Ahh, the allotment…
Its a feeling like no other and one that is hard to explain – especially to other non-plot dwellers. If you are not careful it will have you up in the middle of the night with excitement and the urge to flick through the pages of the most recent seed catalogue planning next seasons crop. Its the calling to the soil and to a more simpler way of life which at some point I think most of us hear, but only a few of us follow.
A few years ago in the UK, allotment lists swelled in number as trendy TV chefs and gardeners in between preparing and eating things that would make most of us queasy, I am thinking here of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and that placenta stunt back in the late ’90s, would don their wellington-boots and with fork in hand teach us the benefits of homegrown produce through our TV screens.
How to grow fresh fruits and vegetables on your allotment without the work!
I have been growing food for many years now in one form or another. For me its a great pleasure and something which is much more than just a hobby. For me it is life, it is sanity, it is an adventure and most of all its about a connection with something much bigger than any one thing – the circle of life. One of my favourite sayings is that gardening is all about life, sex and death – of plants of course. And that composting is the only valid proof we have of life after death, as it continues to nourish the soil for seasons to come.
That may sound all a little Tree-Huggerish, but I really feel that our connection with the stuff below our feet is what makes having an allotment so fulfilling for so many of us and turns something which could be a chore into something which is a delight.
Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life – Confucius
This may sound like I am copping out and that this is all about trying to get you to fall in love with your plot which will lead to the work dissolving away and all that will be left is a labour of love. Although that is what I would love for you to achieve, you’ll be happy to know that from now on, I will be covering practical ways which will make allotmenteering easier for you so that you can make the transition from allotment lust, into allotment love with ease.
Organic – it’s about finding a balance
For far too long, companies run by people, whose primary responsibility it is to make money for their shareholders, have told us that using whichever pesticide they have just put on the market will make our gardening endeavours easier. Tosh!
For me turning organic which I did in my 20’s was a simple decision. At the same time, I was beginning to notice that the horticultural industry, just like a recreational drug user, was becoming addicted to these fad chemicals, organic horticulture was explained to me very simply.
Organic gardening is about a balance and its about having a relationship with your growing space that allows you to manage that balance with the insight which you can only get from such a deep and meaningful relationship.
Imagine a set of scales. The old-fashioned type with the mouthwatering sweets on one side and the little metal weights on the other. Our job as gardeners is to keep these scales balanced. Now swap the weights for a handful of slugs or some black fly and the sweets with some nematodes (slug destroying predators) or some poached egg plants, which attract lacewings which devour black fly and you’ll get a balance.
Organic growing is all about weighing the problems like pests which you have in your growing area and finding what’s missing to create a balance. And what’s great, is the more you do this and the more you get your allotment neighbours involved, the easier it gets and the less work you have to do in the seasons ahead.
The No-dig Allotment
One thing that I always try to remember is just how insignificant I am. I am one of over 7 billion people alive today and just one of 107 billion humans who has ever lived. Not to mention that I live in a world where we humans are outnumbered by microorganisms by millions of trillions.
And here’s me on my allotment trying to change the world – well my world at least.
The reason that I try to remember that I am a tiny needle in a massive haystack is that it helps me to understand that even without my input, things happen. The sun rises, rain falls, plants grow and fruits from their blossoms swell. Time and time again I have walked into a new customers garden only to come face to face with a jungle. A jungle which has grown in un-dug soil and never lovingly watered with a watering can. Without any input from the human looking after it, it has succeeded to become a living, breathing ecosystem.
This wild ecosystem provides a secure home for mycorrhizal fungi which work symbiotically with host plants growing in the area. These take sugars and starches from the plants in return for moisture and nutrients from deep in the soil.
This jungle also plays home to many micro and micro-organisms which predate on pests and help this natural system to flourish. Whether it be Mrs Blackbird nesting in the brambles ready to feed her young on leaf-munching caterpillars or the nematodes which are micro-organisms which can eat into and kill lettuce munching slugs.
All this happens without a spade and a bad back. Nature is a fantastic and successful gardener and from her, we can learn so much.
What is No-Dig?
Over the last century, many gardeners have been using and developing a type of gardening called ‘no-dig’. It is basically what it says on the tin. You look after the soil from the top, but try not to dig it. This does a few things.
Firstly it allows those plant enriching relationships with mycorrhizal fungi to exist without the fungi being damaged through digging. This means that the plants have more access to water and food year round. That means less watering for the gardener. In fact, I never water my allotment after the initial watering in of anything which I have just planted.
Secondly, and this is very important – it doesn’t bring un-germinated weed seeds to the surface to germinate and give me another job to do on my hands and knees or with the hoe as fewer weeds germinating means fewer weeds to pull! These weed seeds in the soil are called the ‘seed bank’ in horticultural circles and in some cases, seeds produced over 10 years ago can still be viable if brought to the surface and given light. The aim of no-dig is to bury these seeds until they have rotted and became something more useful – nutrients for your veggies!
Last but certainly not least, it aerates your soil and gives it structure! Worms like the common earthworm Lumbricus terrestris or Lobworm dig the soil on your behalf. They bring decaying organic matter on the surface, deep down into the ground to create air pockets which are also full of nutrients ready for your crops to use.
So, how do I ‘no-dig’?
Simple! In fact, I wonder why so many seem to make a career out of writing on the subject or running ‘how-to’ courses.
The basic idea of no-dig is that you use various well composted organic matter to do the following.
Smother annual weeds:
It is pointless digging annual weeds such as chickweed and fat hen if they can just be chopped down and smothered with a decent amount of weed-free compost. These weeds will then become offerings to the soil which will decay and become nutrients for future crops.
Bury the seed bank:
By making sure that your mulch is thick enough, you’ll be burying the weed seeds already on the soil, which will make it even harder for them to germinate in the future – meaning less weeding!
Nourish the soil:
As the worms in your soil start to work on your organic mulch, they will bring some of it down into the soil and your soil will become even more nutritious.
You can make this even more successful by laying brown cardboard under your mulch to act as a barrier against weeds popping through. This really does help as the cardboard breaks down slowly giving you more success. I have found old crisp boxes from the supermarket works well for this, and they are free too.
But what with perennial weeds?
Well, this is where all of the energy and excitement comes in when you first set out on your allotment adventure. These are worth digging out and removing right at the start. However, if you have time on your hands and want a truly lazy approach then I have found that using a silage sheet from the local farming supply store spread across the area for at least a year will pretty much clear most perennial and all annual weeds. Then you just need to pull back the plastic and apply your organic mulch.
What types of mulch can I use?
I have used many mulches very successfully, but I have always taken the added insurance policy of laying cardboard down first. As I have said, you can find it free and as it breaks down slower and acts like a physical barrier against any resident annual weeds which may grow through.
Here is a list of some of the things which I have tried as mulches on my allotment.
My first attempt at a no-dig bed was using woodchip after hearing of a chap in the United States having good results. I must say though, as a gardener and composting fanatic, I was aware that adding carbon-rich material to the soil, such as woodchip, could rob nitrogen. This was worrying because plants need nitrogen to grow so I was concerned I would be doing more harm than good. However, I soon discovered that laying this chip on top of cardboard and pulling back both to plant through into the soil meant that this wasn’t a problem.
Woodchip ended up being great for weed control. In fact that year I am not really sure that I did any weeding on that bed at all. In subsequent years the chip would continue to break down and decompose and its nutrients would feed the soil.
The thing which stuck out the most with woodchips was that which every part of the bed you pulled back the mulch to see the soil beneath, you would see light, but moist soil which was highly populated with worms – a great indication of soil health.
You can usually source woodchip throughout the year from a friendly local tree surgeon. This waste product from their work can be a free, but a rich resource for your allotment.
I usually lay this mulch 6-9 inches deep. This usually settles to 2-4 inches within a few weeks.
Whether it be horse, cow or chicken, poo can be a great resource on the allotment. I commonly use this on my allotment beds As it is a great material which is full of nutrients.
You can find this as well for free, but you will usually have to put a bit of work in. Try and contact small farmers or smallholders in your area to see what you can find, but be prepared to go and bag it up yourself and transport it to your plot.
The only things to keep in mind when using manure is to make sure it is well rotted, as if not then it could be too rich and nutritious. Also, make sure that it comes from a heap not infested with weeds like bindweed. The times I have brought unwanted weeds onto my plot through a well-meaning bit of muck spreading.
I usually lay this mulch 6 inches deep.
This mixed with small amounts of manure is the mix I love the most. I will explain more below about compost, but this truly is the allotmenteers black-gold!
Making compost is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you make as much as I do in a season for my allotment. It is perfect though and of course free!
I usually lay this mulch with cardboard underneath 4-6 inches deep.
How do I plant in a no-dig bed?
If you are using a coarse mulch such as woodchip then I would pull the mulch and cardboard back a little and plant directly into the soil beneath with a bit of compost. When you are direct sowing seeds then simply make a grove in the woodchip with the edge of a rake and fill with compost and sow directly into this.
If you are using well-rotted manure then you can plant into it directly, but I would use the method with a compost grove with sowing seeds as above.
Like me, if you are using compost, just crack on and plant and sow into it as you would into a freshly prepared bed without mulch.
See, I told you it was simple!
Something to keep in mind though is to top up your mulch as the worms start to work it into the soil. With woodchip, this could be every couple of years, but with compost and manure, it could be after each season.
Only grow what you are going to eat – or use!
One way of creating more work than needed is to grow things which will never make it to your plate. A few years ago I grew yacon and oca in great numbers, but because I was the only one in the family who ate them it meant most of the produce went on the compost heap as opposed to going into hungry tummies.
What I do now is look at the things we actually use in the kitchen and grow them. I do though still grow some of the more unusual things to satisfy my inner horticultural adventurer.
Compost really is life. It sits right there at the beginning and end with the promise of rebirth in seasons to come. The circle of life starting and ending in a heap – the compost heap.
Making compost can be as easy or as physical as you like. The general rule though is that easy compost is slow and compost which takes a bit of a workout is fast.
The slower methods of composting are where you just pop things in a compost bin and let nature take its course. Microorganisms, fungi, worms and other little beasties go to work, breaking this matter down into rich black material.
The quicker method of making compost requires turning the heap regularly in order to allow it to decompose with heat. I have had compost in just 18 days using this method.
I will write more on composting in the future, but my system has three compost bays made from pallets which I pick up locally for free and rope to hold them together. The bays are labelled A, B and C. Once bay A is full with a good ratio of mixed green (kitchen peelings, grass clippings, used coffee grounds or annual weeds which haven’t seeded ) and brown (cut up twigs, woodchip, autumn leaves or shredded paper) material, I turn it into bay B and then a week later into bay C. This gets it composting with heat as it adds air to the pile. I then keep it moving from bay C to B and back again each week until I get a good quality compost to use for mulching. All the while I am refilling Bay A to start the process again.
What Can I Compost?
I use loads of compost each season so I rely on a good source of organic matter to put in the heap. Here are some of the things you can use and where you may be able to get them.
Kitchen peelings and eggshells:
Of course, you can get these from your own kitchen, but I also ask friends and neighbours who don’t compost to add theirs to my compost heap. I have also in the past had a local cafe supply me with about 30kg of veg peelings a week which made glorious compost.
Used Coffee Grounds:
Again you probably produce these in your own kitchen, but you can also pick these up for free from certain big chain coffee shops and one particular supermarket who give their customers a free brew whilst shopping.
I regularly mow my allotment path and put the clippings on my heap. If I am feeling generous. or low on material then I may even mow the paths of neighbouring plots.
This could be horse or cow manure from a local farm or smallholder, or it could be used bedding from a pet guinea pig, rabbit or chickens.
Hedge and tree trimmings:
Have a chat with a local gardener who I am sure would be more than happy to help if you don’t have a hedge of your own to trim.
This is really easy to get, just phone around tree surgeons in your area.
I used to get mine from a lady who worked in a local solicitor’s office. I used to collect a black bin bad each week and would mix it in the top layer of my heap.
Compost adds to healthy soil and this leads to healthy plants. Healthy plants take less watering and looking after and are less prone to pests and diseases, meaning in the long run, you save time.
At my last allotment, in the summer months, we started a monthly event called Plonk on the Plot. The idea was to encourage a sense of community on the allotment and also to share picnic dishes we had made from fresh produce from our allotments.
Building a community makes allotmenteering much easier. It not only makes a visit to the allotment happier and more joyful, but it also allows people to share tools, knowledge, seeds and plants. On the last allotment, we also put up a noticeboard, started a facebook group and created a sharing spot where people could leave things to share like a glut of courgettes, seeds or even old tools which still had life in them.
It also helps to work in cooperation when working on the sites biodiversity and wildlife habitats, such as putting up bird boxes or building log piles.
Allotments are all about life and its great to see the resurgence of them over the past few years. I hope that my thoughts have been interesting for you and have maybe given you some ideas or inspired you in some way to look at your connection with the soil beneath your feet.
If you can take away one thing from this, I would want it to be that your allotment is an exciting and adventurous eco-system of which you are a part of and that working in cooperation with this system will reward you in many more ways then just putting food on the table.
Richard the Gardener