Updated: May 12, 2021
Welcome to the first missive from @Allotment7. I’m a commercial pilot, presently furloughed like many of my colleagues across the industry. I recently joined the Mentor team at Resilient Pilot, keeping pilots 'Supported, Current and Connected'.
Why to start an allotment...
Of the many ideas promoted through this resource there is a strong theme of maintaining good mental health. I am not a professional horticulturalist, but I have been running an allotment in Oxfordshire for the last ten years with some success and some failures along the way. Over the years I have moved away from using pesticides and commercial fertilisers and, with the help of my allotment neighbours, I have learnt to manage the site naturally, reintroducing wildlife to help with natural predation. Running an allotment is quite physical, but it will be the cheapest gym membership you’ll ever pay. The seasonal cycle means there is always something to do or prepare for. Having a purpose to an otherwise empty day, particularly during a pandemic, has assisted in my own resilience and well being.
Even if you don’t have access to an allotment, or space to create a large structure, like a fruit cage, by using a small area in your own garden it is possible to grow produce that is fun, rewarding, chemical free and kind to the environment. All it needs is water and direct sunlight to be successful.
Last summer a village resident told me she was having difficultly with bending down to garden in her courtyard garden. It was behind a terrace with no road access. These old wooden stacking packing crates, procured for free from a local industrial machinery supplier, were used to create a small raised bed, measuring 1.2m by 0.8m. She grew some carrots, leeks, salad leaves and tomatoes on this small raised plot.
So I will be exploring many of these interconnected aspects of home produce via a monthly newsletter. You can also see what I’m up to via twitter or instagram if you like. I’m not a huge fan of social media so I don’t post relentlessly!
Allotments are, understandably, very popular and in short supply at the moment. However, it is never too late to get down to your local association and get your name on a waiting list. Our allotment is run by a trust, the Emery and Owen Foundation. The profits from this charity are directed to needy projects and support for local village residents and I’ve met and made many new friends. This has been really useful because trading is a big part of allotment life. For instance last autumn I had a glut of raspberries that I traded for some Brussel Spout plants!
I discovered that there is a huge variety of things you can grow that go way beyond what you can buy in a shop. It will taste much better as it can be consumed fresh when the natural sugars have not had a chance turn to starch.
There are many providers of seeds, the most common ones you may have come across in Garden Centres, like Suttons and Mr Fothergill’s. Do check the expiry date. Seeds tend to last about 3 years after which germination may become sporadic. Many varieties have also had more vigour introduced, so called F1 varieties or increased resistance to disease or a lower chance of growing rapidly and weakly, known as bolting . But all these attributes are often at the expense of taste. So I use organic providers. Here are a few that I have used:
Finally, but not least, there is the soil. There is growing evidence that overly working or digging over the top soil does more harm than good as it destroys it's delicate layers and structure as well as disturbing the many organisms, including bacteria, that make a healthy soil. This would be my preference as it is less backbreaking. However, if the ground is choked with perennial weeds it will probably need digging over at least once.
Introducing a covering crop like potatoes can then help to suppress the regrowth of weeds. The task can be made easier by laying over thick black plastic to exclude light and moisture and leaving it for as long as possible, preferably at least a year. By laying a heavy layer of well rotted compost or manure in the winter and letting the worms take the nutrients down into the soil, the soil becomes light and aerated. It is also more likely that levels of (N)Nitrogen, (P)Phosphorus and (K)Potassium (the ratio of NPK is often displayed on fertilisers) can be maintained. Reducing the stripping of nutrients is also achieved in small spaces by crop rotation. More about this in later issues...
I am also introducing raised beds and pathways to minimise compaction from footfall. This is also because this allotment has heavy clay soils that can also get overly waterlogged. But wherever you are just walk around and observe what other established allotment holders are doing. My biggest advice would be to start small and keep the plastic over the areas you are not ready to use yet. I’ve seen many people become disheartened after digging over a plot only to see the weeds return weeks later because they haven’t got round to planting anything.
There has been a lot of rain this month making working the soil hard work. You can do more damage than good in these conditions by trampling, so it is best to concentrate on structures and pathways. Here I’m extending the fruit cage to cover some dwarf cherry trees and other soft fruit as well as these raised beds. The netting will keep the pigeons off the brassicas. I am also extending a small wildlife pond. It has attracted grass snakes, newts, frogs, pond skaters, water-boatmen, bees, wasps, dragonflies and hoverflies. They are all voracious eaters of aphids. Look out for the article on that project coming soon!
Finally, I have started off plants that need a long growing season on a heated propagation tray including tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, and peppers in my Potting Shed. However, a warm windowsill will serve just as well for most seeds. Use some grit to break up the compost and assist drainage but keep the trays moist.
Angus is a Senior First Officer and Resilient Pilot Mentor with a passion in Wellbeing, CRM and TEM. To find out more about Angus, and our other pilot mentors, please visit our 'supported' page