The early days … 2008
Which one to choose?
On Thursday 30th August 2007, a phone call from Chipping Norton Town Council informed us we were at the top of the William Fowler Allotment Trust waiting list. What’s more, we had a choice of 6 plots! Less than an hour later, armed with a site plan, we were off to select our own little bit of heaven.
Needless to say every plot we looked at was a wilderness, with knee-high weeds and mountains of rubbish. It was a difficult choice, but finally 66A won … more to do with the damson tree in the adjoining hedgerow than the state of the land. Like many allotments nowadays, all the old plots had been divided in half to cope with the increased demand. So, in less than 2 hours, we’d made our choice, signed the paperwork and handed over the princely sum of £4 for the year’s rent.
Two days in … and work abandoned!
With a flurry of planning and activity, we started work on Saturday 1st September. With a bit of weed clearance and the foundations of a recycled pallet compost bin behind us, disaster struck! An elderly parent had been rushed into hospital … 100 miles away. Sadly, our new allotment was forgotten, and it was 5 long months before we were able to tackle the wilderness.
Back to it – February 2008
You might remember the winter of 2008. It was wet and cold and believe me, it can get very cold in Chipping Norton. But time was no longer on our side. If our plans were to come to fruition, we couldn’t let the Chippy winter get in the way. All too soon, it would be spring and we had to get organised. During our long sabbatical in Portsmouth, most of our allotment neighbours thought we’d fallen at the first hurdle. But both David and I are made of sterner stuff, and so … in whatever the elements threw at us, we got stuck in!
Our allotment bed system
Our master plan involved a bed system. Working to a scale plan, we had space for 13 beds, each 4ft wide. The first thought was raised beds … but with the cost of wood, this wasn’t a practical solution. Of course we could have used reclaimed pallet wood, but the time involved in sourcing the pallets and breaking them down, meant we wouldn’t have been ready for the spring sowing.
Personally, I’ve always thought raised beds were a bit of a fashion fad! Not only do they use a lot of timber, they need to be filled. It was going to be a hard enough job without either having to import top soil or compost … or the worst case scenario: digging up the paths to fill the beds!
It didn’t take us long to decide the beds would do just as well at the same level as the paths, so problem solved. With the amount of long-established weed on the plot, the paths were going to present a problem. However, courtesy of the local Freecycle, we acquired enough old carpet to cover the paths between the beds. To prevent it becoming too water-logged in the wet weather, we laid the carpet upside down. I have to admit for me, aesthetics came into this too … how could we have non-colour coordinated flooring on our allotment?
The dreaded digging
It was clear we wouldn’t be able to clear even this modest sized plot in time for spring sowing with just a blunt scythe and a couple of forks. We invested in a new petrol stimmer and a 2nd-hand rotovator (good old eBay!) and got to work. The weather wasn’t on our side … there’s no doubt this was going to be a big job. Our allotment neighbour said our plot hadn’t been worked in about 8 years, but there was no easy way out.
Each 20ft x 4ft bed took at least 4 hours digging and clearing, even with the rotovator, before it was ready to plant. Each area was rotovated, the beds marked out with posts and string, and then dug over, removing the weeds and as much root as possible. Finally we went over each bed with a ‘Twizzler’: a cunning gadget with four prongs which form a square. I’m sure it has a technical name, but what that might be eludes me. However, once in the soil, you twist it round and about and it helps break up the lumps and free any pieces of root. Although this was all backbreaking work, it did become very sociable. Our allotment adjoins a farm track and all the local dog walkers took a great deal of interest in our progress until the hedgerow thickened and they could see no more!
With the amount of bad weather in the early months of our allotmenteering, progress on site was slow. However, there was no time to waste and we were going to need a large number of plants to populate our brand new vegetable beds. Many, many years ago, I grew vegetables from seed raised in home-made modules made from newspaper. Each sheet of newspaper was rolled into a tube approximately 4cm in diameter and sellotaped all the way down. These were then cut into lengths about 6cm long – each one making an individual module for the seed. This works well … but does need a fair amount of patience. The newspaper isn’t robust, so filling each one takes time. However, necessity is the mother of invention and a suitably sized plastic bottle made an admirable funnel to speed up the process! On the plus side, it is possible to fit around 40 of these into a standard size seed tray. When the seedlings are big enough, they can be transplanted into the ground still in their module, with the minimum of disturbance.
With our bed system, we thought rotating our crops would be a simple matter. One bed contained the pond, some new raspberry canes and strawberries. This left us with 12 beds which were allocated to roots, brassica (and I always thought Swede was a root veg!), and legumes … beans, peas, etc. However we were in a bit of a quandary when it came to planting seeds which would over-winter. Should the onions planted in the autumn be put in the 2008 root bed, or should we move them to the 2009 position? These were the sort of questions which we couldn’t easily answer! Despite a fair bit of research, we couldn’t find the answer so simply decided to work to our own system, which at least would be consistent. The new seeds or plants went into the new year’s beds and we simply had to plant around anything still in the ground.
Neither of us are big potato eaters. In fact, they are something we rarely have, so it didn’t make sense to give over a large area to growing potatoes. We bought 16 Catriona seed potatoes in the spring of 2008 (last of the big spenders!) and decided this would be enough for our needs. But shortly after this we were introduced to some old and unusual varieties by a friend: Highland Burgundy Red and a Blue Potato (more purple than blue it has to be said). Unlike ‘normal’ reds, the flesh of these tubers was the same colour as the skin! So for fun, we ordered a few for no better reason than I had a burning ambition to serve ‘patriotic potato salad’. I achieved my goal … and the resulting potato salad was the most amazing colour, especially when garnished with some chopped home-grown red onion!
Blight is a huge problem on our allotments. The site is quite exposed which makes growing potatoes and tomatoes difficult. We had to dig up our potatoes early, reducing the yield, as all the plots around us were badly infected. At the end of the 2008 season we decided potato growing on the allotment wasn’t for us … so we gave over the ground to other less vulnerable crops.
The number 66A bus shelter?
As well as digging, weeding and planting, David’s spare time was taken up in the construction of a large double-bay compost bin. Made entirely from recycled pallet wood, the bins were a handsome addition to our plot. However, they’d only been standing a few weeks when we came to the conclusion that storage was also called for! What our allotment lacked was a shed. This would allow us to store all the accumulation of junk which seems to breed on allotments (netting, canes, and other such useful objects) and … perhaps more importantly … afford us some shelter in the regular cloudbursts. So with a small investment in some additional wood, compost bin number 2 quickly evolved into the shed!
The evolution of the shed also meant we had a means of collecting rainwater … when we chose our allotment one minor detail escaped us … our plot was so far from the tap as to make using hoses almost impossible. But who needed tap water when Mother Nature was providing us with an almost constant source of the real thing? To become as self-sufficient as possible, we invested the enormous sum of £100 (£50 + £50 delivery!) on a 1000ltr water tank. Although we winced at the time, in real terms the tank was worth its weight in gold. Our tank now provides us with enough rain water to last the year, without the need to use any tap water at all. Of course, we haven’t had the chance of putting this fully to the test, particularly as we’ve had some spectacular rainfall this year too!
If you’re wondering where the bus shelter came into things … take a look at the picture. The roof arrangement, cunningly designed by David to collect as much water as possible, meant the handsome compost bin / evolved shed bore a startling resemblance to an old fashioned bus shelter and has attracted many a curious look from passers-by! But isn’t that what allotments are about? Heath Robinson design and utility rules!
A wild-life haven
One of our priorities was to attract as many helpful critters as possible onto our allotment. What better than a couple of frogs or toads to feast on the pesky slugs, and ladybirds would help control the aphids. We already had a wood pile, salvaged from the debris scattered across the plot, but a pond would certainly help our eco-system. With half a plot and the obvious dangers to children, our pond couldn’t be a grand affair. But a new central heating system at home freed up a small header tank which was tailor-made for the job. At about 2ft x 1.5ft it took up little space and solved the problem. Courtesy of Freecycle again, we acquired some tadpoles, a water lily and some oxygenating plants. I did subsequently read that one shouldn’t import tadpoles, but by that time it was fait accompli and our tadpoles were thriving. Whether we ever get our own spawn is a matter of conjecture, but we have seen some toads around … perhaps a promise of things to come?
We’re not sure if it’s down to our intervention, but 2009 has seen our allotment full of ladybirds! What ever way you look at it … we must have done something right!
The best laid plans of mice and peas
When we were clearing the allotment, we discovered a quite prolific mouse and vole population. Included in our intended crop was mange tout and peas, both of which are highly desirable to our little furry friends! Now, if you’ve watched as many gardening programmes as we have, you will know the solution is to either:
• Grow the seeds elsewhere in a length of guttering … or
• Soak them first in paraffin to discourage the mice
Now to do the first, you need to have guttering to hand, space to accommodate it, and be able to transport it to the site. Hmmm … OK! So guttering was out! After a bit of creative thinking, we solved the problem by planting our pea seeds in plastic pop bottles, cunningly sawn in half. It did the job admirably … no expense needed, easily managed and transported!
Fair’s fair though, we wanted to give the paraffin method a go too, but this didn’t come cheap, 5ltrs of paraffin costs around a fiver, and I only wanted an egg cup full! Did it work? Well yes … to an extent … we had about a 60% germination rate and we’ll never know if that was down to the mice or over-soaking in the paraffin. A word of warning here if you’re tempted to try this at home … wear old rubber gloves! The paraffin had an adverse affect on my brand new gardening gloves … a few hours later they had doubled in size after their somewhat toxic soaking!
Gradually the beds took shape and each was planted with our ready-grown seedlings. The last one was finally finished in July 2008, just in time for inspection by a host of friends who had descended on us for the weekend. We were able to serve a dazzling array of stir-fried vegetables, salads, and a traditional roast served with our home-grown vegetables! The week before had been a helter skelter of activity … our prized allotment had to be ‘just so’ … and by then even the most persistent of weeds wouldn’t have dared to show their heads that weekend.
Allotment under attack
While we’d grown vegetables on a small scale previously … the inevitable runner beans, some cabbages, and courgettes, etc, nothing prepared us for the constant attack of the allotment predators. Surprisingly, slugs and snails were never a big problem, although we did treat the plot with nematodes before planting. Our neighbourhood bunnies feasted on the brassica, the mice were in abundance and moles were up-turning the plants as fast as I could get them in the ground! As fast as we fended off one attack, another was underway. Thanks to Charlie, the Chipping Norton allotment sage, the cabbage white butterflies didn’t do a lot of damage. Regular spraying with some ‘noxious rhubarb jollop’ soon put paid to them!
I’m also going to include the neighbourhood vandals in this tale of pestilence! It wasn’t long before our shed suffered at the hands of the local thugs. We’ve never kept anything of value in the shed for this very reason, but it was heart-breaking to find the door smashed and the hinges and locks broken. We’ve since been told that the allotment sheds are favoured by a certain ‘element’ for romantic trysts. However at just about 4 ft square, courting in our junk filled shed-let would be challenging for the most ardent of lovers. While I thought longingly of booby traps, flour bombs and other such deterrents, I contented myself with attaching a (very polite) laminated notice to the door saying … ‘you’ve already looked – so don’t waste your time again!’ It seems to have done the trick!
Weary, smug and very self-satisfied copywriters
Whatever way you look at it, our first season as allotmenteers can only be described as a triumph. We had our failures … either we’re not cut out to grow cauliflower or calabrese, or they don’t like our soil … we don’t know which! Our sprouts were … not so much buttons as pea-sized and the companion planting didn’t
deter the carrot fly. But the successes made it all worth while … huge parsnips and giant swede, strings of onions, mountains of kale … and all tasting so much better than anything the supermarket stocks. The verdict? The best way in the world to relax after a busy week in front of a computer!