The Joy Club member and author of ‘Roger’s cruise ship diaries‘ shares details on how he first started his allotment…
I’ve always loved to grow things. After living in Exeter for 40 years, when we moved back to my hometown, Wrexham, we wanted a house with a huge garden.
Sadly, reality struck and we had to compromise. We got a house that fitted our needs but the garden, though adequate, was very average sized. After a couple of years settling in, I found that Wrexham had a thriving allotment scene. We immediately put our names down on the waiting list. I was very surprised when Mrs Ellis phoned me from the council the next day to say a plot had suddenly become vacant and to ask if I would like to take it on.
After a quick visit, we had become allotmenteers. It was overgrown but had a shed.
Wrexham allotments originally were nice large plots as only a few people wanted them. But over time, as demand grew, and some people wanted to do less, plots started to be divided into half plots and quarter plots. Ours was a quarter plot about 8m x 15m, which included some fruit trees and bushes. We later took on the plot alongside to double our land.
Because the site was totally overgrown, it was a blank canvas – something for us to start virtually from scratch.
There was a row of fruit trees and bushes dividing the plot into two, with other fruit scattered around so we started by moving all fruit to the edges of the two sections. The plot backed onto a large hedge (row of trees) which was overlapping onto the plot. This was hacked back.
We cleared room to build our beds. We made slightly raised beds from 2.4m long planks. These were going to be “no dig’ beds in that, once made, they would not be trodden on so that they could be worked with just hand forks and trowels. Between the beds, we used old weed-membrane covered with wood chips and bark. This would appear in piles at the allotments at regular intervals. The Council had an arrangement with all the local tree surgeons and garden maintenance companies that they could dispose of all their waste chipped wood at our sites.
This worked till “Lockdown” when there were not enough people working the allotments to use all the clippings and the arrangement was stopped and has not yet returned.
The right soil
The soil on the plot was a sandy clay, which turned to concrete in the summer and became totally waterlogged in the winter. This needs constant applications of compost. We were lucky that Wrexham Council, at that time, made “Hot Compost” from their collections of garden waste. It was available, free of charge, from all of their recycling centres – you just had to turn up with your own shovel and sacks.
This compost was full of bits of plastic and other metal rubbish that had been discarded into peoples green bins for collection but it was great to use as a mulch and to dig into our clay soil to turn it in to a much more friable loam. Of course, over time, we also made our own compost.
We found that our soil was on the acidic side, which is great for things like blueberries but not so good for brassicas, so we began a process of adding lime to each bed in the winter before we planned to plant any cabbages or sprouts. This, together with careful crop rotation, means that, we have not yet run into trouble with club root issues.
We have also had to do battle with soil-borne diseases. In one bed our onions showed signs of “white rot”. So we have to keep any of the onion family away from that bed for seven years and, again, do careful crop rotations to avoid a build-up of disease. I suppose it is inevitable that such diseases become endemic in an allotment that has been in use as such for many years.
Over the last few years we have started to have trouble with blight, especially with our tomatoes. This is not soil borne but is a fungus type disease that enjoys damp conditions. I think the weather we have been having lately with very wet springs followed by hot summers has made things worse. I also may have been greedy, putting too many plants in the bed. I avoided blight last year by growing my Tomatoes at home in grow-bags. Just 2 plants to a bag. This year in the allotment I am having another go but am putting a lot less plants in the bed. I am hoping that the airflow round the plants will keep the blight at bay.
Factoring in kneel-space
As we built up our allotment into beds I made a basic error. To try to get as many vegetable beds in as possible I put some of them too close together. As we are on the older side, we find that it is not so easy to get down on our knees to work on the beds, so we use plastic kneelers which have two foot high push-up sides to make sure that we can get back up off the ground.
The gap between some of the beds was not big enough to use these kneelers efficiently. Every winter I tell Joyce I am going to redo these beds to make it easier.
Food v. flowers
I started the allotment totally sold on the idea that gardens are for flowers and allotments are for growing food. However, after some thought and a lot of pushing from Joyce I came to the conclusion that flowers are a necessary part of any allotment. For a start they provide food for our vital pollinators and secondly they are wonderful to look at whilst utilising the serenity of the allotment. (Sitting thinking) So I discovered that you can fill around the bases of fruit bushes with spring flowering bulbs. That first autumn we planted daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth, crocus, snowdrops, irises and blue bells all around the allotment. We now have flowers in these beds from Late February through till May. The Daffodils in particular make a great show.
Whilst our system is great from the point of view that once a bed has been made there is no more heavy digging to be done, the weed issue has not gone away. I have invested in sheets of weed suppressing membrane which we use to cover each bed when it doesn’t have crops growing in it.
Most of my horticultural knowledge was gained from growing things in the garden of an old farmhouse we had as a second home in France for many years. Suffice to say, the weather conditions in the Charente Maritime are a far-cry from those found in North Wales.
Some of the crops that I planted in my earlier allotment years were not exactly suitable to grow in Wrexham. The summer hours of daylight just weren’t long enough for sweet peppers, chillies and aubergines to ripen before the first frost finished them off. I looked at what my neighbours were growing and what had succeeded in that first year and adjusted my plans accordingly.
And now, we now have an abundant supply of fruit and vegetables.
To learn more about gardening – and to get to know other green-fingered members – secure your place at The Joy Club member Helen’s ‘Gardener’s unite‘ event!