So here we are in autumn, the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” according to the poet John Keats. I am going to write today about my first season of growing food on an allotment, but I want to start with a brief and serious warning: there are food shortages coming. The world’s population is currently 7.7 billion, increasing towards 8 billion and more. For the last 12,000 years since agriculture was invented and crops and animals domesticated, and up until about 100 years ago, food production was powered by human and animal muscles. Today most of our food supply is dependent on fossil fuels at every stage, including production of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, sowing, harvesting, processing and transporting to the end users. Those fossil fuels are depleting. Global reserves of phosphorus, an important component of fertiliser, are depleting. Topsoil is depleting. Fish stocks are depleting. Aquifers are depleting, such as the great Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains of America. Mountain snow packs which feed into great rivers such as the Indus are depleting. There will be water shortages making irrigation of crops problematic. Climate change is causing weather instability and rising sea levels. Climate zones suitable for agriculture are slowly moving away from the equator and towards the poles, and arable land is slowly turning into desert, salt marsh or flood zone.
All of these threats suggest a global food shortage in the not too distant future. We probably won’t have enough food for 8 billion, or 10 billion, or however many people we have at the time it happens. Nobody will be spared, although some people will fare better than others, particularly if they are very rich, or live in a rich country. I can’t say when this will happen, maybe in the next 50 years, maybe in the next five, but it will happen, and people need to prepare for it as best they can. My way of preparing for it is by learning how to grow my own food.
I felt obliged to give you that warning, what you do with it is up to you, and now we shall speak of it no more and I will tell you about my allotment.
Most British people will understand what an allotment is, but for readers in foreign parts who may be less familiar with the term, I will explain. An allotment is a piece of land, typically about 30 x 100 feet, which is rented for the purpose of growing flowers, fruit and/or vegetables for the allotment holder and his family. Although some allotments have existed since the 1700s, they were particularly popular during the Victorian era and the First and Second World Wars as a means for poor people to grow food for themselves. In Britain, allotments are often on marginal land, for example at the edge of town or along railway tracks, which would not be suitable for other purposes.
In the picture above, please observe the carefully manicured grass, the weed-free pathways and the line of fruit trees standing to attention. This is my neighbour’s allotment. I wonder if he has issues with obsessiveness. Perhaps I should ask him, in a supportive and non-judgemental way, whether he would like to talk about this.
And this is my allotment. Above is a picture of my allotment when I first took it over in March this year: a weed-and slug-infested wilderness.
And here is a picture of my allotment at the end of my first season: a weed- and slug-infested wilderness which now has some polytunnels and a shed on it. In order to explain how I achieved this amazing transformation, I have distilled the lessons learned in my first season into Ten Commandments For Allotment Beginners.
First Commandment: Follow The Herd
Observe what everyone else is doing. If everyone else around you is growing onions, potatoes, rhubarb and raspberries, that is what you need to grow. If they cover their crops with bird netting, go get some bird netting. If they start digging up their potatoes, that is a sign for you to go and get a spade and do the same. Once you have more experience, by all means experiment with doing things differently, but for now there is safety in numbers.
Second Commandment: Plant Stuff In Straight Lines
I’m not talking about approximately straight lines – I’m talking about exactly straight lines to within a few millimetres. This is important because the weeds grow much faster than the crops, and weeding is a lot easier if you know where the stuff you planted is and where the weeds are. When they first start growing they all look the same. Leave yourself enough room to get a hoe down between the rows.
Third Commandment: Visit Your Vegetable Patch Every Day
It’s much easier to keep on top of the weeds with a bit of hoeing every day, than to let it go for a few weeks and find the weeds have smothered your crops. Also, if you spot problems when they first occur, you have a better chance of correcting them. For example, if your crops start to look a bit dehydrated, watering them early will fix the problem, but if you come back a week later and find a row of brown shrivelled sticks where there were once plants, it’s too late. However, this may be a counsel of perfection, because if you have a full time job like I do, you may not have time to inspect your vegetables every day. In which case…..
Fourth Commandment: Plant Your Patch According To Your Time Available
There are two ways of doing this. Some gardening books recommend starting by planting only a small part of your available plot, and gradually expanding it if time permits. I can see the wisdom in that, but I would favour a slightly different approach, which is to use the whole of your available plot but plant it with things which don’t need much looking after. I have a 30 x 100 foot plot, and for my first season I tried to plant the whole thing with vegetables. However, I have a full time job, and I could only visit the plot for half a day a week, if that. This didn’t work out at all well, because while I was planting one part of it, the weeds were growing thick and fast in the part I had previously planted, and I just couldn’t keep on top of it. So for next season I am planning a much less labour intensive plot, comprising: fruit trees on half of it, fruit bushes and strawberries on a quarter of it, and vegetables on the remaining quarter. The fruit trees, fruit bushes and strawberries are perennials, which means they only need planting once and then they come up every year, which is much less labour intensive than continually replanting vegetables.
Fifth Commandment: Take What You Read With A Pinch Of Salt
I have read lots of gardening books, some of which give conflicting advice. For example, permaculture manuals favour the “chop and drop” type of weeding and pruning, which means that when you cut or uproot something you don’t want, you just let it drop onto the soil and decompose where it lies to feed the next generation of plants. Sounds great. However, the more traditional gardening books tell you not to leave dead plant litter lying around because it acts as a shelter for pests: rake it up and put it in a compost heap to decompose. Having tried both, my research suggests that the traditional method is best: put it on the compost heap, otherwise you are just creating a sort of slug hotel. Sorry permaculturalists, but if you think I’m being unfair and not doing it right, please let me know.
Sixth Commandment: Use Lots Of Physical Barriers
I soon discovered that there are lots of critters and wee beasties who are happy to gorge on my stuff all day long, because they don’t have full time jobs like me and they have nothing better to do. I’m trying to avoid using chemicals to keep them off, but that means I need to use more physical barriers. These include bird netting, rabbit proof wire netting, polytunnels, slug repellent tape and so on. This can be a significant additional cost in the first season, but after that you can use the same physical barriers over and over again.
Seventh Commandment: Wildlife Is Great, But Not In The Vegetable Patch
I took one of my kids to see the allotment, he was thrilled to find some slug eggs and wanted to bring them home to see if they hatched into baby slugs. Er, right. I was hoping he would learn about growing things, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Of course I understand that slugs are fascinating, and as one of God’s creatures they have as much right to exist as I do, but not in my vegetable patch or home, thank you.
Eighth Commandment: Get Some Solar Powered Muscle
Hand weeding is very hard work, so to help out with this I have an electric strimmer (line trimmer / weed whacker) and electric lawnmower. The strimmer is designed to be plugged into a mains electricity supply, of which there isn’t one at the allotment, so I run it off a separate deep cycle battery and inverter. The lawnmower has a built in battery. Both of the batteries can be charged from a photovoltaic panel, which is an important consideration if you are thinking of using them in a “grid down” situation, but for now I find it easier to take them home and charge them there.
Ninth Commandment: Organise Your Compost
Composting is a very important part of gardening, because when you grow things, you are taking nutrients out of the soil, so you have to give some thought about how you are going to put them back in again. However, you need to have an organised system. Ideally you need at least four compost piles: a pile of “normal” garden waste, a pile for the nastier stuff like the roots of perennial weeds which need to be either burnt or composted for a long time to make sure they are dead, and two similar piles which you made last year and which should be about ready to be returned to the garden. If you eat some of the plants you grow, then unless you are planning to poop on your compost heap, this represents a gradual loss of nutrients out of your garden, so at some point you have to replace them, for example with fertiliser or farmyard manure. One of the problems with modern industrial farming is that there is a continuing massive loss of nutrients from the topsoil, because most human waste is not returned to the land, so this has to be made up with artificial fertilisers which will some day run out. On my allotment, the weeds grow so vigorously that I have ended up with several massive compost heaps. I just hope they turn into compost before my soil runs out of nutrients.
Tenth Commandment: Grow The Right Amount Of Stuff
This is a very tricky one to get right and it can only be done with experience. You don’t want to end up with so much of one type of food that you can’t eat it all. On the other hand, you don’t want to end up with so little food that it’s pointless: for example, if you have a family of five and your strawberry patch only produces four strawberries at a time, that’s not much good either. Some plants, for example lettuce, produce a lot of food from a small area. Other plants, for example peas, produce a small amount of food from a large area. So for every row of lettuce, you probably need to plant about four rows of peas. An excess of food can be preserved, but that is a lot of hard work and really it’s best to try to get the quantities right so you can eat it freshly picked.
Well, those are some (but not all) of the things I have learned this season. It’s been a steep learning curve, and I haven’t had nearly as much food out of the allotment as I’d hoped, but that’s the reason for practising these skills before you need them. If I had been relying solely on my allotment to feed myself, I’d be dead by now, even though it is probably capable of feeding me in theory. I’ll give you an update this time next year about how my second season goes.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin
P.S. The following picture shows the “used tyre” method of gardening as practised by another allotment holder – see discussion in Replies.