So you’re now the proud tenant of your new plot. You look, you scratch your head, you stand and survey. The fact of the matter is, there is only one way to get a plot up and running and that’s hard work. I started with cutting through the bramble jungle, once cut down to ground level then the fun really begins. Digging out all of the roots, this is quite labour intensive but unfortunately very necessary it really is the only way to ensure they don’t grow back. If you’re lucky enough to inherit fruit bushes try and salvage what you can as these are usually quite established and still produce good fruit even if you decide to relocate. Just make sure when relocating that you dig down fair enough to get the entire root. I inherited quite a few raspberries on mine which I moved to a different bed and still managed to get a good crop, they fruited much better in the second planting season. I even discovered I had a yellow raspberry bush and they tasted so much sweeter.
After clearing the bramble, grasses and what seemed like 10,000 milk bottle tops (what’s that all about) the big dig started, it seemed to go on forever with moving old bottles and pieces of brick. I even came across several large pieces of old carpet. Sometimes people use carpet to suppress the weeds; you can buy much more environmentally friendly alternatives now thankfully. On our site we have a ban on carpet; we are only allowed to use horticultural tarpaulin.
Through the winter months when I am not using so many beds I tend to plant green manure. There are many different mixes to choose from, I personally use the clover mix but it depends on what soil you have as to which mix you choose. The green manure on the whole replaces nitrogen back into the soil. It is a fast growing plant sown to cover bare soil, perfect for allotments. The foliage smothers weeds and the roots prevent soil erosion, when dug into the ground while still green it returns valuable nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. It is extremely easy to sow and grow, the only thing to remember is to make sure you dig the foliage and plant into the top 2.5cm (10in) of soil and to do this 3-4 weeks before you actually intend on planting or sowing as the decay in green material can hamper plant growth.
After digging, my allotment neighbour informed me he had a rotavator I could borrow. Some people dig, some people rotivate, it’s a personal choice. On our site its split down the middle, the older generation tend to dig whilst the younger ones rotivate (that sounds like a sweeping generalisation but it’s just what I have observed on our site).
Next step I decided I would have raised beds partly so I didn’t loose soil onto the pathways and also so I could use a lot of compost to improve the soil as it hadn’t been used for a long time. There was also a tiny lazy part of me that thought whilst watching my allotment neighbour dig from one side of her allotment to the other only to tread all over it, that surely it’s easier to concentrate on just digging the areas where your growing your veg. We are very lucky on our site we have a wood chip delivery and this is what we use in our paths between our beds, this makes life a lot easier and tidier. Many people use scaffold boards for their beds these are ideal if you can get hold of them, I personally used fencing kick boards.
Next purchase was a shed you need somewhere to store your tools and escape from the rain and most importantly brew a good cuppa. I purchased mine second hand on eBay for £77, my dad and my partner also added a veranda on the front as it gets quite stuffy in there in the summer. It’s a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by and it’s also turned into the site tea hut. You can have your shed as comfy or as basic as you like. I was lucky enough to be given a second shed 6×6 which became my t&t shed (toilet and tools) we don’t have toilets on our site so I have a camping toilet in mine. A lot of sites have size restrictions on sheds mine is 9ft x 8ft and must confess has become a home from home.
Once your beds are planned and your sheds are up, you can concentrate on your soil before planting and if you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse it makes your growing season so much longer.
In my next post I shall give you some tips on what to grow and when.
Here Thrive, the UK charity that uses therapeutic gardening to change lives, shows how it has made a difference to Melanie’s life.
Two years ago when Melanie came to Thrive just after her father died, she was, in her own words, a different person. Losing both parents (her mother had died some years before) had left her feeling upset and withdrawn and for Melanie, who has learning and mobility difficulties, it also meant leaving her childhood home in Norfolk to move in with her sister in Berkshire.
At this challenging time, Melanie’s love of gardening brought her to Thrive. She attended the charity’s Growing for Life project which became the starting point towards a new life for her.
Under the guidance of a Horticultural Therapist and with the support of Janice, one of the many volunteers at the charity, Melanie has built on her previous knowledge to learn different gardening techniques and good horticultural practice. She has become physically stronger and developed ways of working around her mobility problems. Spending time with other people, sharing ideas and experiences, has also helped Melanie to grow in confidence and forge friendships based on a mutual love of gardening.
“Speaking to people has done me the power of good. Thrive is a wonderful place. If I am ever on a downer, they will listen,” said Melanie.
Gardening with Thrive is particularly beneficial for people like Melanie in ways which might come as a surprise to others. Beyond practical, horticultural skills it’s also about shared experiences, friendships and building confidence.
In time, Melanie was offered the opportunity to choose her own square metre plot, and take control of everything from the design and layout to the choice of plants and the actual sowing and growing process. The design was completely her own idea; a perimeter border of colourful primulas and primroses with room for spring bulbs, and a very original centrepiece – a miniature football pitch complete with goal nets! This celebrates her happy childhood and the family’s love of Norwich City Football team, from outings with her beloved dad to going to matches with her nephews.
“It was my idea to do the football pitch and I was encouraged by everyone at Thrive to go ahead. I feel mum and dad are looking down on it and smiling.”
Melanie’s journey doesn’t end there. Born with cerebral palsy and more recently diagnosed with diabetes, Melanie needed help from her family and had always lived at home with her parents. Now through the support of her older sister, carers and friends, and with the increased confidence that has come from taking responsibility and making her own decisions whilst at Thrive, Melanie, at the age of 55, now lives independently for the first time in her life.
We are all so proud of Melanie, who says:
“I think I am doing well. I know I have achieved so much over the last few years. When I come to Thrive now I make my own sandwiches in my own kitchen. I do not let other people think I cannot do things – I get myself up and ready every day.”
Unsurprisingly, gardening also features in her future plans. At home, there is a large communal garden and Melanie would like to make it more attractive and colourful for the other residents. She is going to talk to the landlord and is looking forward to getting to work on it early next year. Who knows, she may inspire her neighbours to start keeping fit by gardening with her.
Thrive relies on donations to continue working with and helping people like Melanie and directly reaches 1,400 people each year. If you’d like to give the gift of gardening to someone, please make a donation online.
Hello. I’m Urvashi and I have an allotment in Enfield. I waited a while for it and had almost given up hope when the phone rang and the ever so lovely membership chap said I had three plots to choose from.
I went for the one with the tree and the caravan. I knew my girls would love both.
It’s a pretty big plot. Here’s the other end when we first got it. There were some raspberry canes left growing but pretty much everything else was covered in grass and weeds.
That first day, we sat and took it all in. Granddad came over with his soil kit and helped us test the soil and clay. Well it didn’t really need the soil kit to tell us that as the allotments are called Clay Hill Allotments! But he gave us a little advice on what to plant to break up the soil and how to sort the raspberry canes out.
Of course we just wanted to clear and dig and after pretty much the whole day doing just, that this is where we left it.
A little tidier for sure. We sat back and set ourselves a couple of principles to work by:
– We would try to do it all by hand – no machines – where would they plug in anyway?
– We would not use any chemicals or pesticides or artificial growing aids – all natural on our plot.
And then the decisions of what to plant! That’s when we discovered the Thompson & Morgan site among other blogs and reference sources to try and be as informed as possible. We settled on beetroot, potatoes, broad beans, dahlias, strawberries from Granddad and courgettes (for the flowers). We added to this list of the “ordinary” some unusual , some would say quirky items – tomatillos, quinoa (!) and gojiberries.
We left that day so inspired and elated but worried about the birds, deer and all manner of little creatures that would invade our plot while we were away. It was agreed that some guardians would need to be put in place and Mr and Mrs S Crow came to the rescue.
Since that first day, we’ve been visiting as regularly as we’ve been able to. In the summer months I got rather obsessed with watering every evening and then got sucked in to the peace and clam of the allotment doing a little bit of pottering until the sun went down.
I’ve photographed the journey and been blogging about my planting, the produce and the things I’ve cooked with our wonderful allotment bounty.
I look forward to sharing them here too.
About Urvashi Roe
Urvashi and her family are on a journey of discovery with their allotment in Clay Hill in Enfield. Urvashi put her name down on the waiting list hoping to give the keys as an unusual present for her husband’s 40th birthday. He got his present a few years later and the family are now obsessed with growing the traditional and the unusual. Urvashi blogs at www.thebotanicalbaker.wordpress.com and tweets at @BotanicalBaker
Growing your own crops is so satisfying, not forgetting about all the health benefits of eating fresh vegetables too. We spend a lot of time caring for our crops, protecting them from frosts, fighting off pests and disease and generally nurturing them until they are ready to harvest. However, knowing when to harvest your crop is an even bigger challenge. Pick them too soon and they may taste terrible; leave them too late and they are past their best! So how do you know if they’re ripe yet?
Most soft fruits, tomatoes and peppers change colour on ripening, signalling that they are ready to pick. Courgettes can be cut when they reach the desired size, and many salad leaves can be cut as and when required, without too much cause for concern. But other crops can leave you feeling uncertain.
Here are some tips on knowing when to harvest your fruit and veg.
Many of our favourite vegetables are roots or tubers that are produced beneath the soil. But, how do you know what’s going on down there?
Onions and garlic – Around June and July, the leaves of onions and garlic will begin to yellow as the bulbs mature. Harvest them a week or two after the leaves die back. Choose a dry day to loosen them from the ground with a fork. After lifting the bulbs, you will need to leave them on the soil surface for a day or two until they have fully dried in the sun. Once dry, remove the top foliage and store them in a well ventilated, dry position.
Potatoes – As the tubers mature, potato stems and leaves will yellow and die back. This is a useful indicator that your crop is ready but you don’t need to wait for this to happen. Potatoes can be harvested earlier. Loosen the soil with your fingers and dibble around the roots to explore what is down there. If you can feel tubers of the size that you want then go ahead and harvest them. If the tubers are still too small for your liking then leave them for a few more weeks.
Sweetcorn – Sweetcorn will let you know when the cobs are ready! When the silky tassels at the end of each corn turn brown, peel back the outer sheath and insert a thumbnail into a kernel. The cobs can be harvested when the juice is a milky colour. If the liquid is clear then the cob needs a little longer, but if doughy then the crop is over overripe.
Fruits can be just as tricky. Here are some of the fruits that often raise concern when it comes to harvesting.
Medlar – The fruits of medlar are unpalatable immediately after picking, but you can use them if made into jellies or wine. Leave medlar fruits on the tree until late autumn and harvest them in dry weather when the stalk parts easily from the branch. To eat them raw they will need to be stored for 2 or 3 weeks on slatted trays until the flesh has become soft and brown. This process is called ‘bletting’ where the flesh becomes soft and brown, but not rotten.
Mulberries – If you are lucky enough to have a mulberry then the fruits are best harvested by shaking branches over a sheet spread on the ground. The ripe fruits will drop from the tree and can be easily gathered up from the sheet.
Pears – Unlike apples which can be eaten on the day of harvest, pears require a period of storage finish ripening them off the tree. If allowed to fully ripen on the tree, the core will begin to break down becoming soft and mushy, so they are best harvested slightly under-ripe. Most varieties are ready to pick if the fruits part easily from the tree when given a gentle twist or tilted horizontally. Finish ripening them on slats in a cool, dry place. The early varieties will be ready in just a week or two while later varieties can take months to fully ripen.
A relish generally consists of fruit or vegetable pieces within a sauce and a superb way to make use of those spare fruit and veg in your garden. There is no fixed recipe on how to make relish however, the most popular condiments are jams, chuntneys and sauces. Tonight on The Big Allotment Challenge, showing on BBC Two 8pm, we will watch the remaining 8 allotmenteers make their own relish with the products grown on their allotments. Wendy Eldridge kindly provided us with her quick relish recipe of sweet chilli sauce, which is the perfect condiment for a summer salad. So why not hold on to this recipe and make your own sweet chilli sauce? If you have any other recipes please send them in and help a fellow gardener make use of their fruit and veg!
- Chillies – mixed, as many as you have
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 5 cloves garlic
- Red peppers – if you want a milder sauce, replace some of the chillis with peppers
- Chop the chillies in halve and remove seeds and pith, don’t worry if any seeds are missed, it adds to the overall effect.
- Put the chillies and garlic in the blender with the rice wine vinegar and pulse until desired consistency is reached.
- Put the mixture in a preserving pan with the rest of the ingredients.
- Check the consistency, if it is too thick add another cup of water, another of rice wine vinegar and 2 of sugar, plus the paprika, fish sauce and salt again – you are basically doubling everything up.
- Cook until the chilli’s are cooked through and a syrupy consistency is reached. Don’t worry if it seems a little runny it will thicken up once cooled.
- Pour into sterilised bottles and seal.
Wendy says “I have been looking forward to making this since a friend gave me a recipe last year. This is a good sauce, tastes just like the sweet chilli sauce you can buy in the shops but without the sometimes chemically taste you can get with it.”