Eminently Edible Or Too Much Like Hard Work: Plexit or Brexit Up At The Allotment?

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Some people – otherwise known as Graham – think I have secret ambitions to take over the whole of Wenlock’s Southfield Road allotment. He couldn’t be more wrong, although whenever I protest my intention to contract operations and reduce my current domain of one and half plots to a single half plot with polytunnel attached, he gives me that look. Oh yeah? The problem is, just like Britain leaving Europe, my exit strategy is complicated. But unlike Brexit, at least I do have a strategy for reducing my plot occupation. Indeed in this era of foolish contraction we could even call it Plexit.

The story of my initial expansionist tendency begins nine years ago, not long after we moved to Wenlock. I had known the town for much of my life, and lived for a long time in a neighbouring parish, but I had not known that the town had an allotment. It is well hidden behind a row of houses, a relic of much earlier times when a railway ran by our neck of the Edge, and railway workers had the right to demand that their company provide, along with their houses, some sizable garden plots on which to grow their own food.

It was a chance remark at a neighbour’s Christmas party that made me realize that the shed roofs that I could just see across the field from our new home were not in a row of private gardens as I had first thought. The hunt for a plot was on. When I finally tracked down the chairman of the Wenlock Allotment Society it was March, and I was champing at the get-gardening bit since our cottage garden was not big enough for vegetable growing. Though charming, the chairman told me all the plots were taken, and he would add me to the waiting list that already had several people on it. He did not sound hopeful, and disappointment descended. Yet by April he was on the phone saying that I clearly had a fairy godmother: my pumpkin dreams had come home to roost. Several plots had been unexpectedly surrendered, and there was a half plot left if I still wanted it. The rent was £20 per annum. So I said yes, site unseen, and we arranged for a convenient moment a few days later when he might introduce me to my new land holding and collect the rent.

Thus began allotment my life – with an inherited leaning shed, an ancient greengage tree just then in bloom, and a plot full of couch grass, sow thistle, docks, dandelions and buttercups that the previous incumbent had clearly been nurturing for some considerable time.

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And that’s the problem with allotments. Too many would-be cultivators take them on only to find themselves overtaken by the amount of labour involved. Yet the idea of allotment growing remains beguiling, and so time passes as they decide whether or not to abandon the plot. The upshot of this is that everyone gets the fall-out from the weeds on neglected plots. Also the general tendency to disorder that breaks out in such communal enterprises provides havens and harbourage for pests and diseases that then become endemic. It takes much gritting of teeth not to resort to a host of chemical applications.

The upside of allotments is of course the camaraderie – the like-minded people who will be there to commiserate over one’s sorrow at slug and allium weevil devastation, or to swap ideas for pest control, share the joy of success and in the ensuing excesses in crops, or generally to keep an eye on neighbours’ plots while they are away. All good stuff.

Also when I first started, there was one old gardener still hard at work. Crook-backed, and slightly crippled, he travelled by bus from another village. This also involved him in quite an uphill hike from the bus stop which he could only accomplish very slowly, and with a few stops for a cigarette. But once on the allotment he tended three full 20 by 5 metre plots on behalf of other elderly tenants or their widows who lived on Southfield Road. He was there most days too, and I think he had probably been there for centuries. He gardened in the way my grandfather would have done.

Often in the winter, when we still had a few really cold ones, we would be the only people there, and I would take the opportunity to quiz him over his tried and tested methodologies. I especially took note of when he sowed particular crops. His repertoire was limited, but he grew in bulk: broad beans, runner beans, beetroot, onions and potatoes. I don’t remember his growing much else. He knew what worked best, and he knew those crops that were within his capacities to manage on such a scale.

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And that’s another big lesson to be learned at the allotment. When you have your first plot – which can seem so large and roomy – and you have finally cleared all the weeds, it’s too easy to assume that anything will grow there. It won’t . Not unless you have been lucky to take on a well worked, and hugely well composted and sheltered site. It took me a while to learn that it’s best to start by taking a good look at what the seasoned growers are growing; see what thrives in the face of endemic pests, the plot’s micro-climate, the general environmental conditions, and soil structure limitations. That way you can be sure to get one or two decent crops of something, and these successes will keep you going while you get to grips with your plot’s potential and/or deficiencies.

For instance another experienced allotmenteer showed us newbies that the only way to grow decent carrots and parsnips on our heavy soil was to dib individual root shaped holes at sowing time, fill them with good compost and then sow the seeds on top. It’s a rather time-consuming process but worth it if you don’t want to waste packets of seed. For carrots it also reduces the need for a lot of thinning, and the plants can be left to grow throughout the season covered by horticultural fleece, so avoiding attacks by carrot root fly. I have now adapted this idea by using moveable raised bed, which Graham originally made for me as a cold frame. I place it on top of the existing soil level. Fill it with a good six inches of fine compost mixed with coir fibre and sow into that, and then cover the lot with enviromesh.

In those first years it was tough going. I thought I was a moderately experienced gardener, but there was  much unforeseen trial and error. The plot took monumental amounts of clearing, digging, and composting. Crop successes were patchy, apart from colossal amounts of black currants and broad beans. The heavy soil proved almost impossible for sowing anything other large seeded vegetables, and even then there was a tendency for them to rot if we had a spell of cold, wet weather. Or if they germinated, the roots became compacted and the plants effectively bonsai-ed themselves, and then got eaten by slugs or infested with aphids.

All the time I was casting covetous eyes on the other half of the plot. It had clearly been well cultivated over the years, and the soil looked lighter and much more promising. I saw it produce masses of strawberries and fine looking French and runner beans. It was also nearer the water point, a serious consideration given our erratic weather patterns which often involve a spring or summer drought. I watched two other gardeners come and go there before finally making my bid for it. At last. Now I could grow decent potatoes, strawberries, runners beans, leeks, carrots, and leave the old plot to produce what it did best – raspberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb, artichokes, and swathes of very useful comfrey for feeding the rest of the plot.

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The half plot I began with nine years ago, this year growing cover crops of field beans. I should perhaps have dug some of them in before they flowered – this as a green manure. But I didn’t, and the blossom kept the bees very happy. And now I have tons of mini broad beans – to eat, and to dry for autumn sowing.

*

So now I had 70 feet of plot, and I had only just begun to get the measure of it when I rather recklessly found myself with a further half plot. This was two years ago. I was so fixated on taking over the polytunnel that Bob and Sally had erected there the previous season that I neglected to notice that it stood on an especially wide piece of ground that had once been the domain of the aforesaid aged gardener, and thus long neglected. And so quite apart from learning the new art of polytunnel cultivation, it was back to tackling another dense carpet of dandelions, buttercups and couch grass.

Even I could see the daft side. He who disbelieves in Plexit (that would be Graham), simply raised his eyebrows and saw (as with Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow) only evidence of wilful territorial overreach. ‘You’ve taken on too much,’ the look said.

‘But I have a plan,’ I said. ‘I mean to contract. It’s my ultimate objective.’

More raised brows.

‘It’s raised beds that I really need,’ I said. ‘Then I can start the retreat from the old plot.’

Being the kind soul he is, Graham agreed to making me some beds, though leaving me with the distinct impression that he was humouring a mad woman.

Last year then, and before I’d discovered ‘no dig gardening’ approach (see earlier post HERE), I started clearing the new plot, basically by skimming several inches of weedy compacted ground off the top and dumping it in compost bins where it might just rot down by the end of the century. I covered the bare ground with  the limited amount of compost I had available, sowed some trefoil for a green manure and inter-planted it with sweet corn, which to my surprise grew a magnificent crop of large cobs. I also planted out brassicas next to the corn and produced some rather fine purple cauliflowers, which also surprised me. Meanwhile Graham set about on the first consignment of raised beds, made from recycled pallets which he picked up for free from work.

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The new plot in early spring this year. Beds provided by Plexit sceptic, and planted with over-wintering onions, lamb’s lettuce and winter purslane. Behind the polytunnel the open bed has not been dug apart from some spot-weeding of dandelions, but covered with six inches of recycled soil from the allotment’s communal heap of ages (see next photo). It has been planted with Early Onward peas (just being harvested this week. See second photo above). These were pre-grown in 4 inch pots, five or so seeds to a pot, to avoid mouse devastation. I find that transplanted peas do really well, although it’s a bit of a faff having loads of pots. They also need to be well defended from pigeons as soon as they are planted out.

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This heap was apparently some 40 years in the making. At the end of the winter, before some of us began to recycle it,  it extended beyond the weeds on the right, and was 6 or 7 feet high. I suspect I have moved around 100 barrow loads. Unavoidably, given that the allotment is a weed haven, the soil is filled with weed seeds, but at least it is lighter and more free draining, and gives crops a chance to get going. So far the crops in the new raised beds, or on areas where I’ve not dug, but covered the soil with several inches of stuff from my own compost heaps, are far superior to anything grown on existing dug-over soil. And while no-dig proponents claim that this method means fewer weeds, I don’t think this holds for a very weedy allotment, but at least perennials like dandelion and nettle are easier to remove from lighter soil.

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This year’s Lark sweet corn, growing next to the peas on a no-dig plot.

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Nautica French beans in a raised bed on recycled compost heap soil. So far so good, though a few nettle seedlings popping up.

*

And now for Plexit, and my plan for plot downsizing.

Ideally in terms of work load it would have been better if I had already relinquished the half plot I first started with nine years ago – along with the leaning shed and the greengage tree that only fruits every nine years. Despite all my compost input, pony poo additions and green manure growing, the ground is still the least promising. The only remedy would be to cover it with the rest of the communal soil heap, but then I reckon that (along with effort needed to move it) it would be far better deployed on the new plot where I’ve just started making a no-dig experimental bed by covering the weedy, long uncultivated ground with cardboard and six inch layer of soil, and then sowing it with cover crops – fenugreek and phaecelia. I’ve no idea how this will turn out. It’s also adjacent to my other experimental section of cardboard covered by 6 inches of tree shreddings – another unknown quantity with regard to next year’s cultivation potential.

But the main block to immediate downsizing is the fact that the much loved raspberry patch is at the top of the old plot, and I can’t give it up until I’ve got a new bed going. The present one keeps us in fruit the year round, so can’t be surrendered lightly. I started a new bed behind the polytunnel last winter, but the canes are being very slow to get going, and I may need to replace some of them – all of which will put Prexit on hold.

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Nor am I keen to give up the bottom half of the old plot just yet because it’s doing rather well, and I also have my three massive compost heaps there, and several leaf mould silos. And anyway it provides plenty of room for potatoes and winter veg. And then well…

In the end I suppose it’s more than obvious. The Prexit sceptic has a point: I won’t be yielding territory any time soon.  But then that’s my point. I’m busy negotiating, doing essential groundwork, ensuring that what I give up will be in reasonable shape when I do so. Only when conditions are the best they can be, or I’ve run out of steam, will I start the retreat. Makes you wonder about Brexit, doesn’t it?

In the meantime, if don’t have a garden…

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Lots of vegetables grow well in containers – leeks, garlic, carrots, spinach, salad stuff, tomatoes. A bucket with a few holes in the bottom makes an easily portable garden.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Related: Trying not to dig the plot and 30 minutes of weird weather

 

This month Jude at The Earth Laughs In Flowers wants to see photos of the edible garden. Visit her to find out more and see her splendid allotment gallery.

52 thoughts on “Eminently Edible Or Too Much Like Hard Work: Plexit or Brexit Up At The Allotment?

  1. I like a salsa garden. Wherein I grow everything required to make salsa: tomato, garlic, onion, jalapeno, and cilantro. When I need salsa I can go outside and pick everything fresh, bring it inside and commence chopping!

    1. Now that is such a great idea, Thom. Gardening with a clear focus. It rather makes me want to have a margarita garden to go along with it – more than a challenge in the UK. Although with global warming who knows. Though it might end up blurring that sharp focus. Chin chin.

  2. I think I already mentioned that all of our flower beds are raised. We didn’t really have viable soil on the ground. Rocks and roots and it’s as hard as cement. So we used native boulders and rocks to create raised beds and filed them with humus and topsoil and probably that’s why, despite neglect and drought, the flowers just GROW. Allotment would never work around here. New Englanders don’t cooperate. It’s against their principles.

    1. Well I love the unintended consequences of your raised beds. Great rewards. You can also used rocks as a mulch round trees in times of drought. They collect small amounts of water through condensation. I was amazed when I saw this in an arid part of Kenya. They were using volcanic clinker around fruit trees.

  3. You have my undying admiration. Not to mention the super pics. I am watching in despair as half my chillis are just wilting where I planted and there seems little I can do – or know what to do.
    Celeste says they will be all right after winter, as they do tend to die off in the cold. We’ll see.
    The amount of work you have put in is mind boggling. Kudos, and a thumbs up for Mister G making you the beds.

    1. I’m trying to think what you might do about your chillis. Horticultural fleece would probably do the trick. It’s incredibly light, a bit like interfacing used in dressmaking, and you can just throw it over plants. If you can’t get it there, maybe folks in the UK could post you a bit. Or you could make a cloche with fine plastic mesh thrown over some bent wire hoops. I use plastic water piping for hoops. And thanks for the big cheer for me and G.

      1. What makes it more frustrating is when I planted them the area of the garden got lots of sunshine. But now winter is here that area, and it runs in an East West strip, stays mostly in shade/semi shade. I simply forgot how the winter sun is so different to the summer sun, twit that I am.
        The chilies planted further down the garden in full sun look hunky dory.

        I dug one out and transplanted it but to no avail, and it died. I am thinking of just toughing it out.
        I have a lot more seedlings to plant but I shall wait til it warms up a bit.
        Temperatures are dropping to minus figures at night now.
        Oops football’s started … catch you later.

  4. Enjoyed this so much T-‘and the napoleon comment brought a smile and I know the raised eyebrow look!
    I wish I had done more container gardening early on – and have learned lessons like you – for example – had to stop growing zucchini because the neighbor’s side gardens are wild tree bug infested layers and the squash fed them! So I found what worked and even though I had to pause garden efforts for two years now – our established items hold their own – like the black berries and s few other container items – oh and I can see why it is hard to give up the half plot / the established plants would be missed and well – sometimes these plots become a piece of us!
    I enjoyed this smooth read and the old gerdener (centuries old! Ha!) sounds like he knew the earth!
    Peace
    🌸🌸🌸

    1. That’s a good point you make about giving up the plot. I think you might have put your finger on the real reason why I don’t want to part with it, even though the shed’s about to fall down. Also this year the greengage tree looks as if it will crop, and when it does the fruit is heavenly.

      1. Yep. It had a great crop that first year, and ever since the frost or rain has washed out the blossom, or else the little fruit that set has been gobbled by wasps. Fingers crossed this year.

  5. Just reading this has made my back ache. I think I need a lie-down. 🙂 I know from when I was a child and my dad had an allotment, that it’s very hard work. He used to go up there after his long shift at the pit, and put in a few hours every day. I’m sure he learned a lot from the older allotment holders, just as you have. Kudos to you, Tish. Wonderful crops, judging by your photos.

  6. Jo was right, you do have an unfair advantage this month and how I have enjoyed reading about your trials and tribulations with the plot(s). You obviously have green thumbs along with the tenacity to make things happen. The plot my daughter got was a bit like yours, full of weeds and even an old carpet! And yes, the desire to be nearer to the water point and the compost heap! You have made me smile this evening with all the antics and gaining the knowledge of what to grow and what not. Having just returned from a visit to a farm open day where they had a potager I think I know just what i am going to attempt to grow in my two very small raised beds. And maybe have a go at growing some veg in pots 🙂
    Thank you Tish for an excellent read.

      1. Yes, planting veg and flowers together. As I mainly want a herb patch (not much room for veg) it should work alongside lavender, borage, marigolds, nasturtiums etc.

      2. It will be lovely. That’s the great thing about raised beds. You can cram things in, but still get at everything. I guess it introduces notions of companion planting. I’ve always liked the idea of growing climbing beans up sunflowers. Sunflowers apparently don’t get on so well with other plants, but beans they have time for. I’ve never tried it. Maybe next year. Sunflowers and purple podded beans. Also in my comments Thom in the US says he grows a salsa garden – everything to hand when he needs to make tomato salsa.A dish themed plot – what a great notion.

      3. I love the dish themed plot! I suppose I have sort of gone for that with the salad stuff; reading about designing potagers I found a suggestion for colour themed: purple sprouting broccoli, purple cabbage, purple cauliflower with lavender and verbena bonarensis bordered by purple chives and acid green Alchemilla mollis as a contrast! This could become addictive especially when considering texture and even pattern into the design!

  7. I’m feeling a bit like Sylvia, with an added dollop of guilt that I’ve neglected my own little garden recently. Given that I live in a very mild climate, I can hardly say it’s been too cold and now even the rain has stopped, so perhaps it’s time I pulled on my gloves and Welles. Thank you Tish for a lovely read (as always) and for a very necessary boot up the bum!

  8. If I may be so bold, I think your politicians would benefit from some time in your fine allotment……;) they might learn a thing or two about planning and negotiating and good care of their patch of earth. Which makes me wonder….how many politicians are good gardeners, and would being a good gardener make one a better politician? And, as usual, when I wonder, Google gives me an answer http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardens-to-visit/why-politicians-love-gardens/ Would love some of your broad beans right now. 🙂

    1. Hello Ann. You make a very good point. In fact the one gardener in power that I know of without googling, and the only one I have time for because I think he is a thoroughly decent man who espouses a lot of principles that I support is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, much beleaguered by most of his party, but with a large popular following. He has an allotment. And yes, it would be so good to share my beans with you.

  9. As I pretty much can only do containers (although I redeemed a bit of a plot this year for a few tomatoes, I like the idea of the bucket-as-pot. Less heavy, cheaper, and easier to move than a traditional pot. If my husband hasn’t let them die when I get home in a few weeks, I’ll also have basil, parsley, and rosemary.

    janet

  10. Tish its great to read how your plot has developed and kept you busy – and fit too I’m sure. I think you know that I have part sharesies of my friends allotment, not for long though because she’s going to give it up, because of the neighbours. One man has three plots, one supposedly his wife’s but she’s never been seen. He keeps bees on one and picks the apples on the one next to us. His weeds are two feet high and we have to chop branches of the fruit trees to be able to walk the path. It’s so annoying when there’s a long waiting list, but the council don’t have anyone managing the situation.

    1. This is a sad tale. It’s horrid when individuals spoil a communal project, though said person will probably think they have very good reasons. A story about the waiting list in the local press might embarrass the council into action? Council run allotments usually have quite strict rules at least in theory.

  11. A truly wonderful post. I enjoyed the history of your ever growing love of the land and what it can do, and love the photographs as well. What more can we ask of life, if we have a passion such as that? I wish you continued success in the garden.

    1. Thank you so much, Shimon. It’s lovely to hear from you, and shall bear your good wishes with me when I go the allotment this afternoon. That alone is an encouraging thought. Wishing you well.

  12. Doing a happy dance! I was right about something 🙂 🙂 It certainly wouldn’t be growing veg though, Tish. I’m a spud when it comes to that! And people say I must be fit, but I can’t be a veggie patch on you 🙂 Thanks for that glorious opening photo.

  13. The trials and tribulations of a dedicated gardener made great and amusing reading Tish. But oh the satisfaction when it all comes right and nothing tastes better than home grown. Incidentally my container grown radish tasted yummy.

  14. I had an allotment before I had my own garden. Now I have no allotment or garden and buy all my veggies at the local farmers market… maybe not as much fun but not as much hard work either!

  15. I have just discovered your blog, and am filled with admiration for its excellent combination of gardening practice based on your experience and willingness to experiment with different approaches. I am gardening in a completely different environment – Egypt – but I face many similar challenges and it’s hugely valuable to know how you are tackling them. I find container gardening brings very mixed results, but above all I can’t make enough compost to supply the needs of garden + pots, and I think this is probably key. Is there one green manure that you would recommend above all others?

    1. Hi Sylvia. You sound as if you have a challenge. Alfalfa is a good green manure. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, and you can eat some of the greens too. Fenugreek is another. I should think both of those should grow well in your climate as long as you can keep the seedlings watered to get them going. In the UK fava beans/field beans, a smaller version of broad beans are grown as a green manure. Again you could mix and match, cut down some and dig in before they start flowering, and leave some to grow and eat. Is there anywhere you can source some stuff to make compost? Other people’s garden waste? Stables? Good luck!

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