Tag: allotmenteering

Welcome to Your New Plot. The Hard Work Starts… Now.

July 2016 main onion harvest
How d’you like them onions?

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.)

Plot #59, January 2014, middle section
Here’s what we were looking at on day one…

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.

Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death...
Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death…

Luckily, Jo’s folks warned us about this sort of thing before we started, so we’ve made it our practice to weed and clear thoroughly and diligently from the beginning. A few other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice though, and they’ve tended to be the ones who haven’t lasted the distance.

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.

May 2014 - tarpaulins
Get those covers down!

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.

January 2014 - weeds!
More Weeds – Bramble and Bindweed and Buttercup (oh, my!)

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.

May 2016 courgette patch
12 courgette plants, plus companion chard and tagetes. Looked sparse when planted. Now a jungle…

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.

Delicious sweetcorn
That’s what I’m talking about! And so much more…

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!

It’s National Allotments Week this week, and the National Allotments Society website is a great place to go for all sorts of allotment-related info.

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So, You Want to Be an Allotmenteer?

Langley Allotments, Summer 2016
An allotment site in summer is a very fine place to be.

It’s fast-approaching changeover time at our allotment site. September is when the next year’s rent falls due, so anyone who’s thinking of giving up their plot is most likely to do so before they have to fork out another year’s subs. This means a steady trickle of potential new allotmenteers being shown around our site – and I’m sure a fair few others – by the Secretary, and a series of bright-eyed, enthusiastic newbies taking up their tools and getting to grips with growing their own.

If you’re one of those would-be good-life seekers, then congratulations! It’s a wonderful way to tick all sorts of healthy lifestyle boxes: fresh air, exercise, mental wellbeing, community spirit and of course all that lovely produce that you’ll be picking and plucking from your plants in due course. You’ll even save a bit of money on your shopping bills when harvest season rolls around (although it’s really not about turning a profit).

But before you rush off to sign up to your nearest waiting list, here are a few things to ponder. (Disclaimer: the following is intended as a dollop of tough love. Some of it may sound as though I’m trying to put you off the idea of allotmenteering completely. I’m not. Unless, of course, I do manage to put you off the idea, in which case, maybe allotmenteering isn’t quite right for you. At least, not right now. If so: you’re welcome.)

Here goes:

1. Forget What You’ve Seen on The Big Allotment Challenge

So, yeah, you remember that two-season BBC show (now cancelled, it seems) in which a bunch of folks turned up on day one to be given the metaphorical keys to a perfectly turned, absolutely weed-free patch with a sparkling clean greenhouse? Odds are that won’t happen to you.

Unless you’re extremely lucky and end up inheriting a plot that’s been lovingly tended right up until the moment before you signed the paperwork – which can happen; sometimes folks move house, or switch plots, or sadly pass away with spade in hand – then it’s far more likely you’ll be shown around something a lot closer to the state of ours when we took it over back in January 2014:

Plot #59, January 2014, from the front left corner
“Doesn’t look too bad..?” They said, with a lot more hope than experience…

As you can see: a grass-covered, weed-choked patch of little more than scrub-land. And that was in winter. Once the weeds started growing again in Spring… well, it would certainly explain why in the early days our plot neighbours and several passers-by shot us the occasional pitying look when they thought we weren’t paying attention.

Are you ready for that sort of challenge? Are you sure? If so…

2. Be Prepared to Put the Hours In

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but an hour or so every other weekend (but, hey, only if the weather is nice, but not going-to-the-beach-nice) really isn’t going to get the job done.

If you’re thinking of allotmenteering as a part-time hobby that you can fit in around your salsa classes, triathlon training, guitar lessons, weekly shop, Munroe bashing, Sunday morning lie-in, or whatever else you already have to cram into your too-busy schedule, then perhaps you should think again. The chap who had our plot two tenants before us was dubbed “the half hour gardener” by one neighbour for his habit of turning up once a week, poking around for 30 minutes, then declaring he’d had enough and disappearing off again (and they’re still muttering about him four years after he left).

Here’s the thing: nature won’t wait for your timetable. Weeds will grow, water will evaporate, blight spores will spread themselves around and slugs will munch their way through anything that looks tasty, whether you have time to do anything about it or not. And those weeds, pests and diseases definitely won’t just stay within the boundaries of your plot; they’ll rapidly spread to your neighbours’ meticulously tended patches. Your overgrown, cough grass stuffed and dandelion-choked disaster area won’t endear you to anyone close by and could earn you a few pointed words from the Secretary at Inspection time.

For everyone’s sake, if you’re going to take the job on, you must be prepared to do it regularly and do it properly.

Oh, and speaking of time-sinks…

3. “Kids and Allotments Don’t Mix”

…is what someone told us in passing when we started out. And, based on observation since then, I have to say that it’s generally all too true.

Bored Child is Bored...
Bored Child is Bored…

Now, before any doting parents take extreme umbrage and yell at me for horrendously slighting their own precociously green-fingered offspring, I will admit that there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Every so often, you will see a plot taken on by an adult (or two) with a kid (or more) in tow and yes, the nippers will quite happily help mummy and/or daddy out with a spot of weeding, or wander around wetting things with their little plastic watering cans. Which is adorable, and great to see, and offers hope for the future of humanity, etc.

But it usually doesn’t last. There’s a reason that most allotment holders are either retired folks, or (like us) child-free types with enough free time to dedicate to the calling. That’s free time that doesn’t involve football practice, dance class, birthday parties, swimming lessons, school parents’ evenings, karate club, band practice, drama school, or any of the many, many other demands on parental time that always seem to be just a tad more important than getting down to the allotment for a session.

Empirical evidence: in our two and a half years to-date, we’ve seen a number of plots taken on, poked around on a bit, then abandoned again after a few weeks or months, and the majority of those have been the ones leased to families with young kids. And no, I don’t remember seeing a teenager helping out with anything on any allotment on our site, ever.

If you want to get your kids into growing their own food, connecting with nature and eating healthily, that’s great. My advice: start with a couple of raised beds in your back garden, or just some large plastic tubs if you don’t have much space, and take it from there. If they’re really, truly fascinated and stick with it, then you might want to think about moving up to an allotment in due course.

Still With Me? Good.

If you’ve just read, digested and – most importantly – nodded along to all of the above; if your determination to be an allotmenteer now burns more fiercely than ever, then that’s fantastic. I do believe you might me made of the Right Stuff.

July 2016 vegetable assortment
The rewards of all your hard work await you…

Next step: get in touch with your nearest (or rather: most highly recommended local) allotment site and ask to be put on the waiting list, if you haven’t done so already. If it’s anything like ours then you might be on said list for the next 2-3 years, but once your name rises to the top and you’re shown around your potential plot of weed-choked, grass-smothered, barely-cultivatable land (that’s nevertheless full of so much potential), you’ll know your time has come.

In a future post I’ll suggest a few top tips for novice allotmenteers, based on the experience that Jo and I have gathered in our first three years on Plot #59.

It’s National Allotments Week this week, and the National Allotments Society website is a great place to go for all sorts of allotment-related info.

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