End of March tour of the plot

We’ve got a lot further in our Quest for Veg than we had dared to hope.

This is mainly due to the terrific amount of help we’ve received from our very good friends Richard Anderson (Anderson Landscapes), and Elisa Contreras and Rodney Williams (The Secret Garden).

When we started, I think we anticipated that our first year would probably be spent getting the allotment into shape. And yet here we are, just entering April, and we are looking forward to sowing our first seeds on the plot.

Not only that but during March, Richard very kindly gave us the use of his greenhouse. This enabled Sandra to sow her first seeds.

A view of the greenhouse: empty, clean and ready to use

The greenhouse Richard is allowing us to use


Coriander seedlings in a seed tray

Coriander seedlings in the greenhouse

We decided to try to create some woodchip paths to help define the plot and give us some relatively mud free areas to work on. By chance, Andrew came across a Garden Inspirations of Cheam who were working on a tree across the road from where we live. They enthusiastically agreed to deliver the woodchip straight to the plot.

A huge pile of woodchip being tipped out of the back of a truck

Our delivery of woodchip

We found a little garden cart by Draper which we could attach to Andrew’s mobility scooter. It’s perfect for transporting tools and equipment to and from the allotment. Andrew made a liner so that we could also use it for moving the woodchip from the gate to our plot.
A view of the garden cart, full of woodchip and attached to the back of Andrew's scooter

Our very useful little cart


Our woodchip path

Our woodchip path which is wide enough to get the scooter turned round

Richard also came up with some compost that was surplus to requirements. He brought it to the site, and he and Elisa moved it to the plot. We used it to add to the raised bed we made using builder’s bags.
Richard and Elisa shovelling compost out of the back of Richard's van

Richard and Elisa hard at work moving the compost

We bought some weed suppressing membrane and covered most of the plot to, er, suppress the weeds.

Our plot covered in weed suppressing membrane

Our plot all tucked up in its geotextile blanket

And we’re chitting some potatoes which are now ready for planting out.

Potatoes chitting

Potatoes chitting away very happily

We should be planting out our potatoes very soon. We’ll also be direct sowing some seeds and transplanting some seedlings that have been started in the greenhouse.

Hopefully, we’ll also be putting a water tank on the site soon and deciding on what shed we want. Roll on April!

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A weeding party and a tour of the plot

We held another weeding party to help us clear the second half of the plot. You can see how we got on here:

We are very grateful to:

The generous contribution of their time has meant that we have accomplished in a few short weeks, something that would have taken the two of us months and months. They were also able to step in when Andrew was tempted to overdo it so that he didn’t end up hurting himself.

A group shot of the Saturday morning weeding crew

The Saturday morning weeding crew

From here, we were planning to let the remaining weeds grow a bit and spray them with a glyphosate based herbicide. But we are now thinking that we will skip this step and simply cover the ground with a geotextile. This is because we don’t want to wait for the weeds to grow, we want to get on with it!

Here is a tour of the plot showing where we’ve got to at this point:

Saturday morning weeding party

Our plot is not big – at about 100 square metres; it’s considered a mini plot as it is not quite a half plot size. Nevertheless, it’s quite a lot for us to manage. So, we were very grateful when our good friends from The Secret Garden offered to help.

We decided to hold a weeding party. We started the day with a preparatory picnic of warm bacon rolls and flasks of hot tea and coffee to get us ready for the task ahead.

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra weeding the plot

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra hard at work

Elisa, Rodney and Sandra started at the far end of the plot, while Andrew concentrated on the raised areas where the shed and old compost heaps used to be.

In three hours, we managed to get about half the plot weeded. And we found all sorts of nasties including bramble, dandelion, couch grass, nettle, green alkanet, bindweed, Japanese ground elder and raspberry. We also found a few old potatoes and a rhubarb crown!

A massive pile of weed roots dug out from about a third of the allotment

Our haul of weed roots from between a third and half the plot.

A long string of weeds being held up for examination - couch grass, bindweed and green alkanet

From the raised area, Andrew pulled out this huge string of weed that has a little bit of nettle, couch grass, alkanet and bindweed!

A very long string of couch grass weed and a dandelion which have been dug up

Prisoners of war – a dandelion and a couch grass root that was probably about half a metre long

A rhubarb crown, beginning to sprout

Lucky find! In among the weed roots, we uncovered a rhubarb crown beginning its spring growth

Here we are posing with our morning’s haul.

Andrew, Sandra and Elisa pose in front of a huge pile of weeds that have been dug out of the ground

Posing with our morning’s haul.

We managed between a third and a half of the allotment. We also,

  • smoothed out the bits of the plot we didn’t managed to weed so that it wasn’t quite a treacherous to walk on
  • marked out the boundary of our plot so we know what we’ve got to work on
  • marked out the path between our plot and the untended neighbouring plot and began to make the path more level and even so that it is safer for Andrew to negotiate

Below is a before and after shot. We still need to work on the half closest to the camera. But that’s a job for another day.

A before and after shot of the allotment

Above:the ground is very uneven from being turned over by the digger. Below: the sun is out and the plot is beginning to look good

And here is a shot taken from more or less the same spot as a reminder of where we started:

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

Why we used a mini digger

Richard using a mini digger to turn the soil on our allotment

Having cut down and burned the shrubs, brambles, small trees, grass and other weeds, our thoughts turned to turning our soil.

We had already decided that our approach to getting our plot ready to grow would be to:

  • spray the existing weeds with a glyphosate-based weedkiller (which we have done)
  • dig or rotavate the soil to aerate it
  • remove some weed roots by hand cultivating
  • let any remaining weeds in the soil grow up so that we can spray them again
  • and finally, once the current crop of weeds have died off, cover the soil with a geo textile, perhaps mypex.

It means that we can’t be organic while we’re clearing the plot, but it is something we want to work towards. We inherited many pernicious weeds, some  of which (such as couch grass and bindweed) can grow from the tiniest fragment of plant material left in the soil. We’re going to be tackling these weeds for some years to come. But if we’re going to stand a chance of getting on top of the problem, we need some chemical help at this stage.

Some people caution against rotavating a weed-infested plot because it chops into weed roots and could spread the problem.  Elisa (The Secret Garden), who has worked so hard with us to get the plot to where we are now, had offered to hand dig it. It was a generous offer but we felt we would be asking too much if we said yes.

We were pondering the problem, when Richard of Anderson Landscapes suggested using a mini digger. It might seem a bit over the top for turning the soil but it would allow us to tackle several other problems at the same time.

We’d be able to move some of the banked up soil at the shed-end of the plot to create raised beds. We could use it to demolish the old shed and dig out the base that the shed was sitting on. And we could use it to remove the massive blocks on concrete that Rodney had been bravely trying to dig out.

So, that is what we did.

In the video below, you’ll see that even the mini digger struggled with some of the concrete!

And here is our first raised bed – made with one tonne bags donated by Richard. The bags were filled with material from the previous tenant’s old compost heaps. Hopefully, it will look more attractive filled with plants – we’re considering using them to grow pumpkins this year.

 

Building a raised bed using one tonne builders' bags

Removing the old shed

The fate of the old shed was the subject of robust discussion here at Quest for Veg HQ.

On the one hand, although it was structurally dodgy, it did provide a place to store the few items we wanted to keep out of the rain.

On the other, it was structurally dodgy. Getting rid of it while we have help would mean that we could start with a blank canvas.

In the end, it was probably as well that we got rid of it when we did because it was far more structurally dodgy than we had realised. It was probably only the well-established ivy cover that was holding it up. And the ivy had to go.

Mini digger expertise was very kindly provided by Richard Anderson of Anderson Landscapes. And we are grateful to Elisa Contreras (The Secret Garden) for her continued hard work in helping to clear the plot.

Our thoughts now turn to the shed versus greenhouse debate!

Our allotment goes up in flames!

Which is an overly dramatic way of saying we’ve had our first ever bonfire!

Our first ever bonfire

Having spent many hours clearing the plot with the help of our good friends Elisa and Rodney (The Secret Garden), we ended up with two large piles that needed to be cleared.

The obvious option was to have a bonfire. Who doesn’t love a bonfire? Well, a local resident, apparently. We had been warned by a fellow plot holder who we met the other day, that there is someone who always complains. And sure enough, despite choosing a still day and trying to keep smoke to a minimum, we heard someone shouting from a nearby garden that we were polluting the whole area (and I thought I was dramatic!). Luckily, it was near the end of the day and most of the rubbish had been cleared by then.

Anyway, here is how we got on:

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.

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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:

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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!

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!

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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.