Things move fast in March, and I don’t just mean the new suped up zombies. You’ll find there are a number of things you’re trying to get done at once, but it’s OK to take things a bit at a time.
This week I have been digging another bed, planting alliums, and digging up my old paths. In an ideal world I would do all my digging and ground preparation first, then plant my plants in a carefully staged order. But this isn’t a perfect world. This is the apocalypse.
The important thing is not to sweat it. You don’t want to plant everything at once anyway. As far as possible you want to move in accord with nature, but nature, as we have learnt to our cost, is an unpredictable bastard. Planting things progressingly throughout the season is a good way to hedge your bets. I planted a few alliums (onions and garlic) last week, and a few more this week, as I cleared another bed. What you can plant will depend in part on the time of year and in part the conditions you are working with.
Digging Up Paths and Making Plans
Clearing beds for planting is important, but do not neglect the paths between your beds. If you have the time and the strong young bodies to do it, clear the whole area you plan to farm first, then set out where you want your beds and paths. If it’s just you against a harsh world, you’re more likely to need to do your digging in stages and plant as you go.
Give some thought to where you want to plant what. Blueberry bushes like marshy areas, but a lot of plants don’t. If your ground is of mixed condition, check which plants have specific needs and plan to plant them accordingly. The back of your looted* seed-packets will tell you what conditions your plants like.
You may want to consider raised beds. These are beds raised off the ground and encased by wooden borders, which offers some protection against pests. For example, the feared carrot-fly can only jump 60cm high. A high enough raised bed will neatly defeat them. Most raised beds do not reach so great a depth, but still provide some protection.
If you lack the building materials and time needed to construct a raised bed, fear not! I’m just digging in the dirt, but my beds are still raised a little off the ground. This is because the soil of a path is compacted for walking on, whilst the beds themselves are ‘turned’ as described in my previous post, not merely to ease eviction of roots, but to loosen the ground and improve the structure, so that plants are better able to stretch out their roots without obstruction.
Note that you want to avoid walking on your beds, and factor this in when you’re planning your layout. I’m short and don’t have a particularly impressive reach, which is important for weeding as well as harvesting. It’s important not to lean or step on the soil of your beds as this will destroy the soil structure. For this reason, my beds are not too broad – just wide enough so I can comfortably reach the middle from both sides. However, if you want larger beds, you can get around the issue by using a plank of wood and laying this on the soil to spread your weight over a larger area.
However wide your beds, you will want to dig up your paths as well as your beds as weeds growing in from the paths will seek to take back your carefully cleared soil. Remember: it’s survival of the fittest, and weeds are very, very good at what they do. Give them no quarter.
Make no mistake: no matter what you do, most of the time you spend gardening will be devoted to weeding, but a little hard work at the start of the growing season can save you a lot of time and heartache later.
As I’m working an allotment that pre-existed the End, some of the work has been done for me. Nevertheless, it is suffering neglect. In previous years I had laid down weed-control fabric over supposedly weed-free paths, then put bark chips on top of that. Bark chips both make your allotment look nicer and help discourage weeds. They biodegrade harmlessly and make a good mulch. However, over the years loose soil has combined with the bark chips to create a surface layer in which weeds have taken hold:
The weed-control fabric still afforded me an advantage in that, in pulling it up, I also stripped away the majority of the weeds ebedded in the surface. You can see above a comparison of the stripped path with the weed-control fabric I pulled off this and several other paths. Most of the grass that had taken over the paths has come away on the surface of the fabric. Incidentally, the righthand fabric is the plastic kind, whilst that on the left is of a more papery, fabric-like material. You can see how the one is more weed-infested than the other. Go plastic, baby – when money no longer has meaning, loot the best!
I then gave the path the same treatment I give my beds – digging it up and sifting out as much of the weed-root as I can. This will turn and raise the soil. Once you’ve done this, walk along the path, compacting it:
Here (below) shows a comparison with a bed and path I dug at the same time. On the right, the path has been compacted, but the bed hasn’t. It’s good to do beds and paths at the same time as otherwise soil from the bed is likely to fall down onto the lower plane of the path.
Ideally, I would have gone on to remove the weeds from the weed-control fabric, relay it, and cover it with bark chips after having done this. However, the light was fading, and you never know what lies waiting in the dark! I will return to complete this later. In the fading light, I moved swiftly on to planting my alliums.
Alliums are the family of plants that includes onions, garlic, spring onions (scallions), chives, shallots, leeks, and the like. They are oniony tasting; usually with layered, edible leaves; and their flower spikes produce a delightful sphere of blossom (although, if you are growing to crop, you should nip the flower and stem off as soon as they start to form).
Apocalypse farming is all about finding the balance between high-yielding, practical crops, and those with the flovour to keep your mood up in difficult times. Alliums provide a perfect solution. Onions can be used in almost any dish, adding flavour, nutrition, and bulk. One might question growing garlic where you could have a bountiful crop of potatoes, but I submit that the humble garlic can elevate even the simplest dish into something worth eating, and should not be ignored!
Garlic is super easy to plant. Just take a clove and stick it in freshly turned soil, root-end down, and gently firm the soil around it. Plant cloves about 10cm/4in apart. The tip should just be poking out. Try to keep the skin intact as this protects the clove. Don’t plant any cloves that show signs of mould or damage – they are likely to fail and may contaminate the soil with fungus or disease. Fortunately, garlic bulbs provide plenty of cloves to choose from. If you’re pushed for space, choose the fattest cloves, as they will likely produce bigger bulbs.
I’ve chosen Arno – a white-skinned, largeish, medium flavoured variety. You can plant garlic from a supermarket – and I have done so! – but varieties available at gardening centres are likely to do better. This is because supermarket garlic is likely to have been imported from a different climate. Garlic adjusts well to different environments, and gardeners say that cloves saved from last year’s harvest often do better, as they have adjusted to the soil. However, a bulb grown in Spain whose cloves are planted in the North of England (say) will be more vulnerable to rot in the damper, colder conditions.
The main danger with garlic is rot. This will be less of an issue in warmer climates, but in Yorkshire, I always find I lose some of my bulbs.
Ideal time for planting garlic is the late Autumn – tradition has it that it should be planted on Halloween – but if the Apocalypse happens on you in late winter or early spring, you can still grow garlic! The bulbs my be a little smaller, and garlic likes a little frost to get it started, but it will work, and I promise you it is worth it!
Onions can be had in seed form and in ‘sets’, which are bags of small bulbs; you want to loot the latter. Onions can be grown from seeds, but it takes longer and, tbh, you needed to start earlier. Gather seeds this year for sowing next year; hit the ground running likea zombie with onion sets, for a reliable apocalypse harvest. Good advice on growing from seed in the UK can be found here.
Onions are exactly the same as garlic, except that you should plant them six inches apart. A rough estimate is fine – don’t get too hung up on exactitude – but if you crowd them too much your onions will be smaller and more likely to ‘bolt’. ‘Bolting’ means going to seed early, and for your purposes results in the plant devoting its energies to flowering, rather than producing the nice fat bulb you want to eat.
I’ve gone for a mixture of red and white onions – Red Barron for the red, Sturron for the white. Sturron is the variety I won first prize for a few years ago, so I know it can grown big! If that was all I wanted, I could stick with them, but I’m growing red onions for flavour and variety. A more varied diet is better for you, as well as tasting good!
Once planted, lightly water the beds. Too much water can lift the bulb free of the soil, but don’t wory if this happens, just push it back in. Once watererd, you are good to go. Water onions regularly when it’s dry and feed them every couple of weeks. Apart from that, they basically look after themselves until harvest time in July and August. You’ll know when to harvest because the leaves will flop over and turn brown.
And that’s it! I was hoping to get some planting done on Easter Weekend, but the weather wasn’t with me. Tune in again for my semi-regular apocalypse allotment adventures!
*Only loot in a post-apocalypse situation. If the world hasn’t ended where you are yet, pay your dues.