Depending on the weather, December and January can seem like a long, long slog through some of the bleakest, wettest, least productive days of the year. But they also offers an opportunity that no allotment holder should pass up on: with no massed ranks of vegetation and no jobs much more pressing than a spot of pot-washing and plant label scrubbing, right now you have the chance to walk the ground when you can really see the site properly and get to grip with the shape, the structure, the bones of your plot.
Now is a great time to examine, assess and think ahead. The joyful, chaotic frenzy of Spring’s seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting up is still a good three or four months away. That’s around twelve weeks in which to plan and execute any essential maintenance work, infrastructure improvements or upgrades that your plot needs. Weather allowing, of course, but if all you do is continue to hibernate through to the end of March then that’s a lot of opportunity to toll your sleeves up and get stuck in that you will have missed.
Four years into our tenancy of Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A slow couple of years – due to a house move and then the complete re-development of our back garden – has meant that we’re not as far ahead of our stated goals for 2016 or 2017 as we’d like to be.
Here’s a photographic meander up the central path of Plot #59, to give you a general idea of the state of the place. As you can see, it’s far from perfect-looking at the moment, although there’s been such a huge improvement from the early days (check out some of the pics I posted here) that Jo and I can’t help but be proud of all we have actually managed to achieve.
But the past is past and it’s time to look to the future. This year I’m aiming to treat the allotment much more like a part-time job than a hobby or pass-time. The aim – again, weather allowing – is to put in three good (three hours plus) sessions a week, plus weekends, and evenings too, when the evenings are warm enough for me to venture out after tea. Jo works full-time and so will be joining me for weekends and the odd evening or two as well.
So, here are the major goals for the first quarter of the year, taking us from the end of winter through into the early days of Spring and that glorious rush to get growing.
Dig out and prepare a concrete slab base for a small shed / tool store. Buy and install said shed.
Finish as much of the central path – concrete slab again, using any slabs that are salvageable from our forthcoming driveway overhaul at home – as possible, as well as the floral planting beds either side.
Level off and roughly pave the area around the compost bins, greenhouse and shed-to-be at the back of the plot.
Finish any more bed preparation that I haven’t completed yet – I’ve already set up a couple of no-dig beds that I hope to make good use of later in the year.
Prepare a full sowing, propagation and planting plan for the year, and carry out my annual seed audit.
Of course, in addition to the above, Jo and I have also decided to completely re-develop our front garden as well as the back (although we’ll be getting landscapers in for that one, rather than attempting to do the work ourselves) and we still have plenty to do on the back garden as well.
Plus, I’ve taken on a second plot at Langley with two fellow tenants (more on that in another post, soon). There’s also chance I might be studying for an RHS Level 3 qualification (although that might end up on hold for a year). I’d like to do some more volunteering this year; maybe at RHS Bridgewater, maybe at another venue (details pending). And of course there’s my hugely enjoyable part-time job at Ordsall Hall, which accounts for the best part of at least two days per week.
So, yeah, feel free to check back in April to see if it’s been a case of Mission Accomplished or ‘best laid plans’…
A slightly belated Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome to what’s shaping up to be a proper January. With the weather veering between heavy frost and soaking rain, it’s a far from good time to be working the ground – risking soil compaction and water-logging to follow – but with the crops mostly long-harvested and the weeds mostly dead, or at least dormant, it’s a great time to cast an eye over the plot as a whole, and think about the work that will need to be done in the year to come.
At the start of last week the air was bitingly cold and the pavements were treacherously icy, but a burst of afternoon sunshine lured me out of the house for a wander on down to Plot #59. I left the fork and spade and home, taking along my camera, notebook and pen instead. I then spent a happy hour or so pottering up and down, taking reference shots of the main ‘sections’ that the plot was unofficially divided into last year and making notes of jobs to do.
So rather than post a December 2016 update (we didn’t get much new stuff done on the plot last month, just more of the same November jobs) I thought I’d instead share the output of my pottering session: the reference shots and the thought processes that arose. The end result ought to give you (and me!) a glimpse into the extent of the Plot #59 to-do list, as well as an idea of the volume of work needed to get a full-size plot ready for the growing season.
Heads-Up: Probably TL;DR
As even my often lengthy posts go, this is a pretty epic one. If you’re intent on reading the whole thing, you might want to brew up or pour yourself another glass of something before you begin…
Our plot is a full-size one, roughly 10 poles (in old money) or around 250m2 (the actual dimensions are 9.5 x 27.5 metres or thereabouts). Based on these pics it can be divided into roughly sixteen sections, eight either side of the (to be completed this year) central path.
I’m posting the pics in front-to-back, left to right order, so feel free to imagine that you’re walking up said path (careful, it’s muddy at the moment and still a bit uneven), looking to left and right. (Having said that, I actually took the pics from back to front, because the sun was low in the sky across the back of the plot, so you might have to pretend you’re stopping and looking back over your shoulder as you go.)
We’ve always planned for the allotment to be a space to grow flowers as well as edibles, partly for their own sake but mainly to attract pollinators to the plot. As well as the welcome beds across the front of the plot, we’ll be establishing a strip either side of the main path – around 75cm or so wide – and Jo will be filling it with a mixture of perennials and annuals as the year goes on.
We do move crops around from year to year – it’s important to avoid the build-up of crop-specific pests and diseases in the soil – but don’t have a strict crop rotation system in place just yet. The reason being that after three years of working Plot #59 we’re only now getting to the stage where we’ve cleared all the problem areas – perennial weeds, rubbish middens, tree stumps etc. – and can cultivate pretty much the whole plot, but so far we’ve grown where we’ve had space to grow and rotated as best we can. If any of the follow-on crops mentioned below don’t fit the textbook rotation system, that’ll be why.
Right then, off we go:
This front-left section was where we grew in a ‘three-sisters’ system last year: squash, sweetcorn and climbing French beans. They all did reasonably well and we ended up with a decent squash harvest and some lovely sweetcorn. The key was to keep on top of cutting back the rampant squash foliage to stop it smothering everything else.
The section was heavily manured last winter, so shouldn’t need re-fertilising, and will be suitable for growing spuds this year.
Re-weed (we didn’t get covers down early enough).
Flatten last year’s growing mounds, level off the section.
Dig trenches for the spuds once they’re chitted (March), unless they’re station-planted for a change.
The front-right section started last year as the leek, onion and garlic patch. Once the onions were all lifted (early June or so) they were replaced with dahlias (which is what you’ll see in most of the pics from last year’s summer-onwards monthly updates) and it’s currently a nursery bed for a few flowering perennials that Jo’s growing on from seedlings or cuttings.
Some of the alliums suffered from white rot, which means we can’t grow onions etc. in this section for the next few years or risk a recurrence. This year we’ll be using this section and he next one for our ‘three-sisters’ patch, plus an extended winter squash section. With that in mind, the soil will need plenty of feeding as soon as it’s workable, and then mounding up once we’re ready to plant out.
Last year we had six mounds and a dozen squash plants. The sheer volume of squash foliage combined with the warm, wet weather meant we lost a lot of the fruits before they set and grew to a decent size. This year: four mounds, and only eight squash plants.
The section will be fallow until then, once the flowers have been relocated, so it will need to be covered. Or perhaps we could use it for a catch-crop of early summer salads or radish. Maybe another patch of an early, fast-growing variety of broad beans (good nitrogen fixers).
Re-weed (it’s been hoed over a few times, but the Poa annua grass persists).
Dig over and improve with well-rotted farmyard manure.
We put a lot of work into setting up our asparagus beds last winter and spring (see blog posts, parts one, two, three and four, if you’re interested). The plants all seemed to grow well, putting up a decent succession of stems and masses of frondy foliage, which I cut back in November, adding a thick leaf mulch to the mounded rows afterwards.
This is a perennial – and hopefully long-term – section of the plot, so there shouldn’t be any more work to do on it this year, aside from keeping it as weed-free as we can. But we shouldn’t harvest anything from our asparagus plants this year, either. The advice seems to be to let them grow for two full seasons before we start picking, to give the root system the best chance of establishing. Damn, that’s going to take some willpower…
Next to the asparagus, we have the raspberry section. Again, it’s low-maintenance and was heavily mulched with wood chip last year, so aside from thinning out the canes if they grow too vigorously, there’s little to do here until harvest time in late summer and early autumn. Those pots in the foreground will be heading home at some point, once Jo needs them for planting out annuals.
Keep an eye on the asparagus patch leaf mulch, make sure it doesn’t dry out and blow around.
Here’s where we grew our broad beans and peas last year. They did very well; the peas in particular romped up the pea-harp that we set up for them. We’ll definitely be using the same method for both edible and sweet peas this year.
As they’re good nitrogen fixers, the soil shouldn’t be too depleted, but it will still get a general feed of fish, blood and bone once it’s weeded.
As mentioned above, this will probably be the main ‘three-sisters’ section this year, so it will need plenty of feeding. And memo-to-self: this area liberally scattered with self-sown nasturtium seed-pods last year, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for seedlings as they come up. Either that or let them grow a while and then dig them in as green manure.
Clear away any persistent weeds from under the tarp.
Feed with well-rotted farmyard manure.
Cover over until ready to form up the mounts and plant out the crops.
Weed out nasturtium seedlings as they appear, or dig in en-masse in due course.
Another two semi-permanent crops here: strawberries and rhubarb. The latter is particularly easy: just enjoy the sight of the thick, green buds bursting open – always one of my favourite moments, heralding the return of spring – and then leave it to do it’s thing.
The strawberries need attention though. We got greedy (okay, I got greedy) when we planted them out; they’re much too densely planted and this year we paid the price in the form of a vicious botrytis grey mould that ripped right through the patch and wiped out around 80%-90% (I kid you not) of the crop.
Once the ground is defrosted, we’ll be taking out every other plant from each row, reducing the total number from 36 to 18 or 20, in an effort to improve air-flow and keep the fungi at bay. By the end of this year they’ll be over three years old. We’ll switch them out completely, move the section to another part of the plot. Most probably we’ll starting again with new-bought, named varieties.
In the foreground of that pic, you can see most of last year’s crap-pile. It will (hopefully) be going in the annual skip at Easter, although we might have to get rid before then. Because under the crap-pile is the last chunk of the massive midden of broken glass, plastic, ceramics, metal, wood and concrete that I’ve been gradually clearing for the past three years. I’m determined to dig it all out before I finish off the central path.
Thin out the strawberry plants.
Regularly trim back the foliage if they grow too vigorously again this year.
Clear out the last of the midden, level off and fill with flowering plants.
I put quite a lot of effort into the carrot and root beds last year; sieving soil into raised beds in an attempt to create the ideal growing conditions. Alas, it was largely a waste of time. I think where I went wrong was in only putting up an enviromesh barrier against carrot-fly, rather than covering the beds completely. The little bastards got it over the top and the crop was all-but wiped out; around 75%-80% of the carrots that did grow grew badly and ended up useless. Although to be fair the other root crops – mooli, scorzonera and salsify in particular – did reasonably well. I assume the carrot fly weren’t at all interested in those.
I think I’ll re-use the soil from these beds in the sections that I’m setting up for the composting trial that I’m participating in for Soilfixer.co.uk, if only because it’s of a reasonably uniform grade and I know it hasn’t had anything in it that will leave lingering diseases. Slugs might be an issue, but they’re an issue all over the plot, and I’ll install counter-measures against them.
This part of the plot will then be available for growing Jo’s sweet peas and sunflowers, so it will make for a real splash of colour in the summer and hopefully attract plenty of pollinators to the strawberries and raspberries just across the path.
Weed and relocate soil from raised beds to trial section when established.
Assess raised beds to see if they’re re-usable, repair or trash as required.
Level section and prepare for planting.
Our collection of fruit bushes – blackcurrant, gooseberry, redcurrant, whitecurrant and Japanese wineberry, so far – was pruned and reorganised back in November. I spaced out the plants and then mulched them with wood chippings, so that should hopefully be all that needs doing to them for the foreseeable.
We’ll be adding a couple of jostaberry plants at some point, and I’ve bought or ordered a few interesting-sounding fruit bush seeds to try to germinate this year, so the section might expand in future.
Keep an eye out for weeds.
Here’s where we’ve been trialling Crimson and Persian clover for the folks at Garden Organic, to evaluate their relative suitability as a green manure crop. In my last update, I noted that the Persian clover section had been all-but over-run with weeds, and of course the situation hasn’t improved since. The trial is meant to last until March, but I might call time on it sooner, just to get the section cleared.
This year it will be used for experimentation once again, with four 1m x 1m raised beds going in and being planted up for the compost additive trial that I’m taking part in for Soilfixer.co.uk. I’ll need to clear the ground – there’s a rough patch next to the path that needs particular attention – and construct the beds, ideally before April or May, when the trial crops will need to be sown and/or planted out.
Clear the clover, dig over the ground to distribute the chaff and roots.
Construct and install four raised beds for the trial.
Fill the raised beds with the soil from last year’s root section and improve as required by the trial guidelines.
Cover until ready for planting.
Our late-planted kale and cabbages did okay last year. We’ve had a few pickings of ‘Toscana di Nero’ and ‘Redbor’ kale, and we’ll take more when they start to grow strongly again in the spring. We harvested a fair few summer cabbages from September onwards but the few that are left are most likely bound for the compost heap. The red and Savoy varieties are over-wintering nicely, we’ve been picking and eating those for the past couple of months.
The first part of this section will be given over to something new this year. I’m thinking of trying a few perennial tuber crops: oca, yacon, ulloco, skirret, that sort of thing. I’m always very interested in trying out new crops and new varieties to see if I can discover something delicious that Jo and I have never tried before (although of course not everything is guaranteed to hit the spot; dahlia tubers were a slightly disappointing discovery this year, but maybe I just didn’t cook them for long enough).
The ground was well-dug and weeded before the cabbages went in last summer, so hopefully it should just need a surface-skim to get rid of the annual weeds and grasses that have crept back in. We’ll amend the soil if we need to, once we know for sure what we’ll be growing here, and what its requirements are.
The back part of this section will be added to the extended allium patch; details below.
Harvest edible cabbages as needed, clear un-usable ones to compost.
Weed and clear the section.
Research and source seed tubers for new crops.
Prepare the ground as required.
We went in for a range of big brassicas last year: cauliflower, romanesco, ‘walking stick’ kale and four varieties of Brussels sprouts. They were mostly a disappointment. The caulis and romanesco bolted, half of the sprouts came down with clubroot and only produced buttons the size of smarties. Whilst the ‘walking stick’ kale was certainly impressive – six foot tall and three foot wide for the most part – the leaves were tough and leathery and not very appetising, at least compared to the more common kale varieties that we grew on the other side of the path.
Once we’ve eaten the last of any sprouts that are actually worth the effort of harvesting – ‘Rubine’ is the one variety that performed well for us and we’ve got a couple of sticks left – this section will be cleared and prepared for this year’s role as a root bed. I won’t be going to town on sieving as much soil as I did for the carrots last year, but I will loosen the topsoil a bit and see if I can work up a nice fine tilth to sow seeds into.
The right-hand strip, alongside the path between our plot and the neighbour’s, will be used to grow beans again. The soil will need a good feed of well-rotted manure or compost plus a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone with each plant as it goes in; I don’t direct sow my beans, preferring to start them off in the greenhouse and be sure I have enough to go around.
Finish harvesting, then clear away brassica plants and collars.
Weed section, lightly dig over, rake to fine tilth.
Cover until ready to sow root veg seeds.
This section contained another couple of rows of cabbage – long-since harvested – and as you can see we’re attempting to over-winter a dozen or so broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ under those fleece tunnels, to see if they’ll survive the frosts and provide us with an early crop. A couple of folks elsewhere on the site who over-wintered them last year had six-foot tall bean plants by the end of May, so it’s worth a shot.
Depending on when the broad beans are done, we’ll most likely use the space for either a late-sown crop of oriental salads and/or late radishes. The former cabbage rows will we weeded, lightly raked and used as an allium bed for the shallots we’ve started off in modules, plus the half kilo of ‘Sturon’ onion sets that we’re expecting to take delivery of in February. They’ll be started off in modules as well, as per last year.
Clear cabbage plant stumps, weed, rake and cover until ready.
Once serious risk of frost has passed, remove fleece tunnels and tie-in broad beans to support canes.
This is where we grew our main-crop potatoes (‘Pink Fir Apple’) last year. They were hit by blight a little too early for anyone’s liking, and the ground has been left fallow since they were lifted back in July.
We’ve had an old, blue, plastic ground-sheet / tarpaulin down to block some of the light, but most likely some weeds will have taken underneath. With various pots scattered around (left over from the house move in 2015), there’s been plenty of opportunity for weeds to creep in and there’s a patch of rough grass growing alongside the path that needs to be dealt with.
It will all need a good clear-up and sort-out before we can use this section to set up a pea-harp or two and plant out this year’s crop, along with another couple of rows of broad beans if we have the room; we can’t get enough of either of those fresh, tasty legumes come spring-time.
We’ll also be continuing the bean strip along the right-hand edge, so there’s more improvement work to be done there.
Re-locate pots, lift tarp.
Weed and clear section, improve soil for bean trenches.
Set up cane-and-string pea-harp(s) once plants are ready to go in.
The final cultivated section on the left-hand side of the path contains our over-wintering leeks – which again were planted a bit late last year – and this year’s garlic crop.
We should finish lifting the leeks by March or so, and the garlic will hopefully be ready by late June or early July, which means we’ll be able to used this section for this year’s courgettes. I’ll be starting some off a bit earlier so we can stagger the planting. There’ll be some weeding to do in the meantime as well, but hopefully nothing too drastic.
Harvest leeks as needed, then clear and cover section when done.
Feed garlic in Spring, harvest in June.
Weed section and prepare for next planting.
Back across to the right-hand side of the path, we have a lovely, clear (lonesome Swiss chard excepted) section that we’ve weeded and lightly raked already – we took advantage of a few days of cold-but-dry weather back in December – and since this pic was taken it’s been covered with a ground-sheet as well.
This year we’re planning on growing kale and cabbage in this section, so once the current cold snap passes and we have a dry-ish window to work in, we’ll spread some lime and lightly rake it in, then replace the cover and leave it until the young brassicas are ready to plant out.
Again, the right-hand strip will be part of the bean trench, so that will be improved in due course.
Rake in garden lime when weather allows and re-cover.
Last year the back-left section became a bit of a dumping ground for a lot of the skip-scavenged junk that I’ve accumulated since we took on the plot. The old bath-tub that we were given by another plot-holder turned out to be less-useful than I hoped; I had grand plans to turn it into a wormery, but realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to attend to it often enough to keep the worms in good health. So that’s going in this year’s skip, unless anyone else on the site wants it.
Once this section has been nicely cleared up, it will be properly organised into a highly efficient compost-making system. Green matter will be dumped in the two open bays until it starts to break down, and then will end up in a succession of dalek-style compost bins, gradually decomposing into a rich, crumbly, highly useful soil improver. That’s the plan, anyhow. As always, we’ll see how it goes.
Sort through junk, re-locate anything genuinely usable, everything else to be skipped (or re-skipped…)
Put down weed membrane (lots of encroaching bindweed at this end of the plot).
Reorganise compost bins, cutting holes in membrane as needed.
When we moved house in July 2015 we brought our 6’x6′ greenhouse from the old place and set it up on the plot. We then filled it with a large portion of the contents of our old shed and it’s been in that state ever since.
This year – and before too long, as well – it’s going to be emptied, cleaned, sorted and set up for actual growing; tomatoes or cucumbers, I reckon. Maybe cape gooseberries. We have a mega-shed at home now, so as soon as that’s emptied of the timber we’ve bought for back-garden landscaping, we’ll be able to re-fill it with the contents of the allotment greenhouse and get on with the clear-up.
There’s also the small matter of the water collection system to finalise. The greenhouse has two slimline water butts attached, but we’ve also obtained four large plastic drums which, once they’ve been scrubbed of algae, we can daisy-chain in to provide us with a good supply of rainwater, on the off-chance we have a dry summer (or Spring, or Autumn) this year.
Clear out greenhouse.
Remove weeds, disinfect and scrub glass.
Reorganise shelving, re-stock with plot essentials.
Connect plastic drums to water butts, add taps as required.
So, there you go. All of the above, ideally to be done in stages over the next three or four months, ready for planting season to begin in earnest round about May and June.
In the meantime, I have a second set of RHS Level Two exams to prepare for in early February, then the ongoing back garden landscaping and bastard trenching to get on with so we can actually start to establish a garden out there this year. Speaking of which, a batch of fruit trees should be arriving from Brogdale before too long, so they’ll need potting up in air-pots. And of course, there’s the seed-sowing schedule to think about, and seed trays to clean, and pot-labels to scrub, and the greenhouse at home to tidy and spray down with Jeyes Fluid…
I tell you what, I’m not going to be bored, am I? 🙂
Thank you for reading all this way (or for scrolling through to look at the photos). If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please do leave them via the form below – or drop me an email if you’d prefer – and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able.
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.
At last! After a few months of not much to report, we have something to talk about on the Cottage Garden Project front.
Jo (project lead, chief plantswoman) and I (general dogsbody, occasional suggestions) have spent a fair bit of time chatting ideas back and forth and have come to a general consensus. We know what the general shape of the garden will be, thanks to the advice we got from Joan Mulvenna back in January: a seating area near the house, with a gravel section between the house and shed, and a gravel path leading from the seating area down to the utility area behind the shed.
The path will bisect the garden and create two distinct planting areas: on one side, nearer the fence-line, where sunshine is at something of a premium, we’re going to establish a cool, relaxing, shade-friendly planting scheme. Lots of woodland plants in the shadiest parts of the garden and then traditional cottage garden style, with lots of height, soft frothy foliage, and flower colours in shades of soft pastel, whites etc.
On the other side, we’ll up the energy and tempo a bit, with some stronger (but not too bright) colours and more sun-loving plants, as that side of the garden will get a lot more of the daylight, particularly in the heat of a summer’s afternoon (if the hotter days of this month are anything to go by). We’ll also have a few linking plants or base tones, to provide a bit of coherence, and a quite literal link in the form of an arch across the path with mixed climbers meeting and subtly mingling the two colour schemes.
The gravel area outside the back door will be for potted plants: dwarf fruit trees, herbs, flowers, shrubs, bulbs, you name it.
That’s the general plan, anyhow. First, there’s the not-so-small matter of:
The big decision we’ve taken here is that, rather than bringing someone in, I’m going to do the bulk of the hard landscaping myself. Two reasons for doing so: firstly, so save on the cost of hiring a landscaper, meaning we have more budget available for the materials we want to use. Secondly, it will be good practice for me. My long-term goal is to move to a career in horticulture, and hopefully this sort of project will provide the sort of experience that a potential employer might find relevant.
The first big step forward was taken on Bank Holiday Monday, when the old garage was demolished and the ugly-ass concrete crazy paving patio lifted and removed…
…revealing a lot of builders’ sand, rife with roots from the neighbours’ trees (ripping those out is a quick addition to the job list) and a concrete plinth, ready for the delivery of our new super-shed:
We’ve also started researching and/or ordering materials for the landscaping: Indian sandstone for the seating platform plus assorted steps and stepping stones, a balustrade railing to surround it, a few tonnes of gravel for the pathways, trellis panels, and an arch for the planting area.
We’ve also had a think about the path and bed edging. We were going to use plain gravel board, but decided that would end up looking rather dull and utilitarian. Instead, we searched around a bit and found a supplier of something a lot more attractive and (hopefully) hard-wearing. More on that in a future update.
The actual work is going to have to wait though. I have Level Two RHS exams to prep for in mid-June, so nothing will be occurring until they’re done and dusted. Then I’ll roll up my sleeves and get cracking.
Everything is in a state of flux at the moment, with plants in pots being moved here, thither and yon to get them out of the way of the outgoing garage and incoming shed, so there’s nothing much in the way of a permanent display. We’ll have some photos to show once we actually start getting something in the ground.
Right, that’s it for this month. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to nip outside and see how the construction of new shed is coming along…
Things are still pretty quiet on the cottage garden project front. We’ve been making progress on planning the hard landscaping – which is going to involve a couple of trellises, one or two arches, plenty of board for path-edging and about four tonnes of gravel – and have successfully researched and identified our new shed. That’s the one major change to the old plan since the last update: rather than knock down the old, leaky, asbestos-roofed garage and replace it with a brick-built structure, we’re going to invest in a 4.8m x 2.4m heavy-duty, prefab shed from local specialist supplier Cocklestorm.
In the meantime the pots that we brought with us from the old house and the baskets that Jo planted up last Autumn, have been putting out splashes of Spring colour: irises, snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen, narcissus, winter pansies, primroses, euphorbia and wallflowers have all been making a contribution to cheering the place up. We’ve also enjoyed a neighbour’s blossoming cherry on one side and t’other neighbour’s white (and only slightly pink) rhodedendron on the other. (Click on the thumbnails below if you’d like to see a larger pic)
Down in the greenhouse, Jo has been pushing ahead with sowing this year’s selection of annuals, some of which will feature in the new cottage garden, others which will be used to brighten up Plot #59. So far, she’s sown (deep breath): sweet peas, French marigold, Osteospermum (a.k.a. daisybush), Didiscus (a.k.a. lace-flower), sweet scabious, viola, sunflower, Gaillardia (a.k.a. blanket flower), Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, Tagetes, oriental poppy, evening primrose, Zinnia and snapdragon. And there are plenty more to come.
Jo has a few general rules when choosing her flowers, the first few of which are: 1) they have to be as bee-friendly as possible, 2) and the bugs, and 3) no pink (Jo doesn’t really do pink). Based on the above, and having seen the rest of her to-be-grown list, I know we’re going to have one of the most colourful, bee-attractive plots on the whole allotment site by the middle of Summer, guaranteed.
And I’ve done my bit on the decorative front by potting up our five handsome dahlia tubers to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out. I’m happy to say that four of them seem to be sprouting nicely, so fingers crossed for a good summer display.
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.
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.
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.