Westbrooke plot –productivity problems – and solutions

ALFI first started to cultivate the Westbrooke plot (a roadside verge at the junction of Lenten St and Westbrooke Rd) as a small vegetable and herb garden in 2009. For the first two or three years it was pleasingly productive; presumably the soil was fertile after growing only mown grass for many years.

But gradually the productivity decreased. One problem was the lack of a water supply. At first kind neighbours let us get water in cans from their taps but we were grateful when ATC agreed to fill our water butts on a weekly basis through the summer. We now have two butts, and organise a watering rota through the summer months. The site is also quite shaded and on a slight north-facing slope so crops only get sunshine from mid-day onwards.

However, the biggest problem was that whenever we dug over the plot, we found that masses of tangled fibrous roots had grown in from a large sycamore tree in a nearby garden. These, presumably, were taking water and nutrients from our crops. We had two lovely raised beds constructed and filled them with good soil and organic material over a permeable plastic sheet at ground level. I was sure this would prevent the roots from growing up. I was wrong.

The more we fed the plants, the more the roots grew in! So last year we decided to dig out the smaller raised bed and laid an impermeable plastic sheet before refilling with a lovely mix of fertile soil. And this year that bed has been most rewarding. Broad beans, peas, salad crops, beetroot and carrots have all done well through the summer, and in late September we planted seedlings of spinach, rocket, radish and Chinese cabbage – all of which have flourished and are now ready to pick.

So we have just had a working party to dig out the bigger raised bed to lay an impermeable membrane in that one too. Hard work; it is amazing how much soil comes out of a modest raised bed. But a good team of volunteers completed the task and the bed now has a few months to settle before we start planting again, beginning with broad beans in February.

Finding solutions to such problems is what makes gardening so satisfying. Unfortunately the rest of the plot still has to compete with the tree roots so we have to grow hardier, less hungry plants there-like herbs-unless we can find another solution!

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