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Friday
Jul182014

How to succeed with an allotment

I saw this piece by Peter Archer and it seemed to make good sense so I've reposted it here:

Alittlement about the allotment.

Recently I have been lured back in to doing some allotment gardening. An allotment, for the non-British reader, is a small piece of municipal garden, rented for growing vegetables for a nugatory amount.

It provides a place of escape from the domestic hurly burly, a place to contemplate nature, but above all, a place to grow things you can eat.

I had rented an allotment fifteen years ago with two friends. It ended in abandonment after planting a line of radishes and planting an apple tree. I recall days building a shed that was left half finished, like part of a stage set for a western town- yes it was an ambitious shed…had it ever been finished…

But therein lay the problem: I had become distracted by the inessential elements of allotmenteering, attractive though they are: sheds, friends, strange fruit (or even normal fruit).

But this time, things would be different.

I took as my example a man dubbed by other members of the allotment society as ‘Mr Monsanto’. I chose him not for his obvious prediliction for powerful weedkiller, but because his allotment was THE EXACT OPPOSITE of my old conception of what an allotment should be. Fifteen years on I was going to try something completely different.

Mr Monsanto, a silent broad shouldered man who had scorched with ‘Round-up’ the verges around his plot, making his square of soil look as if it landed from outerspace, had dead straight lines of veg, no shed, old rusty tools, scaffold planks to walk on (you could imagine Mr M in a previous working life as someone involved somehow in the macho world of scaffolding). No greenhouse, polytunnel or fruit cage. No natty little turf paths. Absolutely no trendy raised beds. Instead only excellent spuds, beans, peas, onions, cabbages, salad stuff. No hardy Himalayan banana tree. No herbs and spices. No apple trees.

No shed became an article of faith. I saw that the bigger the shed the more abandoned and crap the allotment that accompanied it. There is a philosophy of business that suggests you disinvest in any company the moment it buys a purpose built HQ. Desire to expand has been replaced by naval gazing. The shed is- in your back garden- a wonderful place. But in an allotment it betokens a woeful lack of focus. My father never had a shed on his allotment and I thought him a killjoy, then; now I see he knew the real score: sheds are for amateurs.

So no shed.

Tools. On my previous attempt I had lots of new shiny tools. Expensive tools. Spades, two types of fork, a hoe- all bought on a whim from the garden centre. This was pre-internet. I now looked carefully online at what I might need. I realised I could get away with having a single tool. Just one- a wide digging hoe or mattock, something like an adze. I remember my grandfather using one and being rather mystified by it. No longer. Once I started using the mattock hoe I (hardly) looked back. Spades are OK, and forks aren’t too bad, but for fast, effortless, sod breaking you cannot beat the mattock. When sharp it can cut long grass. You can weed vast areas with it. It breaks down into a head and a handle. I left the handle at the allotment (Mr Monsanto left all his tools out) and walked to the allotment with the head in my rucksack. Using the head alone it worked as a trowel. The mattock was the business.

All other tools I bought second hand, maximum price paid £6. I bought a rake, various other weeding hoes, a bent fork (also excellent). The wind blew two plastic buckets on to my plot. I kept them and found both useful.

At first I tried to clear my plot systematically. This meant starting at one end and manfully hacking on, chopping down weeds, taking out dock roots and turning over the soil. It was sad dispiriting work. As soon as I had cleared one bit it began to sprout weeds again. My solid adherence to organic principles forbade the use of weedkiller.

I almost gave up. In fact, only a letter from the council officer in charge of allotments (chiding me for the lack of progress in clearing the plot) spurred me into action. I gave up using the wheelbarrow to take weeds to the compost heap (forget compost, it’s a waste of time in the beginning, a total snare and delusion, especially composters made from pallets- totally useless as they simply sprout weeds from the sides). Instead I simply cleared an area in the middle of the plot and shifted the cut weeds outwards in a spreading wave north and south. At both ends I formed piles of dead foliage that served as the ultimate goal of the cleared stuff but there was no hurry. The key was simplicity and not getting bogged down with inessentials.

As soon as I had a bare patch about ten foot by twenty foot I planted some spuds, bought from the garden centre. I cleared some more and bought at a street market for a pound some onion sets. These I duly planted.

Planting spurred me on to clear more ground. I didn’t bother to water or coddle my plants in any way at all. If they died they died. When a line of kale was attacked by birds I went up to Mr Monsanto’s plot and noticed his chicken wire cover arched over his cabbages. I got some and made a cover for my own- the cheapest wire coming from a discount hardware store rather than the pricey stuff in the garden centre. The bird attacks ceased.

When slugs munched my beans I scattered organic slug pellets around the perimeter of the plants- this worked pretty well. I also moved my chicken wire covers over the beans and peas for a while, until they seemed sturdy enough to take what the world could throw at them.

From the beginning I revelled in the allotment as a free gym. Breaking new ground became an addictive form of exercise. But I didn’t force it; as soon as I noticed something that needed doing- weeds, a bit more planting, tidying the edges etc I allowed myself to be distracted. This wilful use of distraction worked well, as long as I went for about half an hour or so every other day. Long sessions are not really that good, longer than two hours gets boring unless you have a flask of tea for a break. The main thing was to go little and often to the allotment and not see it as something you could blitz and forget about.

Last week I cleared the last of the plot. It is pretty much all planted out now with just a few clear spaces. Spuds, onions, lettuce, rocket, peas- all delicious all being eaten everyday.

And NO PESTICIDES or WEEDKILLER- thank you Mr Monsanto!

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