Working The Land

(Written in 2009)

It has been three years now since we set up our Association and took over the management of the allotments in the village of Haslingfield in South Cambridgeshire. All in all the experience has been a positive one. In common with the recent nationwide trend we have experienced an uptake in plots and are running close to full occupancy. Those of us with long experience off working allotments are well aware that these trends run in cycles. My parents took up allotment gardening in the mid 1970s  during the last great boom.  As a teenager I got involved with the family effort and have worked the land ever since. But I also remember that subsequently interest fell back again and local councils began to sell off their sites.

It’s important that those of us running allotments do all we can to maintain and develop the current interest toward long term sustainability. One of my jobs as Secretary is to meet prospective plot holders and get them signed up. We have a flexible approach and are quite prepared to offer a half plot to beginners or those having less time due to work or family commitments. Also we are fairly relaxed about keeping the plots in good order. If a plot does become neglected my first response is to have a friendly chat with the plot holder to see if the problem is temporary. We have had occasion to issue warning notices in the event of longer-term neglect. In some cases this had lead to termination of the tenancy. This is always a last resort and is of course a defeat for the idea of food self-sufficiency.  One reason for these failures is that new plot holders can have false expectations  or unhelpful attitudes.

For example, new tenants will often say that what they are looking forward to is eating all those fresh and delicious tasting vegetables. In other words they are thinking primarily about the end result rather than what it takes to get there. It’s the mindset of the consumer rather than the producer. It’s hardly surprising, given that most of us do not actually ‘make’ things for a living anymore and that the supermarkets promote the idea of effortless consumption of whatever you want whenever you want it. In our ‘consumer’ society making a success of an allotment requires radical re-thinking. Working the land, which our forefathers took for granted, is today for many people something to be re-learned.

Growing one’s own food is first and foremost an act of production; an endless cycle of soil preparation, sowing, nurturing and harvesting, which requires long term planning and sustained physical effort.

What any experienced allotment gardener will tell you is that the full fruits of your labour are only achieved after one or two completed cycles of cultivation. An allotment is like a slowly moving conveyor belt where crops gradually come to the point of harvest over the course of the year and the real trick is to ensure continuity of supply. It’s relatively easy to grow crops in the spring for harvest by late summer. The real challenge is to ensure that crops are still coming through after Christmas and on to the spring: those brussell sprouts, parsnips and leeks, spring cabbages and chard, purple sprouting broccoli and later, over-wintering onions, garlic and broad beans.

When our Association took over the running of the site the first thing we did was to realign the rental year with the gardening year. Instead of paying yearly rents in April we now pay in November. This means that most vacant plots become available at the correct stage in the growing cycle, allowing time to clear and prepare the plot over the autumn and winter months before the onset of spring and the main sowing season. It’s rare for new tenants to be taking on a plot in perfect condition and the initial preparation work can be quite daunting. Ideally, anyone thinking of taking on an allotment should wait until the late summer or autumn, allowing sufficient time to ease into the project.

In my conversations with new plot holders I make sure they are aware of the basic time commitment required. The dimensions of our plots are approximately 10 by 15 meters, which from my experience require about six hours of labour a week (more in summer, less in winter) to get the best out of them. I also encourage new tenants to dig the plots rather than use a rotivator, which simply helps to propagate weeds by cutting up the roots and spreading them around.  Fast technological fixes often store up more work for the future.

For new tenants taking on a plot the initial  ‘big dig’ will be the heaviest task in the whole project. Those with a spiritual outlook may regard this as a penance, a cleansing of the soul and a casting off of old corrupt ways but it does not have to be an exhausting rite of passage. It can be made easier with a patient, thoughtful and systematic approach. It’s a good idea to divide the plot into small sections and work on one area at a time. For efficient labour use a long handled fork, a more effective lever for loosening compacted soil before it is turned over and broken up; dig deep and take time to remove as much weed-root as is possible, after all the whole idea at this stage is to be slow and thorough. If the ground has been recently cultivated the system of ‘double digging’ is probably not necessary. Make sure not to cut too far back into the edge of the un-dug soil so that the load being lifted is comfortable; take regular short breaks to ease your back and limit your digging to a maximum of a couple of hours at a time. When a section is dug lay down manure or composted material as winter mulch. This can be turned into the topsoil in the spring before planting. If you are using raised beds, again lay them down as you dig each section. In this way the task of digging, mulching and laying out the plot is turned into a series of smaller separately completed stages. Although raised beds reduce the amount of heavy digging in future years it is important to retain some open areas for the cultivation of larger crops such as potatoes. Also, raised beds should never be more than 4 feet wide and surrounding paths need to allow wheelbarrow access.

The autumn and winter months are the stage in the yearly cycle when the soil needs to be replenished and improved. It’s important therefore for allotment associations to develop collective schemes for the supply of manure and other forms of mulch. This has been a priority for our association in the first year of self-management. We have organised free deliveries of wood chipping from local landscapers, (useful for the setting out of paths), free supplies of composted material from the council green waste scheme and have set up a manure club with a charge of 30 pence a barrow-load to cover the cost of deliveries. Tenants wish to compost their own allotment waste of course and we encourage local residents who do not require their council provided compost bins to donate them to the site. We also have a communal composting scheme for bulkier, heavier material needing longer to break down. By these measures we are taking practical steps to help our tenants work their land and get the best out of it.

Eventually the soil is dug, winter passes and thoughts turn to spring sowing. It’s a good idea for the novice allotment gardener to work up a planting scheme for the year ahead and order seeds in advance. There are a few key principles. Make sure there is a balance between the various types of vegetable crop – root vegetables, brassicas, legumes and so on. Ensure there is enough space for planting your basic staples such as onions and potatoes and for planting winter crops later in the summer. Succession planting is often recommended as a means of preventing supply gluts and having a varied diet of vegetables but is difficult to achieve in practice. Succeeding sowings have a habit of catching up with each other so that you end up with a glut in any case! It is only after several completed cycles of cultivation that you will learn which plants grow best and how much to grow of them. Let the acquired practical experience of your allotment drive the process. I soon learned that it really wasn’t necessary to grow twelve courgette plants, that you can always do with more carrots and onions and, to repeat, you must make the extra effort to ensure adequate supplies of food in the winter months.

There are three key points to keep in mind during the cropt-nurturing phase. The first relates to watering. All plants require some water to assist germination and early plant growth. However novice growers very often over estimate the amount of watering needed thereafter. Too much watering stops plants from extending root networks deeper down to the water table. Moreover, much less watering is required if the soil has been properly prepared with moisture retaining compost or manure. The laying down of mulch around plants once they are established reduces the need for watering, by limiting evaporation from the upper soil levels. It’s important to know which crops do require more watering, such as runner beans and salad crops, and concentrate watering where it is most needed.

The second issue is crop protection. Allotments are a natural gathering place   for all sorts of animals and pests desirous of feeding off your plot.  Perimeter fencing with chicken wire will help to keep out rabbits and other small ground game, netting will help to prevent aerial attack by pigeons and pheasants. However, from my experience mice seem able to deal with just about any form of protection and then of course there are the slugs. All in all, this is an ongoing battle in a war that can never be ultimately won. There are only small victories followed by further setbacks requiring the adoption of new protective strategies. The novice grower would do well to take this on board from the start. But if not experience will provide a hard teacher.

Given the proximity of vegetable plots to each other it is equally important that information is shared about diseases, in particular the appearance of airborne fungal diseases such as potato blight, which can spread rapidly through an allotment site. This has been a problem over the past summer due to the un-seasonally wet and humid conditions. The early recognition of the appearance of dark spotting on the leaves allowed our plot holders to cut back affected areas and lift the crops rather than store in the ground, which helped to reduce crop damage.

The third key point relating to the nurturing phase of the cycle concerns weeding. From May to August your best friend is your hoe. A rigid policy of light hoeing around the plot on a continual basis so that all areas are covered at least once a week will serve you well. Let the weeds grow tall and strong for a want of early hoeing and you create only more work for yourself and irritate your neighbours. Far too many plots become a seedbed for weeds during the summer and there is no excuse for letting a plot get out of hand. Again it comes down to adopting a producer mindset: the application of consistent physical effort throughout the growing cycle.

The last phase of the cycle, harvesting, is the most rewarding but it can present its own problems, especially for those new to allotment growing. This is not the time to relax. After a long period when nothing was being harvested there can be a sudden surge of crops coming to the point of harvesting and it’s a question of knowing what to do with them all.  It’s vitally important therefore to have in place the various means of preserving and storing surplus fruit and vegetables.  Also, plan the week’s meals around what is coming off your allotment. What you produce determines what you eat, rather than thinking of something to cook and go out to buy the ingredients. It’s important to embrace seasonality – that there will be times when you are eating more of one crop, but then you will move on to something else and it all tastes delicious.

The summer months really are the busiest time on the plot, when all the hard work of the previous year comes to fruition. At this stage of the cycle it’s a bad idea to go away for a long holiday. From my experience one week at a time is possible but being away for two really makes your work cut out when you return.  Better still take a couple of weeks off work and spend the mornings down at your plot. Embrace the ‘Good Life’. Now that’s a radical idea!


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Allotments, Food Self-sufficiency and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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