A novice's guide to producing his own food

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A new year, and a new milestone

The fruit cage was a weedy disgrace. Over the winter I finally managed to clear it, and for the first time, the allotment is pretty much weed-free and under my control.

It’s been a fantastic winter. Last year I was unable to put a spade in the ground because it was so cold. This year, however, as it’s been so mild, I’ve made it to the allotment almost every weekend except for Christmas.

This lucky streak has meant I’ve really been able to really get torn into giving the beds a good digging over  and get rid of those perennial weeds, the main offender being marestail (or rack weed). The worst affected area was the fruitcage. It was so full of weeds it almost formed a turf. When I look at it now, I’m surprised I got any strawberries last year. The plants must have been nearly choked.

Fortunately, the mild winter has meant I’ve been able to deal with the fruitcage properly. I dug out all the strawberry plants just before and winter, and let them rest in a spare bed. Then it was down to the hard work. It took several weekends and many hours just to dig it over once, it was in such a mess. After that I meant through it all again TWICE with a fork to get the remainder out. It won’t be completely weed-free, but should be manageable this coming summer. I’m expecting a good crop.

For the first time since I got the allotment two years ago, I can now say it is pretty much in the shape I wanted it. Everything has been dug over properly, and is as weed-free as can reasonably be expected for someone who is taking the organic approach. I really hope the marestail will only  be a fraction of what it was. My biggest headache is now under control. The job now is to keep it that way.

In the midst of all this I got six tons of compost delivered. This is largely due to the hard work of another allotmenteer — he persuaded  Dundee City Council to drop off ten tons of its highly recommended Discovery Compost. My share cost £80, and was enough for one ton of compost per bed. That’s gotta do some good.

First, however, there was a major hurdle. As the truck had to drop the compost off in a communal area, we had to move it very quickly. Unfortunately, our delivery didn’t impress one grower who took immediate exception and started a shouting match. This is despite the fact that he had had a NINE-ton delivery to the exact same spot a few months earlier. Some folk, eh? Continue reading

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2011: The rise and fall and rise and eventual collapse of the greenhouse

The greenhouse didn't survive the December storm

Looking back over the 2011, it’s clear events have been dominated by one thing – the greenhouse. Money, and even more importantly, time have been wasted on it.

My “big project” of the year was to grow my first veg in a greenhouse, and yet here I am at the beginning of 2011 without one, despite having built one twice and moved it three times. As you’ve probably guessed my year-old greenhouse blew down in the December 8 storm, and is completely unrepairable.

This is the second time it has blown over since I bought it in January 2011. The first time was when it was on the allotment. Then I thought I had lost it for good, along with the £459 I paid for it. However, it was salvageable and so I  brought up to the garden at home.

But, come December, it blew down again. Although it was in a much more sheltered spot, the winds were the strongest in 10 years, and the greenhouse was completely wrecked. However, as it was on my own property, I was able to claim insurance, and got most of the cash back. Good news.

I am still determined to have a greenhouse, and will put the cash towards a proper wooden Victorian lookalikey. This will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, but I am confident it will last. After all, we have two wooden summerhouses and a shed which weren’t at all fazed by the storms.

The fault with my greenhouse was a common one — it used polycarbonate sheeting. This is supposed to better than glass for the plants,  but the downside is it makes greenhouses so light they can’t withstand even moderate winds. After the last storms, it was suckers like me with polycarbonate greenhouses who lost everything, while glass greenhouses stood.

The lesson here is: don’t ever buy polycarbonate. I will never touch them again

But I must’ve be too negative, there was plenty to be excited about in 2011. The harvest (although not large) was at least consistent. Just about everything produced a crop which ended up on the table.

Let’s take a look at each bed  in turn.

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Video update (no.1)

I thought I’d do a wee video update this time as it probably gives a different perspective on how the allotment’s getting on.

Unfortunately, the clip is already out of date, as it was shot on July 23. Since then I have harvested quite a bit and the weeds have gotten out of control (well, kinda).

But more of that later.

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The Plan

My plan for this year

After a dry and hot spell for several weeks, it’s quite nice to see some rain. Good for the veg, of course, but it also gives me time to do some blogging.

The last few weeks have been very full-on — the bees have taken up a lot of time (but more of that in my next blog), and there has been a constant rota of planting seeds in the greenhouse,then hardening them off in the cold frames, and finally planting them in the ground at the allotment. Last year nearly everything was sown directly into the ground, but now that I have a greenhouse, I’m starting as much as I can in there.

There are three distinct advantages to this. Firstly, a greenhouse extends the growing season, so I should get bigger and more veg. The second, nothing goes into the ground at the allotment unless I can see it is healthy and growing (last year quite a few plants — particularly peas — didn’t pop up at all). Finally, seedlings are planted later than seeds, so it gives me time to get rid of more weeds beforehand (a final fork through has done wonders).

Another major issue last year was productivity. How do I get the most out of the plot? I suspected I was too generous with spacings, and could have been more productive.

With this is mind, I signed up for Suttons Vegetable Garden Planner. For a £15 annual fee it promises to keep you right as you progress through the year, giving you planting times, feeding advice, tips etc. More importantly for me, though, is it allows me to calculate what I should be getting from my allotment.

The numbers in brackets are the number of plants I should be looking to harvest. Some are (quite frankly) astonishing. Six hundred onions! Nine hundred carrots! I planted nowhere near that last year, and it shows you how productive my plot should be. However, at the other end of the scale, the planner suggests only six courgettes.  In the same space, I had sixteen plants growing quite successfully. That, to me, suggests I should use the planner’s suggestions as a guide, not a rule.  Continue reading

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At long bloody last

Progress so far. The fruit cage is at the top left.


I open nearly every new post with the same(-ish) phrase: “I’ve been hellishly busy on the allotment”. Not only is it boring, but it’s true. Just now, I’m juggling three distinct elements, none of which are complete. There’s the conversion of what was a neglected site,  then there’s getting seeds in the ground and, thirdly, I’m trying to keep on top of the weeds.      

Five out of the six raised beds are built, and I’m currently finishing off the fruit cage. Just got to get the netting on, and I’m done. It’s taken a lot more work than I thought, and I had to concrete eight posts into the ground, then put beams around the outside to hold the net. It’s the only major structure on any of the allotments, and I’m sure everyone else thinks I’m crazy. Probably a lot of that has to do with the fact I’m spending far more time and money than anyone else.       

One of the reasons I’ve waited until now to write my latest post, is I wanted to see the plants springing to life. For a long time, nothing seemed to grow at all, and at one point I was getting really fed up. Winter was never coming to a proper end. Then the weather took a sudden turn – the air heated up, and finally we got some action. The change was remarkable. There was only two days between me being pished off and wondering if it was all worth it, to me getting excited again.      

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Strawberry delight

My stawberry patch

My strawberry patch


Of all the crops I am growing, I reckoned strawberries might be the least successful. Why? Because I very much doubted I could replicate the dark red beauties in the shops. They look so uniformly perfect, I feared my efforts would be rotten or bug-infested. 

However, I should have had more faith in the allotment ethic.  Janek and I had harvested the first handful of strawberries, and were taken aback to discover they were the sweetest and juiciest we’d even eaten. The whole family was impressed too. The strawberries were chock-full of their own natural sugars – no need to sprinkle anything on them. This was a product that was way better than the equivalent from Tesco. 

But our success immediately brought a question to mind. To get this result, all I had to do was buy a few plants from Lidl, stick them in the ground, and net the lot over. Maintenance was minimum, and yet the results could not be bettered. If it’s so simple, then why are supermarket strawberries so crap? 

Fellow allotmenteers were unanimous — supermarket strawberries are force-grown in poly-tunnels, with the result that flavour and texture are sacrificed for size and colour. It seems a shame, especially when decent strawberries can be grown so easily. This is one crop which I may expand upon next summer. 

Mind you, the outlay was substantial. The plants were £2.99 for half a dozen, and I needed to buy netting, poles and straw. But value-for-money didn’t seem to be the point. I should stress again that the primary joy of having an allotment is in the growing, and if it results in some fantastic fruit and veg, then that’s a bonus. All of which, brings me neatly to a blog on the BBC website on the perils of maintaining an allotment. Called  “Hell In Earth” (, journalist Paul Reynold’s writes of the nightmare he had attending an allotment in the 1970s. He concludes by saying: 

In the end, after the second summer, I think, it all became too much. I had found out that I was not really up to this hand-to-hand combat. It was too much effort, too costly and you could get stuff from the shops or market much more easily.  

He has missed the point big-time. If you have an allotment simply to save money, then it won’t remain a pleasure – more of a chore. There is no way you can compete with today’s industrial farming when it comes to cost. But the joy of growing something, combined with the thrill of eating that product makes it an experience second-to-none. Didn’t Reynolds take any pleasure in seeing something growing from seed? Wasn’t he at least a little excited to find out what his fruit and veg tasted like? 

Unfortunately, he is not alone. Even some of the older allotment-growers  I have spoken to have warned me that I’m spending too much cash on the project, and that I’ll never get my “money’s worth”.  These are guys who have attended plots for years. If they believe the sole criterion for judging the success of their allotment is cash saved, then they’re really selling the whole concept short.

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Before we begin …

Hi, I recently took charge of an allotment, and I’m going chart my progress here.

If you know anything about this subject, I can already hear you groaning – “Jesus wept. Not another pseudo-guru banging on about the best way to grow veg.”

Well, you’d be wrong. This blog is different for one reason only. I know sod(!)-all about the subject, I’m a complete novice, and never planted anything in my life. In fact, I think I even missed school on the day my class sprinkled seeds on wet kitchen roll.

And I’m hoping to turn this to my advantage. Allotments are now all the rage, and there are dozens of experts out there who tell us green is the new black, and how to go about making the most of our gardens. (if I sound a tad angry, just check out Gardener’s World, BBC2, Friday. Plenty of helpful info, but squirmingly presented.)

I, however, intend to present a diary of someone who starts of as a complete novice and blooms (geddit?) into yet another know-it-all.