Andy Sturgeon plans to turn a 60 by 30ft area of grass and sedge into an organic allotment. He reveals his thoughts on the challenges ahead
Several weeks ago I turned 35. Not a big deal in itself perhaps, but on the same day I took up ownership, or rather became custodian, of an allotment. These two events individually donít amount to much but look at them together and suddenly Iíve turned into Arthur Fowler. So no more dissing and larging it with my posse and not doing up the laces on my Nikes, Iím off down the allotments in my wellies to sip sherry with my new friends and discuss the merits of Axminster carpet as a mulch. An allotment nerd at my age, Iíd never have thought it; Iím praying for the outbreak of war now so I can claw back some vestige of credibility.
Itís actually more of a field than an allotment. A 60 by 30ft display bed of indigenous grasses and sedges, which Sarah and I have bravely elected to garden organically, hence our first problem. How the hell do you get rid of all those weeds? Fortunately there is a communal strimmer owned by the allotmenteers, as I have discovered the official term to be. The plan is to chop all the grass down, rake it off and put it on the compost heap that doesnít yet exist.
Being something of an organic allotment virgin, Iím going to treat the whole thing like an experiment. Iíve been storing up all sorts of old wivesí tales and half-baked ideas for years and now at last Iím going to put them into practice.
At least half of the plot weíre going to tackle next year in the spring. Weíve been saving cardboard boxes over the last few months so for the time being we can put them down as a mulch to eventually kill all the weeds. Iím planning on weighting it down with a few logs and covering it with bark so it isnít too much of an eyesore. Iím hoping that it will all rot down over the winter so I can fork it in next year but Iím afraid thatís possibly a little optimistic. The way I see it, you canít have an allotment and not try the old carpet thing, so Iím going to experiment with some of that as well.
With the rest of it Iím just going to start digging and endeavour to remove all the roots by hand. Iím hoping that for me the silver lining of this summerís cloud is that all the rain will have kept the ground a little soft and Iíll actually be able to get the fork in.
Thereís a communal pile of well-rotted leaf mould that needs to be shifted before this autumnís deluge of leaves appears, so Iíll dig some of that in. Iíll probably scatter a bit of fish, blood and bone about as a fertilizer as well.
Part of the cleared area Iím going to sow with a green manure that I can just fork into the soil to provide some nutrients, and while itís growing it should smother weeds. Itís late in the year so Iím a bit limited for choice, limited to a choice of one in fact, so perennial rye grass it is. The only thing on the whole allotment worth keeping is a patch of comfrey, which Iím rather pleased with. Being rich in potassium and some trace elements, this perennial makes great compost and now is the time to divide it and plant offsets to increase the crop.
Once Iíve done all that, the battle will be on to actually plant some crops before itís too late. Turnips are allegedly a good way to get rid of couch grass so Iíll definitely be trying this, garlic is said to be superior if planted in autumn rather than spring, and Iíll also be sowing some onions. Leeks and spinach will feature and one of my favourite vegetables, kohl rabi, is a must. These weird cabbagey turnipy things can be grated into salads for a nutty taste or boiled and mashed. Iíve been advised to leave large gaps between rows for the first year or two until Iím really on top of the weeds, and crop rotation, Iím afraid, will have to wait until next year when Iím a bit more organized. In the meantime I suppose Iíd better set about building some sort of shed, somewhere to keep the tools and, of course, the sherry. Have a look here for further information on allotments or Allotment Vegetable Growing.
Click on the following Helping Hands workshops for useful advice:
How to be Organic: First Steps
How to be Organic in your Vegetable Garden