Allotment Archaeology

Allotment 32B in March 2020

Just before Lockdown began in March 2020 I took on an allotment. For various reasons it turned out not to be the one I had first agreed to and paid for but instead the bottom half of a very big allotment that had become overgrown and neglected. The person holding the allotment had clearly waged a losing battle with the nettles and the brambles. He had not been helped by people coming along and dumping rubbish on the bottom end of the allotment.  I agreed with the Council officer responsible that they would get a contractor to do a bit of clearance and that (having already paid for an allotment of similar size) I would get the next year free as I would be putting in a lot of labour for little result.

Lockdown arrived swiftly after this agreement and the contractor departed having taken up a large amount of blue tarpaulin on the front half of the allotment but not started on the more ‘dumpy’ back half.  I’d had a chat with a very helpful fellow allotmenteer called Bob, he confirmed my own instinct to start a strip at a time and get things planted and growing and then move onto the next strip.  I already had a tiny conservatory overflowing with seedlings (I had to bring into play an old ironing board to make a temporary shelf to hold them all).

I was in the final term of my RHS Level 2 Practical Horticulture certificate and several of my classmates were talking about ‘no dig’. I investigated, and planned to employ the method at the allotment.  Unfortunately making raised beds and buying enough compost and mulch for them was beyond my purse and at the beginning of that first lockdown difficult to achieve.  So I’ve been working on a budget version of no-dig and still adapting and experimenting.  With a plot full of brambles I have discovered that ‘some dig’ is necessary.  In places where I simply put down cardboard and mulched on top the brambles made their way through.

The dumpy hinterland

As I began to tackle the dumpy hinterland I realised that brambles were a tough bunch. My work became archaeological as I worked down through layers of weed suppression and dumping.  The top layer, the blue tarpaulin, was possibly the worst to deal with. The brambles had pushed their way through and trying to get them out shredded the tarpaulin leaving strands of blue plastic that needed to be carefully picked out of the soil.  The next layer was a patchwork of old carpet and black fabric anti-weed mat.  The weed mat was easy to take out, the carpet needed to be cut into sections around the brambles (yes they pushed through that) in order to remove it.  Work was paused whilst I consulted with a friend, who is an expert in wiggly wild things, as I found a slowworm living under one of the carpet pieces. Her advice to transfer carpet and slowworm to a safe place was carried t out and work resumed. Fortunately my dog, Mavis, never spotted any slowworms – she is terrified of snakes and once panicked on seeing a particularly large worm!

Slow worm

Having gone past the beer can layer (a well known archaeological feature) I thought I had made it to ground level. I breathed a sigh of relief and then my spade hit something solid. A paving stone. Paving stones had been a feature of the weed suppression methods of my predecessor. They had been used to hold down the top blue tarpaulin layer and  the council contractor had already removed a sizeable pile.  I levered up the stone only to find another under it, below that were another two and below that …. black plastic!  Surely this was the final layer!  It was and it seemed that there was a point beyond which none of the weed suppressing methods were used.  However I have yet to get started on that part – the remaining 20 sqm of the allotment so who knows.

Through the layers

In the meantime I relish my ‘finds’ and have a little corner of the allotment dedicated to them:

A small gnome

An old pair of scissors

A metal trowel (or possibly large palette knife)

A rudely shaped stone

A flint that looks like the head of an owl.

Whilst I was working on the allotment and clearly had started planting, people were still turning up when I wasn’t there and dumping rubbish, including 5 dead box bushes, bags of general rubbish and a very dead Christmas tree. I put up some notices saying that flytipping was illegal and could attract fines of £500 and the dumpers took the hint!

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