When you run out of ground space for growing, why not take to the water? Admirably showing how it's done, Kingsland Basin's floating allotment barge in east London produces a variety of organic edibles from rhubarb, rocket and potatoes to runner beans, tomatoes, globe artichokes and even two kinds of gooseberries — green and red. Alpine strawberries run riot and next year, the apple and pear trees should start fruiting.
"We rotate the veg annually as you would on any allotment," says Valerie Easty, a lawyer by day and a keen allotment gardener on evenings and weekends.
Easty, like all the other six or seven regular participants, lives on a boat and is part of CHUG — Canals in Hackney Users Group — an independently run community marina that has been so sensitively run for 25 years it has turned the Basin into a haven for wildlife. The floating allotment is run by CHUG and the Shoreditch Trust charity.
"British Waterways — now Canal Rivers Trust — had the idea of turning several redundant working barges into edible gardens," explains Easty. "The Trust funded the transformation of this one, and British Waterways filled it with soil, providing a working area of about 50ft by 12ft 6ins. The soil was dense clay and builders' rubble and though some people thought it wouldn't work because the soil would become waterlogged, or the nutrients would leach into the canal, we thought differently. Because we've all lived on the canal for a long time, we know the canal water is an amazing fertiliser. And the water drains out of the soil, into the hull and on into the canal."
The floating allotment has few limitations, says Easty, but because it caters for more than one family, planting needs to be sensible. "If we grow 14 beetroots, that's just one per household, the same with carrots. So we focus on cut-and-come again produce, such as salad leaves, spinach and raspberries. Instead of cabbage, we'll have brussels sprouts; instead of cauliflower, we'll have broccoli."
Previously the veg, fruit and herbs were raised in rows; now they're in blocks, with a central path of wooden planks recycled from a former pontoon, so they can be reached more easily. A compost bin is compulsory in every allotment, and the CHUG gardeners have made the most of theirs, by bringing in a bag of worms, so that now the worms not only help break down the compost, but, established right through the beds, they help distribute it down through the clay soil, too.
There is also a duck pen, the only indicator of the 10 Khaki Campbells that once skated off daily down the canal as a flock, delighting everybody and supplying the 14 participating households with an abundance of delicious, large eggs. Alas, a fox got on to the barge, gaining access from another boat — so no more ducks, but Easty says more are planned for next spring. She has also applied to the Woodland Trust for a community pack of 150 trees to make an edible hedgerow on the towpath.
"Because of recent building work a number of trees were pulled out, so we've lost a lot of bird life," she says.
Raising veg in a boat is not all, forgive the pun, plain sailing. "We've had to learn as we go along," says Easty. "In the first year, the clay formed a pan on top, making it waterlogged beneath. The boat almost sank before we realised what was happening. Now we keep a watchful eye, pumping out the water when the boat gets a bit low."
This year, Easty tried growing courgettes and squashes in growbags along one of the barge's walkways. "The idea was that the trailing stems would dangle over the edges of the barge, but the walkways are metal, and get hot, so they fried the roots, and the stems dried up." Undeterred, Easty has a better plan for next summer. "We'll clip balcony window boxes along the rails; that should do the trick."
The Floating Allotment is open on September, 15 from 11am to 4pm, as part of Capital Growth's Edible Gardens Open Day. There will be a pop-up café and, as part of London's Capital Bee scheme, two beekeepers will be on hand at the allotment's hive to answer questions. Entrance to the marina is 305 Kingsland Road, N1