02 Jan Reflecting on my allotment journey so far
New year, new start! In terms of the allotment, I don’t yet feel as though I’ve had a ‘proper’ year since I started. Though it feels like longer, it was back in 2015.
That first year, we didn’t get access to our 130sqm plot until April. Even then it was simply a bare patch of ground. When we signed up the year before, we were told we’d have both a shed and greenhouse – that we’d have access to it that winter, and that the ground would be ‘ready to plant in’.
As it turned out, none of those things was true. The site wasn’t ready until April. They changed it to shed OR greenhouse – and regardless of which we picked, they weren’t there until July that year.
The ground was far from being ready to plant in. I had no experience of growing at that stage, but even I could see there was little chance of anything growing in the 1cm of topsoil they’d sprinkled on top. Below that was thick heavy clay. Waterlogging was a huge issue, and it took quite a while to get to grips with the best way of dealing with the plot.
In some ways, I made a mistake with that plot by trying to prepare it entirely before planting anything. In hindsight, I should have split it into smaller parcels so I at least had things growing while I was preparing the next area. Some other plot holders did do this, but most took the same approach as me – prepare for the following year.
As it turned out, by July I did have everything more or less ready and some things were planted. Despite the late start, we actually managed a pretty decent crop from that plot. It was enough to create the spark that set me on my future growth path.
2016 was better, we utilised the whole plot and again had some decent returns. We also had a lot of failures though, and it became clear that the distance between the plot and our home was going to be a problem. It would take anything between 25 and 45 minutes to drive there each time, which took chunks out of the available time each day. Hardening off became an issue. It simply wasn’t feasible to visit the plot twice each day, and due to school runs and other commitments, staying all day wasn’t viable either.
In the end, I took to bringing things home and setting them at the front door during the day to harden off. At night, they’d live on the kitchen table. This clearly wasn’t going to work for long. But, growing from seed is something I enjoy more than anything.
Early in 2017, I felt unwell for a long time. This limited my early season preparations. Eventually, I was diagnosed as diabetic and was able to address my health. It always felt like I was playing catch-up on the plot though. Ill health also meant I was behind on work, which again limited the amount of time I could spend on the plot. The distance between home and plot meant every trip had to be planned. Other commitments worked around. ‘An hour here or there’ was never really possible. Despite this, we still managed a decent, if unremarkable, crop.
Towards the end of that year, I began looking for sites closer to home.
It wasn’t until late May of 2018 that I was finally offered a plot close to home. One mile walk, exactly, from my front door to the gates of the site. By this point, I’d already planted a fair amount on the original plot, and many of my greenhouse seedlings were desperately in need of planting out.
I eagerly took on the new plot, and within a week my original plot had a new tenant waiting to take over. It was a frantic week that saw me move as much as I could between the old plot and the new. The new plot was anything but ready for planting. Unused for decades, and covered in weeds. The tools and equipment – potting bench etc were all ‘dumped’ in a corner on the new plot and covered with tarps to keep the rain off them as best I could. I brought across my strawberry plants, and my seedlings, but everything else had to stay behind. This was partly due to time, and partly because nothing else could be replanted yet.
Mindful of my first year’s mistake, I started by focusing on a just enough space to plant the seedlings I had. This turned out to be around 30 square metres. I was able to do that within a week, and planting was duly done – much to the admiration of fellow plot holders.
The remainder of the plot took longer to sort. I wanted to be much more thorough with this, and the ground was literally littered with rubble. I removed at least 20 barrow loads of bricks, rusty metal and all sorts of other litter.
The hot, dry summer of 2018 meant a great deal of time had been spent watering – and transporting water between home and the plot. The new site generally has better facilities. Regular manure deliveries, toilets(!) and an array of communal tools. But it doesn’t have mains water.
There is a pretty large pond, from which 4 IBC containers are filled, but that quickly dried up. Very few plot holders have water butts on their plot, so the IBC containers quickly emptied too.
This particular site opened in 2017. It had previously been allotments until 1986, at which point it closed and remained unused until reopened. The site and its occupants had never experienced drought before. Water had never been a problem for them. I suspect many more water butts will be in place this year.
By the end of August, the plot was pretty much ready. I’d removed so much rubble I could practically build a house. The ground was largely free of weeds, and we’d achieved a decent crop given the limitations. We were ready to put timber in place for paths and beds. I’d settled on the idea of a shed/greenhouse combo, which was to go in the middle of the plot at the back. It was all planned out and I was ready to order the timber.
Opportunity Knocks – for 2019
This plot was the same size as my old one – 130sqm. For most people, that’s adequate. If anything, a lot of people would probably do well with half that – especially if balancing full-time work and other commitments. So many plots get abandoned because people don’t realise how much work is involved.
By this point, I’d begun studying horticulture and was steering myself more towards this being more than just a ‘hobby’. I’d read countless books about growing and allotments in general. Particularly during the Second World War era. I longed for more space.
The opportunity to achieve that presented itself at the beginning of September. A large, unused area in the middle of the site was cleared and a second, large pond dug out. This area had previously suffered terrible waterlogging. Those that took on plots in that area when the site first opened, quickly vacated. Mindful of the problem, the area was left unused since.
The new pond though would hopefully alleviate that issue – though no guarantees could be given. Either side of the pond were two patches of ground – around 150sqm on one side, 330sqm on the other. I’d made no secret of my desire for more space prior to this, and asked if I could take on the larger of the two areas.
The site itself has no waiting list, though vacant plots do tend to get taken on fairly quickly – through word of mouth usually it would appear. There is however also a trend, I’ve noticed, for some to take on plots then disappear. Perhaps they’ll show their face a few times early on, but then not be seen for the rest of the year. At least a quarter of the plots, if not more, are effectively neglected.
Fortunately, a few recent new plot holders have embraced it fully though. I’m of the view that if a plot holder is there during the cold, wet days of winter, they’re probably going to stick with it.
Anyway, as I’d be on site frequently and it was clear that I was there for the long haul, the site ‘management’ kindly agreed to let me take on the larger plot. It’s by far the largest plot on the site, though some others do share half plots in addition to their own.
By the time I took it on in late September, it has quickly become a mass of weeds. As most were fresh weeds, they pulled out fairly easily – the couch grass was a little trickier to deal with. It wasn’t until mid-November that the plot was largely clear.
While 330 square metres doesn’t sound huge, it became clear that its much more work than I expected. Perhaps that’s because there was so much weeding to do, or because there was no structure in place. Either way, I’m happy that this is big enough to satisfy my needs. Anything bigger would probably be too big, at least with other commitments to balance.
During the time I was weeding and preparing the ground, I began thinking about layouts. I wanted to make the most of some of the ‘features’ of the plot. The pond it leads to, the drainage ditch in the centre etc. I also wanted to vary the interest more. Things such as a small lawn area with flowering borders were never something I had space for on my other plots. But I felt they’d be good to balance the interest as well as make it a more ‘family’ friendly plot. Maximising the growing area was also important, even with the extra space. I also, finally, had room for both a greenhouse and a shed – along with the polytunnel I already had in place.
By late November, the layout was settled on and timber delivered. This, unfortunately, coincided with a turn in the weather.
Which leads us to the start of 2019. Some of the timber has been put in place, but there is much still to do. It’s going to be a busy year!
As I’ve been writing this post, one thing that has become evident is that I haven’t documented the plots in full growth. I have plenty of seedling and plant shots, but none showing a whole view of the plot with everything growing. That’s something I will address this year!