What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of allotments? Is it miles of black plastic sheeting and mildly terrifying cabbages? Or a shed made out of rotting planks and half a telephone box? Allotments are amazing, but let’s face it, they aren’t always renowned for being beautiful.
Deb Patrick and her husband Andy have created a plot which is the opposite: in fact, it’s more than just beautiful, it’s productive and successful, and has risen out of a pile of broken bathtubs and ironing boards on compacted heavy clay.
It sounds like a dream, but the couple have poured a great deal of time and energy into creating an exquisite log-cabin shed, raised beds and willow house. When they arrived in 2006, the 80-year-old plot had seen a number of owners in quick succession. None had seriously cultivated the soil, and couch grass reigned among the shards of broken glass and piles of rubbish.
“My main concerns were to get the plot as productive as possible for as little cost as possible,” says Deb. “My first task was to cut back the undergrowth at the back of the plot to see what was actually there, and then make compost bins.”
Andy built the bins from old wooden pallets, while Deb surveyed the soil. Underneath the weeds was a compacted and very acidic soil, whch required plenty of organic matter such as calcified seaweed, mushroom compost and manure. Building raised beds from pallet wood was Deb’s second method of attack, as it enabled her to clear the area and add plenty of organic matter to loosen up the stubborn soil.
In the midst of all this hard work, disaster struck. After re-glazing an old greenhouse at considerable expense, Deb and Andy watched as a storm smashed a third of the windows overnight.
Fortunately, this did not deter them, and work continued apace. In November 2006, Deb planted the first crop: overwintering onions and shallots, and the following spring, potatoes grew as a clearing crop.
One of the best things about this allotment is that it is unpretentious. It remains essentially an allotment, but a stylish one at that. There might be flowers and a beautiful shed, but there are still nets around the cabbages, and bottles around the sweetcorn to keep the slugs at bay.
Deb’s birthday present, the magnificent shed, appeared after a year, and was handbuilt by Andy. Nestling among sunflowers and white foxgloves, it causes quite a stir with fellow gardeners, but Deb remains distinctly pragmatic about it: “It is a natural talking point, but it is also essentially a practical structure to store my stuff in…the growing is my priority.”
Deb’s top five tips for starting an allotment:
1. Take your time uncovering what you find on your plot before you start planning, there will be nice (hopefully useful plants) and nasty (buried rubbish, glass, weeds) surprises to discover.
2. Don’t try to emulate your neighbours. Their plots may be immaculate, but they did not get like that overnight, and they probably spend all day, every day getting it like that. Don’t let them put you off.
3. Be realistic about how much time you want to spend on the plot, and plan accordingly. Make your life easy by not trying to do everything at once. It will be easier to leave a portion of the plot covered for a year to prevent weed growth and concentrate on getting one area really cleared and planted up at first.
4. Make use of mulches of anything you can get hold of around crops to keep weeds from growing, which they will do with depressing regularity. Raised beds are psychologically easy to keep weeded as you can do a couple thoroughly relatively quickly and get a sense of achievement that will spur you on.
5. Only grow what you and your family eat: if you don’t like beetroot or broad beans, don’t grow them. Try to sow a short row of salad leaves every 3 weeks from March so you get a succession of crops, unless you really want to eat 15 lettuces in one week…