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!

Example Bed

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.

Current Layout

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.

New Layout

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.

Compost Area

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…

36 thoughts on “A (possibly cunning) plan

  1. Exciting stuff! Congratulations on getting the allotment. Here’s to an opportunuity to buy lots more seeds, plants etc. I look forward to following your progress,

    1. Thank you! Goal for the end of the week is to have placed an order for seed potatoes and veg and flower seeds. I am literally salivating at the thought…

  2. Not being an allotment holder I can’t offer any advice, but I must say what an exciting prosect the whole thing must be for you! I’m sure that there are many of us who will enjoy watching your progress via the medium of photography. Good luck!

    1. Thank you Mark, I will need all the luck – and encouragement – I can get!

  3. Janet, this lokks very workable. I like the storage bench idea….a shed may block sun or view. I know you will have such a great time in this garden. love the compost area and a cutting garden is a super idea. :-)

    1. Thank you Janet! Can’t take the credit for the bench idea, MIL came up with that one – I think she wanted to make sure there was somewhere to sit when she comes up to visit!

  4. Sorry Janet that I can’t offer any valuable advice as I’m not a veggie gardener but I will definitely be rooting for you (no funny gardening pun intended)! Your enthusiasm is contagious and refreshing!

    1. Thank you Cat, all support gratefully received! Particularly if/when the enthusiasm starts to wane…

  5. Congratulations! I am sure this new allotment will be full of life in no time. Keep us posted with your growing. I so wish I had an allotment too

    1. Thank you fer! I certainly intend to use the blog to record progress, both positive and negative. I imagine that finding outdoor growing space where you live currently is tremendously difficult, but you prove how much can be done on a balcony! Is there any community gardening going on?

  6. Janet your plan is well thought out, manageable and creative…I found when stating veggie gardening that the msaller the better so plan on getting it ready or part of it, the part you will definitely plant and then plant it and see how it goes…perhaps annual flowers or a cover crop in the beds you are not planting right away….I found that I planned just the veggies I absolutely wanted to start with and what I had time for and then with that success I built on it…I am excited to follow your progress and learn from you as well…good luck!!

    1. Great feedback Donna. I’m starting on the bed I intend to plant up with soft fruit as I want to be able to plant bare root raspberries in a couple of weeks.

  7. A great beginning, Janet. I think your plan is very workable. You’re so right that you don’t have to do it all at once. Your last post prompted me to push on with planting my garlic, I then read that it shouldn’t be planted at the new moon as it then tends to push up! Yesterday was the new moon – ho hum. I also planted some shallots – the book didn’t say anything about the moon for them. As the day turned out so good I also managed to plant the last 150 tulips, so thank you for infecting me with your enthusiasm.

    1. Hi Christina, how wonderful that I’ve inadvertently given you an injection of enthusiasm! I’ve toyed with embracing the full permaculture plant-by-the-moon approach but decided it was too much pressure first time around. Glad you think the plan looks workable, now I just have to execute it!

  8. Your plan looks most professional Janet but I still think in feet and inches ~ showing my age. Will have to consult a conversion chart to get a better idea of the lie of your land. I laughed at the thought of you taking refuge in the van – aren’t camper vans great? Have you read’ Elspeth Thompson’s ‘Urban Gardener’? She used her camper as a mobile greenhouse :)

    1. Ah, sorry Anna, I didn’t think! My beds will be 3′ 3″ by either 13′ or 6.5′ with 2′ 3″ paths between. Camper Vans are very versatile, but I think I will stick to using mine as a mobile home rather than mobile greenhouse!

  9. Hi Janet, you’ve put so much work into your allotment already in the planning, I’m very impressed. I’m struggling to find any time to start drawing up plans for our garden and boundaries so that we can draw up our plans too. And still so much else to do! Ho hum, one of these days… I think your plan sounds great; I’ve never had an allotment so have no words of wisdom but it looks very workable indeed.
    We have grass paths around our rather movable “beds” in the vegetable patch, though at the moment they are rather lacking in grass and rather more wet and mud-pit-like. It probably doesn’t help that we are running a wheelbarrow down there daily to bring up wood from the woodstore to the house, rain or shine. By next year we should have more wood stores nearer the house, so won’t need to trample that route quite so often! My only other observation on the vegetable paths has been that sometimes maneuvering a heavy wheelbarrow around tight corners on narrow paths is a little tricky, and in late summer the autumn raspberries on one side, and nasturtiums on the other had spread into the path quite a bit so I knocked them every time I passed… ideally a slightly wider path would be good, but then that sacrifices growing space so i doubt we’ll change anything! Something to think about perhaps though, on any paths that you expect to be running a wheelbarrow along… Sara x

    1. Hi Sara, this is one time that I am very grateful I work from home and only part time, it means I can plan away to my heart’s content. Sorry you are finding it hard to carve out space to make you own plans, hope that changes soon.

      Thanks for sharing your path experiences. I am nervous of leaving grass paths in place, partly for the mud factor and partly because it allows the couch grass to spread into the beds easily. I was thinking about investing in a couple of rolls of that plastic flexible path stuff, so that I could use it on areas I am trundling heavy barrows along in wet weather. Path width is a real challenge. I gardened with 60cm paths in Wales, and it was just about OK with a barrow, and when kneeling to weed. I’m hoping that the extra 10cm I’ve allowed will make it even easier, and there are wider paths too. We’ll see, I’ll probably have billowing beds I regularly trample…

  10. I am enjoying these posts as you are about a month behind me and I recognise that excitement measuring up etc. My novice comments would be are your beds to narrow for when it comes to earthing up pots – I was told not to go for too narrower beds for them. Also at our site most people have compost bins at front of site and our Chair was saying that if they deliver muck etc they dump it at the front which is why people leave some of this space clear – just a thought.
    We arent allowed sheds and I am thinking of a storage bench but a cheap wheelbarrow is currently at the top of my list

    1. Hi Helen, I am so glad that you are a little ahead of me in this venture, I’m hoping to pick your brains lots! I’d wondered about potatoes and bed width, but when I was gardening on Anglesey Jacqui had 1.2m beds, and I found them just a little bit too wide to be totally comfortable, plus my Andi Clevely book says first earlies – which is all I plan to grow – only need earthing up once, and you can mulch with plastic or some other sheet mulch instead. That’s the theory anyway – I’ll let you know how I get on!

      Re muck deliveries, on our site there seem to be two approaches. Some people get their own deliveries, and have space at the front of their plot for it, along with their compost bins. Others have their bins at the back and use the communal muck deliveries instead. I think if I had a whole plot I would go for the former, but I think I might find an enormous muck pile at the front of my plot both uninviting and a bit intimidating, so am opting for the latter. I can always sacrifice a pair of beds at the front if it seems worth it later.

      For what its worth, my cheap builder’s merchant barrow has been great. I’ll let you know if I find a good value storage bench. FIL has given me my birthday present dosh early, I think because she wants to make sure she has somewhere to sit if she comes up and visits the plot!

  11. Hi Janet, I’ve just found your blog. I’m not an allotment holder myself, but from experience of starting a new garden (after years of longing and dreaming) heres what I noticed.
    I actually started mainly with a 21 x 32 ft polytunnel (as we were busy building a house at the time and I didn’t want to get ‘too’ distracted – ha).
    I had planned it well and grown my plants mainly in modules. It took me MUCH longer to plant them than I had thought it would.
    I also had sown a few too many seeds, so had to find extra space – as I couldn’t bare to waste them.
    Being able to get a wheelbarrow down the paths and being able to kneel on the paths was worth any bed space that I lost. My beds were 1m wide (I’m not too tall, but could still easily reach to the middl) and the paths were 60cm wide. I had no edging on them, I’d just mixed some mushroom compost on top of the bare clay that was there). I marked my edges with string, which helped in the summer when growth was rampant.
    I have a copy of my old plan here, if its any use

    I love Charles Dowding’s ‘No Dig’ approach and am trying that myself this year. Putting topsoil from the paths onto the beds is a great idea.
    The thin cottage garden strips will be lovely.
    As you said, if you mulch the beds then its ok if they don’t all get used first year – and then you won’t feel overwhelmed.
    It is best to start ‘small’ and then grow into your plot in time.

    Good luck with it – it’s just SO exciting to be starting a project like this.
    I look forward to see how it progresses.

    1. Hi Ferris, glad to have you visit! I dream of having a polytunnel one day, and you are so right, planting out module-grown plants always takes way longer than you expect. Really glad to hear you got on OK with 1m beds and 0.6m paths. I’d used 1.2m beds and found them a tad too wide, and the measurements on my plot made paths of 0.7m easy to accommodate, so I think I might appreciate the extra kneeling room.

  12. Your garden fever is delightful! I think a garden bench in lieu of a shed should work nicely, too. Also… wedding and gardening plans don’t have to be that separate. If I ever get married my plans are potluck reception + farm venue. :)

    1. Hi Eliza, your wedding idea sounds lovely! Its raining here today, so I am going to spend some time on the Internet searching for a storage bench…

  13. Hi Janet, all the above suggestions seem great…for me the emulation of Nigel and eating lunch from the plot sounds the best..have fun!

    1. Hi Mike, given how much experience you have, I find that massively encouraging, thank you! And the fun is a really important factor. While it keeps a massive grin on my face, despite the blisters and back ache, I will keep going, come rain or shine.

  14. Hi Janet; re the Black Bean paste I wrote about on my blog — it was Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe from that book “Plenty”, so I don’t really think it would be ethical for me to pass it on (especially since it’s a fairly new book). In any case, you probably do need to buy the book; you would certainly WANT to if you saw it! It would provide you with lots of inspiration for what to do with all that veg you will be growing on your new allotment.

    1. Definitely! Particularly as the suspect behind the spate of robberies up there a few years ago is now back amongst us having been entertained at Her Majesty’s pleasure…

  15. Very impressed with your planning – something I don’t do very well at all – and I think the main thing is keeping it managable. Very exciting times ahead to have all the that ground at your disposal. Enjoy!

    1. I shall be looking to you for advice when I get to the growing stages Damo – and haunting the UK Veg Gardener’s forums!

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