Allotment update – 18/4/2022

I’m in the middle of reading James Rebanks’ ‘English Pastoral’. A chapter back he was expressing a concept which struck me as particularly insightful. “the field” he says, “is the base layer on which our entire civilisation is built”. It is not a natural thing, it has been created by land clearance, perhaps thousands of years ago. The things that used to live there no longer can. The creation of fields enabled us to grow food to keep us alive, and still does. Farmers had to prevail against the competition to eat the food that was grown.

“The logic chain is simple: we have to farm to eat, and we have to kill (or displace life, which amounts to the same thing) to farm. Being human is a rough business.” He goes on to distinguish between the requisite toughness of all farming and the “total war” on nature that is industrial farming. The former can be sustainable, the latter cannot.

It was with such thoughts in my head that I spent a few days in the last week catching up with things on my allotment. My garden and my allotment have much in common but are fundamentally different. The garden is a complex ecosystem that while artificial, mimics a natural ecosystem. All its component parts mesh together in space and time in the same way that a natural landscape does. Much of it is perennial and largely undisturbed from year to year.

The allotment involves a much greater amount of intervention, with new crops every year, most only occupying the ground for a few months. Pest and disease damage is not cosmetic, it is a reduced crop, to a greater or lesser degree. I am not doing it just for pleasure, if I don’t get a decent return there is no point my doing it at all. At the same time, I want to grow food that is as tasty and nutritious as I can, and get decent yields, without damaging the environment, mostly the soil, in the process.

On the allotment, butterflies and moths are often unwelcome and excluded with barriers. Insects like wireworms, leatherjackets and most caterpillars are killed on sight. Slugs get short shrift. Worms are most welcome but the voracious moles that go after them are not and are repelled or killed.

Over the winter all I have done is harvest overwintering crops like parsnips, spinach, leeks and brassicas. I have left the soil untouched and except for taking shears to an area of groundsel that was flowering, the weeds have been left to grow as a cover crop of sorts. Some intended cover crops had also been in residence. I don’t want weed seeds everywhere and I don’t want perennial weeds like couch or nettles to get a serious foothold but all vegetation represents captured solar energy, nutrients taken up and safe from leaching and physical protection for the soil.

Now I have young plants and seeds to go into the ground so it must be cleared of vegetation. However, I want to disturb the soil as little as possible. I set to with the Niwaki Hori Hori that I had treated myself to at the Chelsea Flower Show in September. Oh my word, why had I left buying one so late in life. A diamond file quickly put a sharp edge on it and slicing all the vegetation of just below the soil surface became a fairly quick and easy job. Any soil left on the plants was knocked off with the back of the blade and a hefty pile of vegetation soon accumulated. Some of the densest growth I cut down with shears first.

Peas, sown in pots on 7th Feb, were planted 27th March. A second batch, sown much later, went in on 15th April. I have usually sown peas direct but my results last year doing them in pots were so much better I have repeated it. The variety is Hurst Greenshaft, seed I saved myself.

Broad beans, sown in pots 7th Feb, also went out on 27th March. They are being hit quite hard by pea and bean weevil but should survive.

On 9th April I planted cabbage Kalibos under mesh. It may stop root fly, it hasn’t stopped the slugs. I should have applied slug deterrent a couple of times before planting it out. I’m now aiming to plant out most of the rest of my brassicas in early June when rootfly egg laying is at its lowest level. May planting has repeatedly proved lethal, being peak laying season.

On 10th April I planted Jazzy potatoes, followed by Setanta on the 11th. Lettuce and spring onions went in on the 10th.

All the removed vegetation gets the soil knocked off its roots then is run through my shredder a couple of times. I was looking at my smart meter with the shredder running today and even when overcast I was still exporting a small surplus to the grid.

After a few days in a plastic bag the shreddings have warmed a little, cooked a little and browned a lot. I cut down the grass around my blueberries and mulched them with the shreddings. It looks very presentable and will break down or be consumed by worms with no loss of nutrients from months on a compost heap. The volume of it is much greater than it would be after composting so for mulching it goes much further, so with luck all my blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries will get the same treatment.

I spread a small amount of fertiliser on one of the beds where I sowed seed potatoes, the previous crop having shown symptoms of hunger. No, it wasn’t organic, but I’m not convinced that that is the important point. Where I want to be is to have soil that is fertile enough not to need any supplementary feeding, the nutrients being held in situ by as near as possible all year round vegetation and supplemented by legumes fixing nitrogen and additional nutrients from shreddings of shop bought food scraps, garden plants and anything else I can get my hands on.

I’m not really interested in such labels as organic, permaculture, bio-dynamic or whatever. Quite why so many people in this world want to draw up sets of rules for other people to follow and themselves to break I shall never know. I’ll make and break my own.

Where the spuds are. The residue is the remains of an overwinter mulch of shredded vegetation that had been put around the cabbages that stayed in the ground over the winter. The mypex path (a 1m wide piece folded to a third that), gets lifted occasionally to kill slugs and other nasties hiding beneath it.
A cover crop of Phacelia, Italian rye and clover was sown here in autumn. The clover mainly failed and the Phacelia made a lot of growth then died during the winter. I cut the rye, plus some weeds, with shears, left it to dry for a couple of days, shredded it and used it to mulch in the fruit cage.
Broad beans, raised two to a 9cm pot, planted in a bed recently cleared of vegetation but not dug. Here the cover crop didn’t fare well and most of the cover was weed grass, with some foxgloves that I’d transplanted. They make a lot of greenery and protect the soil very effectively; I will be using them again. I need to have them as small growing plants when early crops are finished, not have to sow them then when it will be getting rather late.
Enviromesh went over the cabbages as soon as they were planted to try to keep root fly at bay. Slugs took out a couple of plants in the first night or two, a consequence of me having removed all their food supply just a day or two earlier.
Peas planted out from pots. I staggered the plants in the rows then ran a length of wide mesh chicken wire along a line of canes over each row. A third row, sown several weeks later, was added to the right later on. I saved my own seed last year and still have masses left. They could go into a cover crop as a nitrogen fixing legume later in the year.
I thought when I started that lettuce would be impossible because of slugs but that has not proved to be the case. I grow them in cell trays to a reasonable size before planting them out. They need liquid feeding in the trays because the compost provides very little nutrition but I don’t want to get them too lush or they become more of a mollusc magnet.
Niwaki Hori-Hori, effective small scale remover of cover crops and weeds with minimal soil disturbance. Now I’m fighting the temptation to spend £100 on the forged version.
Another cover crop/weed mix before and after clearing. Grasses are great at improving soil structure, important on my silty soil, and are shallow rooted, so can be sliced just below the surface, leaving the soil undisturbed and the roots in situ to rot down.

All the vegetation I remove is bagged up (old compost bags), taken home, shredded (usually two passes), bagged again, taken back to the plot and used for mulching. In this instance it stayed in the bags for nearly a week, turning brown and warming up to a degree. If all the material was collected before it had set seed and if all the soil has been left behind, it should be at least as weed free as most garden compost. On a compost heap green material such as this would have reduced in volume massively so would have covered a much smaller area. All the activity that would have happened in the months spent on a compost heap happens right here where the plants are growing, which surely has to be a good thing.

9 thoughts on “Allotment update – 18/4/2022

  1. You have been busy and the allotment is looking very good. I’m well behind you with most things – I only sowed mange tout yesterday but they come fast. Our broad beans are about a metre high and in full flower – sown in the ground last autumn. Garlic and onion sets are doing very well. We are eating asparagus and spinach – last years plants cut to the ground in spring and now shooting again. I’ll replace them with new plants in about a month’s time. Spuds, British Queens always here, were sown in mid March but no sign of foliage yet. Strawberries are in flower. I continue with the older composting method which I find suits me. That looks like a dangerous tool – but very effective, it seems.

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    1. I had good results from onion sets, then a couple of poorer years with them not keeping well, so I switched to seed, then got hit hard with mildew last year. It doesn’t matter what you do, there will always be failures or part failures. Onion sets would mean less work put in for a poor return, compared to seed.

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      1. This year the left over red onion seed from last year is growing like mad but the mildew resistant white ones are rather slow. I’ve had good results until last years mildew outbreak.

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  2. May colleague down south has been planting street trees around Los Angeles for about a quarter of a century now. I provided most of the first trees that we planted. It was an awesome project, and most people who are affected by it appreciate it. Most people believe that it is ‘good for the environment’. In many ways it is. It beautifies the Community, and adds to the shade over otherwise hot paved surfaces. However, none of the trees are native, and their presence is contrary to the natural ecosystem of the region. Prior to development, the majority of the area of Los Angeles was either chaparral or desert, with only minimal trees. Of course, this will not prevent us from adding more greenery to the urban landscape.

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    1. The grass is always greener. Nobody really knows what the natural ecosystem of the British Isles should be because humans moved in hard on the heels of ice retreating. Almost certainly an awful lot more trees than we have now, in built up or rural areas. Yet people seem to be getting more hostile to trees, in urban and rural areas, for aesthetic and productivity reasons respectively. Your approach makes more sense to me, whatever the natural environment would have been.

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