We were kindly invited to take over a beautifully kept starter bed during one of the allotment open days. On such a sunny day with flowers in full bloom and fruit ripe for the picking it felt like an easy decision, how hard could it be? Fast forward to taking on responsibility for the bed one wet day in October we felt a little less confident, neither of us had much experience growing produce and although we had a good idea about the fruit and vegetables we would love to grow (or rather eat!) we weren't entirely sure how to go about it. Naturally we turned to Gardener Google asking questions such as 'What can you plant in October?' 'When is the best time to plant...?' etc but really the best part about the starter plot was borrowing the expertise of the wonderful 'allotmenteers' around us. There was no shortage of top tips thrown our way as the friendly folk down at the hub took us under their wing. March of course brought unexpected challenges as suddenly due to social distancing we had to make do without such words of wisdom. Mistakes were made and many of our veggies looked rather sorry for themselves and lots were lost to any army of slugs! However, despite not seeing anyone around we still felt hugely supported with our starter plot venture and getting to see the little hub community in action was one of the biggest pleasures of lockdown. From a sharing basket of seeds, a helpful 'fairy' who rescued our strawberries by putting down netting for us (we still don't know who this was!) to a lively WhatsApp group ready to alert members to the latest manure delivery. It was so lovely to have a place to visit, we loved our watering days on the shared rota and taking home the veggies that we did succeed with! There are lots of things we plan to do differently this time around but imagine that that is ongoing the nature of having an allotment. The starter plot has been perfect in helping us find our feet with growing and we've really appreciated the opportunities it has brought.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I have a lovely home, a comfortable lifestyle funded by a pension that more than meets my needs, and an innate need to support others less fortunate than myself through volunteering. I also have an allotment.
However, in the years immediately before the pandemic I was so busy volunteering that my ‘in-tray’ was becoming untenable. Something had to give. I was seriously thinking about giving up my allotment to make time for my other volunteering commitments. I am so very glad I didn’t because, during the Covid lockdown, it was my allotment that proved to be cathartic. Or, to be more accurate, our allotment site.
I spent the first 6 weeks of lockdown stuck in front of a computer doggedly wading through my in-tray and dealing with all the stuff needed to ‘suspend’ a volunteer led service manned by 140 volunteers. Then it was out into the fresh air big time. Believing at the time that social isolation/distancing would last until perhaps the end of July, I came up with a project that would offer me a challenge, keep me occupied and benefit the Allotment Society in both the long and short term. My challenge was to re-claim the now badly overgrown one-acre community orchard laid out and planted up by my late husband, Richard, in 2016. My target was to do this in just 12 weeks!
The Abbey Lane Community Orchard lies between the Woodseats and Periwood Allotment sites and the crematorium, just off Abbey Lane.
It was Richard’s idea to reclaim this area of wasteland and turn it into a community resource. His initial idea was to clear and plant up a quarter of an acre at the bottom of the site. Richard’s ideas though were never anything other than grand schemes and so I found myself helping him to remove tree saplings taller than me, brambles, ivy, nettles and New Zealand sedge all the way from the very bottom of the wasteland to the car park at the top. Then, when we got to the boundary to the car park, he decided it would be a good idea to clear and level the site in order to extend the car park by another 20m!
In the years since Richard’s death in September 2017 the site had become extremely overgrown. I’d managed to keep on top of the saplings and Japanese Knotweed in the intervening years but the brambles, ivy, nettles and New Zealand sedge were back, along with a multitude of annual weeds such as Rosebay Willow Herb and vast areas of vigorous perennial weeds including ground elder, herb Bennett and docks.
The plan was to work down/up/across the whole area digging out/pulling up/disposing of the weeds. The weather in 2020 was exceptionally kind and this allowed for maximum attendance. Curiously, the magnitude of the challenge was not a consideration until I had been working 5 or 6 days a week for 8 weeks. By this stage, the novelty was beginning to wear thin, the weather turned damp and I was beginning to think that those suggesting the epic project was more than a little bonkers, had a point!
However, by then I was on chatting terms with lots of people moving up and down the lane and had ‘adopted’ a robin who regularly brought his missus, and on one special occasion, his entire family, to watch me! A number of volunteers were also sometimes lending a socially-distanced hand by then and, as the area to be cleared became relatively smaller, and the sun came back out, the dark thoughts (equivalent maybe to the wall in a marathon) dissipated. On 10th July, four years after the official opening, the Allotment Officer came to share a celebratory drink and cake with me and the volunteers. The project wasn’t complete, but the end was in sight and in any case – it wasn’t the end of July yet!
The benefits for me: The Covid 19 lockdown in general, and this project in particular, provided me with time to face the loss of my husband head-on. It was his space. It still is. His ashes are beneath the family-sponsored trees at the top of the site. It gave me a daily purpose at a time when simply walking round the block on my own was not enough. It kept me fit and improved my upper-body strength. It got me out in the fresh air engaging with and enjoying nature. Best of all, the daily conversations with dog walkers and allotment holders kept me socially isolated. I also admit to feeling great satisfaction for achieving my goal.
For Woodseats Allotment Society: The Abbey Lane Community orchard got a complete re-vamp and, forthe first time, has been thoroughly dug and weeded from end to end. In addition, there is now a weed barrier approximately 1m wide on the far side of the fence furthest from the lane. These initiatives mean that, provided we continue to apply wood chippings for weed suppression, the site should be MUCH easier to maintain in future. The Society now has the community resource that Richard dreamed of.
Several families with small children ‘discovered’ the orchard this summer. Most of the fairies and fairy doors that Richard installed remain intact and, along with the raspberries grown there for their enjoyment, will hopefully provide pleasure for little visitors in years to come. I believe this is known as a win, win!
In April 2019 I became a landowner. Well not so much a landowner as a custodian of this strip of land at the Woodseats Allotment hub. I had the great fortune to be able to work on a ‘starter plot’. As you walk down from the entrance to the hub you will find the starter bed at the bottom. The plot was a blank canvas to start growing in.
As I had never had an area this big to grow on before I was not sure how I would get on. I started with the staples of potatoes, onions, beetroot, beans, courgettes and sunflowers.
I decided to create a raised bed on the plot to make it easier to use the larger space at the end. The willow and the hazel used was all coppiced in Sheffield area making this a very sustainable and green construction.
The starter plots are just one part of the Woodseats Allotment Hub. The area is a community plot and the combination of people’s skills and work combines to create a space for everyone to enjoy. I used my skills in working with willow to create some willow obelisks on the community beds. Later they were planted with beans which when grown were sold at ‘pop-up’ stalls and also donated to ‘Foodworks’
Some of the things I learnt from doing and from others
1. If you water from the top the soil is liable to go green. Better to water from below
2. What you plant grows and gives amazing satisfaction
3. Well some things grow and some don’t
The squash did well but not the melon.
Having the starter plot in 2020 was really special. 2020 was a year like no other and no one was to know how the COVID-19 pandemic was to pan out. Being able to go to the plot and focus my energy on planting and growing was really important. During my time at the plot I could lose myself in the task at hand. As well as being able to sit with a sandwich and a drink and occasionally have a little weep about how it all was in the world. I learnt that it is not possible to stay sad when all around you there is new life coming forth and that growing takes patience and kindness.
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