Cameron At Allotment

For the past week I have been trudging up to the allotment under leaden skies, dodging rain showers and the occasional hailstorm, to dig. So it is somewhat ironic that on the first sunny day since 17th February (not that I’ve been counting) I drove up to the plot in the van.

Allotment Hedge

One of the things I love about how they’ve set up this allotment site is the native hedge that surrounds it. The allotment association put it in themeselves four years ago, having been knocked over sideways by the quote from the farmer they bought the land from. It is a double staggered row, and is thickening up nicely.

Hazel Buds And Catkins

It isn’t very green yet, but there are lots of buds and catkins – and thorns!

The reason for taking the van up was because I needed to transport the log pile and set it up. You might remember that a couple of months ago I pruned our silver birches. I sawed the larger branches up into roughly equal lengths to give me a log pile for the allotment. It seems only sensible to try to encourage a wide variety of wildlife on the plot, hopefully it will help with pest control. Having decided to put the log pile beside the compost bins, the only task was to dig out the couch grass infesting that area and move the gooseberry bush that was being overwhelmed. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

One of the benefits (I use the term loosely) of digging over the plot has been learning the different soil conditions. In some areas, where there has been some cultivation over the past few years, the couch grass roots pull away from the soil easily in whole pieces. In others, like this one, the roots are so matted together it is a fight to even get the fork – or spork – into the ground. Clearing the small area around the gooseberry bush, digging it up, gently cleaning up its root ball (no point leaving couch grass wound round it to come back and wreak vengeance). I thought half an hour. An hour and a half later I’d finally finished. In the same time FIL had dug over a 2m x 3m area, clearing it of weeds, and chatted to one of the neighbours.

Sad Gooseberry
Happier Gooseberry

That was last Sunday, before we made a smart exit as the clouds darkened from grey to black and the hailstorm hit. Wednesday’s task was to clear the rest of the bed ready for the woodpile and, when they arrive, my comfrey plants. Apparently a deep bed of comfrey can act as a barrier to couch grass, as well as providing a source of nutrient rich mulch and plant food. I don’t have room for enough to deter the couch grass which threatens my newly cleared area from the plot behind me. I will have to hope that they get on top of their side a little more and that I can keep my patch reasonably clear. It probably won’t work…

Back Left Corner

Mission accomplished. The sharper eyed amongst you might have noticed that the large pile of black plastic bags holding the couch grass has magically disappeared to be replaced by a (somewhat precarious-looking) turf pile. I say turf, but that’s mostly couch grass too.

We’ve given up on the Great Couch Grass Anaerobic Composting Experiment, and I’ve updated the tip to reflect this. Not only were we rapidly running out of precious room, even the heavy duty rubble sacks we were using kept breaking. Given they would have to remain in place for at least two years, we concluded that it was a project for when (if) we ever have more space.

Log Pile Complete
Log Pile Detail

The log pile is rather more attractive than all those plastic bags, don’t you think?

Gooseberry Buds

The gooseberry seems pretty happy in its new home too, fresh new leaves are emerging all over it.

The next project was to test soil PH and temperature. I’d woken up at 5am all excited at the idea that, hey, it was March, maybe I could sow parsnips…

I’d experimented with covering sections of two of the beds – the legumes and roots beds – with black plastic to warm the soil. Armed with my trusty soil tester and my brand new soil thermometer, I pulled back the plastic.

Soil PH Testing
Temp Testing

The soil testing was very consistent, 6.5, fine for everything I want to grow in these beds. I do need to check the beds I am going to grow potatoes on though, 6.5 is a little alkaline for them, though I doubt it is enough to worry about.

Unfortunately the temperature readings were consistent too, covered and uncovered areas both 6½C/44F. Disappointing on two counts – no gain from covering for several weeks and too cool for sowing (I’m using the germination temperature guide from the very helpful “Grow Organic Food” site). Besides, in the latest copy of “Gardener’s WorldMonty Don says wait, possibly until the end of April. Who am I to argue with the person that the “Radio Times” has taken to rather annoyingly describing as “The Don”? When do you sow yours?

I removed all the plastic in a fit of pique, only realising when I got home that the lack of sun might be to blame – duh – and it might still be worth trying. Do you warm your soil? What do you use?

Part 2, in which I change my mind yet again, soon…

32 thoughts on “(Almost) the end of the beginning Part 1

  1. Hi,

    I’m surprised that covering the soil hasn’t made much difference. Maybe it works better if the soil is covered in late Autumn, when the ground is still warm (thats what I did in Leitrim – I’ll check next time I’m there to see if the covered areas are ANY warmer than the uncovered areas). I covered some areas with tarpaulin, others with cardboard .. and a couple of weeks ago I covered another area with raked up straw.

    You’ve made great progress. I do agree that the log pile is definitely more attractive than bays of decaying couch grass.

    As for sowing or planting – for once I’m of a mind to hold back for a while. They say that plants started a little later usually catch up with earlier sowings anyway. It’s been so lovely and sunny lately that I have been part tempted – but we’re still gettting hard frosts at night, so, I’m all for putting it on the long finger.

    1. Hi Ferris. “Putting it on the long finger” – what a fabulous phrase! I’ll be interested to see what happens with your own soil temperature testing. I agree about later sown plants frequently catching up with earlier ones, so I guess the seed stays in the box for now. Plenty more to get on with!

  2. We tend to wait until the end pf March to sow most seeds. One benefit of taking over a plot that hasn’t been cultivated for a while is that it is often very fertile. When our plots were new the veg just greww itself!

    1. Thanks Sue, that’s really good to know. Hope I get similarly dramatic results! Veg that grows itself sounds perfect…

  3. Janet, I’m afraid I’m not very scientific when it comes to gardening. I let the sun do its work and stick my spade in the soil to see if it’s dry enough to work. I would think, though, that the black plastic would have warmed the soil more–perhaps it’s because you haven’t had enough sun lately.

    I can sympathize with you on the couch grass; I’m not sure it’s the same as the weedy grass that keeps invading my vegetable garden, but it’s the same kind of pain the remove. Your gooseberry does look happy!

    1. Hi Rose. I suspect the lack of sun is most of the problem. I may try again with some horticultural fleece.

  4. it does no good for me to warm my soil because we really can’t plant until mid to late April or early May and then I have to cover the plants with white fabric row covers held up by wire hoops…these stay on until mid-June just in case…

    1. Hi Donna, Give the weather you’ve been having, that makes sense! I am going to have a go at making some row covers like you describe.

  5. I’ve heard of covering an area with plastic to warm it up but never tried it. Although I’m surprised it didn’t work. At the end of last season I placed 6 inch stacks of straw on my raised beds. Supposedly this will help warm up the beds earlier in the spring. Will need to wait a month or two until the snow melts to find out if it worked though.

    1. Maybe the snow will have an insulating effect too?! After all, it is the principle of a snow hole… Good luck with the melt, hope it doesn’t carry all the straw away with it.

  6. I don’t plant anything this early, we can still get hard frosts which would wipe everything out. I do sympathise with you having couch grass, we’re still digging the blasted stuff out three years on, I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of it.

    1. Hi Jo, I suspect with couch grass the best you can hope for is to keep reasonably on top of it. You are a tad further North of us, but I think frosts are still on the cards for us too – -2C forecast for Sunday and Monday. Think I’ll be holding off a while longer…

  7. I admire your dedication! You have done more in the last couple of months than most people would achieve in a year. That plot is taking shape very nicely.

    1. Thanks Mark – I’m glad we won’t have to do the same amount of work next year, but I’ve really enjoyed it. There is something primitively satisfying about reclaiming land from wildness, or in this case, weeds.

  8. You are getting so much done, Janet. I generally think it isn’t worth starting things too early, they do catch up, especially in the UK. Even here I don’t plant out until April; I have bought small plug plants for the vegetable garden so far and some grafted peppers which were well worth the extra cost. When the green house is in operation I will start some pots of things earlier and transplant out bigger plants and then watch carefully to see if they establish quickly or not. Couch is terrible it’s similar to the grass weed I have here. though I just had a huge pile of the roots and some rotted, I’ve decided I’ll burn them in future and try to keep the compost ‘clean’ – atleast the minerals will go back into the soil from the ash. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, sound advice. I’m coming to the conclusion that, with the exception of broad beans and first early potatoes, I will wait until April to sow and plant out. I’ll nurse my cabbages in the greenhouse. Your plug plant idea is very practical, though I bet you end up sowing more yourself once you have the greenhouse up! If it is the same there as it is here, you get a much broader choice by growing from seed. Burning sounds perfect – its what I’d do if we weren’t banned from lighting fires on the allotment site!

  9. Dear Janet, This all seems very scientific to me…all I know is that it seems very cold and very changeable at present to really set about gardening in earnest….although I am certain that you are made of stronger stuff. I really applaud your efforts to grow your own food but it is tremendously hard work and I do so wish you well for the coming season.

    1. Dear Edith, thank you for your best wishes, I’ll need all I can get, being so new to it all! I suppose that is why I am using books and tools etc. more than I ever would in the type of gardening I am used to. Meanwhile there is plenty to do hiding from the cold in the greenhouse and sowing seed.

    1. The van is rather wonderful, if also rusty and expensive to keep on the road. Great for transporting plants and compost, and I can make tea too!

    1. Ah yes, the soil that threatens frostbite. Not very encouraging is it! And hands off my van – but do get your own! They are great fun, just getting in to the driver’s seat puts a smile on my face.

  10. “I don’t have room for enough to deter the couch grass which threatens my newly cleared area from the plot behind me.”

    I reckon it moves by night Janet! There’s a short post here, (the sod flicker refers to a Terrex spade, which I love working with).

    I think this year, we’ll just make sure that the edges are kept at least 9″ deep, so we can see the couch on the march from next door’s plot. After all, before anyone started getting interested in raised beds, that was the way to do it; get a good camber across the plot. OK, you still get flea beetle etc…

    1. A moat! That’s what I need! A moat, and I’ll get the frogs etc. too! Or I just do like you suggest and insert a neat camber all round… But I like the idea of a moat…

  11. Hi, you’re making good progress. I’ll sow some parnsips and carrots in March but nothing else until April when the soil has warmed up.

    1. Not even broad beans? I am itching to sow some carrots, but may leave it a couple of weeks, its has gone really cold again :-(

  12. Dear Janet – I do enjoy reading up on your latest allotment antics especially as your readers have been able to follow it all from scratch as it were (without lifting a finger to help alas) Much hard work with couch grass I know from bitter experience and wonder if it could be drowned to produce a nutrient fertiliser akin to silage? We gardener’s are so impatient to sow after the long winter that we try to hurry nature but things go in leaps and bounds and quite suddenly the soil will be warm enough for your industry to begin…but then you’ll have no time to blog :(

    1. Hello Laura. Any time you want to come and do some digging I’ll happily put you up ;-) I think drowning some couch grass is a grand idea and could feel rather therapeutic. Its certainly something I plan to try – no shortage of material to experiment with… As for time to blog, there are always the hours of darkness, and as there is rarely anything good to watch on TV I think I will find a way to carry on, though perhaps less frequently. Where else will I get all the help and advice I’m going to need?!

  13. I was going to cover my raised beds with membrane in the autumn but got distracted :( Am sowing parsnips for the first time this year so unable to advise Janet but think I will hold fire for a while. Look forward to reading part 2 :)

    1. Hi Anna, good luck with the parsnips – we can share triumphs and tragedies, hopefully more the former. I suspect I ought to be enjoying the current relative lack of business as that is going to change all too soon.

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