Setting Up the Vegetable Plot

I’m a bit worried about getting the vegetable plot sorted. Digging holes for the trees in various spots has given me a good feeling for the soil. On the surface, it’s a thick grass and moss layer. So thick that getting the spade in is hard. Below that, we have about 4″ to 6″ of matted roots and then we’re in to mixed soil and stones. A lot of stones. The soil changes to sub-soil about ten inches down.

It’s not a heavy soil of itself, more towards the sandy than clay. But all those stones and the shallow depth to them means some root crops like tubular carrots, parsnips etc are not going to be possible in the ground.

I know it’s going to be acid to say the least, my neighbour said he’d tested his and its pH was just 4.6. That’s terrible but not a major problem as adding lime will sort it out. I’ll bet pounds to pennies that it is also nutrient poor. When I test it, I’ll know for certain just how bad. Once again, not the end of the earth. Adding fertiliser will cure that.

The big worry is the shallow depth and lack of humus. That’s not so easy to cure. All vegetables like a good depth of soil and humus (organic matter) is critical to success. On my Wistaston allotments it took years to increase the depth of the soil. Double digging, even bastard trenching to gradually turn the heavy sub-surface clay to fertile top soil. Continually adding large quantities of compost and manure as I went.

We had mountains of used turkey litter, hills of horse and cow manure and skip loads of municipal compost added to the soil. I actually lifted the height of the plot by over a foot over the years. Nothing compared to the market gardeners of Paris in the 1800s who were said to have lifted their plots by 2 metres (6 feet) with the additional humus.

I can’t say this strongly enough, plants grow in soil and the secret to success is a good depth of humus rich fertile soil. Achieving that is a task that takes years, not a garden makeover.

Clearing an overgrown allotment plot is hard work, but the soil has been productive in the past. Here the land has only been used for grazing sheep and nothing has been done with it for many years. It’s actually a much harder job.

I must make it clear, I’m in uncharted waters here. At this point I don’t know what I’m going to do for the best. Making compost and sourcing manure is a given as is adding lime and fertiliser, but obtaining the depth of soil and quality of soil is the problem.

My first thought was to strip the turf off, stack it up to rot down and dig over the ground. However, just stripping off the turf is one heck of a job as it’s so tough. Even if I did that, there’s little usable soil below it.

The second option is to spray the plot area with glyphosate to kill off the grass and then either dig it over or borrow my neighbour’s tractor and plough it. This should provide a thin base to grow on at least.

What I may do is to go for raised beds and grow in those, although that still leaves the problem of building up the depth of soil in them. I could buy in topsoil, which is expensive, or look around for a bulk compost supplier (I mean lorry loads, not bags) and take it from there.

I’ve never been a big fan of raised beds, but this might be my best route. Apart from anything else we get high rainfall and the vegetable plot will be on a sloping hillside. Rain falling higher up the hill will tend to wash the soil downhill without the stabilising effect of the turf. Level raised beds will keep the soil from being swept away.

Apart from wooden sided raised beds, I’ve a couple of kit beds I brought with us. A metal bed kit from Everedge and a Linkabord raised bed kit. Since they’ll be fairly quick and easy to set up, I’ll do those asap.

I know we’ll get there in the end, it’s just which is the best road to take that’s the problem.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
5 comments on “Setting Up the Vegetable Plot
  1. Steve from North Wales says:

    We are along the coast from you and had exactly the same problem. We had a small grass field that had not been used for ages. We managed to de-turf each bed but it was extremely hard work. All the lifted turf was used to turf bare areas on both ours and our neighbours land. Like you, we found the soil was shallow and full of stones. We dug a bed at a time but it was slow and backbreaking work as we had to turn a fork full and them pick out all the large stones before turning the next bit. Even getting the fork in between the stones sometimes proved difficult! We ended up with enough stones to make a small beach!
    However, will the addition of some homemade compost and some chicken manure from our neighbour, we did eventually end up with reasonable beds and grew some successful crops last year.
    We mulched the beds in autumn with chicken manure, compost and leavemould. Digging over this spring has been considerably easier, there are still quite a few stones coming up and I guess there always will be. We’ve only got a depth of a spit, below that it’s still stones and more stones but it’s better than what was there last spring.
    Hope you find the best (and easiest) way to tackle your plot John!

  2. John says:

    I just wish there was a substitute for hard work!

  3. Snoop says:

    Hello John,
    I read this post a while ago and my heart went out to you. I have some soil that’s quite decent, but one patch, which is more suitable for veg over winter, was almost rock hard clay and full of stones. I worked very hard shifting soil from elsewhere on the land to this winter patch. It’s still not great, but is quite productive at least. Every year I move a few more wheelbarrows.
    Have you come to a decision? I know funding is always a problem, but one thing I’d be extremely interested in is a gardener’s diary – no year or days, just dates. Shouldn’t be too difficult for you to produce and would sell all year round, unlike ordinary diaries. In fact, I would buy at least two, one for the veg and another for the weather. If you wanted to make it nice, perhaps members would allow you to use their photos or you could use your own. Just an idea, anyway. Good luck with your soil.

  4. John says:

    Well I’ve been tied up writing a new book but should be able to make a start on fencing off the plot after Easter. After that, it’s investigative digging.

    A diary is great idea, thanks. I’ll raise it with the publisher.

  5. Snoop says:

    Good luck with the plot. I’ve been forking some of my beds over recently, and while they’re not perfect, they’re a lot better than before. Essentially I use raised beds but don’t bother with wooden edges, just rake the worst of the hard clods and stones to the edges for the walls. Still keeps the rain and fertiliser in, rather than letting it run off, but allows me greater flexibility for digging or getting a tractor in to plough, which I did the first two years. Paid for it in weeds later, but life is much easier now.

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