Monday, 17 November 2008

Converting a derelict allotment plot (1)

Some readers tell me they're faced with the prospect of a piece of land or garden which is hugely overgrown.

I've been there too. It is possible and I'd like to make it easier for you than it was for me. If more gardens or derelict allotments are reclaimed it benefits us all, doesn't it? More site security, more gardens instead of paved over driveways, less pollution, better quality of life... you know the score.

So let me wind back my allotment scenario to June 2006. My two plots (I took on one whole plot and later on another half plot) were amongst twenty or so which had been derelict for ten years or more.

For some reason (probably because I was too busy cracking on with several other jobs - new baby, house maintenance, plot, other family challenges, paid work..?) I didn't stop to take a photograph then, but here's one of the next door plot which was in slightly better condition than mine when I started in 2006.

Yup. Looks pretty bad doesn't it? It was. I had everything next door had and more. Brambles with roots as thick as your thigh. Carpets of couch grass, nettles, thistles. All sorts of rubbish. (The only thing I didn't have was Japanese Knotweed - and I'd like to come back to this one in a future post too eventually, as it did plague a neighbour of mine).

All in all, over a year or more I must have filled and removed at least one hundred sackfuls of broken glass, plastic, broken pots, wire...It was hard, there were plenty of times I felt like giving up. Lots of other people who tried found it overwhelming and called it a day.

But slowly and surely the plot came together. Organically. I wouldn't have it any other way. Describing all of the techniques I used in two and a half years of work would be too much for one blog post so I will be coming back to this topic again - (look out for the heading - Converting a Derelict Allotment). To whet your appetite though here's another picture I took in early Spring of 2007.

Not a very picturesque image, but it shows some of the nifty techniques I used. Here are just some of them:

When I took the plot on, I cleared the heavy undergrowth and brambles by hand with a scythe. This sounds like heavy going, but actually it was much easier than using a petrol powered cutter which would have constantly broken down because the undergrowth was so dense. I'd never used one before and - taught myself. It did mean I could pace myself and hear the birds sing while I worked. Even though it's an urban site, when you're out on the plot you could mistake it for the heart of the countryside.

As soon as I had mowed down and cleared a small area,
I covered it with 'black plastic'. There are various types of weed suppressing materials out there. It is really important to emphasise this bit. It is so disheartening when you clear an area, only to discover that the weeds grow back really quickly and you are back where you started.

So my advice with a plot or garden is this: if you've cleared it, cover it straight away. You can always go back to it later. Then of course when you do get around to going back over it, (which may be a season or so later) many weeds will have been weakened and patiently forking out perennial weeds and bramble roots e.t.c. becomes a lot easier.

I knew it would be a long time before I could clear the whole area ready for planting so first of all I simply cut squares in the black plastic slightly bigger than the size of the self-assembly raised beds I wanted to use. I then cleared roots and weeds from inside the squares and cut a small trench around the inside of the square to stop the couch grass encroaching on the growing areas. (In the picture, you can see the black plastic covering underneath the wood chip - together with the raised beds)

Then I put the raised beds up, and filled them with some good top soil from an area I had already cleared, together with a few bags of compost to get me up and running. That way I had something growing to motivate me and could alternate more boring clearing jobs with producing useful crops. The advantage of this sort of raised beds is that you can move them around thus improving the soil square metre by square metre.

So, there's plenty to look forward to in 2008/2009 - as the last bit of black plastic has been peeled back and cleared - this particular process comes to an end - weeding becomes much easier and right now the plot is relatively weed-free - prepped for Spring. Good gardening...

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