Five rods: patience rewarded!

December 12, 2012 § 3 Comments

Yesterday was a momentous day. Mr M and I picked up the key to one of the most prized assets in London. It is not a swanky apartment in the West End or a five bedroom house in a desirable postcode. No, after nearly three years of patience we had reached the top of a waiting list and secured ourselves five rods of soil, otherwise known as a London allotment.

Approximately 125 square metres of overgrown dirt may not sound like much but for a city dweller with a patio garden and a desire to take a stand against the madness of the modern food production and distribution system, this land is worth its weight in gold. As well as being an extension of the pantry, the plot will be our gym, my cutting garden and a fascinating classroom where I shall learn more about biology and chemistry than I ever covered at school.

Taking on an allotment in early winter means another exercise in patience. It will be several months before an abundance of life will be visible (although life is teeming below the surface of the soil and in the compost heap) or before I can enjoy the satisfaction of sowing seeds and planting out seedlings. That is not to say that there will be no work in the coming weeks and months!

A blank canvas

A blank canvas

The first step is to prepare the land. Although in the long term I plan to maximise a “no dig” approach, we need to start clearing the worst of the weeds and digging the soil as soon as possible so we do not forfeit the long anticipated plot.  So, armed with a spade, fork and ball of string, I shall be spending as many hours on the allotment as possible before the hard frosts set in, marking out beds and breaking up the heavy clay soil.

Preparations will also include planning how to use our precious land. Although I have long known what I wanted to cultivate on an allotment when the happy day arrived, I can now move on to the nitty gritty of working out what fruit, vegetables and flowers to cultivate where on our plot.

There will be some permanent features like a raspberry and gooseberry patch, a perennimeter of insect friendly flowers and herbs (and possibly a couple of dwarf fruit trees) and a comfrey patch. Most of the site, however, will be devoted to beds that will follow a conventional rotation pattern, with an an extra stage for green manures. That is, however, probably as far as convention will go!

Although there are obvious candidates for neat north-south rows and brassicas will follow on from legumes, drifts will punctuate tidy rows and underplanting will add a shabby chic feeling to the plot. These tendencies are not, however, driven by an aesthetic preference. Rather, I want to attract as many natural predators to our plot to deal with the slugs, aphids and larvae that doubtless will try to feast on our fresh vegetables. The diversity of plants and abundance of insects are also intended to ward off disease carrying pests. And green manures (such as comfrey, clover, vetches, grazing rye) will provide potash, fix nitrogen and improve soil structure, as well as help keep weeds at bay.

No 6 arcadiaSurveying our five rods of slightly overgrown land, I am aware that the task ahead is not small. Am I daunted? A little. Will my back and the weather be sufficiently clement to turn this plot into a hub of life and healthy produce? Am I intimidated? No! If working a patio garden has taught me anything, it is that growing food is an ongoing learning process, one that triggers conversations with complete strangers, yields edible rewards and allows a city girl to experience a myriad of nature’s delights! And so it will be with plot no 6, which with a nod to Virgil we have called Arcadia.


Recommended gardening companions

Many well-thumbed companions will accompany me along the way as I dig, sow and harvest.  As Christmas is upon us, here are some recommendations of  guides I have found highly useful and thoroughly readable.

John Walker – How to Create an Eco Garde: The Practical Guide to Greener, Planet-Friendly Gardening – Excellent practical suggestions of how to work with nature. Whether you have a patio, garden or allotment, it will inspire and encourage far-reaching changes, from minor tweaks to major retrofits.

Alex Mitchell – The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in the Heart of the City – Very useful if you only have a patio or balcony but want to grow some of your own food. Alex includes practical projects that scale down composting and companion planting principles for a garden-less food grower.

E.T. Brown – Make Your Garden Feed You – A reproduction of a wartime publication. Although, it contains the occasional reference to inorganic fertiliser, which I ignore, I rate this little book for its no-nonsense approach to achieving good yields with minimal stuff – which appeals to the avid waste-avoider in me.

Alys Fowler – The Edible Garden: How to Have your Garden and Eat It – Unlike the others, this is neither project or calendar specific. It is however eminently readable and is likely to whet your appetite about what you can grow and how to grow it in a kind way.

Dr. D.G. Hessayon  – The Vegetable Expert – This is to vegetable gardening what a German grammar book or Latin primer is to a young language student. It covers all the basis, has a familiar layout and contains plenty to set you on your way.

* I have include links for information purposes only. If you decide to surprise a friend with any of these titles, please buy from your local independent bookshop as a way of supporting your community. 


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