Since I was very small, I’ve always wanted my own vegetable patch. The fact that you can nurture something from seed to something you can eat is still amazing to me. Living in London, it’s not easy to come by the garden space needed for a full vegetable patch, so until now I’ve grown tomatoes in pots, and raspberries wherever I could find a patch of ground to stick a cane in! A couple of years ago, Mark secretly put our names down on the list for an allotment – and he got away with it for a while – that is until I was about to sign up myself and he had to tell me. Eventually our names came to the top of the list in May 2019 and we were given a 5-rod plot.
Our plot was covered in grass, but not many brambles or tough weeds from what we could tell, and the shed might have been close to falling down, but there were some old tools we could use to get us going. We knew it was going to be a pretty big job to clear the area and get it ready for growing, but we were excited to get to work.
The most obvious problem was the shed. The floor was made of old palettes which meant a lot of junk had fallen in between the slats, and they weren’t level or particularly sturdy. That plus the fact that the whole structure was cobbled together with various bits and pieces of scrap wood, corrugated plastic, and old doors meant that the whole thing was unstable and had to come down. You might also notice from the photos that some bindweed had managed to take hold. Anyway, we sorted through all of the old rusty tools, furniture, and wood from the shed itself salvaging as much as we could, but a lot of it was beyond repair so we had no choice but to get rid of it.
What we hadn’t anticipated were the obstacles we would come across under the surface when trying to clear the plot for planting. We found countless rusty nails in the soil – I’m talking hundreds of them – pieces of broken glass, and parts of plastic pots and chocolate wrappers. Every time we let the ground settle, more nails would rise to the surface. This has been a huge factor in how quickly we’ve been able to progress, as we have tried to be really thorough in getting rid of anything like that in the soil. My big question is why on earth all those nails were even there?!
The other challenge has been the layers of hidden carpet that have been left for so long that the grass and weeds have grown through them in a thick mat. The only option has been for the two of us to use our entire body weight to roll the carpet up, dragging the roots with it, and then making sure we’ve got everything else out of the soil. And it’s not just carpets, we’ve found a metal grate and an 80L plastic bin entirely buried under the soil – no sign of it from above until we started to clear that area. I keep joking to Mark that we’re going to find a dead body somewhere, and every time we find a new obstacle there is a slight sense of dread…
Despite the many surprises, we’ve now cleared half of our plot and got it ready for planting. We’ve also built a brand new shed (with a proper floor!) which takes up a bit less space than the old one and we’ve broken the back of the bindweed infestation as well. We’ve been clearing the plot in strips rather than all in one go so that we could get some plants in last year and not miss the whole growing season. We have a row of raspberries from my sister that should be ready to fruit this year, and we had a good harvest of strawberries last summer. A kind neighbour on the plot just across from ours gave us some of his extra chard from his polytunnel which did really well too. We had great success with our tomatoes, spring onions and Brussels sprouts as well so we’ll be growing all of them again this year. Considering we’ve been working with less than a quarter of the plot’s growing space, I’ve been really surprised and grateful for how much we’ve been able to harvest.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice we were given by our neighbouring plot holders was that our plot was potentially at risk of flooding if the weather was particularly wet. Apparently it hadn’t flooded in the past couple of years, but there had been issues before, so we have taken that on board and built raised beds and lifted the plot up as much as we can. The plot wasn’t very level to begin with so rather than digging down to rectify it, we’ve been trying to build upwards with a mixture of manure, topsoil whenever we can get it, and free compost from our local recycling centre. This winter has been really wet so the water table has been quite high. It has been the perfect test for us and thankfully we’ve managed to keep flooding at bay. A neighbour’s plot has been completely submerged and apparently one of our neighbours even saw a heron on it!
With half of our plot cleared and raised beds ready and waiting for this year’s plants, we’re really excited for 2020. We have new fruit cordons going in this month as well as a dwarf pear tree, the strawberry bed is under a nice warm straw mulch blanket, and our future herb garden is cleared of the previous year’s veg ready for its new purpose. The four beds in the photo below will be for crop rotation and we’re hoping to have a further four beds for rotating once we’ve cleared the rest of the plot this year. The palettes that we salvaged from the old shed floor are going to be given a new lease of life as a compost station, and we’ll be getting a polytunnel in ready for next winter as well. That should leave a bit of space for another couple of dwarf trees, an area to grow cut flowers, and some space for perennials like rhubarb and asparagus, but we’ll see how we get on!
We expected it to be hard work, and it has been, especially with the extra challenges posed by the carpets and nails, but actually it hasn’t felt like a chore at all. Having a project that has allowed us to get outside, sometimes before work in the morning during the summer, and to listen to birds while we tend to the plot has brought so many other benefits that it is absolutely worth it. I think the image below sums it up perfectly – this was taken after a long day on the plot where we had worked hard and stayed later than we expected, and nature rewarded us.
If you have an allotment, I’d love to know what your experience has been like. If not, do you like to grow anything in your garden or outdoor area if you have one? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.