Starting an Allotment | Our Plot

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At the end of summer I contacted Birmingham City Council and asked to be put on the waiting list for an allotment. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but I held back because I knew that the waiting lists were long and I wondered if I wanted it enough to find the time for upkeep. Taking on an allotment is a big time commitment. The committee of my nearest allotment site have closed their waiting list. During the height of pandemic demand for allotments, it stood at eight years. Those are historic and really beautiful gardens, and I suspect the only time they change hands is when tenants die.

There are a few sites a little bit further away from where I live, and so I put my name down on various waiting lists, thinking I wouldn’t hear anything for six months to a year. To my surprise, the secretary of one site contacted me at the start of October inviting me to take part in a tour of the site she manages. Several plots had become available, and a group of us – I would estimate all in our late 20s to early 40s – walked around, seeing what was on offer. By the end of the day I had put my name down for a small standard plot. Measured in imperial, the council defines a standard plot as between 200 and 400 square yards. There were several plots on offer, some in a better state than others. Ed and I had the choice of taking on one of several hillside plots which received sun all day, with no shade or shelter. In light of the long, hot, dry summer we just had, I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of being up on a hill at the mercy of the elements, so we decided to go for one of the plots on the lower slopes of the site which offer a bit of shade as they border woodland. The lower plots are also closer to a stream, and so I think water management will be easier during the hot summers we are now more and more likely to experience.

The plot we chose faces south, but one end of it is up against a solid fence with some mature trees overhanging from the adjacent property. It is a bit more sheltered from the wind and I think it’ll be more comfortable to spend time there in the height of summer. Time will tell if this was a wise choice or not, but I think it was the right decision. The allotment secretary says that we can get the council tree surgeon in to cut back overhanging branches, which I will arrange once we have tidied the plot so that the tree surgeon will be able to get their ladders in there.

Our plot isn’t in a terrible state. It needs attention, as the previous tenant had let a few things slide. The back of the plot, behind the fruit cage, has become a dumping ground. There is thick black plastic down, but organic material has been thrown on top, and nettles have taken root in the mess. The compost heap, made of pallets strung together with plastic zip ties, was sloping towards the adjacent plot and hard to access. It hadn’t been maintained. It was full of woody waste and not enough greens, so it was more of a waste pile than an active compost heap.

The fruit cage is full of weeds and needs some structural attention, the beds are overgrown with broken borders, and the two fruit trees haven’t been looked after. We have a Braeburn apple tree which is leaning to one side, and a Victoria plum tree which has been allowed to put out lots of suckers, leading to die back on the main trunk. I am not certain that the trees are appropriate to an allotment either, as it’s not clear if they are on a dwarf rootstock or not. I’ll give them some attention this winter and see how they do in their first full growing season under my stewardship.

It’s not all terrible though. The plot has good bones. It came with a good solid shed, which is situated appropriately so that it has good ventilation and air flow. Many people shove their sheds in the dampest, darkest corner of their plots, and the sheds rot quite quickly from leaf matter building up around them. I didn’t want to drop several hundred pounds on a new shed, and so one of my criteria when poking around the vacant plots was to check the condition of the shed. Ours is relatively new, dry, and will offer good service for many more years. We’ll probably give it a coat of paint before winter, just to make sure the wood is well protected.

The plot also came with a large strawberry patch, and some mature blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, as well as a picnic table and some ornamental squirrel bench ends. We’ll probably move the picnic table as it’s currently in one of the sunniest spots, and I would like to use that space for growing fruit and vegetables.

The site is also adjacent to a really beautiful and semi-private woodland. I went for a walk through the woods to see what was what and came across this little grey squirrel sat on a bench, enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

The biggest challenges and most urgent tasks include clearing up the back of the plot and cutting down and digging out a huge clump of miscanthus, which had been planted so as to hide the mess at the back of the plot. There is a blackberry bush I want to dig up, as it is blocking light to one of the beds, and I don’t see the point of growing blackberries on an allotment when they are abundant in the wild.

Ed and I have already moved the compost heap(s). We took them apart, and moved all the organic matter to the front of out plot where we will sort through it, add whatever we can to the communal bonfire heap to be burned next month, and rebuild the compost heap with a better balance of greens to browns. There are a lot of brambles in amongst the compost, and since they are woody stems, we can just burn them. I don’t feel confident lighting a fire on our plot, but thankfully there’s a communal fire heap that we can make use of that’s further away from the woods and feels safer.

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