Let me out! Hold me in …..

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Clearly this rhubarb plant on our neighbour’s allotment can’t wait to escape its forcing pot – and for some utterly obscure reason it brought to mind the memory of a walled garden I once visited. The trigger was finishing the gravel boards the very last 25 feet of our own plot – mostly out of sight behind the shed and the greenhouse – but it seems more important than I expected. Edges, borders and paths have an important role in defining spaces and ours had always been open on this one edge. The boundary I put in today wasn’t very big, in fact it was sunk almost to ground level after I’d begun to infill the path with wood chip. But when I sat down in our newly created little quiet area between the shed and the greenhouse I suddenly – and for the first time – felt enclosed, held by the space. I was quite unprepared for the significance of the moment, and having just walked past the rhubarb in the picture I was transported back to one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen.

The Oxshott Pottery is no longer there.  I visited it with a party from art school in around 1971.  We came off a busy suburban street through a rather gothic looking ‘arts and crafts’ sort of door and into a strange tropical jungle surrounded by a tall redbrick wall.  The paths had been cleverly designed to make the garden feel much bigger than it really was.  There was a sound of flowing water and massive Gunnera plants with a multitude of smaller plants whose names I wouldn’t have known at the time. We were there to see the pottery and meet Rosemary and Denise Wren but I think Rosemary was the person to show us around.  I was totally lost to the garden – for almost fifty years it’s stayed in my mind; quiet – almost serene and enclosed, protected from the surrounding busy roads.

You never ‘own’ an allotment – there’s a long agreement with about ten pages of infractions for which you can be thrown off, evicted. You’re not allowed a fence although it’s permissible to grow plants along the boundary.  The dates between which bonfires are allowed are written into the agreement as is the maximum permitted height of trees (fruit, not ornamental) for which permission must always be sought. You’re surrounded by plots that are kept or neglected through different visions of what an allotment might be; a place to sit and contemplate, a place to grow medicinal herbs, a place where nothing but vegetables grow, a place where weeds are tolerated and another where they’re persecuted mercilessly.  There are experienced and inexperienced gardeners.  Our site has about as mixed a bunch of people as you’d ever find, all of us exploring our inner peasant.

The sun shone today and there were a number of new allotmenteers about.  I think the Parks Department have had their annual purge and our new neighbours were beginning to appear.  I passed a man in his thirties who was advancing on his new but rather weedy plot carrying an armful of cardboard with a look on his face that he might have worn for dragging an elk back to the cave. Photos were being taken, plans made and compost heaps filled with weeds that just love a change of scene.

It’s not difficult in such an ephemeral environment to lose any sense of personal space, any sense of belonging. For me, completing the low wooden boundary achieved it.  At last there’s an inside and an outside – not a wall or a fence but a line that describes an inside – what’s ours, however temporarily, and an outside that belongs to everyone else. Like all gardeners, we regard our plot as parents regard their children – beautiful and almost perfect notwithstanding the many faults that other parents see in them. Who’d have thought that banging in a few pegs and screwing on three or four rough cut boards could have such a profound effect?

Does “Forest Path” describe them?

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Great excitement at the Potwell Inn last night as I got the plot drawings out and prepared an order for the next batch of edging boards.  The timber is quite expensive and so we can only buy it in batches as funds permit.  I can get ten 6′ boards into the car, but it can be extremely hazardous driving down the steep hill into Bath, with a hundredweight of timber seesawing next to my left ear. The sawmill sales staff occasionally cheer me up with tales of poked out windscreens and totally destroyed dashboards.

So then I was wide awake at 2.00am pondering whether I’d got the measurements right, and whether the plots should be orientated North/South or East/West.  I’m sure I went through this when I drew the plans but you know how it is in the middle of the night., insomnia gardening is the pits! Then I started worrying about the expense, do we really need all that new timber? Well there are two or three good reasons for moving to beds.

IMG_3747We have a real drainage problem on our plots, and last winter we couldn’t get on it for months for fear of compacting the soil and making it worse.  That was the major reason for dividing the wettest of the plots into beds as soon as possible in the spring. I hesitate to call them “raised” beds because as we were digging them we were also levelling the soil which slopes downhill, and we wanted to introduce a degree of terracing. So what with about a ton of topsoil bought in, and more bags of composted manure than I dare put a price to, we’ve landed up with level terraced beds bordered with 22mm X 200mm gravel boards secured with long wooden pegs.

 

In order to assist drainage, the paths were dug out to about 18″ deep and a layer of gravel was poured in and covered with wood-chip, barrow loads of it, which is free on our site. The soil from the paths was used to raise the beds. I don’t much like plastic sheets or weed control mat because in my experience weeds very quickly overcome them and I wanted the maximum possible speed of drainage from the beds, besides which they never decompose and present a problem for the future.  It’s worked very well so far, and apart from regularly hand weeding out the occasional Olympic athletes of the weed world like couch grass and bindweed, the paths have been maintenance free – except for the fact that bacteria, fungi and worms just love the material and it quickly decomposes into friable compost causing them to shrink.  I love the thought that even the paths are adding to the organic material on the plots.  That’s why I think they should be described as ‘forest paths’.

So to defend the expense – reason one is drainage.  Reason two is to move towards ‘no-dig’ gardening and let the worms do the work.  I’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s wormageddon if you lift spuds with a fork, but there’s a vast difference between gently lifting a potato haulm or a parsnip with a fork, and double digging the plot from end to end. Reason three is ease of maintenance of the beds.  With a 4′ bed you can do everything you need from the path and never compact the soil. Of course you can leave gaps between rows on bare soil, but come February and they’ll be poached and compacted.

IMG_4505Anyway, the order went in this morning and it will be delivered on Friday.  I love a bit of civil engineering, and if you look under the net to the right of the path in the photo above, you’ll see that next season’s garlic is already enjoying being tucked up in bed for the winter. My job today was to top up the paths and level them again. It’ll probably amount to fifty barrow loads before we’re completely finished, but the beds look lovely and they’re dead easy to manage.

The other job was to start filling our collection of builders’ delivery bags with leaves to make leaf mould.  It’s amazing how quickly it breaks down.  Last autumn we spread 4-6″ of leaves on to two beds and there was virtually nothing left by this spring – the worms had done all the work for us and we grew some lovely spuds on one of the beds.