Allotment


A pleasant surprise

I’ve had the allotment for almost four months now – long enough to get to know some of the faces and something of the rhythmn of life in this corner of Beckenham. And all in all I have to say it’s very pleasant.

First, the people. They come in all shapes and sizes. As you’d expect, there are the allotment cliches, the old boys who’ve been working their plots for decades. Ron, who has a towering apple tree that he planted from seed, is a fine and friendly example of the breed. These guys are proving to be a source of wisdom and knowledge, and are rapidly accelerating my gardening education.

There are also plenty of families, signalled by the plots with slides and swings dotting their edges, and by their children who pass the time by chasing each other around screaming and squealing. And then there are the individuals whom I see regularly but haven’t yet got to know – the Caribbean bloke who always drives his car up to the end of his plot, skittering along the edge of the beds on his way, or the chap in the suit who pops in to weed and water most evenings before driving off in his Jaguar.

They’re a sociable lot, as you’d imagine, and friendly. One of the joys I’ve discovered is stopping on the way or from my plot to chew the cud about fruit and veg and life in general. For all her undoubted qualities, Mrs Drooling can’t really hold her own when it comes to discussing the comparative merits of bush versus cordon tomatoes, but now I have a whole world of people where the only thing we have in common is precisely that!

And their kindness and helpfulness extends beyond the dishing out of sage advice. Chatting to Will the other day, he gave me a little tour of his plot, pointing out everything growing and the stories behind them. We got to talking about squashes and the different varieties we were planning on growing. He mentioned the banana squashes he’d had such luck with the previous year. I expressed admiration and thought no more of it.

A couple of days later, when I dropped in one evening to water, I found a little plastic bag taped to the side of my compost heap – a present courtesy of Will. I think I’m going to enjoy life down the allotment.

On the ipod while ruminating on the joys of allotment life: Cavalleria Rusticana / Mascagni. Nothing wrong with a bit of culture every now and then.

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Early days yet

It’s hardly the finished article, but as you can see my masterpiece is slowly taking shape.

Several soggy weekends of hard graft and impressive blisters has led to, well, not exactly an Eden but something that’s starting to resemble an allotment.

I’ve got five beds dug now, and some of them even have stuff in them! On the far side of the plot, in the two long beds, you can just make out the sticks in the mud that are – will be – my blackberries and raspberries.

The squash are going to go in the long bed opposite them, and I’ve stuck some onions and carrots in the short bed in between the long ‘uns.

The digging has been ferociously hard work, with plenty of turf removal followed by the turning over of severly compacted soil. Not sure what the previous occupant was doing here, but if they used the plot for marching band practice I wouldn’t be surprised.

That and the rather heavy soil has meant having to dig in loads of compost to try and make it a slightly better habitat for my precious veggies.

Oh, and there’s another complication. As you can see at the top of the picture, there are a few bushes on the edge of the plot. What you can’t see – because I don’t have a wide angle lens – is just how big they are. The evergreens are about forty foot high, and this has a pretty disastrous effect on two counts.

Firstly, they’re busy sucking up every drop of water and goodness from my plot, and secondly when I was down there last weekend in the blazing sunshine between 1 and 3pm the whole of my plot was in the shade.

Disaster! The rest of the place was cooking and I was shivering in the shade in my little corner!

Now I’m an optimist, so I’m telling myself that it’s early in the year and the sun is still low in the sky. Assuming it does actually rise in the East then in the summer the sun shouldn’t sit behind the trees. And even if it does then I reckon most of the plot gets a few hours’ sun notwithstanding the trees.

Not ideal, but things should still grow and I’m hoping that the worst that happens is that my veggies are smaller and later than the rest of the allotments.  And anyway, there’s plenty of people on the waiting list and it’s got to be better than having nothing at all…

Time will tell.

The master plan

An evening spent with a ruler and the boys’ paint set, and this is what you get: a high quality rendition of the world’s greatest allotment…

Of course, it looks an awful lot better in the flesh. It’s just the scanner’s a bit dodgy so you can’t see the lovely brushwork and fine draftsmanship.

You’re going to have to trust me on that one.

Anyway, enough of the picture, let’s talk about the plan. The plot, as regular readers will both know, is not currently quite as structured or carefully laid out as a first time visitor might think when looking at the above.

In fact there are currently no clearly-marked beds to speak of, only a few strange-shaped holes in the grass that look reasonably man-made. Clearly some work will be required to get it looking like the piccie, but every journey starts with a single step, blah blah blah.

I’ve gone for a fairly straightforward layout; lots of long thin beds that should allow me to access all the veggies without having to clamber over all the soil. And to stop it getting too boring and linear I threw in a few triangular beds at the western end of the plot (although I fear they might be a bit of a faff to measure out and dig).

I’m thinking that once I’ve dug the beds I’ll edge them with boarding to give them a nice clear border, and if I put down weed matting and woodchip over the paths then that should also remove the need to cut the grass, thus lowering the maintenance levels.

It may have an added bonus of deterring slugs and snails. The slimy buggers don’t seem to like the raised beds at the bottom of the garden and I’m hoping that’s at least in part because of the woodchip that surrounds them.

As well as the layout of the beds I’ve also decided what to plant in them. Obviously you can see the fruit and veg very clearly in the delightful botanical illustration above, so you don’t really need me to explain what’s going where, but for those of you who perhaps have dodgy eyes or poor quality monitors, I shall humour you.

Along the Northern border I’ll be planting raspberries and blackberries. That’s the shadier side of the plot and they should be a bit happier than most things being slightly out of the sun.

On the opposite edge are potatoes (roasting and new) and butternut squashes. In the middle, from left to right, are onions, carrots, (more) squashes – Uchiki Kuri this time – and then leeks and parsnips.

I’ve gone for a bit of height in the nifty triangular beds, and there we’ve got (clockwide from left) sweetcorn, borlotti beans, globe artichokes and jerusalem artichokes. Apparently they make you parp.

In theory I should have a good mix of veggies that are either far too big for the back garden (I’m looking at you, Uchiki Kuri) or nice and low maintenance so can cope with being ignored for days on end; the root vegetables should be tough enough to handle the neglect coming their way.

Closer to home the back garden will have some of the more high maintenance specimens, such as broad beans (which always get covered in black fly) and salad, which we eat pretty much every day.

But enough of the chit chat. Time to get the paints out and work on the plan for the bottom of the garden…

Isn't it beautiful?

Here it is! After years of working my way up the waiting list, here is the first sight of MY NEW ALLOTMENT!

I know.

A little underwhelming, isn’t it? If you were an estate agent you might call it a “fixer-upper”. Still, before we go on let’s rewind a little bit and relive the magic moment when my eyes first fell upon the promised land.

Clive the allotment secretary rang a couple of weeks ago (“‘Ello dear boy, ‘ow are yer?”) with the happy news that I had made it to the top of the waiting list and he had a “lovely little plot” to offer me. He described it in honeyed tones – a half plot so not too demanding for a first timer, worked last year so in good condition and not overgrown, plenty of scope to do what I want with it.

We agreed a date to meet up and look it over and so, one overcast Sunday morning, I found myself at the gates to the allotments awaiting a rendez vous with Clive.  After pleasantries we set off across the allotments, walking past manicured and lovingly-tended plots. We did not stop near any of these plots.

The plots got a little scruffier. A few overgrown patches began to appear here and there. The brambles began to assert themselves. We kept walking.

The light began to fade. Eventually Clive paused. “Almost there, dear boy, almost there.” An owl hooted. We reached the boundary fence and hung a left to see….my plot!

It’s fair to say it wasn’t quite how I’d pictured it. Those silky words “Worked last year” had led me to imagine a manicured plot, carefully marked beds, perhaps a few fruit bushes and perennials still going strong.

Clive kicked a thigh-high tuft of grass: “Think you might have some raspberries in there” he nodded approvingly.

I’m not sure who worked it last year, but I don’t think I would be doing them a disservice if I said it doesn’t appear to have been intensively worked in the recent past.

But never mind the quibbles, it’s mine! I have an allotment to grow fruit and vegetables! So what’s it like?

As you can see from the pic it’s cornered on two sides by the boundary fence; a stream runs along one side, and some neighours’ gardens back on to another edge.

It’s five rods in size. That’s 13m x 10m to you and me.The sun rises behind the stream and sets just behind…..the forty foot trees on the edge of the plot.

Hmm. Probably not a sun-kissed paradise, but if you had to put a couple of ginormous evergreens on your vegetable patch where they blocked out the least amount of light then that’s where they’d be. What with those trees and the shade from the fences and shrubs in the back gardens, it’s probably about 8m wide in reality, with not much likely to grow along that boundary.

There are a few random-looking beds dotted around the plot, various shapes and sizes. One of them has a large mound of earth in the middle, looking alarmingly like a recently-dug grave, and there are also a couple of pieces of carpet that are presumably covering other beds.

I have my own shed! Sitting in the far corner, it looks more like an outhouse, but it’s somewhere to keep tools and bits and bobs without getting wet. And just behind that is a water tank that is hooked up to the mains, which for £5 a year gives me unlimited water right on my doorstep.

The next-door plot is being worked for the first time this year, and just across from mine is a plot dedicated to bees; three bee hives with another three on the way.

It’s all very exciting. I think it’s probably just big enough to grow a lot, but not dauntingly so. There’s a fair bit of shade, but you don’t need 24 hour sun to grow veg, so as long as we don’t plan along mediterranean lines that shouldn’t be a problem, and there are thousands of people on waiting lists so to have any plot is a bonus.

So now on to the planning. I’ll be drawing up a wish list of things to grow, blowing the dust off those garden design books and figuring out what to do with my new empire. Watch this space…..