The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Starting an allotment from scratch

I was dropping Danny off at the station when we saw the sign.
“Allotments for Rent”.
On the way back home I stopped and had a potter through the allotment site. A woman and her small daughter were watering their crops. Absorbed in their tasks in the sultry afternoon sun. The air was filled with birdsong deadening the whoosh of passing traffic. Magic.

I’d assumed that there was a long waiting list for allotments in our local town. Danny has been keen to start a new outdoor veg growing project for a while now and this seemed like a good opportunity. I returned to the cottage and dialled the number.

Unfortunately the advertised allotments had already been snapped up but I was directed to another site that I didn’t even know existed. This site has 140 allotments. We visited the site and chatted to the manager. The place has a wonderful, calm feel.

I’d said that we didn’t mind starting from scratch and we were shown two plots covered in ryegrass.
“How would you clear the ryegrass? Would you use a rotavator?”
“It’s best dug by hand. Compost the turf. It’s surprising how quickly you can clear turf if you put your mind to it. Of course we’ll strim it for you.”

We returned to explore the site once more, just to make sure that we weren’t making a rash decision. We have a big kitchen garden here at the cottage which is largely my domain. This new project is a first for us – working, planning and facing the challenges together. We want to grow more food but also expand our horizons a bit too.

Within a matter of days Danny and I had signed up for the larger ten rod plot. Ten rods is equivalent of one sixteenth of an acre, 302.5 square yards or 253 square meters. Enough space for loads of brassicas and spuds. Room to experiment with new crops and methods. And best of all a retreat from The Rat Room for Danny. His job has become very pressured and demanding. He needs an outlet away from the cottage.

A few people suggested spraying the ryegrass with weed killer but we’d prefer to be organic from the start. OK removing the grass is hard work – cutting squares, slicing off and piling up the heavy clods. Progress is slow. The one tool that tackles slicing ryegrass with ease is my midi Spork. I’ve seen Danny ogling the man sized version on the Spork site. All my De Witt tools are proving to be a great investment. As we dig and slice it’s good to know that the tools are sharpening as we work.

Yesterday progress was much faster when we wore heavy work boots rather than Wellingtons as Kay Sexton tipped in Minding my Peas and Cucumbers. After three one hour sessions, we finally finished cutting the turf from our first border – 5’ x 10’ and started to dig over the compacted soil.
“Do you know I haven’t seen a single worm yet. Perhaps it’s too dry?”
Danny was being watched intently by a friendly blackbird.
“All I’ve seen are millipedes and a few beetles. The manure should bring a decent amount of worms, I reckon.”

The soil is much lighter and sandier than the heavy clay and loam at the cottage but there is well rotted manure available on the site which we’re planning to dig in along with a generous dressing of Rockdust which has worked wonders in the dry cottage borders that I extended last summer.

We are tackling the plot one border at a time. Each will be finished and seed sown or planted up before moving on to dig the next one.

Yesterday trudging back to The Duchess, with our tools slung over our shoulders, Danny turned to me and said.
“This is marvellous for me. I don’t think about work when I’m here – just focus on the task in hand. I’m taking gentle exercise and the end result will be food on the table. Can’t get much better than that!”

N.B. The wobbly video snippet shows our new allotment in all its glory. It is one allotment back from the cement raod that curls through the site – quiet and private. The ‘tennis court wire’ protects a flock of chickens and is the boundary on the west side of the allotment. The shack at the back used to be a house for ducks and geese – we are planning to turn this into a tool shed. The plot was strimmed before we started digging and D has brought the hay back for the chickens.

One border dug and just another five to go. We are leaving ryegrass paths in between the borders – bouncy and hopefully indestructible.


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  1. Marvellous challenge there, we wouldn’t be without ours but the allotment ass-ociation can be a touch irritating and if I’ve grown tired of being told that I should enter the competition as it’s “cheap” and “great fun”. I grow food for eating. Is that Danny in the blue shirt?

  2. Congrats and good luck, my partner and I after just a couple of years growing have just started renting an acre field with ten years worth of ryegrass and bramble over growth, I read an italian saying recently which helps keep me going and may you “you live in the field and you die in the house”, it keeps me gowing when I feel like going home for the day thinking of all the incredible benefits it will bring my health.

  3. Congratulations! We had an allotment in London which had been unworked for 15 years when we took it on. It was waist high in grass, riddled with couch and bindweed and bits of semi-rotten blue carpet that someone had put down at some time to supress weeds and then forgotten about. We dug it all over by hand and it took a lot of hard work to get it productive; my single biggest tip is something you have already decided upon – plant up each section as you get it ready. We saw so many other newcomers try to get the whole plot ready before planting, and they all gave up. The allotment worked wonders for my mental health, and is in many ways responsible for us being here with 3 acres – rather than satisfying my smallholding urges, it increased them. One other tip – if you are happy to eat boiled/steamed spuds with their skins on, plant Anyas, incredibly productive and ever so flavoursome. Happy allotmenteering!

  4. Captain Shagrat

    Best of luck to you both. The guy who I share an allotment with has shed two stone since he took the plot on. It was overgrown much like your own but is slowing becoming a productive little haven. A great place for Danny to let his hair down;-)

  5. Magic Cochin

    Fresh air, exercise and new friends – that sounds like a good tonic for Danny!

    And it will provide lots of new topics for you to write about on this blog.

    Sounds like a good plan to take it one step at a time.


  6. KateUK

    Brilliant!Next year it will be spud central….

  7. I love my allotment- my first one was just like that! All the ‘Old Guard’ wanted me to rotavate it and I’m really glad I didn’t. Under the grass was a mass of white roots, each of which grows into a new plant once they’re chopped into tiny pieces…

    What we did do with part of it which worked well was to cover what we didn’t think we could get to quickly. It’s very depressing to have to mow before you can dig. We used some weed suppressant membrane then, but I have a small patch on my current site that’s got out of hand and I’m going to cover it with wet newspaper, compost, chicken poo,grass clippings etc, like American lasagne (I suppose that would be lasagna) mulching.That will kill off even the couch grass roots and speed life up! I’ve done it in my garden and it’s fantastic soil there now.

    I second Steve’s suggestion about the chickens though- I put a couple of mine in a cat carrier and take them to the allotment with me. They are in a fenced off area that needs weeding, working (and eating slugs I throw them) whilst I am. And then we all come home again! It’s not fox proof, just enough to keep them contained whilst I’m there. I get funny looks trundling through the village with my wheelbarrow, but it’s effective!

  8. Good for you guys! I sure wish I could get Steve interested in gardening.

    The hops plants planted down by the side of the house, while getting enough attention from him, are not quite the ‘gateway’ plant that I’d hoped they’d be….

  9. steve h

    Challenge on there me thinks! and as you tire easily since your recent probs I would take advantage of any mechanical help offered, even just to get you started! Is that a chicken shed hiding in there as well? strim it/ scythe it / mow it, rake off your hay crop, rotavate the sod, chuck in the chucks and dig over patches from now till next spring. The chucks will go through it with a fine-tooth comb, removing weed seeds, insect eggs and other debris over the winter.In spring you should have a clean canvas to start. dig it over just before a hard frost is forecast as this is worth a gallon of both insecticidw and weedkiller! – or better still give some local kids a saturday job!

  10. The advantage of new ground is no diseases, of course. What a wonderful challenge for you both.

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