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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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.
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.