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.

The perfect allotment

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.

Weeds: a target rich environment

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.

With the right fertiliser, you too can grow sheds and polytunnels

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.

You probably wouldn’t want to put one of these on your car

6 thoughts on “Allotment

  1. Hi,
    A few suggestions from an old-time gardener who lives on what she grows. Strawberries are very difficult to grow. They take a lot of space, weeds love them, and unless the weather is just right they mold, rot, or do not mature. They are a luxury item. I grow blackberries and blueberries instead. Blueberries are attractive bushes in the yard around the house too. I use a scythe for weeding along fences, etc. It is faster than a weed eater and only needs your arm for power. It takes a bit of practice, but well worth it.

    Compost has the highest priority. You’re dealing with only a garden. I have the ideal situation with chickens, goats, and a garden. The chickens in the spring and late fall are my mini-rototillers to clean up the garden. I use all the goat and chicken manure. I grow food in the garden for both the goats and chickens. I feed the goat milk to the chickens. My chickens lay consistently year-round. People need to realize that it is a rare year that all crops do well. Some years it’s the beans. Other years it’s the potatoes. So, I plan for that.

    I hoe my rows every day. If the weeds are tiny, they are OK where they fall. If not, they must be picked up. They will regrow and definitely draw insects. If I keep my rows tidy and clean, I have no bugs.

    Everything in my garden is used for food. Preserving food is easier than people think. Flat head Dutch cabbage makes great sauerkraut. I hot pack can what sauerkraut won’t keep in the fridge. I can the tomatoes. I freeze kale, spinach, and chard. I also dry food in a dehydrator. You’re right about peas. They take so much space, I don’t grow them for preserving.

    I also make a lot of juice with a streamer: rhubarb, apple, grape, and elderberry. I grow my own rhubarb, pick the elderberries wild, and trade apples, pears, plums, and grapes for preserving (they furnish the fruit and I preserve and they get half). That means dried apples, plums, and pears. Lots of jars of apple butter, applesauce, and apple slices canned for pies. I make a grand apple pie from apples cooked first in hard, sweet apple cider, thickened, and then canned in jars. I go to the stores close to Halloween and get pumpkins cheap. I bake them until soft, mash the flesh, and freeze it for pies. We’ve tried the smaller pie pumpkins and everyone likes the regular big pumpkin better. A trick is adding 2 T. of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum to each pie. (I don’t drink but I cook with liquor to smooth flavors. For example, adding 1 teaspoon of port to elderberry jelly or elderflower to rhubarb juice. A small amount makes all the difference.)

    Water is now a crucial factor in gardening. Ten years ago it was relatively easy to have a decent garden and grow food. Each year the climate change has made it more difficult. Increased wind results in windburn to delicate leaves. Windbreaks are necessary. There is less humidity in the air. This means I must now water very lightly with a finer spray at least twice a day to keep moisture in the air. Drip irrigation is insufficient. It takes both overhead and drip now.

    We note increased allergies worldwide. I learned from Dr. Janice Joneja that an important factor about allergies is the increased level of protective proteins in plants. When plants are growing they produce these proteins. Knapweed is especially good at it and literally kills other plants. The vegetable plants we grow now are under more stress due to climate change and they have a higher level of protective proteins. Many people are reacting to those proteins.

    I’ve been gardening for over 50 years. It is difficult to keep animals healthy now and garden plants happy and thriving. I am deeply concerned for people who think they can just start growing a garden and everything will be easy and they’ll have food. It never was easy, but now with climate change thrown in, it’s downright scary. I can 500 to 600 jars every year, but this year I’m doing extra, because I know I can’t count on the abundance of past years. It’s just not going to happen as climate change progresses.

    I live in an agricultural community. I am surrounded by thousands of acres of crops grown to feed people. Each year the yields are less due to climate change – less rain, drier, more heat (they’re irrigating to cool the soil now), and more wind. Grain crops were down 40% last year. We won’t be able to feed the number of people we are now.

    I suggest next year to take on one more project. Grow two crops to preserve. Beets are the easiest. They can stay in the ground. Cover with straw. Tomatoes are second. Hot pack canning. Cabbage for sauerkraut. Make with a bottle of organic wine. Again, hot pack when it’s ready. Once you have potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, and beets, you know you’ll be just fine. You should have reached this goal by your third or fourth year.

    I hope this encourages other people to think about what they can do to be food self-sufficient.

  2. Wow Jo, that’s quite a comment, thanks for all those suggestions! I think you must be in a warmer climate zone than me, though, if you can produce tomatoes, because they are virtually impossible to produce here in the Isle of Man unless you have a heated greenhouse. The plants are easy enough to grow, even outside, but it’s almost impossible to get the fruits to ripen. Strawberries, on the other hand, grow relatively well, and there was a “pick your own strawberries” farm not far from us which closed at the end of this season. Raspberries are dead easy, and if you can protect them from the birds, almost pest free, so I am hoping for a big crop of those next year. Potatoes literally grow themselves from those left in the ground from last year. We can see Ireland from here on a clear day, and the soil and climate here are very similar to Ireland where potatoes also grow well (usually – Irish potato famine and all that).

  3. Hi, I’ve grown and ripened tomatoes in a climate that’s too cool in late summer. This is a bit of work but well worth it. You collect the used tires from the front end of big trucks. (They are a slightly larger size than the other tires.) You get six. You cut the walls out of six. You stack them two high in two rows of three. You fill the bottom tire with whatever you want. Rocks are fine. You fill the top one with soil. You grow whatever you want inside the six tires. It’s amazing how well it works. Keeps slugs away, nearly eliminates weeding, keeps the soil moist longer, and extends the growing season. You can also easily make this into a mini greenhouse. You get the black plastic pipe used for irrigation systems. It’s flexible. Cut and bend it into half circles that fit from one side of the tire garden to the other. Cover it with plastic. Cut smaller pieces of the black pipe and make a slit in it so it becomes a clamp to keep the plastic on the hoops. I love tires garden like this. I once had four sets of the six tires and grew nearly everything in them. The used tires are free. The tire shops love to get rid of them. Tire gardens like this are marvelous for growing because they are nearly waist height and keep everything warmer and require less water. Each year you must add more soil. That’s it. I’m the only one I know who has done this. A newspaper once wrote an article about my tire garden. I don’t own property and have moved around a fair amount. If I ever owned property I would build another tire garden. I could garden in a wheelchair as an older old lady.

    I agree with you about the future shortage of food. I once figured out to feed a family of four, I would be working six months out of a year. That includes everything: milking, making cheese, chickens, growing, preserving, etc. It would take 800+ jars of food. A lot would depend on what’s in the root cellar. I am very concerned that people don’t know how complex and difficult it is to feed a family without ready-made food in the stores. I am also concerned about sufficient food being available for animals — chickens, goats, etc.

  4. Believe it or not, another of my neighbours at the allotment is already using your “used tyre” method and I’ve added a photo of it to my original post. I didn’t realise that you could use it to grow plants which need to be kept warm – I thought he was just cheaping out and avoiding paying for wood for raised beds. I guess it works because the black tyres absorb the heat from the sun and this warms up the soil inside? Having said that, I probably won’t be trying it for myself just yet because I am under severe time pressure, and it’s probably more sensible for me to concentrate on growing things which are happy in a cool climate, rather than trying to coax things to grow which are more reluctant. But thanks for the tip anyway.

  5. Hi, I am writing on your site in the hopes of being inspirational to your readers about growing more of their own food. (You’re a doctor. You don’t have any free time.) My last story is about a city girl who went to university, got a very good job afterward, and bought a small acreage. She has no farming background whatsoever. She works full time at an office job.

    She built a chicken house, then a second, got an incubator, and started raising her own chickens. She built a pasture (proper fence) for the young chickens. She then got a few sheep, and then added one milk sheep. She sells some of the young chickens, enough so she has farm status on her small property. The rest she slaughters and processes into burgers, ground chicken, and various sausages. The lambs are butchered. She cuts, wraps, and freezes the meat. She got a smoker. She doesn’t raise her own pig but buys one ready for butchering. She smokes her own hams, bacon, and makes hard sausage. As for the sheep milk, she makes yogurt, sour cream, soft cheese, ice cream, and the hard cheese that must be aged like cheddar. I am in awe of her!

    I hope others will realize from this story what is possible. She taught herself how to do all of this and she does it well. She works full time in an office and still gets her farm chores done by herself. How? She is efficient. She built wisely, planned the fencing, and also how the buildings would be best suited for ease of care and health of the animals. Nothing is haphazard, not the gates, not even the gate latches. She can get done in 20 minutes what would require most people an hour or more.

    I hope some teenagers will read this and realize what is possible.

  6. I live in Golden, Colorado so we have quite a different soil, climate system – however, one of my favorite gardening youtube channels is Charles Dowding in UK. He always has quality information, no digging, excellent techniques. Good luck with your Allotment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s