(With thanks to Janet, The Queen of Seaford, for the post title, which came from a comment she made on a previous post…)
I’ve spent this week getting to know my allotment, meeting people, getting blisters and learning things. Number one priority was to get to know the soil.
I seem to have been very lucky here – the soil has clearly been well worked, and fed. I took the picture above after a day’s heavy rain, but drainage seems really good. The soil is clay, but has a lovely texture. Incidentally, the photos are not going to be as good quality as I normally aim for as I am only using my old “point and click” camera up at the allotment at the moment. My usual camera is too precious for me to use it with filthy hands…
Its not all good news. The plot is riddled with couch grass (above left) and dandelions. Happily the soil has such a good structure that extracting whole roots of both is proving a lot easier than I have experienced in the past. It still leaves me with the problem that I can’t compost the couch grass, and there is a “no fires or barbecues” rule, so I will have to bag up the nasty stuff and dump it in my own green bin for the council to deal with. To balance the weeds I do have plenty of worms too, which is wonderful, and there also seem to be lots of ladybirds around.
I took my soil tester up to the plot too. My garden has slightly acidic clay, but I didn’t want to assume the same was true up at the plot. The bed I am starting on – the middle left 4m x 4m bed as you look up the plot – shows evidence of carrots, onions, chard and cabbages having been planted there. The left image shows a slightly alkaline soil, so I think it must have been limed recently. The right hand image was more what I was expecting. This was taken in the back right bed which has been used for sweetcorn most recently. The extreme reading was a surprise, though others I took were slightly less acidic. Something to remember, and I think I will keep the soil tester in my allotment kit bag for now, and gradually test the other beds as I get to them.
My second priority was to get a realistic feel for how much I can achieve in a reasonable – for me – burst of work. All the advice in books and blogs is to do little and often when you take on a new allotment – or garden – so that you make steady progress without exhausting yourself. I decided to start with only an hour’s work at a time, in 10 minute bursts with at least a quick stretch and breather in between, and at least one longer break. Sort of like a lot of the books recommend you approach starting running, where you run for a minute and then walk for 2 until your stamina improves. Anyway, I wanted to see how that went, both in terms of how I felt afterwards and how much I could achieve. That way I get an honest assessment of how long it is likely to take me to clear and sort the plot and therefore how I need to priorities what I do when. I hope to get up to the allotment most days, weather permitting.
Judging by my first two stints, I seem to be able to rough dig 3.2m2 (aprox. 34 square feet, which sounds a lot better) in an hour. So a 4m x 4m bed will take 5 hours and a 2m x 4m bed 2.5 hours. I imagine that some beds will be easier than others, as the couch grass takes a long time to clear, but is unevenly distributed across the plot. Apparently some people have plots completely clear of it, have never had it, whilst elsewhere it is rampant. Mine appears to be part way between the extremes. Anyway, it means it will take me around 20 hours total to rough dig the whole plot excluding the long side beds. I’m hoping that means that, allowing for periods of bad weather, by the end of February I will have rough dug all the existing beds.
Mind you, I think with the current bed I will finish rough digging it, mark out the new beds for that area, dig out the paths and enrich the soil before moving on to the next one. Not only will this give me a feel for how long those different phases will take, this is going to become my fruit patch, and I met the couple who are taking on the half plot currently entirely devoted to soft fruit. They confirmed they will be putting up signs inviting other allotment holders to help themselves to the contents of the beds they want to clear for other crops, so I want to be able to take advantage of that and give any free fruit I can come by a good head start!
Yesterday was a lovely sunny day, though the wind was biting, so I took Cameron (the VW camper) up to the plot with a couple of old plastic garden chairs, a flask of milk for making tea on the van stove, and lunch. The plan was to do two one hour stints leaving me free to “enjoy” the football today.
I was able to park the van quite close to plot, and happily one of the other allotment holders (a man of indeterminate age and only two teeth) was able to give me the code to the gate. This means that next time I will be able to drive right to the edge of the allotments – and could drive on to the site itself if I needed to drop off something heavy. My mobile kitchen/shed/shelter proved its worth even before I had set foot on the plot, as the camera ran out of batteries as I tried to take a photograph in the lovely sunshine.
Happily we always keep a supply of batteries in one of the van’s many storage lockers for when we are camping, so I was able to change the batteries and carry on.
It was lovely being up there in bright sunshine, and because it was a Saturday I met more people. A long chat with one of the established allotment holders established that he had been stationed on Anglesey at RAF Valley and used to love watching the surfers on Rhosneigr. Perhaps more usefully he gave me the name of a good soft fruit nursery that supplies bare rooted plants and apparently offers really good advice over the phone – Deacons on the Isle of Wight – and told me the prevailing wind direction. The gentleman with the challenged dental work gave me the somewhat less welcome news that they have a big problem with wire worms attacking the potatoes on the site. He told me that one of the other allotment holders had found that if you put 2-3 organic slug pellets in with each tuber at planting time you get a worm-free crop. I assume this doesn’t also kill off the good worms or insect life, I want to check in to it more, but it shows how valuable it is to have more experienced gardeners with local knowledge to learn from. It was also lovely to meet two of the other new plot holders, we should be able to encourage one another and sympathise with one another.
I left the plot just as the sky started to darken with cloud, happy to have made a start and grateful to have the opportunity to garden in such a lovely location. I got home to find that the latest Dobies catalogue, together with an order form, had been pushed through the door. I have until 26th January to get my order in to take advantage of the discount, so I will calm my pre match nerves (I’m a Liverpool supporter, and we are playing Manchester United in the FA cup) by starting to plan what to (try to) grow this year.
As well as the Dobies catalogue I have several books, Lia Leendertz’s “The Half Hour Allotment”, Andi Clevely’s “The Allotment Book” and Carol Klein’s “How to Grow Your Own Veg”, each of which has recommendations of which varieties to plant for flavour and vigour. Before I get all over excited over what to buy I need to do a seed audit of what I already have.
Some of these are 3 years old, bought when we were going to stay and garden on Anglesey longer, and many won’t be viable, but somehow I don’t think I can justify buying more carrots…