Monday, May 29, 2017

The Riddler's Day Off

I've advanced only a foot or so northwards, that's leftwards on this photo. The weed situation around my baby hedge has become scandalous, so I've had to put time into that; (though I'm not finished with it yet, a-job-begun-is-half-done and all that). I resumed work on the 5th bed yesterday for a few hours.

I'm coming to the edge of what was formerly covered by the old shed. The side nearest the middle of the plot was a rough and ready potting shed, clay floor. Near the gate, an adjoining structure had two old doors as a floor, but they were badly rotted.

Beneath that, a lot of industrial clinker mixed with soil. I suspect that this part was built on top of someone else's idea to lay a hard standing or work area with the clinker.  It could have come from a domestic coke fire, built up over years. The potting shed was added later, maybe by a different hand. The clay floor here is heavily compacted, of course, people have been standing on it for years.

There's glass here, but not the big shards I get further down the bed, more like old broken bottles. I'm hopeful that soon I'll be clear of the old shed's floor, and moving into an area which was once cultivated. I turned this bed over during the winter, roughly with the fork, and seem to recall that the clinker patch was about 7x7ft, by the gate.

Which would make sense in an allotment, to have an area there for your wheelbarrows and what not. But it would soon get thick of weeds if not tended, and virtually disappear; but not quite, because it suggested itself as a good place to put a shed to someone, one day.

I bloomin' hope this theory is right, because the clinker, riddled out, goes into the shed base, and it's almost full - another dozen or so wheelbarrows-full. It's marvellous stuff for this job, together with the bricks and concrete from the old greenhouse.

But once the new shed's base is high and level enough, I've no more use for rubble of any sort. There's no way of getting rid of rubble from the allotment, so if I've got too much, I'd need to get creative, maybe put it beneath the path at the top end, though the drainage is good there, and I'd have to riddle out the displaced soil, so a lot of frankly unwanted work. Fingers crossed I'm approaching a cultivated area, which should have less rubble.

And there's a lot more glass to dig out as I approach the environs of the old greenhouse. I'm digging right to the edge of the bed, by a good improvised fence my neighbours erected a year or so ago. There appears to be a lot of glass right on the boundary, and I theorize a predecessor raked up surface glass there so that it could be "out of the way".

There was a kind of midden, or maybe storage area gone-wrong, in this area, too. That involved many glass doors and sheets of glass, some of which got broken. So more glass.

Two novels sometimes come to mind when I'm working on this. Kafka's The Burrow is one, (which I read decades ago). And also Aldiss's Non-Stop, (which I read as a teenager when I was a Saturday boy at Jarrow Library, for goodness sakes, and leads me to wonder, is there a link between labouring with earth, and memory?) 

Talking to The Secretary about what I was doing, she suggested "you've got to hate that piece of ground!" as a motivation technique. I agreed with her at the time, but not now. I used to say bad words under my breath about my predecessors, 100 years of gardeners, good, bad and indifferent.

Now, I'm sometimes imagine their shades lingering around the plot. And I'm respectful of the earth, all of the digging and riddling and barrowing is part of a process of reclamation. But my predecessors may have been on low incomes with big families, and I'm lucky to be able to devote most of an entire growing season to nursing this bed back to health.

Longer, maybe. So far I haven't encountered a single worm except a stray brandling, wandered over from the shit-heap across the path. I would say the soil has potential, but it's going to need a lot of convalescence: cover crops and mulches, to bring the worms back.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A lot of digging to get ready for no-digging


I know photos of, basically, the ground, don't show much but let me take you through it. To the right is the gate and the path. I've put up a couple of sheets of tin as edging, (involved digging a narrow trench way down into the clay, bloody hard work). I did that because the path was a little low, and the bed was in danger of spilling out onto it.

In the centre of the photo is riddled earth, from the 1st section (approx 7x7sq feet), but now spread across the 1st & 2nd sections, (so that's about 7x13sq feet).  The earth from section 1, by the dead shrubs at the top of the photo, contained a lot of industrial slag or clinker. The second section, nearer the central path, (which is the foreground of the photo), was mostly compacted clay topsoil.

"Clay topsoil" is the greenish stuff which I've found in the largely uncultivated areas of the plot, for example under the path, and here under the old shed. It's topsoil clay to distinguish it from the real heavy, orange stuff in the subsoil. It will make a good clay loam in due course with the tender loving care it's going to get.

Just out of sight to the left is a heap of unriddled earth from section 2, which I'll riddle and barrow up to the tin edging. There was hitherto a slight slope running left to right at this part of the plot, which I'm planning to correct: there should be slight incline running right to left, down in the direction of the pond.

I'll be piling riddled earth up to the right to keep the floor of this spit-deep trench clear on the left. That will enable me, now that I've made a start across the width of the bed, to work my way down the bed, slicing off about 10ins from the edge of the trench, shovelling it off the clay floor, riddling it and barrowing it across to the heap of riddled earth to the right, which will, as it were, follow me down as it fills up.

It's not quite double digging or bastard-trenching, but the principle is the same. It means the subsoil floor of the trench will be compacted somewhat as I walk on it, so I'll be planting field beans for a few successive winters to punch down into it with their long roots.

The topsoil seems pretty lifeless. No worms, though Mrs Robinson is able to find grubs of some insects there. It's paradoxical, I know, to destroy any kind of soil structure there might be prior to beginning a no-dig regime. But I'm breaking eggs to make an omelette.

There is no other way, that I can think of, to get rid of all the bloody broken glass. This way I get the glass out, but also all the stones (bigger than about 1/2in³) and all the perennial weeds. Major surgery.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Coo cooch a choo, Mrs Robinson


Anything that exposes the earth, whether weeding or digging, brings me the company of Mrs Robinson; (I don't know if it is a female, but call it Mrs R anyway). She finds grubs in the disturbed ground I'd never spot with the naked eye. And she's very bold, hopping around inches from my hands when I'm weeding.

I took this photo by the arbor, where I had idly turned over the earth to test out an old spade, and horrified to see a vast quantity of bindweed roots, which you can see gleaming white in the photo.

It comes to something when the weeding is a bit of light relief...



I'm relaxed about how things are going at the allotment, that's the whole point. But the state of the hedgerow does prey on my mind. Planting the gorse so early in its life was a blunder. For future reference, hedgerow trees and shrubs grown from seed need at least a year in a pot, growing to 1ft or so, before they're ready for planting out on the hedgerow line.

But anyway, here's a 10ft section of the hedgerow, in the middle of the Eastern boundary, before and after weeding. The weeds consisted of ground elder, nettles, thistles, and a few mares' tails. After weeding we're left with gorse, (which was not thriving amongst the weeds), with brambles and suckers from the cherry tree's rootstock, (neither of which gave a shit about the weeds).

The hedgerow on the western boundary, in particular, is getting choked by grass, and I really need to put a few hours aside to deal with that and save the gorse there.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Dig It Out. Riddle It. Put It Back.


Just raking it wasn't cutting the mustard. So I've divided the 5th bed into 12 sections, and will dig out each one to a spit's depth, riddle the spoil into the barrow, and then back into shallow trench. As you can see, I've started in the SE corner, by the gate.

Since taking the photo, I've done 5 barrows-full, which I'm estimating is about 25-30% of this trench. 15-20mins per barrow-full. Which means I can do each trench in 6 hours, that's 3 allotment "days" of 2-3 hours. That's 72 days to do the whole bed. Blimey. I usually get there for 4 days a week, so that's 18 weeks, which takes us right up to the autumn.

I can't see any way around this. The photo below shows a barrow full of riddled soil on the left, and the amount of rubble and glass I got whilst riddling it out on the left. And this is just the medium riddle, so there's still a lot of gravel in it.


Most of the rubble is what looks like clinker, the slag you get out of a furnace or maybe a domestic fire where coke has been burned. It may have been the case that clinker, a cheap industrial bi-product was ploughed into the land to break up the clay. If that's the case, it's surprising that since it became an allotment, 100 years ago, no plot holder has taken the time to riddle it out.

It's hard work, and somewhat tedious. A few notions keep me going. Maybe all of this clinker is just in this particular area - I haven't encountered it when digging in other parts of the plot. I'm beginning to think that this area has never been cultivated, ever, and certainly not for several decades.

Perhaps it was a work area with the clinker and other rubble laid as hard-standing for barrows and barrels and what have you; the topsoil is very shallow, short of a spade's depth down to the heavy clay. I hope that's the case, and that I'm wrong on the clinker-ploughed-in-to-break-up-clay theory, because it means the ground will have less rubble elsewhere. Curiosity about what I'll find further down the bed keeps me going.

But my main motivation is the disdain, not to say contempt, I find myself feeling for raised beds. Everyone seems to have them now: less than a foot high, and about the size of a dining table. I had thought that they were some kind of fad, like decking in domestic back gardens in the 90s.

Maybe all of my neighbours have rubble filled ground, and the raised beds are a way of getting round that, just fill them with supermarket compost? I could ask them, of course, but I rarely get the time or opportunity to chat over the allotment fence.

And it could just be that I'm stuck in my ways. I've been around allotments and vegetable gardens since I was a very small child, and always cultivated crops in the ground. The only thing I'd consider resembling a raised bed was what we called on Tyneside a leek trench, which was a raised bed, I suppose, filled with the best growing material, for show-leeks. No one would dream of using a show-leek for cooking on account of them being fed with diluted human urine, another reason for keeping them sequestered in their trench.

We once had a 4ft high version for show-parsnips. But these arrangements took up only a tiny proportion of the plot. And you'd grow leeks and parsnips "for the pot" directly in the ground.

A raised bed is a few square feet, usually used for one particular crop. Whereas, if you grow directly in the ground, in a bed of 30-60sq yards, there are endless possibilities for being creative with your annual crops, edible perennials, herbs and flowers. A work of art, not just a "veg patch".

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

5th Bed: Rake, Riddle, Dig, Repeat...


A lot of last weekend was spent working this 5th bed. The methodology: rake the surface, getting glass, stones, bits of wood and a certain amount of earth into heaps. Riddle the heaps through the medium riddle into the barrow. Riddle that by hand to get out the gravel, (there's a LOT of gravel in it). If you look closely, you can see 5 heaps all waiting to be riddled. This is the second going over with the riddle.

When I've done those 5 heaps, I'll rake it all over again. It's surprising how much gets missed. When I'm fairly sure there's no more glass and other debris on the surface, I'll dig it all over and repeat the raking and riddling. And then probably dig it all over again, and again repeat the riddling and raking.

When I've got a reasonable tilth, spread on 2-3ins of oomska, then the riddled topsoil, and then sow with a green manure, probably the clover seed I've found a bagful of. Probably winter field beans on in September, and more oomska. Voila: 60sq metres of ground with a good tilth for no dig gardening in 2018.

Easier said than done, mind. It's tedious work. I'm kept going by the thought that this whole area has been left as waste for decades, and that I'm doing a good job in at last bringing it back to life. The soil itself isn't so bad: years of weeds at least lay down organic material, so the clay has plenty of loam. Unfortunately it also has plenty of glass and stones through it. Heigh bloomin' ho.

And I'm cognizant of the fact that this is No.5 bed. Nos. 1-4 still want work. No. 1 is covered in heaps of oomska, kindling, and riddled earth now. I got the heavy rubble out of it some time ago with the grubbing hoe, but it's never been properly dug over. No. 2 is under tarpaulin. It's been dug over but never given a good-old rake and riddle.

Ditto 3, which has the garlic, an as yet unplanted tattie patch, and another pile of oomska. No. 4 has the winter field beans, growing until they crop, and had the tatties in it last year, so it shouldn't take too much work before next year.

I'm consoled by the thought that all of this graft is keeping me fit, and that this time next year I'll actually be gardening

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bot Bait

To test out my theory that the French bot appearing to give me page views is attracted to 2 word post headings only.

No. 5 Bed: The Great Riddling Abandoned

Riddling worked fine with what was in effect a heap of earth, but the same procedures just couldn't cut it in the bed. The earth was far more claggy, for one thing. And some areas very compacted. After an hour or so of experimentation with the big and medium riddles, I gave it up in favour of a regime of rake, dig, rake, dig, etc. Weather, work and domesticity permitting, I can get this done in a few weeks.


It's looking better already.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

No.5 Bed - Preparations for the Great Riddling Continue Apace

Yesterday I started lifting both the rediscovered path and the comfrey, both of which mark the boundary between bed 4 and 5. The comfrey then goes to the central path edge, where it should look spectacular when it grows to over a metre, and flowers.

I suspect it's Symphytum officinale (rather than one of the Bocking F1s) because it was growing randomly at the old Pig Sty Avenue, by a common path. Just the sort of place a plant would grow from a stray seed. I think regular garden comfrey is fine for composting and fertiliser, but wants watching because it's a persistent bugger, and I don't want to be invaded by even a beneficial plant. So it'll need cut down before it has a chance to set seed.

It's not all good, comfrey. It has anti-fungal qualities, which is of course a mixed blessing. It might have some effect on the chocolate spot which is infecting the winter field beans I'm growing as a crop this year, (the comfrey is growing right along the edge of their bed), but it will also inhibit mycorrhizae.