Our Allotment: Spring 2020 Update

This week marks a whole year since we first got our allotment. Mark and I have been looking back over photographs from the very beginning and although there might still be lots to do, we’ve come a very long way! I sometimes wonder if we’re taking longer and being more thorough than we need to, but then I feel like we’re doing things properly and not taking any shortcuts, and that it will ultimately pay off when we have healthy soil and luscious veggies for years to come.

I last shared an update on our allotment back at the start of February when there wasn’t much growing and rain seemed to be pouring every day. How different the weather is now! In the past few months we’ve been hard at work and things are really coming alive now.

Since my last update, we’ve had a few big building jobs to do to get the plot properly up and running. The shed was already up, but it needed a paint job to make sure the wood was protected as much as possible (we had hoped to do that before the winter set in but the rain hampered progress whenever we had some time). It was great to have a spell of dry weather to get the painting done and the shed looks really smart now if you ask me. The inside of the shed also needed organising so that we could use the small space most efficiently. I set to work putting up some pegboard so that smaller tools can hang up above the table, and also built a rack on the opposite side for bigger tools. Now we can get in to the shed without either removing everything first or tripping over things!

The next job was to build a couple of bays for compost so that we could have a designated area to start a proper compost heap. As compost needs to have a combination of “greens” like vegetable peelings, fruit cores, and grass cuttings, and “browns” like sawdust, cardboard and dried leaves, we had started building quite a collection in various places. Kitchen scraps were being piled into one of the existing bins on the plot, we had a bag of sawdust from my Dad sitting in the boot of the car, and a load of torn cardboard in our loft. We’ve used old palettes that were the floor of the old shed to make a compost station and it’s great to have the space where we can start layering greens and browns for lovely “black gold” in a few months’ time. I do find it a little bit disconcerting that no matter how much I seem to layer on each time, the heap never gets any bigger, but then that’s the point isn’t it! It’s definitely doing its magic which is great.

The last big building project that we’ve been really keen to finish is the polytunnel. In our early, ambitious plans we had hoped to get the tunnel up before the winter so that we could get some seedlings going early, but with the rain in both the autumn and late winter months we just weren’t able to get the ground cleared without potentially damaging the soil structure. With the dry weather we’ve had over the past weeks we’ve been able to clear the space of weeds, raise the level up to match the rest of the plot (more on why we’re raising our plot in my previous update post), and finally get the tunnel built and most importantly, get the bloomin’ thing out of the shed! It’s now housing the dahlias and all of our seedlings before they’re big enough to be hardened off and planted out. The polytunnel can get really hot, so we’ve been making sure that it’s open as much as possible during the current heatwave so our little plants don’t bake.

We didn’t start a lot of seeds early, because we were limited to what we had space for in our flat, but now that our polytunnel is ready we’re able to sow a lot more. We’ve got pea, beetroot, parsnip, carrot, chard, kale, lettuce and radish seedlings going which were planted straight into the beds, and we’ve got purple sprouting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower ready to be planted out any day now. We also have some courgette, sweetcorn, and pumpkin seeds growing like the clappers which will be planted out once they’re big enough (it won’t take them long!), and then the tomatoes, chillies, cucumbers and aubergines will all be planted out into the poly tunnel beds.

We’ve had onions, broad beans, and potatoes in the raised beds for a couple of months now and some new gooseberry and currant cordons, but we did have a very late and unexpected frost last week. We weren’t able to get protective fleece in such short notice, so we earthed over the potatoes as much as we could. Still, the cold dip didn’t do our potatoes much good, and we lost a couple of smaller plants, but actually most of the plants that were already outside have coped with it pretty well, there are still little fruits forming on our redcurrant, and the potatoes seem to be bouncing back.

I treated myself to some soil blockers with some birthday money which have been great for sowing seeds without the need for lots of little plastic pots or seed trays. They are apparently great for encouraging strong root systems too as the roots are “air-pruned” when they meet the edges of the blocks which forces the plant to make more roots. I’ve struggled to get a lot of success germinating seeds in the really tiny micro blocks as they dry out so quickly, but the larger blocks have been great so far. I think they’re going to make planting out so much easier as I’ll just be able to drop the blocks straight into the soil without having to prize the roots out of a pot and risk damaging them.

Before the garden centres closed we had been to get a few lovely daffidils, crocuses and primulas to add a bit of colour next to our pear tree, which is where we’ve got a little seating area. They’ve been an uplifting sight whenever we arrive at the plot and we’er hoping that they will naturalise well and come back for years to come. We’ve also been gradually adding to our herb garden with some interesting varieties that will be fun to cook with and that you can’t get in the shops. I’m especially excited about our lemon curd thyme and BBQ rosemary from Urban Herbs, and the “hot & spicy” oregano sounds pretty exciting too. Probably the herb we’ve used the most so far has to be the humongous borage plant that we got from The Culinary Herb Company. It has grown so quickly and prolifically that we’ve been harvesting leaves most days which have gone in to everything from tuna sandwiches to cold tea infusions and even a yummy cream sauce to go with fish. The flowers appeared recently and, rather than the usual blue, they’ve turned out to be white which was a pleasant surprise – the white variety is quite unusual.

Still the biggest success story has to be the stalwart rhubarb plant that we inherited. Despite everything thrown at it by our predecessor, it has responded well to the attention we’ve given it and produced a brilliant crop already this year. It definitely still needs splitting, but I don’t think it would have appreciated us splitting it during the recent winter. We’ve enjoyed some great crumbles and my favourite Rhubarb Cordial which I’ve shared a recipe for in this post.

I’d be lying if I said that the COVID-19 lockdown hadn’t had an impact. It has been difficult getting hold of things like woodchip, manure and compost which we had been relying on to raise the level of our plot, and so we’ve created a bit of a trench where we’re digging soil from one part in order to raise another. It’s working for now, but it won’t long-term, and we have had to buy some soil and compost for filling the raised beds. The community side of things is obviously impacted too with site events being cancelled and everybody having to distance, but everyone is still looking out for each other and the atmosphere is just as warm and welcoming as ever. At the end of the day, Mark and I are both incredibly grateful to have a space like this that we can visit during these times.

It’s still pretty hard work – there’s always a lot to do especially while we still have untouched parts of the plot to clear, but we’re about 75% of the way there and the remaining part doesn’t feel like so much of a mountain any more. For me, and I’m sure for Mark too, the reward is so much more than growing food. We are able to get outdoors, tend to and connect with the earth, witnessing life in every ladybird and worm that we see, the cheeky jackdaws, and the tame little robins that come and sit with us while we work.

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