February 10, 2013
Will it ever stop raining? Normally the most optimistic of gardeners – today I am in despair looking out of a window through a curtain of rain; rain that has been falling with little respite since November. Ground, that in early 2012 was dry enough to warrant a hose pipe ban, is now so waterlogged that you could be forgiven for thinking we have built over underwater lakes. The allotment is a waterlogged mess – the water has nowhere to go – it has no sun to evaporate it and the volume of water has left the ground sodden. Any holes or trenches dug are now dykes and ponds; the heavy clay soil acting as a water receptacle. The few brave souls who have attempted to work the land have turned over clods the size of footballs. The ground is too wet to work successfully, but the grasses and creeping buttercup are growing nicely aided, no doubt, by the wet soil. It is interesting to note that covering them with tarpaulin or weed suppressing fabric seems to have no effect and may actually help them to spread by keeping the birds away from their seeds. It would also seem that the initial ploughing of the newly sited allotment has not been sufficiently deep to inhibit growth; some plants have been seen quite happily growing upside down in the upturned furrows.
Patience is a virtue and very necessary to growing. The weather and the heavy clay soil have led me to the conclusion that in the short term, some growing will be best accomplished in raised beds with a mixture of grow bag and top soil compost. I have experimented with a cardboard base under the beds to stop the weed re-emerging (which having now researched creeping buttercup on the Garden Organic website would seem to be necessary); the cardboard will of course rot down and will be dug into the soil at the end of the raised beds growing season. Being a keen composter, a raised bed is a great excuse to try out a Victorian hot bed advocated by Alan Titchmarsh in Gardeners Heaven, to recycle suitable kitchen materials to create a forced environment for crops such as spinach, lettuce and spring onions. Not only, will I have created a suitable growing environment at a bleak time of year, I will also be making a positive impact on the soil, as the compost rots down to produce nutrients and condition the soil into something more workable than grey clay!
Taking a long view of the allotment the soil desperately needs to change and this will take time. I have watched other allotmenters (under cover of November darkness) strip off the top layer and remove it from the site, replacing it with clean topsoil. This is verboten under allotment law and the poor chap was duly court martialled, but I was sympathetic to his actions. The plots we have been allocated are small – half the size of the traditional allotment patch because of demand for allotments. Most say that the size is adequate, but I personally feel that when planting starts the smaller space will feel constrictive. The top layer of grass and weeds we are all removing is proving problematic: stacking it into homemade composters is the current trend, but these won’t generate enough heat to kill off the weeds. Mountains of weeds will also take up valuable growing space and burying them is not the answer as they will only regrow. Removal to the local municipal tip is on the cards, as soon as it stops raining!
Downtime from gardening sends me to the internet to research companion planting being a keen organic gardener with an interest in forgotten plants. Borage, comfrey and horseradish are now top of my seed shopping list as essentials for the plot. The horseradish will benefit the potato crops and also has a beneficial effect on waterlogged soil as does the perennial comfrey. Comfrey leaves were traditionally harvested in spring to dig into the base of potato trenches. The long tap roots of this plant mine nutrients that accumulate into its leaves, so it is very beneficial to put into the compost. Comfrey can also be made into a fertilizer “tea” to feed potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. In addition this is trap plant for slugs – perfect for the wet weather! Monty Don calls it a “Superplant” in this interesting article from the Daily Mail.
Well the rain has stopped and I am off to the allotment to check on my few garlic shoots that I managed to plant in November before the rain started. They should have been in by October, but the allotment opening was considerably delayed by local opposition to the site. A playing field was chosen for the site, although it was more of a dog walking location and they still have access to the area, but feelings ran high with the site being constantly vandalised. I hope that the bad feeling will dissipate over time – as there is room for everyone. The tenacity of the garlic never fails to cheers me, throughout the flooding and back breaking labour of digging the ground; it is a promise of better days to come.