Digging In

A mere 10 weeks ago I was innocently lapping up the Madeira Carnival and researching trips to northern Italy (of all places) and beyond. Now a trip to the shops requires a comparable level of planning and presents similar pangs of anticipation.

In these challenging times we all need to find some normality with a side order of escapism. For me the allotment has become my day out, exercise and mental escape from what could otherwise descend into the grey sludge of existence. Or at least Netflix box-set oblivion.

We have been plot holders now for (remarkably) 5 years, during which time it feels like we have been in a constant arm wrestle with an octopus. This makes sense when viewed in retrospect. In our first year we started late and took over a plot in a shambolic state. Every year since we have taken on some new area – either expanding our smallholding or exchanging one plot for another – and in doing so we have never been able to focus our resources in consolidating what we already have.

What we inherited 5 years ago
What we inherited 5 years ago

This year for the first time we have retained last year’s borders. In previous years we would have made a hand full of visits to the allotment in March and April to fight battle with the raging hangover of last year’s party. This year I have probably visited 10 times every week over the same period and the results are profound. We are, for the first time, ON TOP OF THINGS! (*) At least as much as one can ever be on top of parcel of land created and regulated almost wholly by forces outside our control. 

Here’s a list of some of the jobs I chalked off by early May.

Maintenance

Maintained  – Turns out that the reason my shed was leaning precariously was that the neighbouring butt containing 1000 litres of water had slid off its base. It took considerable effort to empty the butt and rebuild the base from scrap materials but now it’s done.

Cleared – An inherited shed was totally overrun with brambles. It took me an entertaining 10 minutes to dismantle it with an unsuitably small hammer. Clearing the area of brambles took longer, but it’s done.

Past its best
Past its best

Built – That shed I dismantled? I used salvaged materials to build a raised planter for strawberries. It turns out that almost all allotment activity takes place at ground level or below so an elevated planter is your back’s best friend

From shed to planter
From shed to planter

Organised – I finally got around to building a dedicated area for storing bricks. Nice and tidy!

rick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)
Brick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)

Maintained – Two stretches of path have been reset to eradicate weeds. This entailed lifting slabs, weeding and relaying the slabs over a plastic sheet to prevent future weed incursion. This was most satisfying, if at times horrifying as beneath some slabs I found teeming ant metropoles. They were not happy with my intrusion but I am now the Ant Overlord. Which is nice.

Built – I built 2 new beds, one for onions and one for rhubarb. There’s a career in bed building if I choose it.

Onion bed - there will be tears
Onion bed – there will be tears

Built – I constructed a system of fruit supports within the fruit cage. Our relocated blackberries and cherry sapling will finally have to start respecting my authority on where to grow.

Built  – One feature of my polytunnel rebuild I was never happy with was the door latches. I designed and build much sturdier ones using slats from a garden chair I found in a skip plus plastic shipping waste from a new washing machine.

Door latches – Blue Peter style
Door latches – Blue Peter style

Pruned – The fruit trees in the communal orchard have long been abused and neglected. I gave them a vigorous pruning  in order to encourage growth and prevent disease. They have since bloomed with a vengeance, giving me the retrospective delusion I knew what I was doing at the time.

It doesn't get any more exciting than this!
It doesn’t get any more exciting than this!

Maintained – I actually, REALLY, turned the compost! I never get around to turning the compost. Does anybody?

Ground prep

Prepared – I uncovered and turned a 2 substantial areas for potatoes, which have since been planted and earthed up earlier than ever

Future chips
Future chips

Prepared – The 2 raspberry beds have been weeded, fed with compost and mulched

Future Eton Mess
Future Eton Mess

Weeded – I turned and weeded a long bed for brassicas, although our hopes of success this time are tempered by the fact we have been dining on pest leftovers for the past 3 years.

Weeded – Weeds in the fruit cage have been removed where possible. They have a knack of rooting next to the fruit stems making it impossible to get them out without damaging the fruit stems. Plan B is to cover with weed control fabric, or there’s Plan C – ignore them.

All under control
All under control

Weeded – Large areas of our plot that have been infested with self-seeded forget-me-not that a former neighbour let loose without thinking. I belatedly worked out why they are called forget-me-nots. While prolific they don’t deep-root so can be cleared quite quickly.

Planting

Transplanted – A very long-suffering pear has been liberated from a pot in the back garden to our fruit tree bed. It is the Terry Waite of the Orchard – free at last and no doubt writing a memoir about its former incarceration.

Pear tree rehomed and water
Pear tree rehomed and watered

Transplanted – The cherry sapling we planted in the communal orchard has struggled to compete for light and water. I moved it to the fruit cage where it could be protected from birds and trained

Transplanted – A badly positioned gooseberry bush has been re-homed in the fruit cage. It just looks so happy now. I do hope it thanks us later in the season.

Planted – Two young rhubarb crowns finally got a new home. They haven’t shown much sign of activity in the following weeks but they are alive. A bit like bedroom bound teenagers in the summer holidays.


Most of these tasks have been completed in an hour or two, time often stolen from an early evening after work. Cumulatively they have propelled us into May with unprecedented momentum.

Allotments are rewarding in many ways but during the lockdown months I appreciate having a point of focus outdoors. There is still so much to do but by achieving numerous smaller tasks it feels like I have a semblance of control over something.

Control is of course an illusion, as anyone who had plans for 2020 will recognise. A mild frost in early May forced us to cover all sorts of plants that might otherwise have been damaged. An impromptu gale yesterday last night may have caused some damage down at the plot. The ants may have overthrown me as leader during my absence.

All you can do is plan, hope, implement, review and accept. Perhaps most importantly you try to enjoy. Ant powder helps.

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