The allotment kept me awake the other night. It was the raspberries. And my greed for space. My original plan had a fruit bed 4m x 1m, the rightmost of the centre beds. There was going to be a row of raspberries with a row of strawberries in front. Only then I wound up with 14 raspberry canes instead of the original 10, so they wouldn’t fit. I tried to persuade myself that it would be OK to plant the canes 45cm (17¾”) apart each way, a double row, despite all the advice I could find saying I needed to allow 90cm (35½”) between rows. I’d put the paths in already, and planted the first two canes. But I couldn’t sleep. The raspberries will be in the ground fruiting for a long time, all being well, they need the best conditions I can give them. They needed more space. Which meant changing the plan. So on Friday, groggy with tiredness, I headed up to the plot and replaced my single 1m wide (~3′) bed with two 60cm (23½”) beds with a path between. This should give them plenty of room, and make it straightforward for me to add in supports if I decide I need to – at present I plan to let them grow au natural. It meant sacrificing the cutting garden bed that I had planned would run the whole length of the plot down the right hand boundary, as I had to leave a path on the right hand side to allow access to the raspberries and make picking easy, but when I got home I was glad I had done it.
Is there anything more exciting to a gardener than coming home to a package labelled ‘Live Plants’? A dozen beautifully healthy canes of ‘Autumn Bliss’, with great root systems, many already with new shoots sprouting from the base. They went in to a bucket of moist compost over night, and the next day, after a good soaking, I took them up to the plot to plant in the freshly marked out beds.
There had been a lot of rain over night, the soil was so sticky that it didn’t fall off the spade but had to be scraped off. Not ideal conditions, but I dug in plenty of well rotted manure and added a sprinkling of bonemeal for each cane. I also watered them in well to settle the roots, despite the sodden soil. This was after I had called my other half, henceforth to be known as TNG (The Non Gardener) to get him to bring up the keys I had left behind. I couldn’t get in to the tool bench, and its hard to plant anything with bare hands…
While I was up there I got talking to another plot holder, T, who, after sharing a half plot with friends has branched out and got his own. Its the plot previously owned by the couple who ran a local nursery, with the immaculately laid out north-south oriented raised beds. He had shortened one of these beds to accommodate a small shed that was apparently on its third home. It turns out that he runs the maintenance team for the whole Berkeley Estate – which he loves, because with 6,000 acres, 18 tenant farms and numerous estate cottages, every day is different.
Berekeley Castle has been lived in by the same family since it was built in the 12th century. It is where Edward II was murdered, and Elizabeth I played bowls there. It was fascinating hearing him talk about working on the estate, how generations of the same families live in the same cottages, and run the same farms. The estate is now run as a charitable trust, although the family still live in the half of the castle not open to the public. Having employed over 300 full time staff including foresters and gardeners in its heyday, the estate now only employs 30, augmented by an army of contractors. It was a timely reminder that I really should go and visit the gardens, they have a terrace with planting originally designed by Gertrude Jekyll. They also have a butterfly house that they claim is home to the world’s largest moth! Which is all rather besides the point, except that it pays to be friendly on an allotment. T has inherited three large rhubarb plants, and although he loves rhubarb, he found the two he had on his last plot too much, and has offered one to me! Which made me glad that a year looking after a camp site cured me of my shyness in talking to strangers. Not only do I get to hear interesting stories, I get free fruit. Hard to beat.
I spent the rest of my time up there pondering the implications of the changed raspberry beds. Having lost the bulk of the long narrow strip I was going to plant with flowers for cutting – and to attract insects – I was left feeling grateful that I hadn’t yet got round to placing my Dahlia order. I’ve not got as much room as I had thought. I was going to plant Jerusalem artichokes in that long strip too, to help act as a wind break (and yes, given their reputation for inducing flatulence, I am aware of the irony!) Where are they to go? More importantly, there is the issue of how to use the front right bed. Originally it was going to have beds aligned with the larger central bed, two 2m x 1m beds with paths in between and the right hand flower strip, everything nearly lined up. Now I was faced with either the paths not lining up, and sticking to two 1m wide beds, or having another, shorter, narrow bed in the front patch. Happily, I had already started stealing more space.
When we started digging over the front right bed it became clear that it didn’t line up with the edge of the middle beds. Plus, before I had my middle of the night epiphany about the raspberry beds, I had already started lifting turf at the right hand side where that long strip of cutting garden was going to be. The ground under the turf is nasty, stony, yellowish clay that needs a lot of enrichment, but once we have neatened the bed up I will have turned a nominally 2m deep bed into a 2.5m bed. I quickly decided that I couldn’t bare to have staggered paths, they had to line up with the central beds. Not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because I need to be able to run a barrow up easily, and lots of little doglegs is impractical. So, I will wind up with one 1m x 2.5 m bed, one 0.6m x 1m bed, and one 1.5m x 2.5m bed. This last bed will be partially obscured by the water trough, so I think it is ideal for planting my new and yet to be claimed rhubarb plant and a mini hedge of Jerusalem artichokes. The latter will also help to break up the soil. The narrow bed will become a nectar bar, planted with nectar rich annuals, and the 1m wide bed will start the year planted with First Early potatoes, which will help break up the soil, followed by courgettes – I can grow these on in pots until the potatoes have been harvested. I was always planning to intersperse blocks of veg planting with rows of annuals, and I will still have some space for sunflowers on the left hand side, but I wanted to plant some Dahlias too, and try leaving them in the ground over winter mulched with straw and plastic as advocated by Green Lane Allotments.
I think the currently rather unpromising area next to the bench might be the answer. Once the rest of the remains of the compost left by the previous plot holders has been put to good use, and the couple of raspberries and what I think may be a currant have been shifted to a better home, there will be a 2.5m x 0.9m planting opportunity. I rather like the idea of being able to sit next to some beautiful flowers when I am taking a break from working. I could probably fit 3 or 4 simple flowered types in that will attract more insects, perhaps with some filler annuals crammed in for good measure. Its a thought.
When I next get up to the plot – there is yet more rain forecast – I will see some changes. The plot immediately to the right of me, with beds covered in plastic, has just been given back, but the plot behind mine has apparently undergone a big transformation! FIL was up there yesterday doing some digging and clearing while I cooked a birthday feast for MIL, and says the couple who have taken it on have now rotavated all the planting areas. I’m delighted they are starting work on it, it will be good to have more first-timers to swap experiences with, and I am very curious to see how the couch grass and dandelions respond to the rotavating. Lots of people swear by it as the way to clear the ground, repeat rotavation is supposed to weaken and eventually finish off even these pernicious perennial weeds, and it is certainly less work than our attempts to painstakingly dig it all out by hand. In the mean time I have a rather large number of packets of seeds that say I can sow them in March, and that’s only a week away now, so I am off to panic quietly in a corner somewhere…