For years allotments were out of favour. No-one wanted them, and patches of mud with a shed at one end and weeds everywhere else went to waste. Then suddenly gardening became the new rock and roll, and everyone who didn't want to dig up their lawn wanted their own council-run patch of mud. The waiting lists grew faster than the cabbages. Now, after more than three years on a waiting list, Neil Shaw has been given his own patch of green and pleasant land.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Mint - it absolutely will not stop, ever.

Weeds have developed a range of strategies for ensuring their survival; scratching, stinging, poisioning, stinking - even biting.

Mint seems to have gone down the route of tasting good, and smelling great when you rip it out of the ground. Not particularly effective.

It did make the weeding job last week more fragrant than usual. Perhaps the mint was thinking that by making itself useful we wouldn't pull it up. But it spreads so quickly and so far that unless you have use of industrial quantities of the stuff it must be destroyed.

I did briefly consider trying to sign a deal with Wrigley to supply flavouring for their gum, or bulk-buying vinegar to produce a liftime supply of mint sauce, but there isn't enough lamb in the world.

I'm certain it will be back, like The Terminator (though hopefully not as rubbish as Terminator 4), but for now the patch of ground between the compost bin and the potatos is clear.

It took five hours of solid digging, hacking, slashing and ripping to get it clear. Then more digging, a bit of raking and I managed to get eight more plants in - sprouting broccoli donated by Chris the Gardener.

Half of that patch is still weed-logged, but I hope to get back up there this week and finish that bit off - probably to be greeted by a patch of mint grinning back at me like I'd never picked up by fork in the first place.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A fool and his gooseberries are soon parted

Hour on the plot on Sunday morning ripping out vegetation - and this time it didn't go straight to the tip.

Thanks to the netting and a contraption made from canes and bottles the fruit is safe, and I managed to harvest a kilo of gooseberries and half a kilo of raspberries.

Some of the raspberries made it to the freezer, while our one-year-old ate the majority.

The gooseberries had a quick wash, topped and tailed, simmered for half an hour in water with a little sugar then mashed and mixed with custard and cream to make a gooseberry fool.

Awesome end to our Sunday lunch with friends.

Now to start planning what to do with all those apples.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Burn while you learn

The anti-weed matting is down, the canes are in place and the saved plastic milk bottles are perched on top - we now have the skeleton of a fruitcage surrounding our raspberries and gooseberries.

Once the netting is sown together we can throw that across the top, and then spend the next few weeks wondering just how the birds got inside to eat our crop.

It was a busy Saturday on the plot, resulting in not just a skeletal fruitcage but also a couple of insect bites, several scratches and a sunburn (lower back, right arm).

Our neighbour also took pity on our weed patch and donated eight infant kohlrabi to the cause. After weeding the potatos (again!) I dug the end of the final row and dropped the turnip/cabbage hybrids in there.

Previously my only experience with kohlrabi has been transfering them straight from veg-box to fridge drawer to bin, but if they grow, we'll eat em!

Taking a break from getting sunburn, lunch on the plot was spent in the shade of our tree, looking down to the seafront, eating a steak pasty and a cake.

This has to be the real goal of the allotment, to get it into such a state where we can go up there and do nothing! Isn't that what it's all about?

Perhaps the most productive part of the weekend was finally discovering what the holes in a fork are for - apparently they are designed to let weeds through.

No matter how I use it, the only thing a fork seems capable of lifting is good quality topsoil, while the weeds stay firmly in the ground.

I finally gave in and resorted to ripping the evil plants out by hand - very satisfying and you get the whole root.

I thought we may have secured a victory several weeks ago when we liberated the potatos from the tyranny of weed rule, but every time we go back there are increasing attacks from enemy insurgents.

Grass is bad, bindweed is worse but what I really fear is IED (Improvised Explosive Dandelions). I'm fairly convinced if we don't get them all before they turn to seed we'll be picking dandelions from the plot till the end of time.

Not that it's driving me insane or anything but while earthing up the potatos I was moulding the mounds into Close Encounter mountain shapes.

Ah well, back to work for a bit of a rest.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Get by with a little help...

We finally found the only tool that works on an allotment as overgrown as ours - help.
Last weekend the mother-in-law gave us a whole day of her expertise and labour and really turned things around.
Not only does she have university-level gardening knowledge, she also has a lifteime of experience and an abundance of enthusiasm.
The potatos are fully weeded and earthed up, and a whole load of new plants are now in place, while a whole bunch of weeds have breathed their last.
This weekend a couple of friends gave up half their Sunday to help us out.
Chris is a professional gardener who usually charges £12 an hour. I think we may get off with a Sunday lunch and a bottle of wine.
Chris and Bev cleared out what was once the flower and herb bed but had rapidly become one of many of our weed beds.
Having a couple of experts on the scene is great news. Not only do they get the job done, they show us how to do it and dole out plenty of advice that will prove useful for years to come.
MIL helped us identify a lot of plants - including those with irriant sap, and those which may produce nice flowers but would only last for a day or two.
She also showed us a whole host of gardening techniques.
Chris let us borrow his petrol strimmer to take down another patch of weeds, while he put in the hard labour turing out that patch at the top of the allotment.
Inspired by the surge forward, I built the compost bin on Sunday and filled it with the assorted vegetation we've pulled up over the last couple of weeks.
We've also managed to clear out all the weeds (mostly grass) from among the well-established raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries.
I've ripped out all the carpet that was laid between the rows. No doubt at first it kept the weeds away but in recent years it seems to have become nothing short of the perfect growing medium.
Now we need to get weed-proof membrane and a fruit cage over the lot asap.
It was also a good weekend on the plot for the young ones, with a lot of wildlife on hand to keep them entertained. Crickets, grasshoppers, ladybirds, butterflies, frogs - they loved the lot.
The fruit harvest is starting to look very impressive, so the priority now is protecting it all from the birds - I'll let you know how that goes (just like The Apprentice you can guess the outcome, the birds will win).

Monday, 11 May 2009

Weed Wars

There was a time when I wondered what the difference was between a weed and anything else.
Now I have an allotment the answer is obvious. A weed will grow where you don't want it, a plant won't grow where you do.
Back on the plot in the glorious sunshine this weekend for weeding duty.
The potatoes are coming up nicely, but are surounded by couch grass and bindweed.
After trying a hoe, a spade and a fork I found the best way was to get my hands in the mud and rip out the offending vegetation by the roots.
Hopefully another two or three years of this treatment and they will give up.
The patches we haven't yet given so much attention to are now thriving - though again with weeds.
Among the tall grasses and brambles we are fairly certain there is a substantial growth of raspberries and gooseberries.
I'm itching to get in there with an industrial strimmer, a flamethrower and a rotavator - but the other half has her heart set on cultivating the crop for a year's supply of jam and frozen fruit.
Now the weather has warmed up it looks like we'll need to get up on the plot at least once every couple of days just to keep the weeds in check, let alone getting any more plants and seeds in place.
At least my recent birthday brought in a crop of anti-weed mats, so if we do get the jungle back in check we will at least have a fighting chance of keeping it that way.
We did manage to harvest a good crop of mint and rhubarb this weekend - so it looks like we'll be eating some mint-based fruit crumble dish for the rest of May.
I'd say Heston Blumenthal eat your heart out, but he probably would.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Planting and harvesting

All the potatoes are finally in! It was a hard task, digging through the soil for a fourth time to get out as many of the couch grass roots as possible before replacing them with roots of our own.

There are four rows, two of Lady Balfour and two of salads, so we'll give it a few weeks and see what comes up. No doubt lots of grass, but hopefully we'll be able to keep on top of it.

Now we can move on to the patches either side of the potatoes, which are less clogged, and start getting some seeds in.

The one below will be given over to root veg - parsnips, swedes and carrots. The patch above (where the brambles were) will be mostly given over to a compost bin and green house.

Last night also saw us enjoying the fruit of (other people's) work on the allotment. We had a chicken and leek pie with a leek donated by allotment representative Christine, followed by a rhubard crumble with rhubarb someone else planted on our plot several years ago.

A taste of things to come, hopefully.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Trench warfare

Four months in to our allotment project and we finally managed to get something into the ground.
To be fair, a couple of weeks back we did bury a gooseberry and a raspberry plant, but digging a small hole and dropping in a pot hardly counts.
On Saturday we got serious. Now the ground is clear we are able to actually see the mud, and dig it up.
After clearing away the grass that had started to grow back, I dug a trench. I tried to follow the instructions on the (Endsleigh-bought) pack of organic seed potatoes. 10cm deep, 35cm apart in the trench, each row 75cm apart.
But somehow I seem to have got a little enthusiastic. Climbing out of the first trench was like re-enacting the final scene from Blackadder Goes Forth.
No matter, I put the seed potatoes in their place, and moved on to trench two - using the soil I dug out of that to fill in trench one.
The soil was hard and heavy, full of roots and weeds so it was slow going but we made a family day of it.
The young ones played in a tent further down the plot while the other half and I did the hoeing, digging and burying. Then we all took a turn at the watering.
Before we knew it it was 6pm and we had to head for home, but we aim to get back as soon as possible to get the last two trenches in.
Saturday also saw me wield a machete to hack away the very last of the brambles. That now clears enough room to throw together the pallets and make a compost bin.
And last week we took delivery of a second-hand greenhouse. I say greenhouse, right now it is a pile of indecipherable glass and metal - but hopefully we'll put it together in the next few days.
After that, we have enough seeds to start a second (organic vegetable based) Eden Project and this is the time to get them in the ground.
On the plus side, the fruit trees are all in blossom and the gooseberry we planted seems to be sprouting plenty of green shoots - so fingers crossed for a crop of something later in the year.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Green-ness envy

Back on the plot this weekend and after one huge bonfire and three trips to the tip (two with overloaded trailer) it is finally clear.
The sheer amount of rubbish left on the plot has been weighing us down since we took over the site in December so it feels like a weight is now off our shoulders.
We had to conscript the help of family to borrow a trailer but now all the waste is gone (including a huge amount of glass, a lot of rusted metal, enough carpet for a small hotel and a chemical toilet) it feels like we can get on and plant.
And we have to do it quickly. Walking past all the other plots to ours it is amazing to see how quickly they are sprouting - while ours is a reddy brown mess.
So there is a long way to go, much too long to sit around being jealous of how green everyone else's patch is.
About a third of our plot is about ready for planting. The overgrowth and rubbish are gone. It has been dug over. Now it needs a thorough double dig and then we can get the crops in.
Everyone keeps telling us to use root crops to break up the soil and bring it back into use - so potatoes, carrots and parsnips will feature heavily alongside swede and possibily turnips and beetroot.
We've already got a lot of rapsberries and blackberries on the site and we've planted another raspberry and a gooseberry - so we'll see how they do, alongside the two or three (hard to tell under the growth) established apple trees.
The sheds are also now empty so one of them (the one without the huge whole in the wall) is about to be treated to a padlock so we can keep our tools up there instead of lugging them backwards and forwards.
After a winter of discontent, hopefully spring has now sprung and we can start making a real difference on the plot.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Smoke gets in your eyes

Back on the patch yesterday after the winter (ie, its too darn cold) break, and managed to make a huge dent in the clean-up.
There was a community spring clean organised by the allotment association, so we helped trim back all the overgrowth around the borders and burn the waste, while also burning our own waste and shifting some of the junk dumped at the bottom of our plot.
The others chipped in to help us burn our pile of waste and the whole day had a great community feel.
We all sat down for a lunch of jacket potatoes, chilli and biscuits before tackling the rest of the site in the afternoon.
The bad news is someone seems to have taken our fruitcage - very annoying after we spent so long freeing it up and preparing it for planting.
Others on the plot say they have also had things stolen in the last few days and weeks - including a set of table and chairs.
After years of the site being free from theft they blame the credit crunch for the recent attacks - and they warn it'll get worse when the crops start to come through.
The good news is that the association has been awarded more than £1,000 which will allow them to build a composting toilet on the site - if they can decide where to put it.