It’s now been a year since we took over our allotment, so this seems to be a good time to take stock.
When we took it on, the plot needed some work. It was neck-high with weeds, with just a section at the bottom that had recently been cultivated. We had a tree stump slap-bang in the centre of the plot that needed digging out, and half-a-dozen more in a clump nearer the top. To be fair, other people on the site have had much worse to contend with, but the plot was going to need plenty of work to get it clear before we’d be able to sow any seed.
A year later, we haven’t quite managed to tame the wilderness, but we have brought most of it back into use. The bottom two thirds have been pretty productive as a veg patch, and the top third is shaping up as a fruit grove. For infrastructure, we have paths to get to most areas, a couple of water butts, and a slightly ramshackle compost bin made out of pallets. In short, it’s taking shape.
And when it comes to growing things, we’ve done far better than any of us were expecting.
Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Squash
I thought it would be difficult to get excited about potatoes, but I was wrong. We grew one red variety and one white. Having buried a few unpromising looking seed potatoes, and then watched the leaves emerge and then completely take over the bed, when the moment to dig them up arrives you’ve got no idea how well they’ve done down there. Turning the soil to find an abundance of bright red potatoes in amongst the dirt was one of the high points of the first year. We harvested plenty of both kinds, and have a good stash in the cupboards to see us through the coming few months.
Growing tomatoes outdoors on an allotment was a bit of an experiment, but they’re doing better than expected. We put in eight plants, of a mixture of varieties (poorly labelled, “by their fruit shall ye know them”), and all have set fruit well. The two big questions were whether they’d be struck down by blight, and whether the Sheffield climate would be warm enough for them to ripen outside. So far there’s no sign of blight, and the fruit are starting to change colour. I’ve even been able to snack on a couple of tomatoes on recent visits to the plot. I have a couple of recipes involving green tomatoes that I’d like to try, though, so I’m secretly hoping that they won’t all turn red.
Squash fit into rotation schemes whereever you can find the space, but it makes sense to me to put them in with the potatoes and tomatoes. That’s partly because of what we’re doing with the strawberries and the crop rotation (which needs a post of its own to explain), and partly because these are all hungry feeders that will benefit from manured soil, so they seem to belong together.
We’ve never had much success with squash plants before. Lots of the smaller gourds have rotted on the vine, but a couple of the earliest made it through to maturity. Given our past experience trying to grow these, we’re calling it a success.
The courgettes, on the other hand, haven’t been a struggle at all. Both the green and the yellow (“golden”) varieties are now producing courgettes faster than we can eat them. They’re good in chutneys, but I’m still glad that I only planted four courgette plants! Any more would definitely have gone to waste.
Roots and Alliums
Our soil isn’t ideal for growing root vegetables. Some neighbouring plot-holders told us not to bother, but, having thanked them for their advice, we did anyway.
For most of the root vegetables, it’s too early to tell exactly how we’ve got on. Germination rates were fairly low: there are plenty of gaps in the rows. We’ve had a couple of servings of baby beetroot, and then tried a second sowing which is still in the ground. The first variety of carrots (Resistafly) struggled–I think we got about four–but a second sowing of a variety more suited to heavy, stony soil (Early Scarlet Horn) looks more promising. We may yet get some parsnips and scorzonera, but we won’t be pulling them until after a couple of frosts, so there’s a way to go yet for them.
The first thing we planted when we took on the plot was some garlic, which grew on strongly and has helped to boost the number of ingredients from the allotment in many a meal.
The leeks were nearly a complete failure, after I got confused about how to sow/plant them. When you’re transplanting seedlings, you’re meant to make a hole, pop the seedling in, and then water without refilling the hole with soil. That doesn’t seem to be such a good method if you’re direct sowing: almost none of the seeds came up (although, of course, other factors could have been involed). We filled the gaps with some young leeks from elsewhere, though, so should still have leeks to harvest next spring.
We didn’t quite manage to get any onions in this year, but have some overwintering onion sets ready to go in for next year in a few weeks’ time.
We had a series of failures with peas. The plan was to grow three sowings of three varieties–an early, a maincrop, and a late–so that we’d be eating peas all through the summer. The first sowing got nibbled and pecked to destruction almost before they’d got out of the ground. The second sowing grew better, but was choked by weeds and pecked through the netting, so only yielded a few peas for nibbling on, not enough for a single full serving. The third sowing didn’t happen, as we hadn’t quite got that bed free from tree roots in time.
Other than that, the legumes have been fine though. The broad beans cropped well, over a long period of time, and tasted great. Karen, not a broad bean fan before, seems to have been persuaded that they deserve a space on our plot.
The runner beans seemed slow to get going, but we’ve just started to pick them over the last week, and they look like providing a good harvest.
The French beans are well behind, but that may be my fault for starting them too late, and I think we’ll get to eat a few anyway.
The main lesson we’ve learned from our brassicas this year is that planting distances on seed packets aren’t always a good guide to how big plants will get.
The purple-sprouting broccoli, which won’t crop until next year, is enormous, and has been bullying the romanesco, which gave us a couple of heads before bolting, and is now ready to come out.
The red cabbages have sprawled too, rather smothering the curly kale, although we’ve still had half a dozen servings with more to come. While the red cabbages have now formed their neat, crisp heads, the savoy cabbages will come later, but are shaping up nicely.
The rainbow chard (not a brassica, strictly speaking, but in our rotation that’s how we’re going to treat it) has been healthy and vibrant, adding colour throughout most of the season, and guaranteeing that there’ll be something to harvest on every trip to the plot.
The biggest success has been the strawberries. We put in 32 plants, mostly cold-stored runners, but about eight second-year plants transplanted from Carl and Karen’s garden. The 1st-year plants didn’t produce much fruit (just as those we transplanted didn’t produce much last year), but the second-year plants were prolific and the strawberries were delicious. I’m very excited about next year, when I’m expecting at least three times as big a harvest, as the new plants from this year start producing.
Apart from that, we’re playing a long game with the fruit. The raspberries have been pretty pathetic, not even worth netting. The blueberries were the same. The gooseberries didn’t even fruit (not enough potassium in the soil?), and have now been pruned back aggressively in an attempt to get them back in shape for next year or the year after. The young plum, greengage and cherry trees are all looking good, but are still settling in and getting established.
So we’re very happy with our first year, but there’s plenty to look forward to in our second.
The major project will be to build some raised beds from used scaffold boards. That should improve drainage, give us better borders to get some paths established, and make weeding a little easier so that we can get one step closer to getting the weeds under control. It should also give us some solid borders to the beds that we can attach posts or pipes to in order to support netting or plastic sheeting. We have enough boards to do about half of the veg patch, and if they work well we’ll get some more so that we can finish the job.
The hedge that we planted at the bottom of the plot back in March has taken, but isn’t yet a barrier of any kind. A year from now, that should have filled out a little, getting us a step closer to having a proper plot.
Whereas last year we spent the autumn hacking down and digging out weeds, this year we’ll be able to over-winter some crops. That means that all going well next year we’ll be able to pick some things that we weren’t able to this year, including purple sprouting broccoli, black kale, leeks, and spring cabbages.
With any luck, we’ll also get more fruit, as the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and blackcurrants settle in. Who knows, perhaps something other than the strawberries will even be worth netting next year.