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Larging it in the Allotment

Andy Sturgeon plans to turn a 60 by 30ft area of grass and sedge into an organic allotment. He reveals his thoughts on the challenges ahead

Several weeks ago I turned 35. Not a big deal in itself perhaps, but on the same day I took up ownership, or rather became custodian, of an allotment. These two events individually don't amount to much but look at them together and suddenly I've turned into Arthur Fowler. So no more dissing and larging it with my posse and not doing up the laces on my Nikes, I'm off down the allotments in my wellies to sip sherry with my new friends and discuss the merits of Axminster carpet as a mulch. An allotment nerd at my age, I'd never have thought it; I'm praying for the outbreak of war now so I can claw back some vestige of credibility.

It's actually more of a field than an allotment. A 60 by 30ft display bed of indigenous grasses and sedges, which Sarah and I have bravely elected to garden organically, hence our first problem. How the hell do you get rid of all those weeds? Fortunately there is a communal strimmer owned by the allotmenteers, as I have discovered the official term to be. The plan is to chop all the grass down, rake it off and put it on the compost heap that doesn't yet exist.

Being something of an organic allotment virgin, I'm going to treat the whole thing like an experiment. I've been storing up all sorts of old wives' tales and half-baked ideas for years and now at last I'm going to put them into practice.

At least half of the plot we're going to tackle next year in the spring. We've been saving cardboard boxes over the last few months so for the time being we can put them down as a mulch to eventually kill all the weeds. I'm planning on weighting it down with a few logs and covering it with bark so it isn't too much of an eyesore. I'm hoping that it will all rot down over the winter so I can fork it in next year but I'm afraid that's possibly a little optimistic. The way I see it, you can't have an allotment and not try the old carpet thing, so I'm going to experiment with some of that as well.

With the rest of it I'm just going to start digging and endeavour to remove all the roots by hand. I'm hoping that for me the silver lining of this summer's cloud is that all the rain will have kept the ground a little soft and I'll actually be able to get the fork in.

There's a communal pile of well-rotted leaf mould that needs to be shifted before this autumn's deluge of leaves appears, so I'll dig some of that in. I'll probably scatter a bit of fish, blood and bone about as a fertilizer as well.

Part of the cleared area I'm going to sow with a green manure that I can just fork into the soil to provide some nutrients, and while it's growing it should smother weeds. It's late in the year so I'm a bit limited for choice, limited to a choice of one in fact, so perennial rye grass it is. The only thing on the whole allotment worth keeping is a patch of comfrey, which I'm rather pleased with. Being rich in potassium and some trace elements, this perennial makes great compost and now is the time to divide it and plant offsets to increase the crop.

Once I've done all that, the battle will be on to actually plant some crops before it's too late. Turnips are allegedly a good way to get rid of couch grass so I'll definitely be trying this, garlic is said to be superior if planted in autumn rather than spring, and I'll also be sowing some onions. Leeks and spinach will feature and one of my favourite vegetables, kohl rabi, is a must. These weird cabbagey turnipy things can be grated into salads for a nutty taste or boiled and mashed. I've been advised to leave large gaps between rows for the first year or two until I'm really on top of the weeds, and crop rotation, I'm afraid, will have to wait until next year when I'm a bit more organized. In the meantime I suppose I'd better set about building some sort of shed, somewhere to keep the tools and, of course, the sherry.

Click on the following Helping Hands workshops for useful advice:
How to be Organic: First Steps
How to be Organic in your Vegetable Garden

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