Allotments conjure up visions of carrots, potatoes and cabbages rammed into sacks. There’s so much you’re barely able to get your produce home.
On overcast days you drink tea with neighbouring plot holders in a rickety iron building….it’s a lovely vision and it can be yours.
But first, you’ve got to put in the hard work!
Getting an Allotment
First off the block is actually getting an allotment. In some areas, there’s plenty of space, but in others, the waiting list is 20 years. For the sake of sanity let’s assume you have an allotment assigned to you and you’re heading over.
You could be faced with several scenarios. The dream scenario of a beautifully kept plot that’s been manured, dug and cared for, there’s running water and a small watertight shed all for you.
It’s pretty unlikely, and you’re more likely to find an unkempt plot that’s overgrown and uncared for.
I’m not going to lie, it’ll be hard work so do some lunges and stretch your back. If you have a really messy allotment you may have to spend this year clearing the site to get it in tip-top condition.
Clear the Rubbish
Before you put blades and spades anywhere near the greenery you may have to get rid of broken glass, metals, netting and the previous allotment holder’s junk. Wear sturdy shoes and gloves for this job
Cut Back The Plants
Keep your safety gear on and work your way through the tangle steadily but surely. If you’re offered a plot in winter, or you’re in no rush, try laying cardboard or polythene over weedy areas. This smothers them, cuts out light and deprives them of water so your job will be less back-breaking.
Bear in mind that wildlife that will take up residence in the long grass and overgrown greenery. This includes hedgehogs, frogs, grass snakes, toads and so many others, so don’t just hit it with a strimmer because they cause horrific injuries. Poke about in the grass before you begin, make noise and go slowly – give the wildlife a chance to escape.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for previous plot holder’s perennial plants as you cut back, such as fruit bushes or strawberries runners. Dig them out and pop them in a pot of compost until you’re ready to plant them out again. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of free plants.
Take Up The Turf
On newly created allotment sites you may have to remove turf. Hire or buy a turf cutter to make the job easy, but if you’re energetic you can slice off squares of turf with a sharp spade.
Pick Out Weeds and Stones
Stone-picking and digging up weeds are without a doubt the most boring garden tasks, but it makes a huge difference to the quality of what you’re able to grow. No scrimping on this job!
The more you remove now, the easier life is later. If you have helpful children offer them a penny per stone and provide snacks! Keep any picked stones as they make good sturdy pathways or drainage for herb gardens or containers.
Dig, Dig and More Digging
Unless of course, you fancy the no dig option.
If so, lay black polythene or plastic over the plot to kill weeds, this could a take a few weeks or months depending on how overgrown things are. Then, cover the weed-free area with a thick layer of organic matter at least 4cms in depth.
You can plant directly into this without digging over. No dig gardening is becoming a fashionable way to grow plants and it’s certainly easier on the back!
If you don’t like the no-dig method, old-fashioned soil-turning is excellent exercise.
If the plot is unkempt then do a double dig – that’s two lengths of your spade into the ground. If it’s too much for you, think about buying a rotavator. You can hire them but after two hiring sessions, it’s probably cheaper to get your own.
Add Some Fertiliser
The majority of soils benefit from added organic matter. This can be horse or chicken manure, commercial pellets or a soil conditioning compost, the choice is yours. Fertiliser helps boost and break up the soil, so it’s worth investing time and effort into this bit.
Water, Water Everywhere – but not at your allotment
Many allotments don’t supply water, but allotment holders get around this by installing a water butt.
If you’re planning shallow-rooted crops like tomatoes they might not survive unless you can get there regularly to water them. A water butt means you won’t need to carry gallons of liquid in your car or on the bus.
Pathways Are Essential
Allotment plots can be pretty big and you need to move around it easily. Before you start digging think about the plot layout, where your beds will go and how you will access them.
Raised beds look great and they are simple to make with old scaffold boards or pallets, but if you don’t fancy that you’ll still need paths around your traditional beds because walking causes soil compaction and makes life hard for roots.
Grass paths are the easiest option. You can dig the whole plot and lay grass seed or turf, or dig beds into existing turf. Trim the edges to keep them neat and you have hard-wearing natural pathways.
A weed-resistant membrane with wood chipping works well too, and don’t forget the stones you dug out from the planting beds – they can be used to build up a pathway as can patio slabs, roofing tiles, and old bricks.
Now You’re Ready to Plant
Bear in mind a whole growing season may have elapsed while you’re getting the plot ready but it’s time well spent because good soil means better crops. The more effort you can put now the better.
So you’ve dug, picked out stones, weeded and laid a path – you’re ready to rock. What you can do now depends on the time of year.
A Year on the Allotment
Spring is the busiest time for an allotment holder, but the best time in my opinion.
Seeds germinate in the wet and warm weather. This means weeds too! Wait until frosts have passed before planting because seeds rarely germinate in cold wet soils.
If you want to start growing earlier, put seeds in pots to take advantage of fully leaved plants in springtime.
A cloche or small poly-tunnel is a good investment if you want to get growing quickly as they warm the soil and protect seedlings against the elements. If you don’t have these use a sunny windowsill to bring on seeds.
- March Onions, shallots, potatoes, lettuce, radish, leeks, beetroot
- April It is usually warm enough for anything by now. Add peas, carrots, parsnip, cauliflower, and broccoli to the list above
- May the above plus runner beans, french beans and spring onions.
Late spring and all of the summertime are prime growing months for seasonal veggies and flowers. Keep picking your produce as this stimulates more growth.
Watering is essential in summer as many plants such as onions and rocket will go to seed without it. Others simply won’t fatten up without liquid.
- June – It’s the last month for sowing so put in anything you haven’t yet sown, and successions of others you’ve already planted but want more of such as lettuce, radish, and quick growing crops.
Plant sweetcorn, squash, courgette and marrows now too. Get a head-start by germinating these on your windowsill first. If it’s consistently warm the tomatoes you started in January can go outside. If you didn’t sow any buy plants for the garden centre.
- July – Succession planting for quick growing salads
- August – Savoy cabbages, late spinach, and hardy lettuce can go in now for winter picking
The mad rush to get your seed in is over and now it’s time to hope the sun stays to finish ripening everything! Put in some winter crops when you get the room.
- September – Hardy lettuce and hardy spring onions, autumn onion sets, and spring cabbages
- October – Broad beans can go in for an early spring crop
- November – Lettuce under cover and broad beans can go in now – I always plant broad beans on armistice day.
As you harvest and empty the beds it time to dig them over and let the winter rain and frosts kill off any infections – unless you like the no dig method of course!
It’s time to relax and start planning the next growing season.
You may have winter cabbages, kale, parsnips and broad beans growing in the plot, so keep an eye on these and pick them when they are ready. Parsnip is best after a frost as the cold makes them sweeter – you may have some sprouts and parsnip for Christmas lunch if you plan it carefully.
You can also plant dormant fruit trees and bushes throughout winter. They won’t show signs of life until the warm weather, so be patient.
- December – buy your seeds
- January – Dormant fruit trees and bushes are best planted now. Tomatoes seeds can be started off in a propagator or a sunny windowsill
- February – If you’re growing potatoes this year start chitting them in February. That means buying seed potatoes and placing them on a windowsill so that small green shoots can grow through. You may also be able to force some rhubarb – put a pot over the clump and watch it shoot upwards looking for light.
And back to March! Let’s try again.
Regular Jobs in the Allotments
Keeping the weeds at bay is one of the biggest jobs in an allotment particularly if your neighbour has a wildlife plot or isn’t particularly neat.
Once weeds go to seed they get everywhere. You can fight back by investing in a proper hoe and get to work when its dry. If you hoe on wet days those chopped weeds just re-root.
Use can use membrane around fruit bushes and permanent plants, but annuals will need some elbow grease. Again, mulch is your friend as it cuts out light and smothers weeds. Try to use some especially if you can’t get there regularly to water. I can’t recommend mulching enough!
Get a water butt if you can and leave out containers to fill with rain too, it’s surprising how much water your thirsty plants will drink.
You aren’t the only one that wants to eat those tasty crops!
No doubt you’ll get your fair share of aphids, caterpillars, birds and all manner of uninvited guests. You can use commercial sprays on insects, eggs, and larvae, but its possible to use organic methods.
Cirus peel soaked in water makes a good aphid deterrent, and caterpillars can be picked off by hand. Marigolds planted around the plot can help keep flying insects away too.
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.
We talked about fertilising way back at the beginning. It’s a great way to keep your soil healthy and productive.
Popping a compost bin on your plot is a good way to get a free supply of compost at hand. Keep it topped up with the right amounts of brown and green waste and you won’t look back.
You can buy fish bone and blood, growmore and other good quality fertilisers at garden centres and supermarkets if you don’t want to make your own compost – I’d recommend it though as you’ll have plenty of clippings to get rid of and bonfires are not usually allowed at allotments.
This simply means changing where you grow your seasonal veggies each year.
Take note of where you plant and what you grow. For example, if you grow beans, next year grow something else in that space. This is because different crops have different nutrient requirements. For example, tomatoes love eating so they suck up all the nitrogen and phosphorus.
Planting them in the same spot year-on-year means the area runs out of those nutrients and your crop is pretty pathetic.
Root veggies like carrot and potatoes don’t use up much of anything. Beans and peas need a lot of phosphorus but they replenish nitrogen, so follow peas and beans with leafy or fruiting crops to take advantage of the nitrogen, and keep rotating.
I’ve listed the groups below because although beans and peas are different plants, they are in the same grouping and use the same nutrients.
Here are the plant groups you should rotate for best results.
- Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts)
- Legumes (peas and beans)
- Root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, radish)
Is An Allotment Worth It?
If you decide to get an allotment you will have to invest time and muscle power, but it is totally worth the effort. Not only will you have the satisfaction of producing your own home-grown veggies, you get plenty of light, fresh air, and exercise. If it’s a community-minded allotment you’ll make friends.
As the seasons roll around seed planting and harvesting just becomes second nature and you won’t even need to think about it much.
Don’t stress if your seeds, don’t grow, they get devoured by aphids, or a drought kills everything off. Keep at it. Growing veg is not rocket science and even the most experienced of gardeners get caught out by the weather and an influx of pests.
Allotment Rules and Regulations
There will be a set of rules and regulations for the allotments and meetings to attend. These are important and it’s worth taking note of what is said even if you don’t attend.
An allotment is a social place where you have to share space with neighbours. This can cause difficulties, and you won’t be popular if you let dandelion seeds blow over your neighbour’s carefully cultivated asparagus!
With some luck, you’ll be next to someone who keeps their plot tidy and helps with advice when you need a hand. If you are unfortunate enough to end up next to a know-it-all gardener with too much to say, just remember that no-one gets it right every time. Half the fun of gardening is waiting to see if the seeds come up, just have a go and take no notice of unsought advice.
Allotments are a living piece of British history and they show no sign of losing popularity. If you have the time and good fortune to be allocated a new allotment it’s worth its weight in gold potatoes. Good luck!