It’s October, the weather has changed and things have got chilly-Autumn has definitely arrived. I realise that we are 11 days into October now so this is old news, but better late than never! It was on 1st October last year that we officially became allotmenteers (I’m pretty sure that Mr Craft ran to the parish council offices that day to pay the rent and claim his little piece of land!) It’s hard to believe we have had a full year on the plot now; so much has changed both on and off it. I haven’t been there for a couple of weeks since the sad demise of my wellies (they actually fell apart and are languishing in a tip somewhere as they weren’t even fit for use as planters). However, Mr Craft and I have had some time to reflect on our progress and begin to plan for the year ahead. He has had some input into this post too, it was interesting to see how we both learned different things. Here are just some of the things we’ve learned:
- Rome wasn’t built in a day. We started off with grand plans for this, that and the other, but actually with two children and a job apiece we weren’t able to do everything we wanted. What we had to do instead was prioritise, deciding which jobs were essential, what we REALLY wanted to grow and work from there. Things like the shed were an absolute must, whereas a chicken coop was not as they have a perfectly good one in the garden for now. We aren’t disappointed as we achieved a surprising amount, we just need to go from where we are now and plan a new priority list for next year. Also, it takes time to establish the plants on the plot, more than just a year. We planted fruit trees and soft fruit canes which did not produce anything this year, but hopefully next year they will have settled and maybe even give us a fruit or two.
- You need to plan. Planning-it seems so boring, rigid and structured, yet it is so important. We didn’t plan enough really, other than what we wanted to grow. We hadn’t decided where things were going, and apart from the back of seed packets and a spot of light reading we didn’t really know when to plant them. Once most summer/autumn harvesting crops were planted we didn’t really look into it any further. If we had, we might have been able to plant some vegetables to be harvested over winter. That’s definitely one for next year! (Freshly picked parsnips with Christmas dinner anyone?)
- You can’t plan everything. I know, kind of a contradiction after my last point. However, as much as you can control when, where and how, you can’t control what happens after that. You can’t stop it raining for the whole of June and rotting your potatoes, or magically prevent slugs from reproducing. You can only control how you deal with it (pro tip-stamping your feet when the slugs have eaten your plants does not change anything). I’m not going to say we weren’t disappointed that the potato harvest was pretty terrible, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. It’s hard to relinquish control, especially if you’re a control freak, but it does you good to try.
- Timing is everything. I was ridiculously impatient (maybe keen is a better way of putting it) and decided to start planting seeds in mid April. These proved fruitless (sorry, bad pun) as they did not germinate. Possibly due to the hordes of starving birds loitering and waiting for amateurs like me to plant early, or maybe because it snowed at the end of April. Anyway, the seeds I planted in early May, only 3 weeks later, gave us the majority of our harvest. I think next year I will just wait until May to plant anything other than beans.
- A rotavator is essential. Unless your plot is very tiny, a rotavator is a very good investment, particularly here with the heavy clay soil. Digging manually is ok for some tasks, but the ability to turn over large amounts in a short period of time means there is more time for other jobs which are better done by hand. For us, it allowed us to mix in large amounts of compost to loosen up the soil. We will be using it to prepare the plot in spring before beginning next year’s planting. Not to mention that Mr Craft loved his new toy.
- Get used to sharing. This depends on your approach, obviously. Having a plot in a rural location means that there is a reasonable amount of wildlife who also have their homes there. We did use slug pellets, quite sparingly, but other than that we tried to avoid using chemicals to deter pests. For us, there was very little point growing our own food if we contaminated it with poisons. Some creatures are real pests, obviously, but we escaped fairly lightly with rabbits, mice and so on. Sometimes our crops may have had a nibble out of a leaf, but we just cut off any affected parts. I suppose this can be seen as a positive-if it’s good enough for creatures then it must be ok for us! (I was still grumpy about the slugs, I’m sure karma made sure they had bad guts after eating the entire row of cabbages.)
- Weeds are a fact of life. Weeding was the bane of our summer, not helped by the quarter plot at the back end of ours being left untended until August. The weeds there were 6 feet tall (I wish I was joking) and went to seed, so our plot suffered terribly. We just got very good at using the hoe, and had a huge bonfire to get rid of the remains. Next year we think we might buy a big roll of weed control fabric to lay over parts we aren’t using so that we don’t get as many weeds. We also plan on using more raised beds so that the areas that need weeding are smaller. It’s so much easier to see progress and set yourself mini targets if you’re just trying to weed one raised bed rather than a whole plot!
- Get to know your plot. Which areas drain well? Which ones retain moisture? What is the soil like? All of these things (and many more) affect what will grow, and how. We mixed large amounts of compost into some raised beds and they were so much easier to weed than the areas which only had a tiny amount added. Also, the soil near where we park the car is much looser than the soil near the shed. The raised beds were far more productive than areas where we planted in rows. Now we know that, next year we can make more use of raised beds, and we have the winter to get some made. We have also got hold of a smaller trailer so we can fetch more compost and take it directly onto the plot without unloading into wheelbarrows.
- You might only reap some of what you sow. Some seeds will fail, others will be eaten, some crops may develop to a certain point and then fall victim to a slug, or the weather. The first year’s harvest may seem disappointingly small, but the important thing to remember is that you did it. We actually grew enough of some things, such as beans, carrots and cabbage, to blanch and freeze for the winter, whereas the chickens got most of the potatoes. It’s hard not to be disappointed when you were hoping to grow a truckload and what you actually harvest barely fills the boot of a Ford Fiesta, but it’s a learning curve, and those few little veggies are a seed of hope for the next year now that you know more.
- You can’t beat eating things you’ve grown yourself. It really is lovely to sit down for a meal, knowing that all of the vegetables on your plate were still in the ground an hour or two ago. Even the things we froze, or pickled, are still little wonders. When I take beetroot in my salad for lunch, it’s a nice reminder of the work we put into the plot paying off. It’s even persuaded the children to eat more vegetables, knowing that they helped to grow them!
We have been on a very steep learning curve this year, but we’ve really enjoyed it (apart from the big spiders in the shed-I check my gardening gloves nervously each time I put them on). We’ve learned how to improvise, new little snippets of information such as how to prepare the ground for planting, and watched things grow-it’s amazing how things can change overnight! It’s been fascinating to watch as an adult so I can only imagine how exciting it is through the eyes of a child. There’s so much more to learn, but we are much better prepared for the basics next year. I’d like to explore different varieties of crops and try to plant some heirloom varieties, and Mr Craft plans to buy 50 strawberry plants through our allotment plant buying cooperative so it looks like we will be just as busy as we have been this year, if not more so.
Do you have any allotment tips? I’d love to hear them.