Are we going to be organic?

Today we sprayed the allotment with a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate.

So does that mean we’re not going to be organic? Well, in the beginning, obviously not. We’re using a chemical to clear the plot. And we may have to use it again to kill pernicious weeds that keep coming back. But we’ll try and use as few chemicals as possible when we’re doing our actual growing.

Could we clear the plot organically? Possibly. We could spend a long, long time digging out every piece of organic matter from the plot. Or we could cover the weeds with something that would exclude the light, which would help to kill the plants. But that would probably take more than a year to do. We want to bring the plot into cultivation sometime this year.

Glyphosate works by being absorbed through the leaves, moving into the roots, and killing the plant from the roots up. When it gets into the soil, it’s broken down by micro-organisms within the soil into less harmful substances until it becomes totally inert. It’s one of the quickest ways of clearing out a whole load of the plants using a herbicide.

We’re using this as an emergency measure to help us clear a plot that has been overgrown for four years or more and get it under cultivation as quickly as possible. Hopefully, we won’t have to use chemicals after this. And we can use other techniques – digging out the weeds and covering the ground – and eventually become as organic as possible.

Green alkanet

I think we have seen the face of our enemy, and know its name to be green alkanet (aka Pentaglottis sempervirens).

The whole site, access path, the alleyways running along two sides of our site are dotted with little green alkanet plantlets.

If left, they would turn into a plant about 60cm tall with startling blue flowers reminiscent of forget-me-not blooms. But they don’t have the charm of forget-me-nots and the hairy leaves cause skin irritation.

The plant has long tap roots and can germinate from any piece of root left in the ground. And of course it can also germinate from seed if allowed to get to that stage.

Could it be usefully composted or made into a liquid feed? Probably not as Alys Fowler explains in the Guardian.

Mystery post – solved!

We were very fortunate on our visit to our plot today inthat we met one of our neighbours, Julia. She has been an allotment holder at that site for 30 years and was very welcoming.

She confirmed that our plot has not been cultivated for about four years and was also able to tell us what the post was – the base of a swing.

Apparently, the swing was for the former plot holder’s had an arm coming out and the swing went round the base.

Who’d have guessed?

In other news, the work that Rodney (The Secret Garden) carried out on the path is paying off. Thanks to his efforts to cut into neglected banks, and even out the surface, accessing our plot has become less terrifying.

We also met another neighbour, who dropped by to check on progress:

More on the mystery posts

A picture of the excavation of the wooden post embedded in concrete

While assessing the shed, we were able to take a few more shots of the mystery post that we’re trying to remove from the allotment.

As previously noted, the three wooden posts are held together with a coach bolt at the top and embedded in concrete at the bottom. There are no other screw holes or marks of anything being fixed to the posts.


There is also a smaller post slightly nearer to the fence, and the two of them are at about a 45 degree angle to the fence. Although at this stage of excavation, it doesn’t look like the two posts are connected, it’s hard to believe they don’t have anything to do with each other.

Here’s a view of the smaller post:


We’d like to thank Rodney from The Secret Garden, for the fantastic job he’s done so far on digging the larger post out. Despite going down a couple of feet, there is no sign of being able to move the post. So, the next plan is likely to involve hitting it hard with a very large hammer!

A closer look at the shed

While we’re clearing the plot, it makes sense to assess the shed and decide whether it can be saved.

It is a quirky little structure with a steeply pitched roof. Covered in ivy, it looked charmingly rustic.

The quirky, ivy-covered shed we inherited

It didn’t take long to notice that the floor was rotten in parts.

The shed floor is rotten in parts

But it was not until Elisa from The Secret Garden managed to clear the ivy from one side that we were able to see the state of it. The first surprise is that it has windows all the way round – far more than a normal shed.Unfortunately, it has a few other less welcome features.

The roof has both wet rot and dry rot:

Dry rot on the roof

The walls are very wet and marked, and they move if you apply any pressure.

The roof and walls of the shed are showing serious signs of damp

One thing we did notice is that a roof panel seems to have the fittings usually used to hold a window open.

Ivy growing inside the shed

It was then that Andrew had a flash of inspiration. The reason the shed is the shape it is, with its steeply pitched roof, and has so many windows all round, is that it probably started life as a greenhouse.

Having had a chance to have a good look round, we are coming to the conclusion that it has been neglected for too long for us to be able to save it. It seems a shame not to be able to continue to give it a further lease of life. But we think it has gone beyond saving. By the time we replace the floor, the roof and the walls, we’ll have a new shed! As we had both began to warm to this quirky little structure we were somewhat reluctant to agree to say goodbye to it, although it will probably make a good bonfire.

A sad day.

Immovable objects and a rotten shed

At this stage, we’ve got all the roots out and have made two piles of material which we are hoping to burn – the ash will be good for the soil.

Elisa and Rodney, from The Secret Garden,  arrived with a good collection of tools. Here’s a selection of their forks!


Rodney attacked the larger of the mystery concrete posts. You can see in the film that he’s dug a couple of feet down all the way around it, and still it refuses to move!

From what we have uncovered so far, there are three layers of concrete (there may be more underneath that). So, it looks like someone has put concrete down, let it dry, put another layer of concrete down, let that dry, then put a final layer of concrete down and sunk the posts into it. The posts themselves are very solid looking pieces of wood held together with a substantial bolt.

There are no obvious signs of something being attached to the posts – no other bolt holes, etc. There is also another a smaller concrete post about a metre nearer to the fence.

What on earth the posts were or why someone put them there, we have no idea.

We have also started pulling the ivy off the shed. It looks homemade rather than being a bought shed and there are windows all the way round. So, someone has obviously been growing something in it, or at least planned to.

But, having uncovered more of it, it looks like bad news. We knew that some of the floor was rotten, and it looks like the eaves have both wet and dry rot. We’ll show more on the shed another day but I think it’s safe to say, we’ll probably need a new one.

One of the difficulties about clearing round the shed, is the bank at that end of the site. The shed is surrounded by what may have been compost heaps. It certainly contains a fair amount of rubbish as Elisa discovered:

Elisa pulls a broken piece of corrugated plastic from the bank surrounding the shed

Rooting out the trees

Another day of hard work from our friends Elisa and Rodney of The Secret Garden. They really are doing a fantastic job of helping us to clear the allotment.

As you can see from the video tour, the major work today was to remove some of the big shrubs and dig out the two trees. It is a shame to lose a walnut tree but they grow very big and the council do not encourage tree growing. You can see why: trees cast shade and could take water and nutrients from neighbouring plots. We also want to start with a blank canvas so that we can maximise the potential our site. So, sadly, both trees have to go.

We were also very pleased to receive a donation of an incinerator from our good friends Anne and Alan Outram. This will be useful on an ongoing basis but we will probably need to have a big bonfire to get rid of everything we’ve been digging up.

According to the council’s allotment guide, bonfires are banned between 1 April and 30 September. Any bonfire that we have before April, must not emit smoke, fumes or other gases which are a nuisance. It is unlikely that any smoke would go onto a road because we are surrounded by houses. Our best bet is to have it fairly soon while the weather is cold and most people are not spending a lot of time in their gardens. If we have it during a weekday, it is likely that the people in the surrounding houses will be out a work.

Clearing the plot

view of the allotment on a cold afternoon in early January 2017

We made a bit of headway with trimming the choisia and brambles on our first visit. But at the rate we are able to work, we very quickly realised that we would need help. Neither of us is in the first flush of youth nor are we particularly able. With the best will in the world, transforming the allotment from overgrown wilderness to a blank canvas that could become a productive growing space is not something that we could do on our own.

To our rescue came our good friends Elisa Contreras and Rodney Williams of The Secret Garden. They got to work with great gusto. Using various hand tools, power tools, muscle and sweat, they cleared most of the vegetation.

Here’s a glimpse of the The Secret Garden team in action:

As well as working on the actual plot itself, one of the things Elisa and Rodney were also able to help with was the path to the plot.

Some of the access ways have not been well maintained. It’s possible to get through on foot but Andrew is a wheelchair user and we need about a metre to get the mobility scooter safely through. Things are particularly difficult at the moment because the ground is so muddy.

There is a lot to do, however, and we need to make sure that we don’t tread on the toes of our (as yet unknown) neighbours, so the access path is still a work in progress.

A map of the site

Measurements of the site showing it as we found it

We had thought that we would do a proper survey of the site. Unfortunately, it was too overgrown and we weren’t sure how safe the piles of vegetation around the shed were for standing on. So, we had to content ourselves with simple measurements.

The plot is supposed to be 100 square metres. Looking at the measurements, this would suggest that the plot starts where the choisia is, and that the shed is not on the actual plot itself – which is a bonus! (There is a short piece of pipe in the corner where the choisia is, which could be a plot marker.)

It looks as though the site hasn’t been cultivated for some time. It is possible that parts of the site were abandoned only recently, such as the area where canes have been set out (possibly for runner beans). But it does look like some of the site hasn’t been cultivated for three or four years.

It’s likely that, apart from the choisias and the phygelius (not some sort of fuscia, as first thought), most of the plants were self seeded.The raspberry canes, large brambles and the two trees probably all self seeded.

It’s going to take quite a bit of work to clear it. We only did about an hour’s hacking on Monday and, although it was great fun, we certainly knew all about it the next day!

We’re going to need some help!

Surveying the scene

I thought we’d have to wait years for an allotment. In fact, it was only a couple of months.

We asked to be put on the waiting list for three sites at the end of September 2016. In the week running up to Christmas, we got a letter back letting us know that there were two potential plots at our the nearest allotment site.

A shot of our new allotment - overgrown with brambles, other weeds and large shrubs, and with a scattering of rubbish and abandoned garden equipment

Here’s our chosen plot. It was more overgrown but had the advantage that it was on the edge of the site which we felt gave us a little bit more space.

Here’s a tour:

We measured the plot and we’ll draw out a map so that you can see what we’ve got.

We then spent a happy hour or so hacking away at them stems of the choisia and bramble, with the aim of cutting them into short, manageable pieces. It seemed a pity to be so brutal but we need to get the site cleared so that we can grow what we want.