JUST over a century ago, Ealing was coined as the Queen of the Suburbs, and I like to think that this moniker still holds true today. If it does, Olde Hanwell (which is where we live) is undoubtedly a significant jewel in the crown, and Billets Hart Allotments (which is where we grow) is a big bright emerald shining jubilant.
To create its awe, shape and lustre, any great gem needs study, care, attention, and much skill to craft it, and the same is true of any successful allotment, and October is the best month to start that crafting.
It’s fair to say many find my growing year a bit unusual, and I can understand why as it’s not the norm. You see, as I’ve mentioned before, with my growing I don’t conform to a calendar year like most others do, as I class my allotment year as beginning in October. I learnt much about sowing and growing and harvests from my dad, and he saw the growing year as October to September... and if it was good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Last month, I took out the notes I’d made over the past year and started taking note of the notes I’d taken – what had worked, what hadn’t, what I’d do again, and what I’d change. This month, I’m making notes… I’m taking those notes of last year’s growing season and crafting new ones for this one; notes that’ll take me through the next 12 months of sowing, and growing, and gardening at our west London allotment.
So, October has seen me doing much sitting, and mulling, and writing. I’ve looked at how the past year’s crops have grown and compared their harvests to previous years. I’ve endeavoured to work out what might have caused improvements (of which there have been some), and disasters (of which there have been quite a few!). In going through last year’s notebook of scribbles and jottings of smeared pencil and ink on mud-stained pages, I’ve seen what ideas I’d had over the growing year; changes I thought I’d want to make for the future, and those that hadn’t worked when I tried them. I’ve mulled how I can improve the plot in terms of layout of beds and growing spaces, and how best to add nutrients and structure to the soil. Without doubt, I thought about what I want to grow this coming year, and which varieties I might choose again or anew. I then made notes of the physical work to be done over these darker months ahead so that when spring starts to warm the soil once more, the plot is ready, and waiting, and able.
I’ve also started ‘The big Cover-up’, which I now realise sounds more intriguing than is necessary. Many of us growers and gardeners do it in one form or another, and for me it always starts with cardboard; a forage around the streets on our recycling day to see if I can nab any large boxes destined for the crusher.
All growing beds are best kept weed-free, though I know this can be challenging as I’ve myself found this year. Beds, particularly over the winter months, may also be left bare and fallow, without any brassicas or other overwintering crops, or new growth from alliums and legumes poking through. It’s these bare beds that weed seeds love, blowing in from storms and neighbours and settling in a lovely, moist cranny where winter sun will fall and encourage their germination and growth – and before we know it, the bed is no longer bare as it’s smothered in weeds. If we’re not careful, Mother Nature will have reclaimed all the hard work we’ve put in over months of growing and nurturing. By laying down cardboard the weeds have less of a chance to take hold, and though the seeds that’ve already settled have moisture they’ve no light so are unlikely to germinate and take hold. Yes, the cardboard will break down with weathering and worm action, though there’s usually an abundant supply visible next to recycling bins each fortnight to do a top-up… another cover-up!
Dad used to use cardboard too, though he also had proper, heavy-duty tarpaulin that he’d lay over the ground to do the smothering, and sometimes tarpaulin would sit on top of cardboard, just to be sure. I’d be mesmerised by the puddles that would shimmer in autumn and winter sunlight; mini lakes that were always transitory as a simple tug would send rivulets of water churning away, making another mini lake not so mini, or creating one in new creases of the draped tarred heavy cloth. Nowadays, tarpaulin comes in many jaunty colours of woven threads of plastic, and though it brightens the plots of those that use it, it has nothing of the earthy, warm, oily smell that its heavyweight predecessor did.
And just like the never-ending argument of cream before jam or jam before cream, whether you put mulch and manure on top of cardboard or under is ongoing. Manure is generally there to do two things; firstly, to inhibit weed growth and secondly, and maybe most importantly, to feed the soil. Of course, virtually anything that is put on top of soil will inhibit weeds, though I’m sure the weed seeds can simply find home on this topdressing and start their journey. I’ve done both… manure underneath and cardboard on top, and cardboard below and manure on above, and I’m still not sure what’s best. Maybe the sensible thing to do is a cardboard sandwich with manure as the filling… and on that I feel one of my Highly Scientific Experiments coming on. Of course, with tarpaulin the choice is clear – any mulch or manure is always under!
With my new growing year started, past notes read, new notes being made, plans being decided, and my ever-present hopes abundant, the next question is… which beds to work on over the winter months and which to leave work for me? Some people do rotational, and it’s worked for many for years and is great for the super-organised. I lean more towards the no-dig method which allows me to pick and choose what goes where without sticking to a set revolving plan. Though, one rotation I do take note of is moving our allium growing around, as white rot is a concern at our plot so it’s best to not plant them where they’ve grown before.
And as with other gardeners, growers and allotmenteers we’re now buying our alliums of choice – garlic and onion sets for planting into prepared beds before the cold, harsh days of winter set in. Their growth will bring shards of bright green life poking above the soil through the darker months ahead, and this new life will always draw the eye. These alliums for me, and my dad before me, are another reason to see this month as a new start at the allotment… a fresh new start... a fresh new growing year!
With all of our bean frames for summer climbers now down, it’s time to think about the first sowings of this new year – in first will be Aquadulce Claudia and Sutton broad beans, followed a few weeks later by winter hardy peas such as Meteor and Feltham First. With good soil, a decent winter and just the right amount of rain these new sowings will develop well and give an early crop in late spring – potentially the first harvest of the year.
With all the pondering and planning now done, next month will see the physical hard graft begin... though those thoughts can wait. My joy as we get to the end of the month is that a new growing year is here, at least for me and my dad before me. And also, sometimes it’s good to do things a little differently and stand out from the crowd, and I’m happy to do just that. I’m sure in time others will come round to our way of doing things.
Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com