Spitfire at en.wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 / GFDL), via Wikimedia Commons

Product Images: via Amazon.co.uk or other retailer / manufacturers’ websites.

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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.

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 3 – Drainage

With (reasonably) fine weather continuing over the weekend, I took the opportunity to finish off the essential preparation for the soon-to-be asparagus bed down on Plot #59.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

Here’s what the ground looked like before I started work:

March 2016 - Asparagus bed, pre-ridging
Dug over, manured and ready for ridging.

The next stage was to work on providing plenty of drainage for the asparagus crowns, which thrive in soil that’s fertile but well-drained. Following advice from various gardening books and a Gardener’s World piece on asparagus planting that Monty Don did last year, I invested in ten bulk bags of gravel from B&Q. Because I was using builders’ grade gravel, rather than the pre-washed, decorative-grade (and more than twice as pricey) stuff, the first job was to give the gravel a thorough rinsing. Into the wheelbarrow, along with a watering can’s worth of saved rainwater, a good sloshing around and out comes (hopefully) a lot of the surplus clay, silt and salt:

March 2016 gravel washing
Important to get rid of the excess salts in particular.

Three and a third(ish) bags then went to form the basis for each ridge:

March 2016 asparagus ridge bases
Hopefully enough gravel there to keep the crowns well-drained.

I then added soil from the big pile of material that I dug out of the section to begin with, mixed with a fork and went along the ridges with a spade, straightening the rows:

March 2016 asparagus ridges finished off
Straight enough for purpose…

And that’s pretty much that, until the crowns arrive from Blackmoor Nurseries, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. One more post to come as the crowns go in, and then the long wait for a harvest will begin…

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

With the weather taking a turn for the brighter and drier this week, I’ve been able to put in a few more hours on the Plot #59 asparagus bed to-be. After the basic preparation phase – an initial dig-over to remove as much rubbish weed root and rhizome as possible – the next phase involved adding a large amount of fertilizer in the form of well-rotted horse manure.

Here’s what the ground looked like after the initial dig:

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: before
Dug over once and ready for excavation

Next up: excavate a trench, around a spade blade’s depth, along the full 4m length and 3m(ish) width of the allotted section. Time to roll up my sleeves, grab my new shovel by its 54″ handle and start digging. I started excavating at one end, re-loosening the soil with a fork before shovelling it into a heap. Once the trench was a metre or so wide, it was time for a short trip to the nearest manure-pile (luckily just over the path on a derelict plot). A barrow-load at a time went into the trench, and was the next section of soil (minimising overall effort, maximising efficiency, etc.)

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
Coming along nicely: trench excavation, manure dumping, re-covering.

…and continue until the job was done, over the course of two afternoon sessions, mostly in glorious late-winter sunshine. Here’s the finished job; not much different to the ‘before’ state, admittedly, but it’s what’s lurking beneath the surface that counts.

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
And we’re done! Ready for the gritting and ridging stage…

The final preparation stage will involve copious amounts of grit. That will need mixing in, along with as much of the surplus soil as is required, and then forming into the three long ridges that the asparagus crowns will be planted on top of. Hopefully at the weekend, weather allowing.

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 1 – Basic Preparation

The first big project for this year on Plot #59 is the planting out of an asparagus bed.

Now, this is a serious matter. Actually, that’s worth capitalising – it’s a Serious Matter. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a long-term crop with a long-term return on investment, providing the job’s done properly. Everything I’ve read on the subject recommends that asparagus crowns should be given royal treatment: a patch of ground in a sunny but sheltered spot, with minimal weed interference, fertile soil and good drainage. All of which, in our case, is going to require:

  1. An initial deep dig to get rid of as much perennial and problem ephemeral weed as possible.
  2. Secondary digging to excavate a trench, about a spade’s blade deep.
  3. The addition of plenty of horse muck, mixed with soil and a lot of gravel, for drainage.
  4. The creation of ridges to plant the asparagus crowns on top of (again: drainage).
  5. Back-filling to a suitable level, then mounding up as the plants develop.
  6. Setting up wind-breaks to stop the young plants being bent out of shape as soon as they appear.

Over the past few weeks, weather allowing, I’ve been proceeding with step #1. The patch of ground had already been selected the year before, and covered over with a tarp to help kill off the massive wild geranium clump that was growing in the middle of it. Pulling back the tarp in early January revealed the following:

Asparagus patch, January 2016, pre-dig
Clear enough to make a start on…

The patch wasn’t 100% cleared – most likely because the tarp was silver rather than black, but it’s what we had – but it was good enough to make a start on the digging. A few sessions later and I’ve rough-dug a four-by-two metre patch, clearing out three or four rubble sacks’ worth of weed root and rhizome, as well as a large plant pot’s worth of the usual miscellaneous rubbish – glass, crockery sherds, plastic, twine, metal, brick, you name it – that our plot has been so amply supplied with by past tenants. (There’s an actual midden-heap right in the middle of the plot, which has been no end of fun to dig out, I can tell you.)

Next up: manuring and re-digging, then gravelling and ridging. Finally – round about the end of March or early April, when my 30-crown, three-variety order from Blackmoor nurseries arrives, I’ll be planting, back-filling, setting up wind-breaks and then… waiting. It’ll be another two or three years before the crowns are well-established enough to start picking, but hopefully another 20 or 25 before they’re exhausted and need to be replaced. And of course, once they’re in there will be no more need for digging, just plenty of good quality mulch at the appropriate time of year.

As I say, it’s a long-term investment, but given the amount we spend down Bury Market when English asparagus is in season, it’s one with a great potential rate of return.

If anyone has any advice on asparagus planting that I’ve missed, or that scientifically contradicts any of the above, please do leave a comment and let me know!

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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.

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All a Bit Too Soggy on the Allotment Front

Here in North Manchester the rain has been falling, on and off, for most of the past fortnight. Where we are the after-effects haven’t been anywhere near as bad as the horrendous conditions that have caused flooding up in Cumbria, or down the road in Salford, but still: weather has stopped play and not much has been happening down on the allotment as a result. I did manage to harvest a few roots for our Christmas dinner roasting tin – parsnips, beetroot and salsify – but that’s pretty much it.

December 2015 - Roots!
Roots! Parsnip, beetroot and salsify for Christmas dinner.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I made a list of the jobs that need doing before the next growing season kicks in. Most of them involve digging and clearing perennial weeds from the sections of the plot that we haven’t properly tackled just yet. Either that or surface-weeding the sections that we cultivated last year. Of course when the ground is wet, even if it isn’t actually water-logged per se, it’s often advisable to leave well alone. Digging wet soil can damage the structure by compacting rather than breaking it up and aerating. Even weeding can be problematic, with great clumps of soil coming away with the weed roots and ending up in the rubbish bag, rather than crumbling back down to the ground.

For now, Jo and I will continue to watch the weather forecast and crack on with a few seasonal admin jobs: cleaning tools and containers, sorting seed packets, tidying up the piles of junk in the shed and separating the useful from the recyclable. Hopefully it won’t be too long now before we can get back on with the digging and clearing, and of course a spot of early seed-sowing, too.

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