In the Beginning…..
Following my success growing vegetables in containers last year, I decided to expand my efforts this year and also start up my own vegetable allotment on some of the unused land near our Guernsey freshwater fishing lake. This land was essentially a large stretch of field, previously uncultivated and only utilised by the local rabbit population.
This article will cover the whole process from a plain strip of grass, to a fully planted up and growing vegetable plot, the problems I have faced and had to combat, plus the obvious difficulties of remaining organic when all the pests seemed determined to snack on my vegetables.
New Allotment, Rabbits and Fencing Rabbits Out.
Having arranged for a local tractor driver to come in and plough over the land for me I quickly realised there was an obvious problem, the land was full of rabbits, and I do mean ‘full’. This was going to be harder than I thought, plus I also realised that potentially the large amount of rabbits living on the land would soon be eyeing up my vegetable seedlings greedily. Having already made a start on planting my runner beans I knew time was of the essence if I were to protect my crops from imminent annihilation.
The obvious solution was to put a fence around the land and sink the wire a good 6 inches below ground level to avoid the rabbits tunnelling underneath. Great idea, but rather an expensive one as I estimated the fencing and posts would cost several hundred pounds that I could not afford. Fortunately my wonderful parents came to the rescue with the perfect solution. I would provide them with vegetables, and in return they would pay for, and help erect, appropriate fencing to keep the hungry bunnies away from my vegetables.
Within a couple of weeks my Step Father James and my Husband Richard had fitted the appropriate fencing and protected my plot. My Mother had paid for the fencing, and all was completed just in time for the seedlings to be appearing just about the surface of the soil.
Dealing with Bad Quality Soil, plus Weeding Young Seedlings.
My next big problem was the unforeseen quantity of rocks and stones in the soil. I later found out that when our fishing lake had originally been dug out back in the 1960’s, much of the earth removed had been ‘dumped’ on the same land that I was now cultivating, and this was why it was full of stones, even large rocks in many cases. There was only one definite solution to this, and that was to hand weed the allotment, and bit by bit remove the rocks and stones. This was far from easy, and there were numerous wheelbarrows of rocks to be taken out, (approx two to three barrows per row of vegetables).
In addition to this the soil was heavy clay, and really hard to work with, (although the advantage is that clay holds more nutrients and moisture than other soils). One mistake I did make was to sow the seeds and plant my seed potatoes before giving the first weed seeds a chance to germinate and be removed by hoeing. This meant that I had to wait for many of the young vegetable seedlings to be visible before I could risk weeding the rows, (just in case I accidentally weeded my baby vegetables from the allotment). By the time I could safely begin weeding my allotment it was full of rapidly growing weeds that I was going to have to remove on my hands and knees, (later, I returned to a method of marking rows I had used years earlier, and I sowed rapidly growing radishes with my other vegetable seeds so that they would mark the rows to facilitate easy weeding, plus being edible themselves within 6 weeks, therefore harvested before the main vegetable seedlings needed the space themselves).
Choosing the Right Vegetables to Grow.
Of course I also had to make decisions as to what vegetables to grow. There was little point in growing vegetables we didn’t eat, and I also wanted to maximise the productivity of the land I had available. Eventually after much consideration I came up with a shortlist of vegetables that we would most benefit from growing, plus by cultivating these particular vegetables we would save the maximum amount of money that we would normally have spent on buying these same vegetables. These are the vegetables that I decided would be the most cost saving and delicious selection that could reliably be grown on the land we had available.
1) Runner Beans.
2) French Beans (Green Beans).
3) Potatoes, (1st earlies, maincrop and salad crop).
4) Carrots, (earlies and Autumn crop).
6) Mixed Salad Leaves (cut and come again lettuce varieties).
7) Spring Onions.
8 ) Radishes.
13) Sweet Peppers (Capiscum).
14) Chilli Peppers (Jalapeno MD).
17) Brussels Sprouts.
18) Broccoli. (Green and Purple Sprouting).
19) Onions (sets).
20) Shallots (sets).
24) Perpetual Spinach.
26) Normal ‘Iceburg’ type lettuce.
Dealing with Garden Pests Organically.
As my one proviso was that my vegetables had to be grown organically, my next issue was obviously going to be coping with the battle between myself and the insects over who got to eat my vegetables first! We had dealt with the rabbits, now we had to battle the butterflies laying their eggs on my brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli etc), the slugs on my lettuce, cucumbers, seedlings etc, Carrot Root Fly etc etc.
The solution to the brassicas being attacked by caterpillar producing butterflies was to cover the plants with horticultural fleece (a product my Uncle was largely responsible to inventing a number of years ago whilst he was based in Australia). This fleece is wonderful stuff, lightweight, water and light permeable, whilst capable of protecting plants from insect damage, sunscorch, frost and further weed seeds. This fleece would also protect many other plants such as lettuce, carrots etc if I had chosen to use it for this purpose, although I chose not to this year due to the cost of the fleece for the large area of land I was cultivating.
For the carrots the best solution was to sow the seeds incredibly carefully, and therefore about an inch apart, to ensure no thinning of the seedlings was required. The process of thinning Carrots attracts Carrot Root Fly, (as the smell of the bruised foliage attracts them). Carrot root fly only fly about 18″ above ground level, so their attack can also be prevented by a low barrier of horticultural fleece, or by a thick enough mulch to block their access to the top of the carrot roots so they cannot lay their eggs.
For my lettuces etc, I used slug pellets approved for organic use, and therefore not a danger to pets, children or wildlife.
In terms of such horrible larvae as “Leatherjackets”, (Cranefly Larvae), I removed as many as possible and placed them elsewhere on our lands. These larvae are usually only a problem on newly cultivated land, and this problem should go naturally within a few years.Other problems will also gradually reduce, such as eelworm, aphids etc. Unfortunately in year one I will no doubt suffer some losses, but at least I will know that what we eat is pesticide free and organically grown.
Battling Against Weeds.
The battle against the weeds was horrendous at first. I spent weeks on my hands and knees hand weeding to ensure the roots of the perennial weeds were removed, (along with the rocks of course). I decided next year to return to a method I have found very successful in the past, namely to “mulch” (cover soil) around the plants with a weed suppressing layer of manure, compost, seaweed etc, to drown out the weeds and to improve the soil quality at the same time, (once the “mulch” gradually rots down and is taken into the soil by the worms). This is an especially effective way of improving a clay soil so that root crops such as parsnips and carrots can form good quality roots in the years to come.
For this year I opted to simply use a dutch hoe every few days (when the weather was hot and sunny), to simply skim the tops off newly emerging weeds on the surface of the soil. It is important this is done on a dry day so the weeds to do not re-root themselves into the soil.
Within a matter of 6 weeks after planting the allotment up I was starting to harvest my own crops. Initially mainly radishes, which grew so fast I could re-sow the rows again to get further crops. By the end of June I was harvesting beetroot which could also be sown again in the same rows. My lettuce were growing furiously and I ended up giving a large amount away and planted new seeds to get a second crop.
In the meantime I had decided that I ultimately wanted to have an Asparagus bed, so at home I sowed 2 trays of cells with individual seeds in preparation for creating an asparagus bed on an area of the allotment currently full of potatoes. As asparagus is a permanent crop I would obviously need to wait until after the potatoes were harvested, and then prepare the soil well bearing in mind this would be much more difficult to achieve once the asparagus plants were in place. I shall cover the creation of the asparagus bed in a future article, along with it’s progress as it will take two years before it will produce it’s first crops.
I also spent time watering my container vegetables at home due to the very hot spell we were going through weatherwise. In addition to this I was re-sowing containers with further seeds where I had harvested earlier crops such as new potatoes. I now planted further carrot seeds, Lollo Rosso and Lollo Bionda (crinkly lettuce). I also planted a further tray of cells with the Lollo Lettuce varieties in preparation to transplant them on to the allotment later on.
Back at the allotment I had planted a variety of Chinese Radish as an experiment. These were like a large radish and could be harvested up to tennis ball size. What was unusual about these is that they were white on the outside, but solid pink throughout the centre, (see image). Apparently they could be eaten raw or cooked, so I reckoned I would be a bit adventurous and try them out.