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. Love this article, I would love to have the time to do this but working full time and having 3 children…..If anyone is interested Hugh fearnley whittingstall has set up a landshare site to introduce those with land to those who want to grow definitely worth a look!

  2. I to have become a new allotmentee…chest high in weeds and previously a potato field which needs constant gleening! I have also seeded newly dug areas and used cheap weed prevention sheets. Almost half-way now! Have you planned the layout of beds? Apparently north-south rows are best. Looking forward to hearing about your progress.

  3. Jono / Real Men Sow

    Good luck!

    The plot next to me was a real mess when a new couple took it on this summer. They’ve really turned it around with clever use of raised beds, moving soil and pure hard graft.

    I thought they’d need a year of digging and killing weeds, but they’re growing within a few months. And not a weedkiller in sight. 🙂

    Looking forward to hearing more.

  4. What fun! I’m excited for you both. I think you’re smart to tackle one bed and plant it before moving on to the next.

  5. Sandra

    I truly admire your energy. My small plot in my garden is enough for me. I feel quite weedy by comparison!

  6. Tamar@StarvingofftheLand

    Woo hoo! That’s a really big space to grow things in!

    I’ll vote with some of the other commenters for mechanical assistance — that’s some serious rye grass you’re dealing with.

    Can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s cleared and planted. You’ll be feeding the masses!

  7. Ruthdigs

    Fantastic! I can only echo other’s feelings when I say it is truly a place of sanctuary where one can get away from the real world and it’s work problems and myriad worries. Not to mention the fantastic food. You’ll be joining us at Seedaholics Anonymous then? Now you have more space the temptation to buy those packs because ‘you can sqeeze them in somewhere ‘ is fatal!! 😀 Absolutely the best of luck, I look forward to seeing the shed progress too – hopefully with some more jazzy little tunes. 🙂

  8. Paul @ GrowingOurOwn

    Woo Hoo! Well done you, how lucky to stumble into one like that. Getting our plot was one of the best things I’ve ever done. We have a pretty small back garden and had run out of space very quickly after the growing our own bug had bitten so getting a plot was a God send. Best of luck with it and I look forward to watching it progress. 🙂

  9. Chris Grogan

    Dear Fiona

    I so enjoy your blog. I’ve never been moved to comment before but reading about your new allotment project I just had to say good luck and enjoy. My own plot is my pride and joy – my refuge and sanctuary. Whatever is going on in real time gets left at the gate and there’s very little that’s not improved by a couple of hours pottering.

  10. I am with Danny on the focus, I lose hours at my allotment and feel so peaceful there.
    You are right not to rotovate. Ask a local cycle shop or even a garden centre if you can have any large cardboard packaging and lay it over the last areas you will tackle. Weight it down and leave it. By the time you get to it the turf will have begun to break down making it so much easier to work. This is how I cleared a lot of my plot and I had (have! ) couch, bindweed and marestail plus the odd bramble.

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