Our wild allotment

Our wild allotment

Our allotment isn’t very traditional.  There’s not many straight edges, or bare soil with single varieties of vegetables lined in neat

Potato flower
Potato flower
Remember the pond toby made a few months ago?
Remember the pond toby made a few months ago?

drills, it rarely feels the metal edge of a hoe, it would be virtually impossible to rake.

Gardening on a south facing slope on heavy clay which bakes as hard as a brick in summer meant we had to rethink our picture of what an allotment should look like.

I liked the idea of no dig gardening, where the structure of the soil is undisturbed, to the benefit of the minibeasts and the crops, and fertility raised by the addition of copious amounts of organic matter on the surface each year.

Trouble was we didn’t have access to lots of manure or compost, just the compost bin in our back yard, and I’m not convinced no dig gardening works all that well on heavy clay full of morning glory and other perennial weeds anyway.  The plots need a good dig over to expose the fat white roots of the morning glory so I can painstakingly worrit them out, trying hard to leave no broken bits behind to grow anew.

 

Bergamot in Toby's plot
Bergamot in Toby’s plot

Our early attempts at planting were destroyed by pigeons (brassicas), eaten by mice (peas),

First crop of broad beans of the year
First crop of broad beans of this year – no blackfly!

or unpollinated due to the lack of bees (broad beans – which were also infested with blackfly so after hand pollinating them to get a crop, picking the pods stained our fingers black from all the accidental squishing of the pests).  We persisted and have managed good harvests, but there has been a lot of replanting and losses along the way.

 

The solution has been, at first glance, rather messy.  As an experiment last year I planted a bag of cheap dried culinary peas (for making mushy peas) from the supermarket.  Unlike the expensive seed packets, these all germinated and grew away happily.  Plantain and fat hen started growing amongst them, which I left as ground cover to try to stop the clay baking hard.  The resulting crop was incredible – hiding amongst the weeds there was a bumper crop (none of which made it home as I set the boys the task of picking them, so they simply spent a happy half hour gorging as effectively as any pigeon could).

A little lawn for the bumble bees
A little lawn for the bumble bees

My strategy this year was to increase on my experiments last year with the kids of sowing

Toby perfecting his bug hotel
Toby perfecting his bug hotel

flowers like pot marigolds amongst the vegetables and selectively leaving weeds – fat hen and plantain are in, creeping buttercup, morning glory and dock are out (although some docks are left alongside each bed because the blackfly prefer them to my beans).

 

The main principles are to leave as little soil as possible exposed in order to retain moisture, to encourage wildlife to help us and also to hide crops from unhelpful pigeons.

We’ve removed a pond that kept getting attacked by badgers digging for worms, replaced it with more tub ponds and in the process found frogs and palmate newts.

We’ve left some areas fallow, to be dug over and planted up later in the year, we sowed red clover and planted herbs for the bees.  The kids lavish care on a bug hotel, which won’t win any awards for grandeur but is full of nooks and crannies for beasties to hide.

More flowers for the insects
More flowers for the insects

I’ve left some crops to flower when finished, for example the kale which never really got going

Radish pods
Radish pods

has made a beautiful patch of yellow cruciform flowers followed by long seed pods which we’ll harvest the seed from once they have dried.

 

Radishes are left to flower and pod as the pods are delicious, far nicer than radish roots for the boys to graze on.  Some leeks that were too tough and woody at the end of the season are also near flowering – I want the boys to have the chance to see what the majority of crops look like right through their life cycle, and we compare simple flowers like daisies with inflorescences like lavender, and how the flowers of related species look similar such as the four-petalled cruciform flowers of the brassica family.

Tentatively I think it seems to be working.  We’re harvesting decent veg, nothing has been decimated as it was when we started, although the potatoes are patchy after being planted shallowly into rock hard clay during the hot dry spring and then frozen by the late frosts that came afterwards.  They’re being nurtured with worm composter liquor courtesy of a kind friend, plus chicken manure pellets, so hopefully there will still be something to crop later on.

 

Harvesting broad beans
Harvesting broad beans

There are bees everywhere, a massive difference to last year.  Planting sacrificial crops such as

Gooseberries planted with rosemary to deter sawfly, and underplanted with strawberries to cover the soil
Gooseberries planted with rosemary to deter sawfly, and underplanted with strawberries to cover the soil

nasturtiums among the other veg such as brassicas should hopefully keep the caterpillars and other bugs down as they seem to prefer them, plus we’re encouraging lots of umbellifer type flowers, for example by allowing the parsley to flower, should attract hoverflies to predate the pests.

 

Toby is the most interested in the plots and spends a lot of time bug hunting and examining the plants, and has decided that as well as being a builder he’s going to be a bug hunter and discover new kinds of insects.  Ollie is less interested in the allotment (although  more than keen to help water his friend’s plot further down the field when he sees them there).  However he is  always ready to lend a hand when it comes to harvesting.

 

 

 

Podding, fun for all the family
Podding, fun for all the family

The boys particularly enjoyed our first bean feast of the year today – after all leeks and cabbages

Onions planted amongst California poppy
Onions planted amongst California poppy

are ok, but they’re nothing compared to a dish of broad beans cooked fresh from the plot.  Gardening is fab for all the family – a continual experiment, a practice in patience, a source of fresh air and healthy soil bacteria, and at just a few pounds a year it is cheaper than joining a gym.

 

22 Comments

  • Plutonium Sox

    11th June 2017 at 7:28 am Reply

    This is fascinating Maz, as long as it works for you I don’t suppose it matters how you grow things. Someone else has also told me that radish pods are delicious, I’ll have to give them a try. This reminds me I haven’t checked on our veg at my dad’s lately, I suspect the courgettes will be marrows!
    Nat.x

    • admin

      11th June 2017 at 8:27 am Reply

      We’re fortunate in having an amazing allotment association who don’t grumble (our old one we got constant ‘must improve’ letters as they didn’t understand my permaculture plot, the final straw was when they said no children under 5 – Ollie was a baby!)

  • Aunty Green

    11th June 2017 at 8:21 am Reply

    Tip for the leeks, once they have flowered cut the flower stalk off and dry upside down they make great gifts for the end of the year stuck in a pot ( dry sand in a plastic bag with a covering of moss or other greenery) tie a big bow around the stem and hey presto! You can also do the same drying and have a paper bag tied around the head to catch seed

    • admin

      11th June 2017 at 8:25 am Reply

      Lovely suggestion 🙂 I’ve done that with chives before but never leeks. Thanks xxx

  • Jonny (daisythebus)

    12th June 2017 at 8:03 am Reply

    This is really interesting. We recently moved into a house with a horrendously over-manicured garden with straight edges everywhere and no sense of it being the “extension of nature” that a garden should be. Slowly we’ve been trying to re-wild it, but we are still a long way off what you have achieved here. Bravo! Greetings from Luxembourg. #CountryKids

    • admin

      12th June 2017 at 11:02 am Reply

      Sounds like a great project, best of luck with your re-wilding 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  • Fiona Cambouropoulos

    12th June 2017 at 10:36 pm Reply

    I love your comparison with joining a gym. This is much more productive all round and you can save on expensive protein and energy packs with your own super healthy veg! It sounds like you have had a year of trial and error and of discover and reward. I am quite envious as my gardening is never so successful. I have a greenhouse in my garden that ends up being a pen to orphan animals and never planted out at the critical time. Even my chives were munched to within an inch of their life by Friday out pet lamb. Keep up the good work and great ideas for successful crops and I hope Toby keeps his gardening interest too.

    Thank you for sharing with me on #CountryKids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 8:15 am Reply

      I think my boys would agree that a greenhouse full of baby animals sounds more fun than tomato plants 🙂

  • Kids of the Wild

    13th June 2017 at 4:44 am Reply

    This ticks all my boxes and is a post I’m saving for when i get time to start growing again. Even your photos look delicious! I read an article once about a gardener from India who laughed at us British allotmenters moaning about dry soil. He had the most lush allotment by doing what you have, covering as much ground as possible with plants. Keep it up. #CountryKids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 8:14 am Reply

      That’s so kind, I’m glad you liked it. My first degree is environmental biology and I used to help out with a permaculture garden, both of which have influenced what we do 🙂

  • Karen | TwoTinyHands

    13th June 2017 at 8:15 am Reply

    This sounds like a lovely allotment and one that as you say doesn’t need to be uniformed. A perfect way to deal with your soil type! When we first got an allotment it was too big and weedy to face all in one go so ours spent a couple of years looking like yours sounds. I don’t have it anymore but hope to get one whole my kids are young but not babies so they get to enjoy it too! #countrykids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 8:12 am Reply

      Tackling it bit by bit is definitely the best way 🙂

  • Helena

    13th June 2017 at 5:02 pm Reply

    I have to agree with you that growing your own leads to them tasting a lot better. #CountryKids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 8:11 am Reply

      Certainly can’t get fresher 🙂

  • SO Mum

    14th June 2017 at 10:21 am Reply

    This looks like such a wonderful allotment, there’s so much going on which makes it much more interesting (especially for kids) than everything being in neat rows!

    • admin

      14th June 2017 at 1:39 pm Reply

      Thank you 🙂

  • Sherry

    15th June 2017 at 10:04 am Reply

    I’m so desperate to have an allotment – it’s hard work but so rewarding #CountryKids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 2:28 pm Reply

      It is hard work, but so much less so if you step away from traditional double digging and bare earth between crops 🙂

  • Naomi Cooper

    15th June 2017 at 2:11 pm Reply

    This is amazing, you should be very proud. This is my dream one day. We don’t even have a garden yet, we live in a flat, but we have to move soon, and will hopefully be getting a garden and I want to start growing some of my own stuff even if it’s not much. You have to start somewhere 🙂 #countrykids

    • admin

      15th June 2017 at 2:27 pm Reply

      Thank you 🙂 we started with lots of tomatoes outside the door of our flat, then when we moved we had pots on the little patio of our house, then the allotment. It’s good to start small 🙂

  • Multicultural Motherhood

    15th June 2017 at 11:43 pm Reply

    Gardening is such a good way to spend time outdoors with the kids. We are growing a few vegetables in our garden and greenhouse. Would love to have an allotment one day. #CountryKids

    • admin

      16th June 2017 at 12:41 pm Reply

      Growing a few veg alongside the flowers in your garden is really productive and beautiful 🙂 Alys Fowler is a good reference for this kind of productive garden

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