Breaking New Ground

 

or how to turn a ‘forgotten jungle’ into a ‘cultivated allotment plot’

There comes a time when we allotment gardeners have to bite the bullet – and break new ground, or rather break old ground that is either turf, a mixture of turf and a few interesting perennial tap-rooted weeds or a nightmare vision of the former, plus bumpy ground, old fruit bushes and the inevitable brambles.

 

Unfortunately, this is often at the start of our tenancy and with little if any allotment gardening experience to fall back on. Inheriting a plot that has long since ‘lost it’ is the norm rather than the exception; fertile soil and the wet but temperate British climate being ideal for nature to run riot in a couple of years or less – when left unchecked. It is thus the fortunate few who inherit a perfectly cultivated allotment plot – and even they sometimes don’t always realise quite how ‘stuck-in’ they must get, to stem the tide of mother nature, creating not only a plot to be proud of, but one that will grow good crops, whether that be vegetables, fruit, or as is traditional – a combination of the two.

 

Times have changed in allotment gardening; with a more varied approach to the use one might make (within the tenancy agreement) of the ‘resource’ that is 10 poles, 1/16 acre or 2,727 sq. ft of prime land (a pole is just under 16′ 6″ or 5m). The bottom line remains though, that of producing edible produce! To this end, here are some ideas, general rules and practical help on ‘breaking new ground’ as well as becoming an allotment gardener.

 

Decide on a style of garden
Take time to save time (too few do). Walk around and up and down the paths of a wide range of plots, looking at the way others have tackled the problem. There are many styles from traditional ‘dug-all-over’ (for maximum and efficient vegetable crop production), ‘deep-beds with gravel paths’ to small dedicated areas of vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit bushes and trees.

 

Traditionally, allotment plots are ‘dug-all-over’ with few if any cross paths, and often have a row or two of raspberries and fruit bushes near one end with rhubarb (and perhaps horseradish) always in one corner. This is not by accident, as once fully cultivated this type of plot is relatively low-maintenance – possibly surviving with just one annual dig. As little as 50 years ago, all plots were tenanted, newcomers might be given the worst and have to earn their stripes and a working man might only be able to keep his family fed properly by becoming expert at using that space as efficiently as possible – there would be little wasted space! Think wind, think rain and drainage, but most importantly think light and shade – vegetable and fruit crops need light! Soft fruit bushes and canes might be positioned mid-plot to act as windbreaks for instance, but while happily shielding it from wind, might also reduce its light.

 

Decide on the style of garden you are aiming for. Then consider your options. Do you have a shed, plan for a greenhouse or cold frame? If so, decide their positions (glass is best kept well away from public paths) and when you plan to tackle them. Likewise, consider an area for a compost heap or proper New Zealand bins – or at least a staging post for manure deliveries next to the best access road or path – 50 to100 sq. ft is an average allowance, don’t skimp unless you really need every square foot for growing).

 

Existing fruit bushes, trees and canes
First consider cutting down unwanted fruit bushes, brambles, raspberry canes and any small trees. It’s always worth getting an opinion on fruit bushes or trees before removing them as although they may look quite poor and neglected, if you like their fruit, very often a good pruning and root area dig-over can revive them to produce excellent fruit again within one season. Alternatively, if you decide to re-arrange or move currants, cuttings can be taken (some don’t like being moved e.g. gooseberries). Plan to move raspberry canes (suckers) at the right time of year (Jan, Feb, pref. During wet weather) into a single or double row (prepare a well-composted trench in advance). Take advice on blackberries, these are generally very nice to have at one end of a plot (under control) but not in the middle or edges! Finally, if in doubt about what is on your plot, even under a veritable forest, find someone knowledgeable to ask – valuable specimens might just be awaiting your arrival and their revival!

 

How much do you aim to tackle in the first season?
If the plot is wild and grassy, full of deep-rooted perennial weeds (e.g. large dock and thistles)*, decide how much you are likely to be able to dig and clean in one season – be circumspect! It’s certainly not a big problem to kick-off by cutting down and tidying grassy or rough areas, leaving it until the next year or for wintertime, when cultivating, planting, watering and cropping are not taking up your timeā€¦ but do not just do a very rough dig, lifting and turning sods, leaving the perennials. If left for six months, it’ll be just as bad as before, yet bumpy and unmanageable with weed roots that are twice as hard to get out in one piece – if you can find them! Either dig and weed it properly, cover it or just leave it alone. The beginning of the allotment season is reckoned to be early Feb (broad beans) but to get at least a reasonable range of crops in, aim to have a decent area dug over, cleaned and cultivated ready for planting not much later than Easter.

 

Weeds – not all bad news!
When a piece of ground is called rough or dirty, it implies difficult perennial weeds, couch grasses (twitch) and maybe unwanted wild brambles and tree roots. The latter two should have been cut-down and rooted out; a good tool to borrow for this is a mattock; the former awkward perennials should be distinguished* from annual weeds, benign grasses and clovers. In many ways these are beneficial: they bind the soil over winter, helping to hold moisture near the surface in dry spells and preventing water-logging in wet ones. If turned in at the right time (at least a couple of months before planting, earlier if a dry spring) they provide good humus forming matter, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and other minerals i.e. ‘green manure’. When it comes to planting crops, they should already be well rotted into the soil else removed and composted elsewhere – not burnt! If you are creating a seedbed then one certainly doesn’t want much ‘detritus’ in the soil, even if it is half rotted small annual weeds. This ‘in-situ-composting’ detracts from the soil’s ability to supply needed nutrients and bacteria – the soil structure and nutrients should be ‘in-place’ by then – that’s the aim of the game. From the moment the annuals are turned in or removed, try not to walk on the soil, especially in wet weather – use a plank.

 

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Allotment Handbook

 
We have recently revised our allotment handbook which you can see by clicking on the following link:
Sunnyside Allotments Handbook Revised May 2016
 
 

Ted Dyer

 
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Click on the image above to read the many tributes to Ted.

 

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