Home and Garden Living

Borrowing my neighbour’s garden – my first allotment

Back in January I met a gorgeous gal through my local gardening club who offered to share a sunny walled garden just round the corner from my North East London home. It belongs to her elderly neighbours who can no longer maintain it. My own garden is north facing and I struggle to grow anything that doesn’t like shade. So, knowing it would stretch my multi-tasking abilities to their limits – I agreed to try it out as an allotment.

Gardening as therapy

It’s a midlife cliche but gardening is my therapy of choice. I like nothing more than digging in the dirt for a few hours, kicking off my wellies and coming in cold, dirty, wet and deeply relaxed. It melts away stress. It’s the very definition of mindfulness – it’s just you, nature and the elements working against a soundtrack of birds and London life. I had high hopes for a bountiful harvest and started out with a vision:

I wanted to grow autumn raspberries, rhubarb, heritage carrots, beetroot, tomatoes, garlic, french beans, broad beans and salad, salad and more salad. 

The reality is that the allotment has been a disaster. The spinach, chard and rhubarb that were already abundant have continued to grow without any intervention on my part. By contrast my efforts produced very little. I harvested few kilos of cherry tomatoes, three courgettes and enough potatoes for one sorry meal. I blame the mild winter, a wet June and a battle with slugs that I lost.

I prepared the allotment but nothing grew

Preparing a bed for broad beans that never appeared.

Slug wars

As an allotment newby I had no idea how vulnerable my seedlings could be. I tried sowing indoors first but no matter how much I tried to protect the plants the slugs always got them in the end. I thought I’d finally cracked it when I found empty 5 litre water bottles and used them as cloches over my baby courgette plants. They survived two nights. Then a fox decided to knock them over and it was a slug feeding frenzy. I salvaged two plants and grew them in pots balanced on an upturned milk crate in the (partly glazed) greenhouse.

So what is the problem I hear you say? Don’t you use pellets? What about beer traps? What about nematodes?

I inherited a garden where, for five years, the slugs had roamed free chomping on spinach and chard to their heart’s content. This was slug paradise. Uncontrolled they had multiplied and grown to enormous proportions. Six inch slugs curled themselves round strawberries, ate into potatoes and shimmied up spinach stalks without noticing my bird-friendly control pellets. I made beer traps out of plastic milk bottles (following a You Tube video) and managed to catch a LOT of drunken slugs – but quickly calculated the cost in beer was not sustainable.

Growing tomatoes and courgettes in the greenhouse

Tomatoes in hanging baskets and courgettes in pots balanced on milk crates

Allotment envy

September’s Flower and Produce show approached I knew that a handful of tomatoes was not going to win me a prize. Spending every other weekend in Yorkshire visiting my mum had taken its toll. I’d not watered, weeded or fed enough. Gardening is not over-greedy of time but it doesn’t like neglect. In truth I blame the slugs because it’s easier than admitting failure. When I pass by a well-cultivated plot I am not just envious, I am ashamed.

But I’ve not given up. I’ve mulched for winter and planted broccoli and beans. I have Cos lettuce and salad leaves growing in my new cold frame. If there’s a big freeze it will help kill the slugs and I will come out fighting next spring. This has just been the first campaign in a war that I hope to win, one day.

Tomatoes

My tomatoes were delicious, if not good quite enough for the Flower and Produce Show.

Feel free to offer gardening advice in the comments panel below. My allotment experience was inspired by a talk about about community gardening given at a De Beauvoir Gardeners meeting by Naomi Schillinger, author of Veg Street. 

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My first attempt at an allotment in a a neighbour’s garden

4 Comments

  • DON’T GIVE UP! I’ve had my allotment for 4 years and this year was by far the worst, even my beloved raspberries have turned up their toes in disgust. The slugs and snails and cold wet weather did seriously impact. And Sainsburys put their cheap lager up in price, probably due to my overuse of it! I’ve realised I have to get plants to a much bigger size before planting out, to give them any hope of surviving the gastropods and possibly plant out later too (my third/fourth sowings did better – just). I nearly gave up but I’m giving it another shot… Goo dluck!

  • Despite my next-door neighbour’s daily dawn raids on snails in her garden, I have more problems with snails than slugs and was disgusted to find that the nematodes only work on the latter – so I’m surprised that that treatment didn’t work better for you. Maybe you’ll just have to try more intensive and frequent applications for a year or two to conquer that rampant slug population you’ve inherited.
    I’ve lost initial direct sowings and plantings of beans etc to the snails but found that a second attempt produced good results later in the year, so don’t despair.

    Meanwhile, there are lots of plants which thrive in north-facing situations – even dry ones. I’ve been successfully working on a dry north-facing border for over 20 years and am very impressed with some of the deeply shaded front gardens on the south side of the Square, which are worth studying. I collated all the plants recommended for dry shade when tackling that shaded churchyard slope, so would be happy to send you lists when you’ve time to plan how to replant your own garden.

    • Hi Diana. The nematodes have been effective and this spring I have hardly seen a slug as yet. However they are very expensive and there comes a point when ‘grow your own’ is not economically viable. I am now also using the new slug pellets which take the slugs underground to die and don’t harm birds. They are really good to protect slug delicacies like seedlings.

      My own shady garden is coming along nicely but I would love your list for extra inspiration – I know how much work you put into the churchyard slope! (mail@growngals.com)

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