Diary of an Allotment Gardener
This diary was written a while ago, but it's a good read for someone looking to take on a plot of their own...
The story so far… In June 2009 I went on the waiting list at St. Ann’s Allotments. I chose this site as it’s central, it’s big (huge in fact) and it’s got a lot happening there, including long-abandoned plots being renovated, so I hoped I’d get a plot sooner than some other places closer to home.
I wasn’t far wrong; a year and four months later I was excited to open a letter inviting me to view several allotments with a group of prospective tenants. Eight of us spent two hours looking at a very varied selection of plots. I made notes and took photos, looking for a plot or two which fitted my criteria: a smallish, facing south(ish) with a view, not too overgrown and not too shaded. We all went back to the STAA offices and were asked to make our choices in the order on the waiting list – I was third down and after a slightly nervous couple of minutes got my first choice. I was so excited to at last have my own allotment that my hand shook a bit as I signed the forms!
I was now the tenant of a 264 square yard plot: sloping more east than south, shaded by a tall but skinny hedge and with a couple of patches of Japanese knotweed, but with most of the ground already cleared and with its own SHED!
So, to work. First measure your plot to get a base plan. Preferably take a friend and get them to clamber into the difficult corners. Draw out the plan and start planning where the beds are to go, the compost heap, the water-butt, the picnic bench and the fruit trees… then go back and have another look at the waste land that is the bottom half of the plot and realize that it’s not time for garden design just yet. Help was at hand in the form of the left-over black plastic from the NOGs allotment. I could now forget about the bottom third for a few months, and Rob, the STAA Partnership Worker, arranged for the Japanese knotweed to be tackled.
My first day’s work. I did some digging and found lots of couch grass roots. Rather demoralizing, as it took me over an hour to dig over less than 2 square yards – how long is it going to take me to dig 264? On the other hand I met my neighbours, who all seem very nice, and one has attacked part of the hedge, revealing a view across Sneinton, Clifton and beyond.
As the month wore on I got into the swing of couch-grass removal, and the time-scale I need to be thinking about. The soil seems quite good – it’s basically on clay but the plot seems to have been gardened well until recently so it’s actually not bad. I started to move things into the shed – a rake, an old fork, my favourite ancient red goretex and some elderly walking boots. Now I can come here and garden at any time.
I started pulling ivy out of the hedge: pull, cut, chuck behind. Repeat ad infinitum... I realized that the avenue was a source of valuable leaves and chippings and finished each session with a stint of raking.
No chance of further couch-grass-digging, it was under several inches of snow. However I pulled huge amounts of ivy out of the hedge, and used it for Christmas wreath-making. Marc, the Garden Support Officer from STAA helped me to cut down several ash and sycamore trees from the hedge. I now covet a ‘Silky’ Japanese saw. I’ve also got some very useful big poles which could be used to create a shelter. I had fantasised about doing a lovely laid hedge but reality is that I’ve not got the time, and it’s 25 years since I did any hedge-laying.
Hadn’t seen the plot for about a month when I finally managed to get over for a couple of short sessions: raked the leaves over the soil to protect it, pulled more ivy out of the hedge, and started cutting up the wood from the tree-felling. I brought a picnic stool from home, so now I can sit and admire my terroir. It’s going to be a long job, I can tell, but I’ve fallen for the place already.
This year part of my plan is to plant lots of potatoes – they will cover the ground and help keep weeds down, and will help break up the soil. And I like eating them. Fortunately I knew just the place to get some choice organic tubers – Nottingham Organic Gardeners Potato Day. As I was helping out at the event I bought a few Pink Fir Apples before it began, as I really would like to grow these, and I knew they would be very popular and run out. They are a late main, cropping later in the summer, and so they are at risk of blight. But they are so good they are worth the risk. After the event closed I chose some more from those left over at the end – just six of each of varieties described as tasty and with good disease resistance. Premiere and Maris Bard are my first earlies, with second early Wilja and Nicola and early mains Robinta and Highland Burgundy Red.
I’ve grown potatoes in bags for a few years, and though it’s fun, it involves a lot of watering and feeding for not a huge haul. So I’m really looking forward to growing potatoes in the open ground.
Finally got to the allotment – a day with rain promised and threatening – and got digging.
There are plenty of roots, and as leaves are appearing it’s clear that I will have a problem with meadow buttercup and ground elder. Great. I hate ground elder. It is supposed to die eventually if you just keep on cutting it down, but curses to the Romans who brought it here as a salad crop. At least I can eat it.
Then back again with a car-load of red, white and black-currents, which have all been growing in a couple of little corners of my mother’s garden, after being struck as cuttings in the winter of 2008. They are evidence of the will to live of currants, as nearly all survived. They did start off labelled, but needless to say I have lost track of which are red and white. At least the blackcurrants will be identifiable by smell. They are now all lined out, and I feel very pleased that I’ve got this done. The seasons have moved on in the last week, and buds are starting to burst. There were still few people about – only three others. Lovely views watching the clouds and rain.
I also brought four blue trays of shrub cuttings – Hebe, Sarcococca, Euonymus – from home. It’s a bit of a hobby – chop a bit off a plant, stick it in a pot and see if it’ll grow. Sadly most of the purple Hebes lost all their leaves in the cold weather, I’m hoping some may sprout again.
My other ‘project’ has been dealing with the mouse in the garage. The little blighter found my green manure seeds and scoffed most of them, as well as some of the last of our stored apples. It also chewed its way into a bag of blood fish and bone – was it now super-mouse? We have been offered a cat on short-term loan…
Another few hours attacking the hedge. The window of opportunity is closing: the birds are starting to think about nesting so the hedge will be left half-cut – it can wait till next year. I’ve now got a couple of huge piles of brash, only some of which is useable. So I’ll have to have a fire at some point – better check my allotment rules…!
I almost wished I was heavier a couple of times, pulling the 15-foot bits of hawthorn out. It’s quite tricky to cut, as previous cutting has left a tangle of stems. I’ve taken it down to around 4 foot, so it’ll stay manageable. There was a lot of ivy and it’d trapped lots of leaves and bits of wood, not good for the health of the trees. Ivy can be a controversial plant, creating mixed feelings. It is a great wildlife plant, providing nectar and fruit at times of year when these are scarce, and its knarled older braches are ideal for all sorts of nesting birds. But it also out-competes hedge shrubs and trees in some situations, so I’m still pulling out great yards of it.
Earlier in the week I put the potatoes out to chit – high up so the mouse can’t get them. I borrowed an Indian humane mousetrap but the mouse managed to get the cheese off the hook without tripping it. Outwitted by a rodent! A couple of days later a lump of chocolate melted onto the hook did the trick, and a very fit and healthy mouse was relocated to my local park. However, to check I left a little piece of cheese rind on the garage floor… and the next day it had gone. So if there were two mice, I suspect there may be several little ones too, and I don’t feel like depriving them of their second parent!
Time to plant potatoes! Three Premiere and three Maris Bard 1st earlies at each end of of the first bed. In the second plot I planted three rows of 7 Sturon onions at each end. The idea is to see what difference digging over has made. The third bed got two rows each of ‘Aquadulce’ and ‘Stereo’ Broad Beans. The seeds are seed-swap ones from the Nottingham Organic Gardeners’ Alys Fowler event.
I noted that my plots are a little wide – I still have to step onto them to sow seeds in rows at right angles to the paths, and the idea is to not stand on the soil. The soil is showing its clay character by cracking in this dry weather, and the drainage when watering is lots worse on the areas not dug over. When I got home I planted the left-over onions and some beans and some peas into modules, to replace any which don’t germinate or get eaten.
In early March it seemed like Spring at last! On one gorgeous day I went down to the allotment to set out some self-layered Winter Jasmine from home, and plant Jerusalem artichokes – and for more digging out couch grass and ground elder roots. And whilst digging I made my mind up about the design of my plots. I’ve only dug over about half the area I want to use, and I’m keen to get started on sowing. So the solution is four plots running parallel to the long sides of the allotment, so that each is half dug (and weeded), and half not dug. Normally it’s recommended to have beds in line with the sun, and mine are at right angles, so if I have massive runner-beans other crops will get shaded. But it suits at the moment. Later I may go for something far more ‘organic’ in shape as well as ethos.
My crop rotation starts with potatoes on the plot worst for weeds. I’m hoping that their thick leaf cover will shade out weeds, and I’ll dig out weeds as I’m digging up the spuds. The next plot will have onions and roots, the next beans and peas, and finally brassicas in the last one.
It was super to just be out in the sun, listening to the birds, watching the two robins eating worms, and listening to the yaffle laughing. As the allotment got more shady as time went on, I could see that the shed casts a big shadow. But I’m not moving it!
A few days later I had lunch sitting outside for the first time, then got on with pruning my currants – lots of currant clearwing moth caterpillars in the stems – I found out later they are a feature of the St. Ann’s site anyway, so I don’t need to worry about importing them! I cut the blackcurrants nearly to the ground, and pruned the red/white currants to ‘goblet’ shape, with varied success as there aren’t many branches yet. Decent material poked into ground as cuttings.
Then on with some garden design! I measured out a 6.6m x 3.6m plot and checked it was square – 7.5m across both diagonals. Old tent pegs and lots of string are very useful for this!
Then worked out by trial and error that I can have four beds 130cm wide with a 50cm path in between – just about right. I thought the space looked about right for four little plots and it is. I used bamboo poles to mark out the paths and scraped away a couple of inches of soil on each path and trampled them flat. It really looks like an allotment now! I covered up the second plot with black fabric to warm the soil for onions.
Pleased to see that I have comfrey appearing from what looked like a rubbish heap near the shed.
After the driest March for decades, the driest April for years too. So the change in weather a week ago was most welcome. First a light sprinkling on Friday, then a shower on Saturday morning, then I was woken during the night by quite heavy rain. At last!
At the allotment everything has grown, somehow rain is far better for plants than our attempts to water them. The kohl rabi has finally started to germinate after refusing to do anything for 3 weeks. The potatoes are doing well, and I earthed up the ones at the 'dug' end. I'll mulch the others. The first earlies, sown on 21st March, are already getting flower buds so I could be harvesting in a few weeks - need to sort out what is going there afterwards! Probably courgettes.
The soil was lovely and soft again from the rain, and I sowed lots of things I'd wanted to get done for weeks. Beetroot 'Soloist' (it's a mono-germ variety so it doesn't tend to grow in clumps) and white chard in the onions/roots plot; calabrese, kale, broccoli 'Raab' and turnip 'Snowball' in the brassica plot. The kale and broccoli will be transplanted to the rest of the brassica plot when that's cleared of weeds.
Also got to plant out the module-sown beans and onions which were intended to fill any gaps. Well, I haven't got any gaps, so what I've got now is very little room left for anything else in the onion and legumes plots! Will have to look into interplanting. The module-sown plants had been there far too long, the roots were all going round and round. They'll probably be OK, if not they'll make good green manure!
There have been more thundery showers since then, and unsettled weather for the future. So I guess I'll get to know what my weeds can do...
I'm just not getting as much time as I'd like in my allotment, for all sorts of generally rather good reasons. However I like to think I make the time I get there really count.
Today I was there for two hours and I…Weeded the brassica plot, planted a red cabbage and a Nero di Toscana kale from the NOGs plant swap, plus some more left-over Offenham 2, rather titchy – will see how they do, cut down the under-performing module-sown broad beans as green manures, netted the chard and beetroot as the fleece wasn't protecting all of it, and removed the under-performing module-sown onions (it's a theme...) and planted 10 leeks which I'd bought from Stonebridge City Farm at the Green Festival.
The allotment is really not looking bad at all.
July - First Harvest!
After months of taking stuff to the allotment, it's good to be bringing something home!
So, I have 'Maris Bard' early potatoes, 'Aquadulce' broad beans, and a mixture of rather beautiful but large radishes. Fortunately I like them hot!
Last week I dug up some of the 'Premiere' potatoes. Sadly these first earlies have not done too well: a combination of drought in spring and rain in June. No plants grew anywhere near as large as they should have done, and several have gone yellow. With black stems and a mushy seed potato, this could be black-leg. I ate some of those potatoes above this evening, tasty but fell apart in less that 10 minutes boiling, as the 'Premiere' did last week. I'm not sure whether this is due to the problems described above or a characteristic of these cultivars. I'll try steaming next time. It's also obvious that the potatoes in the section which I had dug over have done better. So if I do go over to no-dig, I'll prepare the ground, by digging, first.
The 'Aquadulce' broad beans are big but a little floury; the 'Stereo' are smaller but sweeter. It's good to be growing them; it's been some years since I had space to grow broad beans. The French beans are going well, had to make bigger netting over them. It seems a bit of a shame to have to use netting so much, but I hope that an approach with more ground cover in future will take its place to some extent. That will have to wait till all is a bit less weedy.
After digging out the potatoes I planted a 'Lady Godiva' squash at one end of the plot, 'Nero di Milan' at the other. Both from Nottingham Organic Gardeners' Plant-swap. I planted two innominate courgettes and two 'Di Nizza' round courgettes under cardboard over some garden waste in the lower part of the allotment, a bit of an experiment.
In the onion plot I planted out lots of module-sown calendula, and on the brassica plot I planted African marigolds. Not as companion plants per se, but to attract hoverflies and other useful insects.
Now I am eating yoghurt with strawberries from my little plot at home!