Having an allotment has been one of the most satisfying decisions we’ve ever made. Our kids love being there and we all learn together as we grow food and nurture each other.
When we first moved into our house, I decided to put our name down for an allotment. I was told we would have to wait 10 years before one would become available!!!! So feeling deflated we began growing bits here and there at home. We didn’t really expect to be offered our plot after 8 months!!
So we know the panic that sets in when you realise you have no idea what to do next!
Well get a cuppa, sit back and let me give you a plan of action.
When you first see your new plot, it is very unlikely to be a perfect manicured space with wonderfully weed free beds ready for planting.
It’s more likely that you will find a messy, weed ridden plot that looks unloved and unkempt.
Seriously. The amount of plots that are leased out and then abandoned within a few weeks when the task seems impossible. This is probably how the plot became over run in the first place.
Yes, it’ll be hard work to get on top of but it’s not impossible if you have a plan.
First, Let’s start with the rules of the plot
When you first sign up for your plot and are given your keys. You’ll also be given some rules and regulations. Make sure you read these over carefully. Some places don’t allow you to build a shed or any buildings, other say no to fires children and dogs.
Knowing the rules can save you a world of trouble later.
Steps to start your allotment
The first day on your new plot will likely be daunting. Unless you are incredibly lucky, your plot will be an overgrown jungle.
The excitement of having your own plot can disappear quickly when your faced with a forest of weeds, rubbish and all sorts.
But it is manageable if you just take a breath first.
It is not as scary as it sounds. You don’t need to tackle the whole plot at once, take it in sections, cover what your not working on and before you know it you’ll have a beautiful plot full of delicious food.
Clear The Rubbish
Before you can really get started, it’s important to clear any unwanted materials. The last plot holder may have left items such as tools, metal supports, piles of rocks or even broken glass.
Cut The Grass
Use a mower or a strimmer and run over any grass areas. Tidying up grass paths and overgrown beds can make a big difference. If your really unlucky the whole plot will look like a meadow to start with so cut down the grass and weeds to let you see where to go next.
Remember, wildlife like hedgehogs, frogs and bugs will be hiding in the grass and you need these for a healthy plot so be careful when using a strimmer or mower. Try to clear the area first, making lots of noise to give your wild friends time to get outta there.
Clear The Plot
Again if your lucky the previous plot holder may have left some crops and plants such as rhubarb, apples or even a hidden crop of potatoes. So as you make your way around your plot, keep your eyes open for any plants that may be useful. There’s nothing like free plants!
If you find plants such as fruit bushes or strawberries runners, dig them up and pop them in a pot of soil until you’re ready to plant them out again.
Once you have cleared anything useful from your patch, my suggestion would be to decide where you want to start. Pick an area to make your first bed. If the rest of the plot is a grassy field, use card or black membrane to cover the areas you aren’t going to work on just yet. Covering these areas helps to exclude light and stop any more weed growth until you get around to tackling these areas.
Make Your Bed.
If your plot is so overgrown, you may not have any defined beds yet. Decide where you will put your first one and what size you want to make it. Try not to go too big here, you need to be able to reach the centre of the bed from all sides to make weeding etc. easier.
Now there are 2 schools of thought here, traditionally you need to dig over beds ready for planting. However, there is a method which is growing in popularity called the ‘no dig’ method.
This method popularized by Charles Dowding is said to prevent soil from being disturbed and helps to grow healthier plants while preventing the back breaking work. In this method you need to cover your bed in thick cardboard, then on top you layer lots of organic matter. Planting straight into this material and constantly add organic matter on top after each crop etc. This method is well worth considering and the wealth of success stories makes it a viable option.
However for this post, we’ll assume you want to do things the traditional way.
So, Let’s Start By Removing The Grass.
Use a half moon turn cutter (or a spade if you don’t have one) to mark out the edges of your bed, the cut the remaining turf on the bed into strips to make lifting it much easier. Simply slide a flat spade along the ground under the grass and lift slices of turf.
Stack your turf slices upside down and grass side to grass side in a spare area that’s out of the way. They will rot down over a year and give you amazing crumbly loam to use on your beds.
Also, If you have a lot of turf to lift, I would suggest hiring or borrowing a motorized turf lifted which will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
Dig And Weed Your Beds.
I’m sure you are familiar with this bit. The bed will need a good dig over to aerate and break up the soil. ( no-dig method sounding good yet?)
Dig one bed at a time and when your digging, make sure everything is dug over to at least a spades depth. If you want to really have an impressive plot then double dig. ( dig down to 2 spade depths of soil, around 60cm)
Pick out any weed roots, rubbish and stones as you go. The more you prepare your soil not the easier the rest of the year will be.
Now is also a good time to loosen the soil by adding organic matter or gravel. Especially on clay soil. Composted bark, sharp builders sand, gravel are all great to help increase drainage and loosen thick sticky soil.
On sandy soil it is also important to add something to stop moisture running straight through. Adding compost or manure helps the sandy soil to hold water near the plants roots.
Add Some Fertiliser
Most soils benefit from added nutrients and organic matter. There are many ways to do this.
For heavy feeding crops for example its a good idea to add manure such as horse his can be horse or sheep manure.
If this isn’t easy to obtain( check your local riding stables) you can use alternatives like chicken manure pellets or blood fish and bone powder.
On our plot we also save leaves in the autumn to make leaf mould and we use our grass clippings as an effective mulch between crops to keep the weeds down and keep the moisture in. Over the season we top this up regularly in 2 to 3cm layers and the worms and soil life continuously pull this into the soil adding the nutrients back to the soil.
Once you have your crops growing, its important to keep them well fed.
You wouldn’t have a dog and not feed it, so why expect plants. Yes plants survive in the wild without our help, but on an allotment set up we are asking the soil to continuously churn out lots of edibles over and over. We can’t keep taking the goodness out without giving back.
That’s where the added organic matter comes in. The bacteria and soil life will feed on this organic waste and they turn this waste into a usable substance the plants can feed on.( basically worm poop)
However, to keep your plants topped up you can make fertilizers at home without resorting to chemicals, like making your own Comfrey Tea.
Simply grow a patch of comfrey on your plot. When it gets nice and tall simple chop it down and add it to a bucket with a lid. Squeeze in as much as you can then top the tub up with water.
In around 6 weeks you will have a disgusting smelling soup that you can dilute to the colour of weak tea and feed to your plants.
Depending on what you want to grow on your plot, you may need to add a certain type of fertilizer.
• Brassicas for example need lime in the soil as they like alkaline conditions.
• Potatoes hate lime and they get very scabby skin.
• Green leafy crops like nitrogen in the soil so it’s best to sow these near peas and beans and they are fantastic for making nitrogen available for others.
Invest in soil testing kit and find out what your soil is like and go from there.
How To Water Your Crops
A water butt is an absolute essential on any plot. Attach guttering onto your shed or fence and run it downwards to a water butt.
Our plot has access to water taps but I know a few who don’t. A water butt can collect a substantial amount of water for you to water your plants regularly.
Pay a lot of attention to shallow rooted crops as these will dry out quickly.
Moving around your plot has to be easy as you will be carrying tools, pushing a wheel barrow and kneeling down to tend to your plot. So its important to consider your paths carefully.
Some people like to dig over the entire plot and just walk paths in between their beds while other’s like to edge their beds, build raised beds, have grass paths or otherwise define their growing area.
We use grass paths as I feel they are the most useful. Comfortable to sit on, hard wearing, easy to keep neat and about all add a pretty green edge to set of the allotment plot nicely.
You can also use slabs, bark chips, bricks etc. but make sure they are at least 60cm wide.
Let’s Get Planting (Finally!!)
It’s a long road to get to this point but it will be well worth it. You now have a clean, weed free tidy allotment to start planting on.
Will you be sowing seeds? Planting your home grown seedlings already established or are you buying in small plants to put in the ground?
The best time to plant is in Spring but it may have take most of the season to get the plot ready so you need to find out what you can plant at this time of year.
Before you run off to the garden centre, there maybe a few other things to consider
- Do you need a cold frame? New plants either sown at home or from the garden centre will need a sheltered spot to get used to things before they can be left to nature’s elements.
- You need to set up your compost heap, Where will your compost bins go? Setting up a composting area will make everything else easier, you’ll have somewhere to put your weeds (annual ones only)
- Also, do you need a shed? Are you allowed one? What tools will you need? Where will you store them?
Giving your plot some consideration now can make things easier later!
As your plot grows, you will need to wage war on Pests
You aren’t the only one that wants to eat those tasty crops! Remember to think about crop protection when your planning out your beds.
Some organic solutions include,
• Orange and lemon peel soaked in water makes a good aphid deterrent,
• Garlic water can help deter slugs and snails.
• Caterpillars can be picked off by hand.
• Marigolds planted around the plot can help keep flying insects away too.
• Remember to net your fruit bushes against birds but make sure you check the netting regular for trapped wildlife such as hedgehogs, slow worms, frogs and the birds themselves.
Have You Considered Crop Rotation?
Growing the same vegetable in the same spot each year can lead to a build up of pests that like to eat those crops. They move in and make the most of their free meals. However if you move the crops around your plot each year it makes it harder for the pests to catch up with the crops and you can keep your precious crops safe.
Check out these planning pages for a Crop Rotation sheet to help you work out how to organise your crops.
If you have gone to all this trouble to get an allotment, worked hard to clear and plant your plot and finally stand back and see the glory of a well kept plot you will know it’s defiantly worth it.
Check out these posts for more great information about growing vegetables.
A beautiful garden for free is a great post if you don’t have a lot of space and want to grow food, Start by growing your left overs!
This post has great tips for growing great vegetables.
and this post is for all you gardener’s who need help with small space gardening like balconies and patios.
Starting an allotment is almost addictive, the fresh air, the sight of raising your first seedlings, the challenge of getting your seedlings to grow well and planted outdoors and then watching them produce food to feed you and your family.
That first time you eat something you have grown all the way from seed and look at your family knowing you have provided that food from scratch and it’s the healthiest thing you could possibly feed your children, then you will be hooked!!
Whatever your reasons for starting an allotment, fresh air, making friends, growing food for your family…it’s always worth it.
So what if you don’t manage to grow carrots one year, or your potatoes all have holes in them.
Every year we all have successes and failures. it’s just part of the fun. There is always someone there to offer you advice, a helping hand or a spare bunch of carrots because they have extra!
So go one have a go!! What do you have to loose. Here’s a quick recap!!
- • Get your plot
- • Clear the rubbish
- • Cut the grass
- • Remove and cut back any plants
- • Make the beds
- • Dig and remove weeds
- • Add fertilizer
- • Make water available
- • Design hard wearing pathways.
- • And finally get planting!!