I am not, by nature, a patient person. During my childhood and early adulthood phrases such as “bull at a gate” and “burning the candle at both ends” were used liberally to describe my behaviour by my nearest and dearest. Since getting ill over a decade ago my biggest challenge has been unlearning my tendency to rush through life, always taking too much on. When I first put my name down for an allotment over two years ago, I wondered whether I was going to be able to look after one, given my health, but I reasoned that if I managed to follow my Grandfather’s advice – “Slowly, slowly catchee monkey” – I might stand a chance. It has been frustrating not to be well enough to dig for more than an hour three or four times a week without turning into a brainless zombie, but amazingly it is working, there is progress, enough for me to believe that I will be ready to plant things out in Spring -assuming no extra setbacks.

Having finished rough digging the first set of beds – and amassing a huge pile of couch grass in the process – the next step was to mark out and create the paths. I didn’t want to waste the good topsoil, so my first idea was to dig out the top couple of inches and redistribute it to the beds on either side.

Dug Out Path

As you can see from the gravel board, I wound up with something so deep that I would have had to edge the beds to prevent them all slipping into the path, plus I was concerned about nutrients draining out in wet weather. I am trying to spend as little as possible on setting up the plot, so buying wood for edging wasn’t an option and I didn’t want to miss Spring planting while I waited for something suitable to come up on Freecycle. So for the second path I decided to just tread down the soil, losing the topsoil, but leaving me with a path almost level with the beds. I reasoned that this would be easy on the wheel-barrowing side of things, but didn’t like losing the soil. I’d already decided to put down heavy duty landscaping fabric to help subdue any perennial weeds I had missed and to avoid having slide around on mud on wet days.

Trodden Membraned Path

So far so good, but I decided to try a compromise solution for the first path, and only refill it part way. It is still slightly lower than the beds, but I think the “rim” of landscaping fabric might be sufficient to keep everything in place – time will tell! A few pegs left by campers at the campsite we used to look after and picked up by us hold the landscaping fabric in place, and suddenly things are really starting to take shape.

Two Paths

My next job was to get the new compost bins set up. The other large beds, and several of the smaller ones, have a lot of compostable material on them as well as the dreaded couch grass, and I didn’t want to have to keep shifting it around the plot – or waste it. I the bins close to the central path, for ease of access. If I had been starting from new I would probably have put them in the center of the plot, but in my case I opted for the back left. This overlapped with the main fruit beds that are mostly in my immediate neighbour’s plot, the end of the strawberry bed to be precise. To my surprise, when I stripped back the couch grass that was choking the handful of plants I wanted to rescue it became apparent that they had originally been planted through weed suppressant membrane. I had been planning to plant my own fruit through membrane to keep down the annual weeds, but this was a lesson in how even this is not foolproof!

Weed Suppressant Failure

I did manage to dig out three reasonably sized strawberry plants which I took home to clean up before potting on for later planting. In the end I had to give up on one plant as there was just too much couch grass choking it, the others cleaned up reasonably well, but I won’t replant them until I am reasonably sure they are clean. I am working too hard on removing the couch grass to want to inadvertently reintroduce it.

Getting the compost bins set up felt like a real milestone. Hopefully in the Autumn I will be able to use compost from these bins to enrich the beds for the following year.

Compost Bins Set Up

By this time I had amassed a small mountain of couch grass, which I can’t put in my new compost bins as it would just regrow.

Couch Grass Mountain

Thankfully Helen (The Patient Gardener) pointed me to a way of dealing with this by bagging up the couch grass and leaving it to compost anaerobically. Apparently after a couple of years I should have a smelly, runny but deeply nutritious black mess which I can use to enrich the plot, thus returning the goodness that the couch grass had removed, and wreaking some small revenge.

Dealing With Couch Grass

I’ve been collecting a few really good tips and tricks lately, from books, blogs, people at the allotment site. I’ve been scribbling them on pieces of paper or in notebooks, but decided I would find it more useful to collect them all together and use my blog to keep track of them. So, I now have a “Top Tips” page. Please feel free to add comments about how you deal with the problems listed or use the contact page to suggest new ones. I will be gradually adding to them as and when I can tear myself away from putting together seed orders.

The next big job is preparing the other pair of large beds. One of these will be the fruit bed, with raspberries and strawberries, the other, together with the two I have already marked out, form the three main rotation beds. MIL recently gave me some money as an early birthday present, to put towards the Great Allotment Project, and I had decided to spend some of it on a really good fork. When I first started gardening I bought a spade and fork by Wilkinson Sword which had extra long handles. I’m not a giant, just 5′ 7″, but I find digging much easier on the back if I have a long handle. I bent the fork irretrievably some years ago, and when I started the serious digging on the allotment quickly realised that I had to get something better than the standard fork I had replaced my old favourite with.

Spork

Given it was birthday money I was happy to spend “real” money on a quality product, but it was depressingly hard to find anything with a longer-than-standard handle. Then I discovered the Spork. No, not that cross between a spoon and a fork beloved my backpackers the world over, this is a cross between a fork and a spade. Designed by Robert Todd when he got fed up of having to swap back and forth between a spade and a fork when cultivating his heavy clay soil, mine has a long (1155mm) “T” handle. It is about the width of a border fork, and it is proving perfect for digging over my weed-infested plot. It has almost doubled my work rate, I find it so easy to use, hence my wanting to shout about it (I did pay full price for it, honest, and am not getting anything for the mention).

Progress On Next Beds

Anyway, I have made some progress with the next area, helped by FIL who donned wellies and came and helped yesterday. That’s 2.5 hour’s work, so I am hopeful that by next weekend I will be marking out and creating the paths for these beds too. The long strip at the edge of the plot is going to have to wait until the other vege beds are ready, or at least until the potato bed is prepared, as the ground here has never been cultivated and is very stony, compacted and yes, you’ve guess it, almost solid couch grass…

Digging For Black Gold

The thing I have been most excited by though is that I finally got to shovel some black gold onto one of my beds! The communal manure heap is almost finished now, but there was enough well rotted horse manure for me to cover a bed.

Manured Legume Bed

This will be where I plant my peas, beans and mange-tout. I’ll leave the manure on top for now, the worms can start to work it in for me and hopefully there will be a few more frosts to help it on its way, then I will dig it all in – no doubt removing more couch grass that I missed first time around as I go.

Congratulation to anyone who actually managed to get this far, I know it has been a long post, but I really want to keep a good record of how things go on the allotment to help me learn. I love being up there, surrounded by countryside, although the occasional whisper of a train through the tunnel and the “pop” from blasting at the neighbouring quarry reminds me that I am not exactly out in the wilds. Nevertheless, it feels a privilege to be up there, and my patch is really starting to look like an allotment now. Its exciting, and even the news that local kids had decided it would be fun to smash all the windows on a couple of sheds has failed to dampen my enthusiasm, depressing though that is.

Looking Like A Plot

48 thoughts on “Slowly, slowly catchee monkey

  1. Oh my, doesn’t all that manure look just delicious! It’s clearly a lot of work, but all that beautifully prepared soil must make it worthwhile, not to mention crops to come.

    1. Hi Cyndy. Doesn’t it just! Though I am guessing it takes a gardener to think so…

  2. Gorgeous.. it’s all simply gorgeous! I love all the work you’ve done. It really looks like a fantastic growing space.. the manure seems so dark and rich – your veggies will simply leap out of that earth! Thanks for sharing.. Niki

    1. Hi Niki, thanks for visiting. I love the plot, and really hope you are right about the plants just leaping from the soil. Time will tell!

  3. wow you have been so busy…I am so excited to see your Top Tips…your patient forging ahead has inspired me to be more patient and keep better records…and I love the Spork…

    1. Hi Donna, I’m really hoping the better records help me towards better results, but I’ll know I am real vege gardener when I can do it all by instinct and experience. Good luck with the patience, something I still struggle with!

  4. Gosh your hard work makes me feel lazy! Good on you and i am sure you will reap a good harvest as a reward. Can i suggest you bung some of those couch-grass roots in a bucket of water and let them ferment they will give you a quick source of liquid food but throw the roots away afterwards….it is so satisfying to get something good out of a plant that is such a menace…

    1. Hi Mike, that sounds like a great idea, drowning some couch grass and using the results to produce better plants is a great form of horticultural vengeance.

  5. You’ve put a load of work in there and it looks great. Must be very satisfying stepping back and admiring your freshly dug allotment!

    1. Hi Damo. It does feel good, though my muscles don’t always agree!I’ll be happy if I get a reasonable harvest, but shall enjoy watching your efforts to grow prize-winning carrots and parsnips.

  6. I remember a couple of months back you laughed at me for taking a photo of my compost bin (in the sunlight). Now you’re waxing lyrical about composting couch-grass and reveling in the delights of horse manure. These are the basic joys of our hobby, eh?
    Thank goodness that the end results are so often such a great reward! Who needs golf or football???

    1. Hi Mark. Basic indeed! Though I do still need football, and am hoping that King Kenny rescues our season.

  7. You are making great progress Janet. Have not come across ‘sporks’ before – what a glorious word. Had a quick look at their website and may well be back to spend some of my recent birthday pennies :) Hope that you enjoy your special day when it arrives.

    1. Hi Anna. Good luck with spending the birthday pennies, I can certainly recommend the Spork, worth it just for the name!!

  8. You’re making great progress and you plot is looking very good indeed.

    I hope you’ve managed to put down your Spork long enough to give yourself a well deserved pat on the back.

    I look forward to checking out your top tips page – I love the idea of being able to anaerobically compost couch grass .. and turn a nuisance into an asset.

    1. Hi Ferris, thank you for the encouragement – and I do indeed frequently put my Spork down, being far to unfit to dig for long!

  9. Dear Janet, Congratulations on your excellent progress with the allotment. This is all such terribly hard work but it is true that by doing a little but often one does get there in the end. Your prepared beds look good enough to sleep on and the ‘black gold’ manure will surely work its magic for you and hopefully reward you with a bounty of vegetables later in the year.

    1. Thank you Edith, wonderful to have you back on line. We gardeners are funny people, aren’t we, to get so excited about good dark muck. Thank you for the encouragement, here’s hoping the plants appreciate it later this year!

    1. Thanks Donna, I begin to feel I will get there in time for Spring planting, which is exciting.

  10. You, my dear, are a bundle of energy. You have made great headway in your allotment. The enthusiasm is wonderful. Your grass issues will be with you for a while I imagine, unfortunately. Seems to be deeply entrenched. Loved reading all the work so far.

    1. Ah, you should see me when I get back home! Good for nothing for a couple of hours, but it is so worth it. I fear you are correct about the couch grass though, I just have to try and clear the beds as well as possible and then keep on top of it.

  11. Along with burning off a massive amount of calories I think you’ve done a great job already tackling that couch grass. I can’t believe how many bags of the stuff you’ ve got already. That black gold looks so good ………. I would love some of that and it must be such a great feeling at the end of the day looking across the plot and seeing how it is being transformed.

    Tell those hellebores of yours to get a move on! LOL Mine is ina south facing position and had buds on it at the end of November but then got covered in 18 inches of snow until a few weeks ago – it was under a nice warm duvet.

    1. Hi Rosie. It’s really quite unnerving how much couch grass can come out of one small area! Adding the manure certainly made me feel I was making progress despite that. I will speak strongly and clearly to my hellebores, but they are all in shady positions, so perhaps nagging them too much would be unfair…

  12. A communal manure heap!

    You’ve dug masses; done masses!

    I’m not sure anyone should over stretch their backs by launching into long digging hauls. Pacing it sounds a good idea.

    Lucy

    1. Hi Lucy, its funny, it really encourages me to have so many people say I am making good progress as when the weather stops me getting up there I am prone to feelings of near-panic that I am going too slowly and have to reign myself in!

      The communal heap is great, but I’m hoping that someone orders some more manure soon, as when the weather warms up I am expecting to see more people up there wanting to get their beds in order.

  13. Wow! Janet I’m so impressed with what you have achieved in really a very short space of time. I tend to do too much and then be incapable of doing any more for a week or so because of a bad back or just plain exhaustion. I must take a lesson from you.
    Your comments about the couch grass also interested me as I have a mountain of graminia a very similar grass that has been dug out of my garden. I will investigate the technique – it would be wonderful to get back the goodness and put it back on the soil.
    Bob Flowerdew was talking about long handled tools the other week on Gardeners Question time. He said that our UK tools are so short because they evolved from mining tools that the miners had to be able to use working on their knees! The spades and forks available in Italy are different, they are long handled but without a top V handle to push onto. I find them difficult to use but everyone else seems to get on well with them and it certainly makes sense about the long handles being better for the back. Christina

    1. Hi Christina. The “little and often” does seem to work much better than my natural style, which is the same as yours, do too much and then have to stop completely for a period to recover. Interesting that comment about our UK tools being based on miner’s requirements! I do find the long handled implements much more effective and less tiring. Do the Italian tools just have a broom-like handle then? That sounds hard to get used to, I like the leverage you get from a “T” or “Y” handle.

  14. OMG Janet!!!!!

    WHat alot of progress, didn’t know about that couch grass tip – thank you for that.

    I have alottment envy. (in a good way)

    xx

    1. :-) You will soon have your revenge, I shall go a pale shade of green when you put your polytunnel up!

  15. I’m sure you’d think of this . . . but in case you don’t . . . cos I didn’t . . . I put piles of leaves into black sacks and left them to compost but the wretched sacks bio-degraded faster than the leaves so it didn’t work.

    Esther

    P.S. That spork looks good!

    1. Hi Esther, I’d wondered about the bags, but they are not the biodegradable type so I think it is the work of the sunlight that I’ll have to worry about. Will just have to keep an eye out I guess, but seems worth a go!

      I love my Spork – though that sounds VERY wrong…

  16. so you’ve discovered the downside of landscaping fabric – weed seeds will still take root overtop the fabric and grow anyway. I do think your paths should be all right though, as long as you don’t put any dirt down on the fabric it should be kept clear for you and your wheelbarrow.

    1. That’s what I’m hoping Marguerite, though I am no longer as convinced by the idea of planting all my fruit through membrane, it means I can’t mulch it with muck and/or comfrey.

  17. What a ton of work!!! All I gotta say about those window-smashing kids is karma’s a b*tch and they’ll have to deal with her revenge even if you’re not there to see it. I like your grandfather’s philosophy. Happy farming!! :o)

    1. I’m with you re Karma, though it makes me so sad that those kids are so bored and have so little understanding of what their actions mean for others.

  18. This was such an interesting post, Janet; my, you have accomplished so much already! The spork looks like such a great tool; I may have to put this on my “birthday list,” too. Putting the couch grass in separate bags to decompose is a great idea; I always hate to add weeds to the main compost pile, too, for fear they’ll just germinate and add more work for me.

    1. Hello Rose, I can thoroughly recommend the Spork. My only fear with the couch grass mountain is that the bags might decompose in the sunlight before the weeds decompose into something useful!

  19. Pat yourself on the back for me. What wonderful work you have done. Great tip on the bagged grass. I enjoyed your death in a greenhouse post too. I just received a greenhouse this past Dec. so I am reading all I can about them. Came by from blotanical.

    1. Hello Darla, thank you for stopping by. Congratulations on the greenhouse, hope you have loads of fun with it. It makes a wonderful escape when you want to garden but the weather isn’t up to it.

  20. I’m looking forward to following your progress. Even if you’re not applying the same amount of physical labor as you might have been able to a few years ago, you’re clearly showing that applying some planning can make the project manageable. I do enjoy the unstructured hard work that I apply to my garden, but you seem to have gotten so much more done with less effort!

    1. Hi James. I’m surprised at how well it has been working too, though there is something so satisfying about just digging until a whole job is done too, despite or perhaps because of the resulting aches and pains.

    1. Congratulations! Sorry, no prize ;-)

      I begin to feel I should ask for some sort of commission on Sporks, but seriously, it is a rather excellent tool. I confess I got myself a little hand Spork too…

  21. Hi Janet,

    You’ve done an excellent job so far! It’s looking great and I hope you get lots of yummy food later in the year from it all.

    Great idea about the couch grass, although I don’t think I have enough of it to bag up… Certainly a possibility though, as I have it dotted around the garden and it’s pretty much the only thing I’m just not managing to get rid of :(

    1. Hi Liz, good luck waging war on the couch grass. It is much easier digging it out of an empty plot than extracting it from amongst other plants. :-(

  22. Hello Janet, great to see how well things are going with your plot, I was even excited at the sight of those compost bins, our old ones have all but collapsed I will look out for these ones. As for your spork that is fantastic, in the past three years, I have destroyed three forks, snapped the handles of two and bent the tines of another. Well you know I don’t have a plot, but I am forever digging up roots of large shrubs and trees.

    1. Hi Alistair. Wow, you are certainly tough on tools! I imagine the Spork would be pretty good at digging up roots, the teeth are very sharp. I’m looking forward to trying it out next time I have to transplant something.

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