There is an oft-used caricature of a woman who has spent years, since childhood, dreaming about her perfect wedding, amassing cuttings of dresses, cakes, flower arrangements etc. In films she is often seen scaring her new fiancé by pulling out a bulging scrapbook as soon as she has a ring on her finger, thrilled to finally be able to turn all her dreams into reality. I am not that woman, my own wedding was very simple, and I’ve never been to a wedding fair in my life. However, I think I may now have an inkling of how that woman might feel.
I’ve spent that past few years dreaming about having an allotment, or just a large garden, in which to grow fruit and veg. I’ve bought books, poured over magazine articles, watched TV programmes, filing away ideas for how I will do it when my time comes. I’ve obsessed over how best to organise beds and planting, watched and listened avidly as others have nurtured cabbage and carrots, corn and potatoes. And I’ve dreamt of my perfect plot. Now, suddenly, I am about to find out whether I have learnt anything useful in that time. I get to try some of this seething mass of ideas out in the real world. It’s a heady feeling. I knew I was in trouble when I only realised it was Wordless Wednesday at 2pm, and even then didn’t want to take time out of reading and planning to post a photograph!
On Tuesday I headed up to the allotments armed with paper, pencil, tape and string, dropping off the cheque for my first year’s rental en route. With the snow melted I could
see almost see the edges of the beds, and fortunately the layout is very regular so it wasn’t as complex as it could have been. It looks as if there might be some re-usable fruit in the partial beds that cross the boundary between my plot and the one behind, certainly some strawberries lurking amongst the long grass. One of the two large beds has some onions (red and white) lurking in it which might be salvageable, otherwise it is mostly remenants of various brassicas and sweetcorn knitted together with (mostly) annual weeds. I think I may be getting off lightly compared to some, who either have to deal with waist-high brambles or breaking new ground.
The picture above shows what I’ve inherited (click on it to get the full size pdf if you are really interested ;-) – it will open in a new window/tab). There are three beds on each side, the ones on the left are slightly wider than the ones on the right. Four of these are an almost usable 3.6/4.0m x 2m, the other two are an unwieldy 3.6/4.0m x 4m. The soil is clay, so I really don’t want to have to tread on it to cultivate. All the paths between the beds are grass, and are a reasonable width. We have a petrol strimmer, so keeping these neat won’t be a complete nightmare, and I don’t have the money to lay slabs or gravel instead. Besides, the grass cuttings will provide useful mulch for the fruit bushes I plan to have, and will add to the compost heap nicely.
I am extraordinarily lucky in that the site is pretty much level and runs almost exactly north-south with no existing trees or buildings to cast any shade. I’d really like to try a no-dig approach such as championed by Charles Dowding, which I really can’t do with the existing layout. On the other hand I don’t have the funds to build lots of raised beds and have to husband my energy, making a radical re-working impractical. If I exhaust myself preparing the plot at this end of the year I run the risk of my health preventing me from doing anything else! Fortunately I think there is a really rather straightforward solution that makes the plot far more manageable and that I can tackle piecemeal, a little at a time.
By working within the existing 2m and 4m lengths of beds but dividing them into 1m wide strips with 0.7m soil paths between, I can create 4 pairs of 1m x 2m beds and two pairs of 1m x 4m beds with easy access, running north-south so taking best advantage of the sun and minimising shade issues from taller crops. The existing beds don’t run up to the edge of my plot. On one side there is a usable 0.6m grass path, on the other an almost useless 0.3m strip. I’d like more clearly defined boundaries, so in an ideal world I will clear away the grass down either side and have two long thin borders which I will use as a cutting garden, with the added benefit of helping to attract beneficial insects. I’ll also include some comfrey to use as a plant feed and as a mulch.
I can tackle each existing bed one at a time, first weeding, then marking out the narrow beds, then digging out the topsoil on what will become the paths and adding it to the beds on either side. I can leave the side strips until last, as it will not be the end of the world if I don’t get around to it in the first year. Indeed, if I mulch each new bed I create with compost or well rotted manure, I should be able to keep the plot reasonably tidy even if I don’t manage to cultivate it all in 2011. I can always cover sections with cardboard weighed down with either compost or even rocks if it looks like it is going to lie fallow. Better yet, I can sow green manure and feed the soil while keeping my sanity! That’s the tentative plan, anyway.
That just leaves the area at the back, which is about 1.8m deep and currently includes bits of bed from the other half of the plot. Number one priority has to be to get composting set up. Lots of people seem to have their compost bins at the front of their plot. However, my neighbour on the right has a shed next to the back right corner of my plot, so it makes sense to me that I have a utility area adjacent to this, including compost bins. Happily South Gloucestershire Council provide subsidised compost bins in an effort to encourage us all to be more green. I’d love to build my own, but time is pressing and I can’t currently drive, so can’t collect stuff from freecycle. Thank goodness for councils that still have money to encourage composting!
Now, I know what your’e thinking, there is a glaring omission. And yes, in an ideal world I would probably be going for a good size shed too, somewhere big enough to store tools securely and provide shelter and a cup of tea on a rainy day. However, we plan to move some time in the next two years, and I can’t face the hassle of erecting a shed only to have to take it down again, and can’t afford to just leave it for the next incumbent. Our local freecycle networks don’t seem to run to sheds, so at the moment I am thinking about settling for a storage bench, which will provide somewhere to rest my weary bones as well as a place to leave tools and a trug or two. I can place this over the other side of the plot at the back, looking back over my domain, which of course will be a visual – and fragrant – delight. Well, a girl can dream! Happily I also have the camper van, now back on the road, so I can always drive that round with large stuff in, and retreat to its cozy interior to shelter from the rain and brew that cuppa. Hey, I could even emulate Nigel Slater and cook lunch straight from the plot!
So, the question I have for all you experienced vege gardeners/allotment holders is this. What are the glaringly obvious rookie errors? Does this look like a workable plan? I am relying on you to stop me making too many mistakes on the layout before the ground dries up enough for me to start in with a spade… Next step, refining my tentative planting plan, which will involve working out just how much space all these peas, beans, carrots, corn etc. I am so determined to grow will take. And of course I am reserving two of the 1m x 4m beds for soft fruit…