I have finally done it. During the delay between being told the plot was ready for me and then actually taking tenancy, my stupid ‘good’ foot decided to turn evil on me and develop arthritis too – quite possibly in protest at taking all the strain for the bad one for all those years. So I visited my plot with my dad the day after I got it, got a load of stuff ready and then suddenly had foot problems and couldn’t get near the place until Saturday.
On the occasions when I might have gone, something else got in the way and prevented me. I have learned that this happens and I could get really cross and frustrated at not being able to do it and just rage a lot, or I could do a bit less of that and expend the rest of my energy on positive stuff.
Positive stuff like researching all the jobs I know I need to do when I can get there: starting a compost bin, growing in a polytunnel, repairing said polytunnel so it’s capable of growing stuff and so on. I may have been physically crap but mentally I’ve been incredibly busy, which is a good thing.
Saturday: Today, I got up and decided that if there was any way of getting there, I was going to that allotment. I know it’s mine but it hasn’t felt like it’s mine. The only time I’ve actually been able to go there and see inside stuff and walk over it was a very swift assessment of what there was before Dad wanted to go and buy me a coffee. That would have been fine, had I gone back there in the afternoon as planned, but something happened and then that was it for two weeks. So it was still very much an abstract construct in my head, rather than an actual thing with which I had a connection.
I got there in the afternoon, realising half-way there that I’d left the shed key in my handbag. I drove as close as I could to the plot and emptied my car load of stuff into a weed-free and surprisingly clear corner of the horribly smelly polytunnel. It has those dead and dying cauliflowers and cabbages in it so it was initially unpleasant, but it also has two doors so within a minute or two it was possible to breathe again.
I didn’t really want to lock the stuff in the polytunnel and then go home and get the keys to the shed. After the number of times I’ve been thwarted in my plans lately, I decided to just do what I could with what I had and go again another time with the keys and do anything that needed actual tools.
I’d originally intended to use the wheelbarrow inside the polytunnel to transport and contain all the stuff I was going to pull up. That wasn’t an option (shed) but I did have a groundsheet with handles which made a decent alternative, dragging being easier than lifting for when I need to shift it.
Much as I enjoy gardening, I’m not up for the hard back-breaking slog of agriculture from the books of my youth. I’m prepared to put in quite a lot of sustained effort but life can and will happen so I have to anticipate that in how I design this allotment plot.
I took a proper look at what I was dealing with in the polytunnel and it looked as though all the debris is largely confined to the surface and the soil wasn’t full of crap that needed sifting out. That’s good, although I was kindly given a sieve in the haul left to me in the shed, so I could if I needed to. Assuming I remember where the key is…
The polytunnel debris seems to fall into three main categories: large flinty stones, bits of plastic that have come off the polytunnel at some point and some general detritus such as bits of metal and seed packets. There’s also some bits of stick and bark, which I’ll separate out and add to the compost bin as ‘brown’ material as it doesn’t look like anything which would ever have been treated and is breaking down quite well already. I also found what would have been a disturbing number of chicken bones among the surface debris had I not known that they were all leg bones and therefore more likely to have originated from KFC than the coop. Still not entirely sure why they’re there, though…
I didn’t want to just sweep everything up, because I’d have ended up taking Nature out with the rubbish, and because I could make good use of the flints. I sat on my garden kneeler/seat and chucked stuff into my three buckets until each patch of ground was clear. I have found this works better than using a folding chair as, whilst similarly portable, chairs tend to have you sitting leaning slightly backwards or have a deep seat for comfort. I took my chair along for actual rests, when I wasn’t going to try and do anything more than look something up online. (Free wifi and full 3G signal on the plot make looking things up really easy, like downloading the compass app I used to work out which direction the plot faced.)
I learned a lot about the polytunnel’s current ecosystem while I was doing all this. I saw some small spiders and some webs around the bottom edge of the polytunnel but no other insects or worms in or on the earth, although stuff might have gone deep to seek moisture. I did see a couple of small snails on the inside roof of the tunnel so will relocate them at some point. I didn’t see a single slug above or below ground, which is something.
The earth is a crumbly and fine loam – which is a result. It’s not desiccated, there’s a decent level of moisture in it: it’s just not got anything much holding the silt together. It’s much easier to work than a clay, though, and the weeds and dead plants come straight out as easily as in the raised bed at home. While it might look like there’s quite a lot of work, it’s actually not heavy at all and I’ve already cleared a sizeable area of weeds and dead cauliflowers. In doing that, I found that nearly all the cauliflowers were infested with little black bugs and were covered in small yellow eggs. I won’t be using any of what I cleared to start my compost bin as a result and will take it all to the tip when I’m done. I’d burn it but I don’t have an incinerator yet.
The texture of the soil suggests to me that my instinct to build two long raised beds along a central walkway was the sensible one. It needs something to contain it, as if you dig at the moment the hole fills itself in like sand. The flints are from an attempt to stop the walkway getting churned up, I imagine. I may use them elsewhere for drainage and put a proper path down.
It rained heavily and was quite blowy whilst I was doing all this – fortunately after I’d got the car unloaded. This taught me that whilst it might have shed bits of plastic and is patched and in need of a good wash, it’s actually sound. I closed the back door to stop rain blowing in at one point but apart from a few small holes around the door frame plastic, I didn’t see any water coming in. The soil is also dry enough to tell me it’s not been regularly soaked lately and we’ve had a lot of rain.
So that’s another good thing to have learned: if the polytunnel plastic is essentially sound then I can use it for its intended purpose and not as a storage area with an small bit for veg, as the previous tenant did. I have bought some proper polytunnel repair tape so as soon as I can get there on a dry day, I can get some patching done. The beauty of using dedicated tape is that it’s designed to go on and remain on even in low temperatures so even emergency winter patches should be possible. One of the reasons it looks tatty is that the existing repairs seem to be largely done with gaffer tape, which is peeling and falling off.
The inner plastic of the polytunnel is really pretty clean. The grubby patches are actually outside, possibly between split outer layers, but I haven’t assessed outside properly yet. That’s another big plus. Giving something a bit of a wipe over is a lot less strenuous than scrubbing something with ingrained dirt. Knowing it’s not damp in the wrong way, is a big plus and allows me to make some decisions and start doing things faster than otherwise might have been the case.
The roof’s also lower than I thought. I remembered it as being quite a bit higher but it’s only slightly higher than I could stretch – it’ll be about 2 metres, I’m guessing. That makes cleaning and repairing the whole of the inside a much easier task and something I know I’m more than capable of doing by myself on an average day. If I clear the ground, then I can get into all the corners and patch and clean, before I start creating obstacles that’d be damaged if you stuck a stepladder on them. I’ve already read up and made sure I understand how a polytunnel’s meant to function and have got options for how to clean the outside of it, provided I can find one other person to help me. If I can’t, I’ve got options for that too.
All in all, I’m delighted. I thought the polytunnel might need a lot of coaxing to make it through the winter, and was intending to use a couple of walk-in greenhouses inside it as a way of making the best of what I had. I don’t think I need to, though, although provided I can improve the amount of light coming through the plastic, I think it could give me some really good results if I tried. It’s still on the table, but I could put them up outside, on the beds, and just have extra sheltered growing space over the winter and into the spring. I’m pretty sure that two people could disassemble a growhouse around more mature plants if you were essentially just using it as a massive cloche and didn’t put the shelves in.
More, as and when…