The Allotment Diaries: 2019

Jan 10, 2020 | The Allotment Diaries

This is the first in a monthly series I’m planning on writing this year. I’ll be recording what’s been happening on my little patch of earth in Somerset, what’s worked and what hasn’t, what I’ve planted and what I’ve harvested, and the lessons I’m learning along the way. 

I’d also like to see just how much of my own fruit and vegetables I can grow myself, and whether it’s possible to contribute a significant amount, say enough to notice in my weekly food bill, from one small allotment. I’m going to work out a way to measure and record this, and I’m hoping that sharing it here it will hold me accountable. 

But before we start at the end of January, I thought I’d catch you up on my first year allotmenting! 

If you’d like to see more images and stories from my allotment than the whole thing is saved as highlights on my Instagram @fbarrows. 

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I had my name down for an allotment in Frome before I’d even found somewhere to live. Off the back of a year living on a sustainable farm in Italy, I was desperate to grow my own vegetables but knew it was unlikely I’d find somewhere to rent with its own garden, especially one big enough to have a vegetable patch. Of all the things I learnt living up that mountain, the amount of joy and satisfaction you can get from growing things was pretty much number one (well, actually number two. That I am a dog person was number one, and no one, especially me, saw that one coming!).

About eighteen months or so after I put my name down, in March last year, I was offered a plot. It was on a group of allotments I’d been to have a nose around just a few weeks before, and swiftly fallen in love with. They’re on a south-facing slop, on the outskirts of town looking out towards Longleat and Cley Hill, and a stream runs along the bottom of the site. It’s idyllic to say the least.

The plot I was offered, number 14, was a complete mess. It was carpeted in thick weeds, and riddled with rubbish and car tyres. It was also covered in this horrible black matting that I think was meant to suppress the weeds but had done no such thing; the weeds had just grown straight through it effectively anchoring it to the ground. But it was in a lovely position and surrounded by this rickety wooden fence which I thought gave it character.

Yet although I took the plot there and then, I left the meeting with the allotment caretaker feeling despondent. It was obvious from the way she spoke that she didn’t think I was up to the challenge, and made every effort to impress on me just how much hard work it would be and how much time it would take. I can understand, now, where she was coming from, because I get annoyed seeing plots that aren’t being fully looked after going to waste, especially given that the waiting list for one is so long. But I also think part of it was that I’m a youngish female, planning on doing it all on my own (as I later moaned to my parents single people deserve home-grown vegetables too, you know!).

Being handed a plot in April, especially one in as terrible a state as mine, was frustrating to say the least. I had enough time to grow stuff that season, but not enough of a run-up to do properly, and from the start I felt like I was playing catch-up. Not least because my plot is right at the top of the site, surrounded by those who have had them for years; who had beautifully tiled soil, useful sheds, and neat rows of seedlings already poking through the ground.

However, it was also a blessing, because it took the pressure off somewhat. So I decided to just treat the whole year as an experiment, to grow a bunch of different stuff to see what worked and what didn’t. I resolved to treat any harvests as a bonus, and to lean right into the learning curve.

So I started by tidying-up and digging over one small bed, and then quickly getting in a load of random seedlings that I bought from Homebase. Runner beans. Peas. Chard. Leeks. Carrots. I then worked bed by bed, slowly making my way through my allotment, planting as I went. My allotment neighbour gave me some already chitted potatoes that I put straight in, plus a couple of tomatoes plants (only one survived) and an Inca berry bush as well. I also sowed broad beans, and fennel, red cabbage, spinach, sweet peas, lettuce, beetroot and sweet corn seeds. Later in the season I sowed courgettes, both yellow and normal, and butternut squash.

Just listing it all now it seems like an awful lot! And in the end my first growing season was actually pretty successful. There were some failures: the red cabbage never grew beyond a seedling, I lost 70% of my carrot crop to rabbits in one rampant  night, the runner beans went in way too early and died with a late frost, and my fennel refused to “bulb”, despite my best efforts. And yet there were also plenty of successes. Healthy crops of broad beans and peas, some of which made it home and into a saucepan but most were eaten straight from the pod on site. Beautiful sweet peas of which I gave posies of to all of my friends. The never-ending glut of courgettes, and one massive butternut squash that I proudly roasted for a pot-luck dinner just before Christmas. And I don’t think anything will ever match the taste of my first homegrown new potatoes, slathered in salted butter.

Then, come winter, as everything started to die back and my beds empty, I sowed more spinach, along with swede, kale, broccoli and cabbage seeds. However, for some unknown reason most of the seeds didn’t take, so I ordered a whole load of plugs from Rocket Gardens which arrived in early September: Cavolo Nero, Russian Red kale, curly kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, spring cabbage, more swedes, cauliflower, wild rocket, pak choi and chicory. While most have been very successful and I’ve had an abundant of crops from them, I’m not sure I’ll do it again. Growing from plugs isn’t nearly as satisfying as from seeds, and having £50 worth of stuff in the ground actually proved rather stressful.

And yet my biggest harvest last year wasn’t an edible but an emotional one. Over the course of a year dominated by cycles of anxiety and depression, my allotment was a constant. It became my sanctuary, somewhere I could go outside of the four walls of my flat which still felt safe and known. I would take a flask of hot blackcurrant, or a picnic breakfast or lunch, leave my phone in my rucksack and just concentrate on the task at hand. Almost without fail, within a few minutes my brain would slow down, and I’d have a few magical hours respite from overthinking. I also took great satisfaction, and even pride, from my progress being so visible: you could see it in neat patches of tiled ground, hanging off stalks or peeking optimistically out of the ground, and eventually, on my plate. And it’s this that I’m most grateful for, and what, despite a desire to take things a little more seriously this year, I’m determined to hang on to.

And as for the caretaker, a couple of months later she walked past my plot and failed to recognise both it and me. She was, I think, quite shocked at how much progress I’d made, and congratulated me on doing such a good job. I tried very hard (but probably not all that successfully) not to look too smug.

So here are a few lessons I learnt last year on my allotment:

  1. Growing things is both easier and harder than you think. 

Growing something is easy, it’s ultimately just putting seeds into the ground, giving them enough water and nutrition, and then waiting for them to grow. But growing a significant amount of your own food and keeping up a regular supply is hard. I want to try more succession planting this year, and concentrate on growing things that I can store or preserve to prevent having too many gluts that go to waste.

2. The learning doesn’t stop.

At first I felt a little self-conscious on my plot, very aware that I didn’t really know what I was doing and was just sort of making it all up as I went along. But I quickly realised that everyone was asking questions, experimenting and learning as they went. One lovely lady said that despite having her plot for six years, last year was a disaster for her, and she then showed me with her pride her little patch of strawberries that were doing so well this year. There are no guarantees in gardening and no one knows everything.

3. Composting is weirdly satisfying.

I never thought I would be the sort of person to update someone on the status of their compost in the pub, but that is what I’ve become! I was so excited when my first batch turned brown, and I could feel warmth emanating from it. I also love that I can take all my raw vegetable scraps from my kitchen out each week.

4. You learn by doing not by reading.

I bought a book or two when I started, but it all seemed very abstract until I actually started growing things. Also so much depends on your specific plot, its aspect and the soil. I think you do a lot better by asking the gardeners around you rather than taking advice from a book.

5. Net, for the love of God NET.

The lesson learnt from the carrot massacre of 2019. Nets might be a pain, but they are nothing compared to the upset of seeing all your precious plants mauled and destroyed.

6. Learn to preserve.

Again, I never thought I’d be someone who would have jars of their own jams, chutneys and pickles in their kitchen cupboard, but when you’ve nurtured a vegetable from seed, the last thing you want to do is waste it, so learning how to preserve and store is essential. I really recommend this book.

7. Gardening is brutal.

Thinning will always be my least favourite job. Having to decide which plants live and which ones get unceremoniously chucked on the compost heap is a hard task.

8. Grow what you like to eat, and definitely will eat. 

Despite the failure of my fennel last year I’m determined to try again as it is my favourite vegetable. There is absolutely no point growing anything you don’t like on your plot, as it will just end up going to waste. So if you are looking for parsnip growing tips then look elsewhere! 

9. If in doubt, grow chard

I’ve had a near constant supply of chard since May (with a change-over of plants in September / October) and it’s been amazing. I’ve eaten it two, three, sometimes four times a week and my friends are pretty much sick of it as well. It’s also incredibly low maintenance. So if in doubt, grow chard.

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I’ll write the next instalment at the end of January, although I expect it to be quite a thin post. I’m going to plan my patch for the year in the next couple of weeks though, and start ordering seed potatoes and other seeds. Also, weather dependent l’ll probably be digging over my beds and beginning to prepare the soil for the next season as well!