Our allotment isn’t very traditional. There’s not many straight edges, or bare soil with single varieties of vegetables lined in neat
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.
Our early attempts at planting were destroyed by pigeons (brassicas), eaten by mice (peas),
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).
My strategy this year was to increase on my experiments last year with the kids of sowing
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.
I’ve left some crops to flower when finished, for example the kale which never really got going
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.
There are bees everywhere, a massive difference to last year. Planting sacrificial crops such as
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.
The boys particularly enjoyed our first bean feast of the year today – after all leeks and cabbages
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.