Friday, 11 May 2012 2:53 PM
By Old Geezer
One thing I find when talking to gardening clubs and allotment groups is that you come across problems which otherwise would never occur to you.
Last Tuesday afternoon was the best such meeting I've had yet, the perfect opportunity to get on my favourite hobby horse, soil conditioning.
The allotment group who invited me have just been allocated an additional field, right beside the existing lot. These 'old' allotments have been cultivated for years and have benefitted from copious amounts of farmyard manure donated by the local farmer. Many of the allotment holders had come to depend on the manure and the tendency had developed to simply dump the rubbish on a heap just inside the 'new field' rather than composting it.
It had rained in the morning before I arrived to speak to the group, nothing new there though. The soil in the area is best described as 'sticky' and this combined with the persistent rain meant little had been done in the newly acquired field.
Many of the new 'holders' have limited or no experience of growing veggies. This would be challenge enough, but in addition some of the new plots still had deep tractor wheel marks full of water!
I like a challenge though - we solved the problem by digging a trench to the ditch and filling the trench with the coarsest twigs and branches from the rubbish heap before filling it back up. We did this all along the bottom end of three plots, creating an impromptu drain. The water was still dribbling away when we left for tea in the secretary's garden.
Knowing it was an outside meeting I took my fork, spade, rake and hoe as well as my garden line. At my request lots of the attendees had brought some odds and ends along with them to plant. A few spuds, peas etc, not that I expected we'd get much planted mind, what with the weather.
We did a couple of planting demonstrations on the chairman of the committees' plot as this was in fairly good order and was the only site where it was possible to walk without picking up a ton of mud on each boot!
He and several of the others had taken to heart the message I gave them last year, keep your patch hoed as often as possible. It was working for them and the breeze had dried off the surface just enough to work on.
After sowing a row of red beetroot I suggested we tackle the first new plot, the one with the most ruts, which caught a few by surprise.
We borrowed a proper wheel barrow and I showed the lovely young couple who own the plot how to start digging up such a mess.
They dug out a trench the width of a spade along the edge of their plot, while a couple of us got started on the huge heap of rubbish which has accumulated over the years.
I soon had a gang wheeling loads of fine black, almost soil like, compost onto the muddy patch. I then pushed it out with the back of my rake so that we could walk on it without lifting the mud on our boots.
After two rows of digging with spades we started to introduce compost, as well as some of the 'fresher' manure. That's the stuff with more straw in.
It soon became apparent that few of the students knew how to dig. I had to show many of them the tricks, for example taking neat and small spadefuls of soil. The Olympics may be coming up, but digging is not one of the sports so don't feel you need to be taking huge chunks out of the ground.
The aim is to leave the ground level and even, with no rubbish showing. To achieve this isn't difficult you just need to dig with a sharp spade. You can file the back of the blade to sharpen it up, but never the face.
Take even chunks of four to five inches at a time, use the full depth of the spade and always turn it towards the direction you are working, in my case I always work left to right, so my right hand is at the top of the handle. You should then walk back to the other end to start again.
So how was the allotment group getting on with the digging? Well by teatime eight of the new plots had at least one row of spuds planted and one had a row of peas.
That is not to say my methods found favour with some of the senior members mind, digging in all the weeds was met by disbelief, scorn even. A celebrity gardener was the guest last month and he advocated spraying the entire field with weed killer and constructing raised beds. That'd be a great idea, were it not for the hosepipe ban which is likely to last all summer (despite the recent monsoons).
Said expert also advised against using the rubbish heap, or the manure which hadn't rotted. Normally I might agree with him about the muck, but the soil really needed something to break it up and hold it open. The row in which we planted the potatoes had some of the oldest stuff from the rubbish heap added and scratched in with the fork and I'm confident that'll do well.
One or two of the older sages predicted trouble with weeds. Luckily the chairman came to my rescue by pointing out that if you kept your plot hoed then you not only have a weed free allotment, but the surface dries out quicker you can still get on to it even if the weather isn't great.
Anyway, best do I've been to in awhile. I hope this write up was helpful to a few of you!
All the best, Old Geezer.