Our Allotment - Getting Started

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My Dad exclaimed 'what on earth do you want to take on something else for!' Not an unreasonable comment when you consider our ridiculously busy lives, but in amongst the myriad of things we get up to, well, we'd been missing something. But what was it? Well the lovely Tom and Barbara of Good Life fame, equally confused as us, described what was missing in their lives as 'it'. Well I am happy to concur, what we're missing is.. umm..  'it'. So lets discover how we're discovering 'it', why we're loving 'it', and how 'it' is transforming our lives. Confused.. well you won't be by the end, so stick with 'it' Ha ha!

We'd had our names on the waiting list for an allotment at a couple of local fields, number 72 on the list at one, number 43 at another. This equated to a waiting time of about a two years before we were ever likely to get our hands on one of these magical spaces! So when we got a suprise call one Sunday morning from the field secretary saying that if we'd like to go down there now there was an outside chance we might get something, we hurridly bundled the family into the car. The allotment Organiser had decided that to get more people engaged, they would start giving out half plots, and on that basis we came roaring up the waiting list. There were a few other hopeful folk waiting outside the allotment shop, and as our names were lowest down the list, we were last to choose from the selection of half plots on offer. The last of the 'selection' was a choice between a heavilly compacted roadway which was being brought into allotment status, a plot with upwards of twenty huge tree stumps, and two halves of a plot that had not been cultivated for upwards of 4 decades, being home to chickens for many years. It had recently been somewhat forceably 'repossessed' by the authorities. In the process, the sheds, chicken runs, summerhouse (yes really) had been burnt, smashed, and pulverised into the ground by a group of community service offenders (similar actions that had probably got them into that group in the first place!) The plot had nine tree stumps which had been JCB ripped from the ground but left with some roots still attached and vast amounts of clay around the roots making them very heavy, too heavy to man handle, so thought was going to have to be given to how we were going to move them. Yes we had decided immediately to take on the task, what a mess we had to start with (check out the photo below in High def by clicking it, to spot all the junk!)


So why take on this unenviable task. Well, you'll remember I mentioned 20 or more years of chickens on the plot, they do something very well, and I'm not talking laying eggs! The soil under all that junk and weeds, was hopefully going to be very nice indeed. The vast amount of stinging nettles was testament to that, a weed which points to good soil to force it's huge root system through! 

Forms filled in for the council, and the allotment plot was ours! Work began in earnest. ('Earnest' is the name given to the our half of the plot, no only joking!) Russ (he of family railway modelling exploits) was, in the words of Dad's Army, 'also on zee list' and with the second half of the plot next door still available, he was able to take it on. Russ is an allotment man through and through, having recently given up his plot some miles away owing mainly to it being 'some miles away'. So now we could share a full plot, but we made the decision to work on the first half first. Well it's already mid may, and the sudden acquisition of the plot had meant we were hopelessly unprepared, with very little in the greenhouse at home ready to be planted out. So some cultivated soil was urgent on the agenda. 
Thanks to one of Field men, Graham,  we soon realised what a useful tool the mattock really was, hacking through thick tree roots, rotting shed bases with accompanying rat nests. Thank goodness there have been no live rats as yet, only skeletons presented to me by Catherine and Hannah 'Daddy whats this a skeleton of' and empty rat poison bottles in the half submerged junk laying around the plot!) But back to the hard work.


We really needed to have tools nearer to hand, the car was getting beaten up bringing up the spade and wheel barrow, so a shed was next on the agenda. In keeping with the 'keeping costs to a minimum' philosophy, we dismantled one of our sheds in the garden (well it had always been too small for the bikes). Fits nicely on the car don't you think?!

Clearing the stinging nettles was a bit of a priority as there was no path access across the plot and a route through the dense nettles was proving difficult particularly for little Hannah. We all got stung in that first couple of weeks, including Hannah who tripped and fell headlong into the patch. It was a noisy afternoon!


It soon became clear that the previous owners of the plot had been carpet fitters! It was everywhere, and what was worse, it was quite deep under the soil, up to a foot down in places. Impossible to deal with quickly, we set about the task of shoveling off the soil into heaps, before trying to cut away sections of the carpet, and then putting back the soil into the resulting hole. All in all a frustrating, back breaking and slow process. This carpet wasn't just covering 'sections', it was covering 'most' of the plot. How we swore! The second half of the plot, to be tackled later, didn't look a lot better either, little bits of carpet protruding from test holes that we had dug to see what was down there. But this was going to be a game of two halves, so that'll come later!


As we moved simultaneously forward from the back of the plot, and backwards from the front of the plot, the creation of a path became a necessity to stop us from compacting the soil we had dug. The allotments have a regular source of chippings from the Ipswich Parks Department, and a few barrows soon saw a quite smart path take shape. Meanwhile, digging continued apace. The ground appeared to get dryer and dryer towards the middle in fact doing a very good impersonation of concrete!

Forks and spades were nearly breaking, tempers were nearly breaking, but the ground wasn't giving way, the final few metres was an absolute sod... literally! The path met in the middle, and several nights were spent chipping away at the last couple of square metres of rock solid ground. You can see the patch in the photo. We thought about using a hammer and chisel at one point! Would it ever go? Well eventually!

As far as planning the plots is concerned, we're obviously a little rushed this season, so where to put what is a little hit and miss, but we're broadly speaking trying to keep in our favoured crop rotation of 3 patches growing different groups of veggies each year to minimise the risk of disease, and to establish the best growing conditions for each group. So patch 1 this year has Brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers, sprouts etc), patch 2 is Legumes (peas, beans etc)  patch 3 is roots (carrots, parsnips etc)  Next year everything moves around one patch(well in principle!). We may well move onto a five patch rotation in future years but just we want to get started, and are keeping it easy for now. I say easy, but frankly I even get confused with this traditional method.


Mid way through week three, lots of tree roots dug out, loads of broken glass cleared, old wrecked sheds and chicken run cleared, two layers of carpets across the whole of this half of the plot (it was hell with a capital H!!), three tree stumps removed, we've planted the brassicas, runner beans, peas!! The other half of the plot to the left is looming, and never far from our gaze, and the supportive words from  our field man, 'I think you'll find that worse'! The good news - another communal skip is coming on Saturday, the bad news - it's being taken away on Monday! That's the weekend then. Oh and Russ is away!


Over several hours, and with the kids brilliantly entertaining themselves, Liz and I nearly killed ourselves clearing the huge amount of junk and tree stumps from the second half of the plot. Two stumps were just too big to be moved by anything than a JCB, so we left those for Russ's more 'considered sawing' and 'dismantling'. At this point, I'd like to give some advice to those volunteers trying to help clear allotment plots, such as our friends from the young offenders. Take the shed contents intact and put into the skip. Don't  smash all the windows into thousands of shards of glass, and smash the jam jars full of nails so they spray all over the place. And to the JCB drivers helping, don't just crush the old buildlings into the soil with your bucket and then set light to it, so all the ironmongery and burnt plastics sink into the soil. Not that I'm moaning of course, but I have got a T-shirt with 'grumpy old man' written on it! All in all, a hundred times more work is now needed to clean up after the cleaner-uppers, if you follow me. Rant over!



June 2010
It's good to report that the first half of he plot is up and running, and looking good, not bad after the 'train crash' that it was eight weeks ago. So we began to unearth the deep secrets of the second half of the plot.  A sunken rotten shed base, sat on carpet and with 3 rats nests started things off well. A large conifer stump needed grubbing up which took some hours . All this activity at the back of the plot, which was so dry and stony that we're really going to have to think hard about what would be tough enough to grow here. We're thinking fruit bushes at the moment, but lets not run ahead of ourselves!


To get a few rows of  parsnips in before its too late this year, I hurridly set about digging a section of the second half of the plot. I had great hopes as it was relivitely clear and the fork went nicely into the soil where a large bonfire had been set. Oh dear why wouldn't that fork go in any deeper than one fork depth? Yes you've guess it .. carpet! So the archaeology began again digging away to find the edges, then shovelling of the soil into heaps, well you know the rest.


The rather sad clump of green lily type growth in  the middle of the second half of the plot has been worked around, in the hope that it might do something, and my word it has, loads of wonderful white lily flowers, that brighten the bare soil up, as well as making fantastic cut flowers. Destined to be divided and propagated later in the season me thinks!


The kindness of our fellow allotmenteers has  provided us with some lettuce, pea seed, more sweetcorn, some rhubarb plants and some lovely chitted Charlotte seed potatoes so we're busily finding space in the plan. Yes there really is a plan.




Catherine has been developing her pond, a piece of liner, some bits of broken crazy paving, a water lilly, several bunches of oxygenator and a collection of tadpoles from various water butts around the allotment. We shall see!


Five ply carpet! Surely that's as bad as it gets. We couldn't believe it as we found five carpets on top of one another, bound together with nettle roots, and some layers had six inches of soil in between that needed to be moved. Graham was right, the second half of the plot is the worst for carpets at least! The removal of this lot has to be done slowly and methodically because of all the nails, glass and junk in the soil above, oh and did I mention the rat nests? Under the carpets, which we suspect cover the entire plot used for chickens, are rat runs and several old nests. Our neighbour says he counted 14 rats on the plot one morning a year or so ago. I'm pretty sure they've vacated the plot since the chickens have gone, and copious amounts of rat poison were used,  but we're only a few metres into the second half of the plot so we may find them yet.

'The strange case of the shrivelled up sprouts'
It's just one corner of this year's brassica patch. The plants are just not doing very well. We're hoping it's not clubroot, which it appears can stay in the soil for numerous years. But as we've mentioned this plot has not been used for anything other than chickens for decades, so the likelihood of clubroot? Well we're just not sure. But then there are so many pests and diseases possible it's quite scary. This little episode has led us to think about the allotment in a more sensible way. We're not going to have 100% success, not every plant is going to grow, seeds may not germinate, and there will be complete failures. With all our previous garden based veggie growing experience, we've gone into the allotment without 'rose coloured spectacles', ours are more 'soiled', but it would be nice to have a good deal of success, so lets keep watering and hoeing!


The failures are a shame, but it's a joy to see most stuff growing. However the best bit of all.. harvest. Our first head of calabrese was absolutely delicious, nothing like the supermarket, in fact almost sweet!

Sorting out the second half of the plot is almost complete, with some Charlotte potatoes expected for Christmas, a couple of rows of parsnips, swedes, and carrots aswell as our favourite Swiss chard (and not because it has 'Swiss' in the name!) The last of the junk from the plot made it's way to the local recycling centre (the tip!). Actually we've lost count of the trips to the tip. Russ has taken on the incredibly dirty task of sieving the ash remains of the young offenders bonfire (you remember the shed, it's contents, chicken runs,summerhouse and a match!) The tonnage of rusty nails and screws, broken glass, burnt tools, even a burnt garden parasol , made life very much more difficult that it needed to be but the job is done and the cleared plot looks very pleasing, and very ready to plant.


July 2010 The first half of the plot is growing away well, and the first fruits of our labours are coming in.







It's become very plain that 'the standard' netting protecting the brassicas just won't hack it. Yes it's fine to keep the pigeons off, but now is the season of Pieris Brassicae, the dreaded Cabbage White butterfly, and those little buggers fold their wings and squeeze through the mesh, so 7mm butterfly net, at a horrendous price is called for. Stretched over a wooden frame I'm quite pleased with it, albeit I didn't buy 'quite' enough first time so we have an overlap, but it seems to be doing the job. Mind you it doesn't stop all the other bugs, (earwigs look to be a real problem)


A new arrival on site has been a second hand  wheelie bin, which makes an excellent water bowser. Useful, as the shared tap has of late been very busy with the gloriously hot days we've been experiencing, and waiting to be able to use it is a bit of  pain. I'm amazed at just how much water the plot takes to do a good watering session. One wheelie bin load to be precise! 240 litres about 53 gallons! Mind you, the veg is looking good on it!



Weekend lunches demand somewhere to sit and barbecue, so for this year a hurridly created area by the shed is the order of the day. Grass will come later we think.

Late July Catherine's tadpoles are froglets, hopping around everywhere (you've got to be very careful not to stand on them) The pond is working well with damsel flies visiting, and some splendid snails courtesy of a fellow allotmenteer.



With the removal of the last few bits of carpet, and a final digging flourish, the second half of the pot is finished. We'll not plant much here until the autumn, and try to get some serious crop rotation underway, but for now we're chuffed! And just in time the rain has come, to no doubt give rise to more weeds, but it has meant that I have been able to have a few evenings at home for once a the plot waters itself.


A cut flower area will sit alongside the car space. Wallflowers have been planted to form a kind of screen to hopefully cut down some of the wind which has a habit of whistling across the field with abandon.

The website of the Goss family.