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Winter is a dormant time at the allotment. The vibrant hues of summer are long forgotten, seemingly lost forever to wet beds of mud. Even the weeds are sleeping.

I visited today in the aftermath of this week’s gale to check for damage. The newly reskinned polytunnel emerged unscathed but, as expected, the netting protecting our winter greens had to be re-anchored to stave off the attentions of pigeons that can decimate an unprotected crop in hours.

There was nothing to keep me any longer. That’s how it is at this time of year.

A damp sun

A damp sun

With this lull in proceedings it’s a good time to look back at my photos from the past year and remember that nature is going to do it all again this year, however unlikely that might feel right now…

The season starts with seeding. I have learnt that plants really want to grow. You just have to provide favourable conditions to help them along.

Small beginnings

Small beginnings

Planting means groundwork, which inevitably means digging and weeding in the cold. Frequent visits from our friendly robin genuinely make the work easier.

A symbiotic relationship

A symbiotic relationship

New shoots soon emerge, just in case we doubted they would

Return of the rhubarb

Return of the rhubarb

And as the plants wake up do does the wildlife

Pollinators hold the key to everything

Pollinators hold the key to everything

There comes a growth spurt during which everything shoots up and the brown turns into green turns into vivid colours

Sunflowers love the sun

Sunflowers love the sun

This rewarding time in the allotment demands a lot of effort in return. Beds have to be tended, plants regularly watered and pests tackled.

Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps

Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps

As the sun grows in strength the polytunnel becomes a delightful hot house of growth. It’s around this time that our seasonal “housekeeper” Jeremy takes up residence. He is tasked with keeping down the slug and caterpillar population, although I suspect he just drinks the lager.

Jeremy

Jeremy

Everything flowers. The bees are in paradise and the even the most unlikely plant puts on a show. I never knew how attractive a flowering potato could be.

Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke

Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke

Amidst the regular plot maintenance there are always construction projects to tackle. The long awaited garden shed edges closer to fruition. Perhaps by next year…

Hiding from other jobs

Hiding from other jobs

Forgotten muscles ache to remind you they are still there. Marathon weekend sessions leave their mark upon you.

A rude awakening for these office hands

A rude awakening for these office hands

But there are no regrets. You reap what you sow and harvest time brings rich rewards.

Payback

Payback

At the start of every year I convince myself that this year will be less hectic – there will be time to slow down and take everything in. Instead we find ourselves hurriedly throwing late crops into a bed as natures cycle threatens to run away from us.

The things you miss if you don’t take time out

The things you miss if you don’t take time out

Before we know it the days are beginning to shrink. Autumn brings with it a different selection of crops.

Fractal food

Fractal food

As the leaves begin to fall and the sun sits lower in the sky the allotment takes on a different feel. This a great time to get the camera out and capture the autumn light.

A change of season

A change of season

The plants you want to grow lose their impetus, yet it seems that the weeds always have one more spurt left in them.

Hanging on in there

Hanging on in there

The sun sets on a season of plenty and those colours fade away.

A final splash of colour

A final splash of colour

Autumn heads towards winter and like the morning after a party there is a lot of clearing up to do. Spent crops are cut down and composted. Cane structures are dismantled. Beds are covered for protection over winter.

If you can't compost  it you burn it

If you can’t compost it you burn it

Winter crops have been netted off and need minimal maintenance. The polytunnel may have extended the season for a modest range of salad leaves, radishes and carrots but it too eventually succumbs to the gloom and cold.

And here I am in January wading through mud with no bees, shoots or humans in sight. It might not seem like it right now but it’s all going to start again soon.

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Regular readers of my blog (humour me on this) may think I have fallen out of love with writing, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Having published on average a blog every fortnight for the past 6 years this is only my 4th in 12 months. There are reasons…

For one thing I have been moonlighting as blogger for TEDxDerby which has been a time consuming albeit richly rewarding diversion. No doubt I’ll write about this on my own blog after the event takes place on 21st May.

The true reason however for my lack of writing has been a relentlessly busy lifestyle and, in particular, the bottomless pit of resource demand that is my allotment.

We took on an allotment around May last year and with such a late handover it was obvious that 2015 would be about basic groundwork and whatever minimal growing we could achieve in the remaining window. As it happens we enjoyed a prodigious crop of potatoes (only just exhausted) and soft fruits not to mention a decent return of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and courgettes – all from perhaps a third of the available growing area.

Last years goodies

Last years goodies

It was clear that 2016 was going to be a different proposition with time to plan properly and design a 4 section crop rotation layout for the plot. We would prepare the ground, install a series of raised beds, improve our facilities and do the kind of unfrenzied succession planting that seasoned growers do at a smug canter. That was our plan and it started well.

Who knew gardening could be this much fun

Who knew gardening could be this much fun

At the turn of the year with few opportunities to meaningful outdoor work I subscribed to an online allotment planning tool. We measured every section of the plot and dragged & dropped plants into a virtual plan. So far so good – and all without back-ache! The first priority would be to clear away the debris of last year’s labours and start with a blank canvas.

It all starts here

It all starts here

Allotments – like gardens – look a wreck after the winter and ours was no exception. It didn’t take long to pull up last year’s spent crops and dismantle the netting tunnels that had been erected to shut out undesirable pests. In reality the slugs and caterpillars had somehow found a way in and the netting had merely prevented any birds from getting at them. We will have to work on that one.

The first priority was going to be a re-organisation of the chaotically planted soft fruit we had inherited from the previous plot holder – a consolation for all the rubble and carpet he buried in our plot that we now have to deal with.

Rhubarb not looking at its best

Rhubarb not looking at its best

This wasn’t going to be straightforward. Three redcurrant bushes would need to be uprooted and planted alongside three others to form an orderly line but that would require a rhubarb head to be relocated into a space currently occupied by a manically invasive comfrey. I love rhubarb but my knowledge of them extends only so far as the custard jug. It turns out that they are fed by lengthy tentacles of root that will snap off if you so much as think of crumble.

We shall not be moved

We shall not be moved

Eventually with rhubarb relocated the real work was to start. If you have ever tried to move a bush you will have an inkling of the labour intensive faff entailed in sensitively prizing the root system from the soil. If this wasn’t demanding enough I was having to carefully extricate numerous raspberry stems that had randomly seeded themselves amidst the bushes. These would be re-planted at the other end of the plot.

Finally getting somewhere

Finally getting somewhere

Several hours of intensive graft later the various fruits were unearthed and we set about re-planting the redcurrant bushes in a freshly dug trench after I had rotavated the area. Finally it felt like we were making progress.

An attempt to prevent weeds

An attempt to prevent weeds

With the plants re-homed I salvaged some old liner fabric and shaped it around the stems as a weed suppressant. Due to a shortage of liner we decided to experiment with newspaper for half of the crops. Our last act was to scatter a layer of strulch (a “miraculous” variant of mulch based on straw).

Straw + Mulch = Strulch

Straw + Mulch = Strulch

We were very pleased with the transformation and took great satisfaction in creating order out of the random weed-ridden mess but at this point I would like to return to the opening theme of the blog.

This first of countless tasks on the allotment had been to prepare an area of 20 square metres (the plot is approx 270 sqm) , relocate three redcurrant bushes and salvage a dozen raspberries. In the end it took around 10 hours to do all of this, left me a physical wreck (admittedly I hardly started in great shape) and tied up the entire weekend.

And that’s the point. Taking an allotment can suck up as much time as you have in the first couple of years until you have undertaken all of the initial planning, groundwork and structural development. In theory the workload diminishes sharply thereafter but until then I’m going to be short of time to write and short of time to do anything interesting to write about!

It is undeniably rewarding work. We have so many plans for planting, structures and re-organisation. Today I spent 5 back-breaking hours preparing a relatively small area for a future raised bed, but the sun was out, the birds competing for the best song and I saw my first frog of the year. Instinctively impatient I’m learning to work and think to a different pace. Next weekend I want to spend a day walking. Foreign travel beckons. TEDxDerby is around the corner. The allotment will have to grow at a human pace.

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How times have changed. There has been no travel, scarce cooking and few nights out. My normal summer rituals have taken a back seat. This is what custodianship of an allotment does to you.

In the three months since I took on a local plot my weekends and evenings have been almost entirely devoted to gaining a foothold in the fast-receding growing season – from a standing start.

At first I took an odd satisfaction from weeding and turning soil in preparation for planting.

Preparing soil the hard way

Preparing soil the hard way

That wore off as the sheer intensity of effort resulted in a strained back and a broken fork.

Breaking under the strain

Breaking under the strain

Short of time and manpower it became apparent I was going to have to throw aside the New Gardener’s Handbook# and take some shortcuts – or Hacks as we IT people call them.

# there isn’t really a New Gardeners Handbook – I made that up as a narrative device.
In fact I make a lot of things up. Look – just read, don’t question

Hack #1: Buy A Rotavator

This is essentially a 125cc moped with blades instead of a rear wheel…

Mr Rotavator

Mr Rotavator

Now I can prepare an area in 20 minutes that would have taken three hours using a fork. Despite this half of my plot remains unprepared. A seasoned plot holder told me that in his first year he focussed entirely on clearing and preparing the ground. He didn’t plant anything.

From small acorns...

From small acorns…

On that basis I should be pleased to have my potatoes in the ground, peas climbing a frame and a selection of brassicas growing under netting.

...grow mighty potatoes

…grow mighty potatoes

I guess it depends on whether you are a plot half empty kind of person

Hack #2: Erect A Polytunnel

Think of a polytunnel as a plastic greenhouse. You can maintain a higher temperature and add a couple of months to the summer growing season for plants that need a warmer, more stable growing environment

Not tall enough yet

Not tall enough yet

After much research I invested in a 3m x 6m beast from Grow-Ur-Own on the basis that it looked a lot larger and sturdier than the average unit.

Meccano for adults

Meccano for adults

Unfortunately it came with almost entirely useless assembly instructions and took a weekend to erect, although I secretly enjoyed the challenge.

Digging for victory

Digging for victory

The most painstaking part turned out to be fitting the cover over the frame. In the end it took 4 of us to get the job done after which I was able to bury the edges in a trench designed to stabilise and protect the plastic cover.

Space to grow!

Space to grow!

The polytunnel has provided a superb growing environment for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as well as a preparatory environment for plants destined for life outside.

A young pepper

A young pepper

The cucumbers in particular grow at a prodigious rate in this environment and a first batch has already made it into pickling jars.

Early polytunnel crop

Early polytunnel crop

Of course none of this growth can happen without a lot of watering. With polytunnel pots requiring 40L of water every day how are you supposed to have an evening off, let alone a week away?

Hack #3: Automate The Irrigation

Once plants are in the ground they can generally look after themselves – especially with all the rain we have had this summer. It’s different for the pots under cover so I investigated the options and came up with a solution for a timer controlled irrigation system.

No more watering

No more watering

Now this isn’t as simple of you might think. With no mains supply I had to create a gravity fed water supply with sufficient pressure to keep 50 pots irrigated for up to a week. I managed to (literally) unearth 48 bricks from my plot to create a raised base for a 230L water butt which fed into a tubing system via a Claber battery operated timer.

40m of irrigation tubing

40m of irrigation tubing

As I write this blog from a sunlit cottage room in Padstow I can only hope the solution is operating as designed. If it is working then I will simply have to top up the water butt once a week when I return from holiday. If hasn’t worked then everything will have died – either way my evening watering duties will be a thing of the past.

Hack #4: Inherit Stock

OK, this isn’t something I can take any credit for but the fact is that the previous plot-holder left some goodies behind and I’m not one to let things go to waste.

A thriving fruit bed has already yielded several weeks worth of succulent raspberries plus a smattering of strawberries.

Sweet pickings

Sweet pickings

Before I left for Cornwall I picked and froze over a kilo of redcurrants and there is much more to come.

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Factor in three established heads of rhubarb and I am getting quite a decent return without expending any effort.

I can barely believe how much has been achieved in the last 3 months. Sure, it has been LOT of hard work but also very satisfying. I’m saving £30 per month on gym membership alone and getting much better exercise so there really isn’t anything to complain about on that front.

Allotment or gym?

Allotment or gym?

Work on the allotment is as energising as it is tiring. Every day something has grown or flowered. I become engrossed watching bees flit amongst the comfrey.

My caretaker Jeremy

My caretaker Jeremy

A frog (called Jeremy) pops up sporadically in the polytunnel where I commission him to keep on top of any insects. Blackbirds sing so beautifully that I almost feel guilty for netting off the redcurrants they love so much.

How it's going to be...

How it’s going to be…

One day, maybe soon, I might visit and not actually do anything. Just relax and take it all in…

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I awake with a dull ache in the whole body region. Nothing is actually sprained or painful but every small movement tells of some untold physical ordeal yesterday. A creaky descent of the stairs leads me into the kitchen where a glance out back yields the first clue.

A mysterious wooden box has crash-landed into the garden. My resident blackbird pecks around it to evaluate any worm potential. A squirrel eyes it suspiciously from on high as it plots some act of destructive action.

No admittance to anything with a tail

No admittance to anything with a tail

There are more clues in the conservatory. Once a clear and airy space devoted to relaxation the scene this morning is altogether more … earthy. The tiles are powdered with soil. Every surface (and there are new ones) is covered in pots containing green or purple shoots.

Derby branch of the Svalbard seed vault

Derby branch of the Svalbard seed vault

The greenhouse – because that’s what it is now – is a production line for vegetables. The box outside is a newly constructed raised bed in which to plant them. The aching body is what you get when you swap a relatively sedentary life for that of a gardener. Except that I’m not only a gardener. As of a week ago I am also an allotment holder…

It is still not clear to me how it came to this. For years I have fought a battle with my back garden in an attempt to produce life from a space which, while adequate in growing space, lacks direct sunlight and ground moisture due to the extended canopy and root structure of the mature trees that cast their shadow long before builders laid the foundations for my home.

Trees grab all the light

Trees grab all the light

I have won some battles, most notably in my herb garden where the rosemary, mint and oregano positively thrive. In some years I have coaxed green beans from a side bed while my plum tree begrudgingly produces some sort of crop in alternate years. Overall though the war has been won by the trees – or so they thought – but they reckoned without my partner who, despite a lack of any green fingered credentials, went out and bought a seed collection to rival the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Buoyed by her enthusiasm my paternal instincts kicked in and with it the needs to find a home for our infant vegetables.

The scant 5 minute walk to my allotment is bittersweet. Sweet because there is an abundance of space in which to plant. Sweet because the open aspect will enjoy full sun throughout the day. Sweet because short walks like this are no longer cyber-headed marches but fascinating opportunities to inspect other peoples front gardens and gain planting inspiration. Bitter because…

160 sq metres of weeding and digging

160 sq metres of weeding and digging

…well, it’s hardly a bed of roses. It needs work. Lots of work. I’m a list person and my list of jobs for the back garden and now the allotment has entered continuation sheet territory. The sheer size of the plot is daunting. There are pernicious weeds. There are areas of heavy clay soil. The shed is too small. The water butt needs attention. There will be man-weeks of weeding, digging and general maintenance before this space is anything but a bad neighbour to the well-maintained adjoining plots.

Sludge dispenser

Sludge dispenser

All of that is to come and yet before a first fork has been plunged into the earth I feel that I have changed. I’m starting to think like an allotment holder. My old garden fence will break down nicely to create the walkways I need to lay across the plot. Plastic water bottles once destined for the recycling bin are now treasured as growing containers. That list of jobs will shred down and rot nicely into compost.

What have I let myself in for? Will I be living The Good Life over summer (damn that catchy theme music!) or am I heading for the back clinic and an account with Ocado? Only time will tell.

Now where do I start?

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