Breaking New Ground 3

 

Synthetic detritus
It is quite likely that your new plot may have some man-made rubbish on or in it. Bottles or glass from old cold-frames/greenhouses is just one type of rubbish to be systematically cleared. Synthetic carpet fibres (polypropylene and nylon mainly) might be another annoyance. Most synthetic materials like this will begin degrading seriously due to ultraviolet light after a couple of years, even UV shielded plastics will break down seriously after 3 or 4 years, but unfortunately they tend to go brittle and break-up first, causing an eyesore at best if not a serious problem in the soil. The worst seems to be large sheets of clear plastic possibly used for make-shift greenhouses and cold-frames – you may well decide to use such materials, but the minute they show the first signs of breaking down, pack them into bin liners and dispose of them properly. They can go from a manageable problem to a nightmare in a month or so – to see your plot covered in a million fragments of plastic that just break up further when picked up will bring tears to your eyes. Don’t wait for that carpet or DPM covering to get blown to the winds, bag it!

 

Fertilising your new plot
It is a personal choice whether you go for gold and spread manure or good compost as soon as you’ve dug and readied your plot for a first season. Intensive vegetable growing takes a lot out of the soil and allotment gardeners tend to be pretty adamant that a lot has to be put back on a consistent basis. Typically, traditionalists spread one large trailer load (a lot) of cow/pig manure over their 10 poles every year, before the winter sets in. Others say two loads (a heck of a lot!), whilst still others might get by using a couple of smaller loads of well composted horse-manure, leaf mould as well as long-term composted sods and annual weedings. Proprietary concentrated fertilisers (e.g. chicken manure based products, specialist organic concentrated pellets etc.) can also be used, but should be sourced and costed wisely. (Unless you run a large vegetarian restaurant, don’t expect your annual kitchen waste to do much more than a small herb bed).

 

For the following reasons, it is possibly not worth bothering with manure for the first year:

 

  • If the plot has been fallow for more than a year or so, a lot of weed top and root growth will have rotted back into the soil – this is evident after a couple of years under carpet allowing some moisture through – the soil has noticeably good organic content and grows good crops for a year or two. Equivalent to a green manure.
  • Provided the turfs and weeds have been knocked out during digging, a lot of goodness will have been returned – the loam around grass roots and some other weeds is about the best there is. Thus, don’t dig when it is too wet to quickly shake any earth out of the sods or weed roots – or if you do, then turn the whole sod back under (deep) so it rots over winter (about the best technique in a very wet Autumn).
  • The last tenant probably manured the plot the season before leaving – it can’t be that bad!
  • After the long slog of a first dig, it may be too much like hard work or too late to do any good! Time is perhaps better spent weeding thoroughly, properly clamping the turfs that came off or building some large compost bins for the horse manure deliveries.

If, when the soil is slightly damp, you can’t turn up plenty of earthworms then that might be a sign someone has taken all the goodness out of it or used heavy chemical fertilisers (unlikely) – maybe then consider your options provided you have time. One year without a heavy treatment of manure or fertiliser will not destroy the soil or mean you’ll fail to produce good crops – the first year may well bring superb results due to the rest that the soil has had! Consider planting a green manure crop in the Autumn for over-wintering, digging it back in during early spring – this improves soil structure, nutrients, prevents water-logging and weed growth. Barren soil is an open invitation for pernicious weed growth.

 

Tools
My personal favourite – in fact indispensable tool – is a very strong, thick tined fork – a bedding fork is useless for much more than turning over light, well dug ground. For breaking new ground an all steel builders fork isn’t overkill! Whilst a spade is useful in some lighter soils, or for the bigger built types, a good fork is a must. What do I mean by a good thick tined fork? – Not an obviously weak handled fork. Not one with short worn out tines. Not one with skinny, overly sharp, pointed tines – and definitely not one that you are constantly worried about breaking – that simply wastes your time and prevents real progress being made. Once the ground is broken up, the fork should be used to ‘riddle’ the larger weeds roots out of the ground – short tines don’t get down to them and they fall off thin ones. The tines should be rectangular or square section, not round. Sharp tines kill worms and split up weeds, flat blunt ones just push them aside. If buying a new fork, don’t buy a plastic handled one, don’t be persuaded that stainless is better, some are but cheap ones (the majority) are the wrong type of stainless and the tines bend. Buy a forged steel product if possible, not a pressed out or spot welded one – good ones can be had for the same or little more than a rubbish make – quality will out! A short handled Bulldog is a good buy. Don’t buy a fork with a long handle unless you are very tall – they are obviously weaker and will make your back ache. Your best, not your worst fork should be for the allotment – most domestic gardens don’t demand a strong fork – allotments do.

 

A strong spade with a reasonably sharp edge is often useful, but only essential occasionally. Used for straightening paths, edging and useful for creating beds. Also very useful for distressing fibrous top growth and stems prior to composting – e.g. brassica stems, runner beans at the end of the season. Once smashed into bits, those apparently woody stems soon succumb to nature’s way (fungal and microbial breakdown). Shovelling soil around is something only done occasionally and a spade is then an good substitute for a shovel. A mattock, as mentioned, is very useful for rooting out trees and fruit bushes like gooseberries – far better than a pick-axe, which is a dangerous and unwieldy tool. Also used for smashing up woody stems – great therapy at the end of the season!

A rake is also considered pretty well essential – once you’ve broken and weeded a small area, rake it flat. This reduces moisture loss in dry weather; if left rough, after a wet period it could dry out ankle-breaking rough! Don’t go for a fine tilth though, unless creating a seed bed – this tends to seal the surface, caking hard and preventing air and moisture entry/egress. A rough levelling rake over, without dragging all the stones to the edge is what you’re after.
A small pruning saw, if trees or bushes need removing.
A weed receptacle – an old plastic doggie basket or broken wheelbarrow is perfect (throw your perennial weed roots in it, not on the paths to get trodden back in!)

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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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