One of our neighbours told us, back in the summer, that a friend of his had described our allotment as “a bit industrial” . I’m quite happy with that, although I would have preferred “purposeful”. I think some plots look like squatter camps but thank goodness the allotment is one of the few places left where we are free to express our individual preferences without too much interference. I recall Jim Callaghan’s brilliant put-down of Shirley Williams – “Just because she’s scruffy she thinks she’s an intellectual”. Organic gardening is either purposefully planned or it’s a pile of old pallets and a carpet heavy with good intentions. Once you’re serious about getting as close to self-sufficiency as you can with only 250 square metres to play with, you have to plan carefully and then hope that the weather plays along with you. We made the decision to go “no dig” last season, and we’re busy organising the whole plot into manageable beds according to the plan in the photo, so that we have access to beds 365 days of the year, never having to walk on them. However this has left us with the need to raise the level of the soil quite a bit to bring the plants above the waterlogged clay substratum that channels three or four streams down through the site – one of them almost certainly passing underground alongside the greenhouse. The design of the beds is to allow some of that water to drain towards the paths and divert it away from us.
Last night in one of my regular periods dream gardening I eschewed counting sheep in favour of working out the cubic meterage of compost we’d need to make if we were to cover the whole plot with 5cm each year. I reckon it’s coming out at around 10m³ and that’s ten of our current 1m³ cylinders – a deeply sobering thought. The alternative would be to spend about £350 on buying it in. So how on earth could we possibly make so much compost, given that there’s no way of affording a commercial product. As I wrote last week, there’s something that feels ethically wrong with throwing money at a problem, but even more important, soil is a living entity with its own ecosystem. It’s not a neutral medium for supporting plants and feeding chemicals. And so our ambition to fill our raised beds with good soil has to be achieved the slow way.
Here’s what we’ve got going for us:
- One small household’s worth of green waste
- A plentiful supply of dead leaves and woodchip
- A plentiful supply of cardboard
- A park opposite the flat that’s mown every couple of weeks in the summer leaving the mowings on the ground and easily raked up
- All the green waste, trimmings, clippings and weeds from the allotment.
- Occasional sacks of seaweed stowed in the car when we go up to North Wales. It smells so bad it must be good!
- A small army of brandling who just love the cylinder.
I’m not at all confident that we can fill ten cylinders and reduce them to compost in a year without giving them lots of stimulus to increase the heat. Regular turning would help a lot, but the cylinders make turning very difficult indeed, and so I think we’re going to have to build a row of 4 bins – 4′ square and 5’6 tall and turn the load to the right maybe four times a season, adding wood ash, seaweed and “human activator” and trying as best we can to get the balance of green and brown waste exactly right. It would take up one whole bed, but the impact on the rest of the plot could be enormous.
Lots of fairly heavy work in prospect, then, but we both love a project. The beds are nearing completion but the weather has been coming from the south west for ages, and that’s a wet quarter for us. Never mind. We plan to celebrate the solstice on Friday with a slap up meal of all our own veg. The only other job is to complete the seed order before then so we can truly look forward to next season.