What’s that? You’ve just taken on an allotment for the very first time? Hey, congratulations! You’re about to start on something that could be truly wonderful; great for your health (physical and mental alike), your diet, your shopping bill, your social life, you name it. Just wait until you lift your first potatoes, or start picking your first raspberries, or see your first sunflowers unfurl, or… well, the possibilities are endless.
Jo and I started out on Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments back in January 2014. Here are a few things we’re either very glad someone mentioned, or wish someone had sat us down and properly told us, before we launched ourselves at the plot and got stuck in.
1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
On the Facebook allotment groups people sometimes post before & after pics of the scrubby patch of ground that they’ve transformed into a ready-to-go allotment in, oh, around a week or so. If you’ve got the time, the energy and maybe a small enough plot, then that’s great. The feeling of achievement after that week of intense toil will be incredible. (As will be the back pain, most likely, unless you take suitable precautions.)
On the other hand, if like us you’re not really keen on (or suited to) the ‘going at it hammer and tongs’ approach, then remember: it’s fine to eat the proverbial elephant in nice, small bites. Pick a manageable section to work on and sort it out properly. And then pick the next section, and repeat until you’re done. Because…
2. There are Very Few Short-cuts to Long-term Success
Yes, a quick strim and a once-over with a rotavator might seem like a great way to quickly make your new plot look lived in (and of course you get to play with power tools, which is always fun).
But once you realise that you’ve just chopped up a huge patch of calystegia sepium (better known as bindweed) – which re-grows into a whole new plant from even the tiniest fragment of root – and liberally distributed it across a large section of your allotment, you really will wish you’d taken a bit more time and been a bit more thorough with your hand-weeding.
Luckily, Jo’s folks told us this before we started a so we’ve dug and cleared thoroughly and diligently from the beginning, but lots of other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice.
Likewise, Glyphosate-based weedkiller might seem like a handy solution to a problem patch, but, well, it’s been banned in several countries for being probably carcinogenic, and although its license has been temporarily extended by the EU, the debate is raging across the rest of the World.
Your health, your risk, your decision, of course. Personally though, I’ll only ever use the stuff on path areas that I know won’t be used to grow any food crops, ever. And then only on a still, dry day, to avoid the stuff blowing into areas I might actually want to grow on.
So what to do about those tricky, problem areas..?
3. Dig, Cover, Repeat
On a year-one (or -two, or -three) allotment, your very best friend might just turn out to be a large, dark-coloured tarpaulin or a long, wide roll of heavy-duty weed membrane. Beg, borrow and, er, acquire as many as you can, and then cover over as much of the plot as you’re able to.
All plants – including weeds – need light to thrive. Block the light and you prevent photosynthesis. No photosynthesis means not enough energy for the plant to grow, whilst respiration continues to consume its internally-stored resources. Net result: dead plant.
Black is best, blue and green let a bit too much light through to be totally effective, white and/or clear are next-to useless, but putting down a layer of cardboard under a lighter-coloured tarp is a good combination; the cardboard blocks the light and a well-weighted tarp on top prevents the cardboard ripping up and blowing around in the wind.
Leave those covers down until you’re ready to tackle a section – a year or more, if you can – and when you lift them, you’ll find the job of clearing whatever might have survived is much, much easier.
Two-and-a-half years on, our patch is looking a whole lot better than when we started. We still have a section in the middle that needs properly clearing, plus the central and border paths to sort out, and some sort of seating area to set up at the back, and… well, it’s still very much a work-in-progress is what I’m saying. But we’re getting there. We were lucky in that our allotment secretary told us to think of it as a three year project just to get the basics sorted out. Which took a lot of the pressure off, so we’re grateful for that.
But along the way, we’ve tried very hard not to lose site of the need to…
4. Love Thy Neighbour
I don’t just mean that in a ‘have a chat, make friends, share a flask of tea, swap surplus produce’ kinda way, although all of that is important (and great fun) too. I’m talking about the responsibility that you have to your neighbouring plot-holders not to let your patch get out of hand.
In my previous advice to would-be allotmenteers post, I mentioned that weeds have no respect for boundaries and borders. None whatsoever. If you ignore those persistent dandelions, or that rapidly-spreading clump of creeping buttercup, or the gnarly mess of bindweed clambering up your apple tree, or the forests of dock leaves that are sheltering a thriving population of slugs, then before too long the stuff will be making a bid for freedom and heading for pastures new and plots next-door. And that’s not going to make you a popular plot-holder.
You’ll be given a bit of leeway to start with, especially if you’ve bravely taken on a plot that’s been an absolute nightmare for a while (as we did). But if all you do is turn up at the beginning, dig a bit, weed a bit, promise yourself you’ll be along again shortly, then disappear off for a nice long holiday abroad during weed-growing season (which is any time from March through to October) then you might come back to a few less-than-friendly mutterings about your spreading weed problem, or maybe even a pointed chat with the allotment Secretary about the need to improve standards or move on.
Keep things under control with the aforementioned covers. Dig, clear and plant when you need the space and then make an effort to keep that planted space as weed-free (or at least, as low-weed) as you can, and everyone will get on just fine.
Speaking of planting, here’s something I’m only just getting to grips with after two-and-a-half years:
5. Don’t Get Greedy!
When you first start growing your own, there’s an awfully strong temptation to assume that more means… well, more. Cramming an extra fruit bush into a gap, or planting up eight kale seedlings in the row instead of six or generally ignoring the spacing instructions on the seed packet and assuming that it’ll probably be okay.
Fooling yourself you are, Padawan. Those spacing guides are there for a reason: namely that the experienced plantspeople who come up with them know how big those plants will get in time. Plants need enough space to ensure an adequate supply of light (see photosynthesis note, above), water, nutrients and root-room if they’re to grow and expand to their full, adult, food-producing potential. Healthy plants are also better able to fight off the almost inevitable pests and diseases that will afflict and attack them during the course of the growing season. Deny them the essentials and there’s a good chance that the plants will suffer, maybe even die, and overall yields will be reduced.
Also: you need to remember to leave room for you. Jo is constantly telling me off – and quite rightly – for forgetting to leave adequate walking and working space between rows of crops. How is she supposed to get in to weed the brassica patch – she quite reasonably wants to know – if there are so many brassicas in the patch that there’s nowhere left to step, stand, crouch, or perform any of the other necessary weeding manoeuvres? Good point, well made.
One job we’ll need to do this winter is re-spacing the fruit bush section. When I planted out a few blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants etc. a couple of years back, I didn’t take eventual sizes into account. We now have a patch of highly vigorous gooseberries right in the middle of our blackcurrants and redcurrants, making it extremely difficult to harvest either of the latter without risking severe puncture wounds from the spines of the former. Note to self: when Carol Klein says, in her Grow Your Own Fruit book, “space blackcurrant bushes six feet apart”, she doesn’t mean “ah, go on, three feet will probably do”.
There are exceptions, of course. A lot of the spacing recommendations have been handed down from Victorian kitchen gardens, when maximum yield was the absolute goal. James Wong, in his book Grow For Flavour points out that not all the Victorian guidelines will produce food crops with the best flavour and that sometimes, treating them mean badly make them produce better-tasting results. And in last year’s series of Beechgrove Garden, Jim demonstrated that cabbages will grow to fill the space you assign to them, so if you want smaller, two-person plants rather than leafy beach-balls, then planting them closer is the way to go.
So, yes, your mileage may vary. But generally speaking, my advice would be to go by what they tell you on the seed packet, plant larger specimens with enough room around them to prune, harvest, water and weed under them, and bear in mind that anything else you do is an experiment and that results may not be guaranteed.
Above all, though, the most important piece of advice I can offer to any new allotmenteer is:
6. Stick At It!
Because once you’ve put the hours in, covered over, dug and cleared the weeds, planted out your seedlings, done your very best to guard them from pests and diseases, nurtured them through droughts, floods, tornadoes and hailstorms (if the average British summer is anything to go by)… you’ll finally get to the really, really good part: harvesting the fruits of your labours.
If your fingers are even vaguely green, or you have any sap in your blood whatsoever, then the feeling of picking, cooking and eating your own is a truly great one. Whether you get your buzz from doing your bit to eliminate food miles, putting good food on your family’s plates, a renewed connection to the Earth, or just a tiny bit of (understandably slightly smug) self-satisfaction at a job well done, then it’s a really great feeling to have. You can and should be justifiably proud of yourself, because whichever way you look at it, you will have achieved something good, wholesome and genuinely beneficial to you and those around you.
Appreciate it for as long as it lasts – pretty much all year, if you get your crop planning right. Then, once the harvest has slowed to a winter-trickle, sit yourself down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and start planning for next year’s growing season. As you steadily move from novice to experienced allotmenteer, you’ll find that there’s always more work to do, more mini-projects to dream up, more lists of new must-grow crops to jot down, and so much more to learn. It all starts again in the Spring and, with your first season under your belt, you’ll be desperate to get on with the next one.
Don’t forget to make good use of the off-season as well. Work out what jobs you can usefully do – remember: you shouldn’t dig when the soil is wet, because you’ll destroy the structure and limit its potential – and set yourself up with an action list. There are tools and pots to clean, equipment inventories to check, maybe a greenhouse to scrub in February or early March. Plenty to keep you occupied.
You can develop your allotmenteering skills and knowledge during the winter break, too, by reading and researching. There’s a huge amount of information out there, in books and magazines, on websites and blogs, to be had by picking the brains of the old boys from your allotment site over a pint or a cuppa, and if you avail yourself of that you’ll be in a much better position long-term.
Go for it! And enjoy!