Saturday, 28 February 2009

I had big plans for our allotment.
It was going to be the smartest allotment in the country and win awards for its beautifully crafted raised beds and furniture. People would come from far and wide to marvel at it's ingenuity, and it would be featured on Gardeners World. I had already planned out the whole plot, and had been down to B+Q to price up all the timber I would need to built the beds and so forth. I reckoned on £300 or so for the beds this year, and a similar amount next year. Sounded reasonable.
But then something happened to make me change my mind.
The more I talked to the other allotmenters, the more I began to wonder if the route I was taking was the right one. They made comments about 'not being what allotments are about' or 'not being in the spirit of it'. This made me wonder about something I had not really considered before. What is allotmenteering about? I had assumed it was about getting out in the fresh air, and growing your own veg. Is there more to it than this?
The other plots down my allotment are a real mix bag; Some are ancient, tended by equally ancient and unbelievably wise owners. They tend to scoff on modern conveniences like raised beds, instead favoring lovingly tended beds of healthy looking plants and hours of painstaking, back-breaking hard work; Some are from the Bob Flowerdew school of thought, and are a scruffy mix of reclaimed old tyres and carpets, organically grown spotty veg and wind-blown weeds growing 'where nature intended'; Other allotments have neatly made raised beds, fashioned from plywood or treated timbers. It was this last group that I initially felt drawn towards, and it was this I had in mind when I designed our family allotment.
So what changed my mind? It wasn't the cost, well not entirely. There was a time I could have spent £300 on our garden without even thinking about it. Things are a bit tighter nowadays, but I could still stretch to it if I thought it was important. No, what really made me stop and think was the comments of my peers down at the allotment. They often looked on disparagingly at the freshly sawn timbers of the other new starters - the ones that I thought looked great- commenting on how much timber they had used, and how much it must have cost them and what a waste it was. The first time I heard such comments I thought it was sour grapes, or a 'it wasn't like that in my day' sort of attitude, but the more I heard it, the more I began to think: No one ever said anything bad about the scruffy organic Flowerdew plots. May be there was something in it.
I realised I was guilty of a basic blunder. I had been designing our allotment the same way I would have designed a garden. But it's not a garden. It is an allotment, and what is important for an allotment is not the way it looks, or how many awards it gets. What is important for allotments- the very spirit my fellow allotmenters had talked about- was that we should get out of them what we put into them, with interest applied by mother nature herself. Pristine timbers may look nice, but they wont increase my yield come harvest time, and every time I look at them I would be reminded that I had taken the easy route and just bought timber from B+Q. That's not low impact. That isn't environmentally friendly. And it isn't 'what allotments are all about'.
And so, with this see change in my thinking in effect I have decided that we will only use recycled, reclaimed, or reconditioned things on our allotment as much as possible. I might stop short of the Flowerdew-esque piles of old tires and rotting carpet, but I won't be buying any brand new timbers for our raised bed. If it's not the smartest plot on the site it doesn't matter, so long as we are happy with it.

The compost bin, which, as you can see, is constructed from reclaimed timber and old packing crates. Not smart perhaps, but I had great fun making it. I just need more packing crates to make a companion for it, and some scaffolding planks for our raised beds. I need to keep my eyes peeled.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Yesterday I began planting seeds. Lacking windowsills in our house that are suitably sunny and equally suitably out of the reach of Eleanor, I opted for the rather strange arrangement show in the photo below. By balancing one of the children's old tables on top of my chest of draws I have made a suitable area for my propagators. Fingers crossed.

Today Charlie and I went down to the allotment to have a go at making a compost bin and assembling the cold frame I bought from ALDI on Thursday. The weather was dull and grey, not at all like yesterday, but we made do. Charlie wandered around bashing things with a hammer (not sure why) while I cut the wooden pallets up to the right side for the composter. It was only when I came to assemble said bin that I discovered the battery on my electric screwdriver was flat. That's another thing I have learned this week about allotments.
We did manage to get the cold frame finished, however, as you can see in this picture. Looking good! Charlie 'helped', which is to say that he posed for a picture holding one of the panels, and took some of me doing all the work. Then he wandered around the plot hitting the weeds with a stick and calling himself "The Weedkiller".
Later, on the way home I asked him if he had enjoyed coming down to the allotment.
"Yeah. It's cool." He replied.
Nuf said.

Me next to our shinny new cold frame

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Yesterday I poured weedkiller all over my allotment. I had been in a quandary about it, because I didn't really want to use excessive chemicals, and I don't really think it was getting off to the best start by beginning with chemical deforestation. I reached this difficult decisions after consulting some of the more experienced guys down at the allotment, ad referring to Mr Alan Titchmarch, no less, who recommends using a weedkiller like Roundup in his book, but just once, to clear an area, and then in future he uses a chemical free gardening technique. That said, there are advantages to using weed killer at this early stay. The weed killer I have used does not stay in the soil, and it is safe to plant into it in just three weeks. This way I can be sure that the plants and roots of the weeds are destroyed. Rotavating a weed-ridden patch will only propagate them further, making the problem much worse in the future. I suppose I could have dug them out, but that would have taken ages, and I would have missed the beginning of the growing season. The only other method is to cover the whole area in thick black plastic or old carpet and wait for two years for all the weeds to die. And I am way too impatient for that.

I know I will get disapproving looks from some of the organic gardeners, and I do feel suitably guilty about what I have done, but it is done now, and I stand by my decision. The only thing I can say to them is that I promise, in future, to use as few chemicals as possible.

This is a picture of my Mum and Dad, and our cat Rusty, inspecting our allotment. They don't look to impressed.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

I have just bought a cold frame, some seed compost and some propagators cheep from ALDI supermarket, and some seeds from Homebase. Only trouble is, I don't know what to do with them. I know I need them, because I have seen them on gardening programs on telly, but I have never grown anything from seed before. Except for cress. I will be hitting the books tonight looking for wisdom.
I have bought £20 worth of seeds: Broccoli, onions, summer cabbage, carrots, beetroots, butternut squash, sprouts and seed potatoes. All vegetables we use a lot in cooking, so are certain to enjoy when we harvest them. I don't really know how many seeds to buy. Hopefully I have got enough. It's got to be better to have too much. I can always give some away too my fellow allotmenters (Or should that be allotmentites? or allotmenteers? or allotmnetians?).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Welcome to the first page of the Bresnen family's allotment blog. This is intended to be a record of our adventures into the world of grow-your-own, self-sufficient, welly wearing allotment good life.

The Bresnen Family
Let me begin by introducing the Bresnen Family. I am Rob. I am considered the gardener in the family, because I grew some flowers in pots and I once grew potatoes quite successfully. I have lots of enthusiasm, but not much experience. My beautiful wife is Corinne. Her experience of gardening extends to cutting the grass and occasionally watering the pots. It's reasonable to say she is a fair weather gardener. Charlie is our son. He is eight, and is quite excited about the allotment. He wants to be involved in everything. How long this enthusiasm will last remains to be seen, but is highly commendable at the moment. Eleanor is four and is a very lively girl with Downs Syndrome. She doesn't like getting cold or getting her hands dirty. Or wearing a coat and gloves. I think its fair to say she takes after her mother in her preference for the 'nicer' aspects of gardening. She does, however, like vegetables and fruit. A lot.
Why do we want an allotment? Well there are a number of reasons: Firstly, it will get me out of the house. I work shifts and am often off in the week. I tend to spend my spare time messing about on the computer, you know, blogging and stuff (The irony of what I have just wrote was not lost on me). I often look back at the end of the day and think 'I wish I had done something constructive'; Secondly, it will give us something nice to do as a family that won't cost the earth; Thirdly, we want the children to know where their fruit and vegetables come from. So many children nowadays have become so detached from the source of their food that they think potatoes come in bags and have no idea if carrots grow under ground or on trees; Fourthly, it would be nice for us to know that our food had been grown with minimal chemicals and locally, to reduce the impact environmentally; Finally, it will hopefully save us a bit of money when it comes to harvest time.
Our Plot

We began our adventure six months ago, when, almost entirely on a whim, I put my name down for an allotment near our home. I promptly rushed out and bought some books on the topic then, as I didn't really expect to hear anything from the allotment's council for a year or so, as I was number thirteen on the list, I put said books on my book shelf in my garage to gather dust. Then I more or less forgot about it, except for when I was throwing potato peelings in the dustbin while thinking 'I wish I had an allotment so I could compost this!'

Then, a few weeks ago I got a call from Kevin, who is chairman of the Allotment's council, to see if we were still interested. Of course I replied that we were and sent my wife off to pick a plot (because I was at work). Then I dusted off the books.

The plot we have got is, in fact, a half plot, due to the demand for allotments locally. It is 22 foot by 39 foot, and positioned on a slight slope. The ground looks quite well drained compared to some of the plots further down the hill. It is thigh high with weeds, and hasn't been cultivated for some time.
The First Morning at the Allotment

We went down to the allotment at the week end. There were a lot of the allotment folk down there getting busy, and they were all very friendly. Some stopped to chat and give advice, which I was very grateful for, being such a complete novice.

We took a rake, with the intentions of raking of the dead weeds so that we could get a better idea of where we were starting from. I also took a hammer to break up some pallets to use the timber in a later project. Charlie took over raking off the weeds, remarking that it was "our allotment, not just yours." He was enthusiastic, but not very effective. I attacked the pallets, which despite being rotten, failed to come apart. Meanwhile Corinne and Eleanor wandered off to look at the bullocks in the field next door. By the time they came back I had removed three planks from the pallets and Charlie had cleared a section about a yard square. Then Eleanor fell over, had a moan about getting her new pink coat dirty and about being cold. Then we went home.
It wasn't the most successful start, but it was a start, and we leaned a few important lessons.
  1. Dress Eleanor in old clothes, not her best, brand new coat.
  2. Make sure we take snacks and things to keep Eleanor busy while we work.
  3. Make sure we take enough tools for everyone to get involved. Don't underestimate Charlie's enthusiasm.
  4. Don't use a hammer to dismantle pallets. Use a saw.
  5. We have got a lot of work ahead of us.


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