Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Good Start

Hello everyone!

I decided to start this blog to show people how easy (and how much work - but that's not the same as easy), it is to grow your own veg.

I've just taken on an allotment in my local area after having one before but not for a while so I thought it'd be interesting to share how things grow, how they don't and also what to do when things go wrong (and the occasional recipe for when they go right too!).

 There's something to be said for getting your family involved - my husband hated the allotment when we first started years ago and now he loves it (almost) as much as me. If you have children it's always great to show them where their veg comes from too, how it grows and exactly what goes into it.

As a basic start for growing things it's good to have a fork, a spade (or a shovel), a hand trowel and a hand fork. A pair of gloves (I like cloth gloves that have been dipped in rubber so your fingers don't get wet when you're weeding (more on weeding later), and maybe a rake for getting a nice tilth for seeds.

The more you get into your growing the more you can spend on tools but honestly all you need is something cheap and cheerful to get you started. Allotmenteering is at it's best when you're doing it for practically nothing, although if you do have spare cash and want to spend it then there's nothing wrong with that either.

So, to the plot! The plot we've been allocated is around 5m x 5m, so fairly small. This is good if you're new to growing because plots can become overwhelming very quickly, especially if you have work and a family to deal with as well. Luckily we also have a brilliant landlord that's letting us dig up our garden, so we can grow there too - I'll include pictures and updates about that space when we start.

Here's the plot when we got handed it;

All in all, pretty good! 

Some allotments are handed over like this, some are completely cleared and some are in a horrendous state. Methods for clearing vary. You can dig all the weeds out, you can weedkiller the lot (this wouldn't be my choice), you can lay something over the top such as thick. black plastic or even mulch it with thick layers of chipped bark or grass, or straw.

Weedkilling isn't preferable to me for a number of reasons. You get a lot of herbicides in the food we already eat (unless you buy organic), so unless you want more I'd steer clear of it. It's hard to control the spread of weedkiller over large areas so you might find yourself wiping out your plot neighbours vegetables in the manner of napalm in the jungle which I can assure you will not endear you to them (and if you have a happy plot neighbour you will always come home with something free of some description).
Also it's just not nice to have chemicals in and around your plot if you can at all help it - there are notable exceptions to this, for instance if you get an infestation of bindweed or ground elder sometimes it's just not enough to dig it out. My advice is to use it sparingly if at all.

Laying something over the top is quite useful if you get the plot later in the year. If you use thick black plastic that lets no light through over the winter, everything (except Japanese knotweed and bindweed) will die. You pull back your plastic in the spring ready for planting and hey presto! You have weed-free ground and it's probably been warmed a little bit from the plastic too. Of course if you choose this method there is literally nothing for you to do except read seed catalogues until it's time to plant, so it's useful but not much fun.

Equally mulching heavily is quite useful too, because you get the benefit of the weed suppressing qualities (it has to be very thick mulch), and you also have the added benefit of the mulch improving the soil over the winter. You dig this mulch back into the ground when you're ready to plant.

We chose the dig method. This is because we wanted to clear the ground for some winter plantings and also get a feel for what the soil is like. As you can see in the above pictures, there aren't lots of weeds by new plot standards so we were quite lucky.

Digging for clearing is best achieved with a fork, not a spade or shovel. This is because when you lift the weeds out you can bang the fork down with the weed on top and shake all the soil out of the root ball. Something to note with the digging method is that when you weed large areas like this, you're essentially removing nutrients from the soil. The plants that grow there will have used the available nutrients and when they die and rot, will return those nutrients back into the ground.
As long as you bear this in mind and improve the soil with fertilisers and compost this isn't a problem, but just be aware.

These little plastic buckets are great for weed collection and you can find them in most discount shops. That nettle was the only nettle in the plot and it stung me (with gloves on). I've got the last laugh now though, because he's happily rotting away on the compost heap.

So, the method is, stick your fork in, lever it up and shake the soil off any rootball you dig out. Stick the weeds in the bucket and then stick them on the compost heap when it's full. It's simple and easy but hard work. 


Common notable exceptions for adding to the compost heap are any weeds that have gone to seed. The seed will just sit quietly in the heap until you use the compost and then spring up the moment it hits light and water. Don't under any circumstances add bindweed or mint to your heap. Burn them. I'm not even joking. (Any organic matter you burn can be added to your compost heap anyway so you're not losing anything. Just don't stick tonnes on at once - it's alkaline and will affect the ph level of your heap,  killing some beneficial bacteria and organisms - sprinkle, sprinkle is the key).

Of course if you practice hot composting then you can ignore the tip above - it gets so hot that all seed is killed off and you don't have to worry about pesky runner propagating weeds.

The weed pictured above (closest to the bottom) is a total pain the behind. I think it's a type of clover but I've heard lots of people call it different things. It's a perennial weed and will just keep coming back. It's important to loosen the ground around it, dig down as far as possible and get as much of its taproot out as possible - it will come back every year but at least it'll be weaker every time until you finally kill it off.

Above it and also to the right is a dock - these have amazingly long taproots and it's important to try and get as much of those out as you can too.

We filled two of those plastic buckets in the end, but it was a job well done because the plot is virtually weed free and ready for planting.

As you can see below we've managed to acquire some wood for some raised beds which I plan to plant my carrots in. 

Allotmenters are an amazingly resourceful folk, and can find a use for practically anything. I'll post about how to construct a raised bed when we do it (probably next week!)

So, a good start to what I hope will be a productive plot - and I hope I've helped with my limited allotment wisdom!