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A Permaculture Allotment - From weeds to rich food growing habitat in 4 months!

This article was first published in Permaculture Magazine in 2004. I nurtured this allotment for 4yrs before buying land in Exmoor. I go on about the land on this blog and there is also a website that shares how we are going to be planting 6000 native trees here! Exmoor6000Trees.org.uk

We didn't stop believing our dream of buying & nurturing a piece of land could come true & worked hard to get here.  If I could give one bit of advice.. don't EVER give up on your dream.


All of the photographs can be viewed huge if you click on them :)



Love at First Site

My Newbury Allotment Site

When I spent some time WWOOF-ing at Lowershaw Farm in 1993, they introduced me to Permaculture. It was immediately clear to me that this was the future. I spent several years in the wilderness and it took me until September last year (2003) to finally get back on track when I decided to get an allotment & enrol on Patrick Whitefield’s Permaculture design course at Ragman’s Lane Farm.

What an experience that was! I went on to study for the full diploma, which consisted of a 5 week Sustainable Land Use course, followed by several written assignments.

Above is a picture of the allotment I was given on a miserable, damp and cold late Feb. morning. On first glance it looked like the only thing going for it was the water trough at the southwest end. I was left staring at a huge 10 pole plot.

With every drip of my nose my enthusiasm was draining away...

There were hybrid berry suckers knee high in places near the far end, mixed in with the hardcore pernicious perennials. You know the ones, couch grass, Dock, Nettles, Creeping Thistle and buttercup & beautiful teasel towering above my head. It was like an undulating hillside in miniature. None of it was flat.

I desperately wanted to see what the general state of the soil was. So I took my spade and dug a few test pits sporadically over the plot. The results weren’t good. It was very stony, heavy soil and 60cm down it was large aggregate. After doing the spit and roll test I decided that I had a sandy clay loam.


Permaculture Flower

It was time to do the observation bit of the Permaculture design process. Not just using my eyes, but using all my senses, feeling for wind direction, variations in temperature, soil depths, shade, etc. I walked slowly around the plot, stopping from time to time. Taking in the vibe of where I stood, seeing what indicator plants there were around my feet, taking notes and drawing a basic base map. This might sound lovely, but the wind blew a stinging rain onto my cheek, the temperature was freezing, I kept falling into holes and, well, when it came to shade, I just couldn’t tell!

Should I have stopped? Probably, but I couldn’t, it was very exciting. Finally, after all this time of rented accommodation and no garden, I had my own little piece of Earth. Somewhere to carefully grow healthy food imbued with love, somewhere to hang out, whittle things, plant my Willow and most importantly, somewhere to learn how to heal soil.

At one end of the plot is a path with a ditch and two Oak trees both probably well over 120 yrs old and 40’ high. This cheered me up no end, as I’ve got a thing about trees and to have Oaks, well, that’s the ultimate! However, I knew that meant that I couldn’t be growing veg’ down there. It would have to be where my Zone 5 was, the wildlife zone. There was already Bluebells 3 inches high, Pulmonaria and Celandine down there. It could be the perfect spot for… oh pants; it’s not the time for planning! It is so hard to resist designing the entire area before even getting home, having a cup of tea and taking stock.

So I went home, made a cup of tea, defrosted and got my soggy base map out. For the next 3 weeks I would communicate via grunts and nods only looking up from my A3 pad and colouring pencils to go to the loo. It was design time.

I thought it would be a good plan to make a list of all the fruit and veg’ I love, and what I’d need to grow them. It was a very, very long list. So, after much thought I called my friendly council-man and rented the 10 pole plot next door. I was expanding before I’d even dug a bed. My partner was slightly concerned but thought it best not to interfere at this stage, as I was mildly obsessed.






Finally, after 8 (ish) drafts, I had my design. Fortunately I was in-between jobs and so was able to spend entire days at the allotments. Arriving at 8am and getting home well after 6. It seemed to provide lots of amusement to my fellow allotmenteers, seeing a ‘girl’ trying to dig out couch grass in the wind and sleet, muttering about her plans to build a pond, put up a greenhouse and plant Willow.


Willow bed planted late Feb 2004

Same willow bed 4 months later! Thats comfrey in the foreground.

The Permaculture Herb Spiral




Wildlife pond

After a month, my partner Leo and I had managed to plant 90 Willow trees, build a wildlife pond and herb spiral, dig the couch and perennial weeds out of most of the beds, source a shed for £40 and a huge wooden framed greenhouse for £25 (both 2nd hand from the local free ads). Everything else, even the pond liner, was reclaimed from friends & family.


2nd hand greenhouse & shed. Potato hot bed in foreground.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I had decided that in order for me to catch up with the growing season I would get a couple of those three tiered plastic greenhouses to germinate the seeds in. They worked fantastically, and now provided much needed shelving space, without their covers, in the greenhouse & shed.

Phew! It was certainly hectic and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had to do a ‘proper’ job at the same time.



The Beds



Beetroot, carrot, fennel, poached egg plant, basil, nasturtium, marigold


Half of one of the plots was put aside to be cleared of weeds long-term, using black sheet mulch in preparation for apple trees in the autumn. I wanted to use the space immediately though to increase my annual yield. My new allotment buddy Burt had given me some Pumpkin seeds he’d saved, so I used this area to grow them along with some Butternut squash. To prepare I dug ten holes (about ½ m in diameter), loosened the subsoil and mixed some well-rotted manure with the topsoil. After covering the area, including the holes, with two sheets of mulch (pegged down with home made wire staples) I cut little crosses over the prepared holes planted the pumpkin and squash through the cuts, and watered thoroughly.

Squashes & pumpkins

Although slow growing to start with, the sheet mulch was completely covered for most of the growing season and we had masses of fruits. So, even though it was an area being cleared using a long-term technique I was still able to get an incredible amount of food from it at the same time.


Raised strawberry bed interplanted with onions.

The planting scheme I used was based on a simple 8 yr rotation with each species planted in small raised beds arranged in equidistant blocks. I surrounded each bed with crimson clover, phacelia, buckwheat or tagetes. This helped to keep the sides of the raised beds together and also provided an undisturbed labyrinth of corridors around the beds for wildlife. When July came, the change in the plots was awesome. Everything I had sown had grown.

Plants grow!

I decided on raised beds because of the soil depth/quality issues. They were created by removing the couch, loosening the subsoil, carving out 40cm paths either side and putting the unturned soil on top of the bed. Each of the beds is 1m wide, and as yet have not been permanently edged, (the materials haven’t made themselves available yet).

The best compost bins in the world ever.



Rainwater Collection

Reclaimed, professionally cleaned IBC collecting from the greenhouse & the shed.


The plan was for us to locate a large water butt between the shed and the greenhouse in order to collect rainwater from both roofs at a single point. Lucky for us we were given a professionally reclaimed bulk container.

It would have been used for storing liquid chemicals, but now it’s being used to store up to 1000 litres of water. The container is raised up on reclaimed concrete blocks and is a perfect vertical space for some climbers next year.



The Open Day


In July we had an open day at the allotment site. There were so many people on my plot that I hid behind the shed. But, I soon got found out and had a queue of people asking questions and wanting a tour. It was wonderful. They loved the diversity of flowers and veg all happily growing together. They were inspired by the pond and habitats. More than once I heard an excited adult singing out and pointing at the Dragonfly and it’s mate ‘doing the business’ and laying.


Wildlife pond (aged 3months) FULL of newts, dragonflies & everything else!

Some people were scribbling down old varieties and names of green manures, talking excitedly about where they could grow them in their gardens or allotments. The comment most repeated was that it reminded them “of their Grand parents garden”. Butterflies, Ladybirds, Dragon, Damsel and Hover flies, bumble and honey bees, the place sang with busyness. They said it felt alive. This was the most wonderful compliment. Not that it was my compliment to accept; it was nature that inspired them, not me. The truth is that there was a concentration of nature in one place, where no one expected it to be.


Borage is a wonderful thing!


I made a welcome sign for the main entrance to the plots, which bore the date of when we first started – March 2004. Not one person could believe it, they had forgotten things want to grow. If you make space for plants they fill it, only too happily if it's the right place.




Many people were interested in ideas on how to supress weeds, pests and diseases without using chemicals. Which was easy to explain because I could just show them living examples.

Some of the guy’s that have been on the site for over 25 years, following the same routines, have told me that after seeing how my plots have developed, they will re-think how they grow their crops from now on. Mixing their veg planting with some flowers, creating some wood piles, putting up wildlife boxes, reducing (and in some cases stopping) pesticide & herbicide use. They weren’t sure at first, but they’re sure now. That’s got to be a result!


There's a hedgehog box in that pile of oak twigs!




And so to Bed


We are in the process now of putting the soil to bed – mulching for the winter, planting a hedge and some apple trees, and building wildlife habitats. I’m going to plant some more Willow too, as a windbreak on the South West corner, as that’s where the worst of the wind comes from.




After spending so much time with the plots over the past 10 months I can work in a more harmonious way, and understand their needs, and mine, much better.

It’s not appropriate for everyone to do their growing on this scale to start with. “The best size of veg plot for an inexperienced person is 3x3m” – Patrick Whitefield. Which is great because the average garden nowadays isn’t much bigger than that. The area I grow veg in works out at about 10mx4m (not including the paths in between). The rest is there for wildlife, fruit and playing with.

I’ve always moved around, living in rented accommodation, never putting down any roots. Even now I don’t know where I’ll be next year. I realised that my desire to grow things went beyond just producing food. It’s the soil, wildlife, everything that needs to be nurtured, even if it is just for a year or a few months. We can positively impact the little bit of Earth under our feet, regardless of whether or not we’re there to benefit from it. So, if you are anything like I was and are waiting till you’ve got your own bit of land, my advice is - don’t, live like there’s no tomorrow and get out there and grow your leeks in a bucket if you have to.


hen xx

19 comments:

  1. Do you really?!? How weird is that! :)

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  2. wonderfully inspiring ~ love the herb spiral and pond in particular!

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  3. That's inspiring. I'm redesigning my garden just now, you're giving me ideas---

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  4. Monster post but very interesting with a few links I will certainly be following through on thank you for a good read.

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  5. that's inspiring! I know that some allotment sites are really fussy about how you use the ground so its really interesting to see so much space for wildlife in an allotment!

    I just discovered Permaculture magazine too and am about to subscribe

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  6. How wonderfully inspiring you are dear Hen. You have the heart and mind of a dedicated bodhisatva. What else is there to do at this moment but tend ones garden!

    I was delighted to read your latest offering, one of the most heartwarming blogs for many a while. Your land is a credit to you and your willpower. I will learn so much from digesting it, several times over.
    Love in dharma xxx

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  7. It really inspired me, and every time I have been thwarted in getting a plot I thought of the person who wrote this article (who I really wanted to be like) and was determined I'd get a plot one day. I did, just a couple of months ago...6m x 8m and I'm so enthralled I'm going to rent the next door plot too. :)

    Reading it now inspires me all over again. :)

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  8. Wow ! Fantastic - I take my proverbial hat off to you, what you achieved here is just incredible . I've been there with allotments , and couch grass , and it takes a massive effort to get both under some semblance of control. Well done you !!! A great post to read too x

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  9. Wow, what a special place you have created. Amazing what a few months of hard toil can achieve! I am so impressed Hen. Has some lucky person now taken it on?

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  10. Love this plot. Good luck with your latest ventures.

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  11. this is so inspiring! I just found out I have got an allotment that I've been waiting for and this is filling my head with ideas! thank you x

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  12. Beautiful. My first visit but I'll definitely be back.

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  13. I've just moved in to rented accomodation with a very large garden in the heart of Bristol city...
    You're so right about nurturing the ground you walk!
    Neighbours are astounded I'm pouring so much Love, time and energy in to such a tired spot - but the bees love me!
    Thanks for the inspiration and tea time read x

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  14. Brilliant images and so good to see so much Broage in flower and the drawings are great.

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  15. Wow Hen!! I am so impressed what you did with this land. Isn't it amazing what we can create if we just take the time to love the land? It is clear that you both poured a whole lot of love into this land! And you healed it. Yay!!

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  16. I have never seen this post! Beautiful, amazing allotment that'll I'll be referring back to often as I get the front and back gardens growing. Inspiring.

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  17. Love it! We've just got an allotment today and your ideas and experience are so inspiring.

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  18. Love it! We have just taken on an allotment today and your ideas and experience are truly inspiring. Thanks!

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