How to get started

So you have got your allotment or are thinking of growing in your garden, where do you start?

Ask 3 gardeners the same question and you will usually get 3 different answers! This guide will give you some pointers and handy hints and tips but it is by no means definitive.

Survey your land

Look at the type of soil. This can be clay, sandy or ideally, loam. A clay soil can become waterlogged in winter and rock solid in summer; however it is often very rich in nutrients. A sandy soil can be very free draining and low in nutrients. The ideal soil type is loam; a humus rich, well drained and nutrient packed soil.

If the land isn’t clear, then you can look at what is already growing (ie: the weeds), to give you an idea of what kind of soil you have. Try looking at this guide for help with this.

The soil on Granville Park is a sandy loam, and is quite shallow; digging down 2 spade depths will have you reaching sand.

Layout

Think about what you want to grow, ideally you will need 4 areas for crop rotation. Crop rotation itself can be quite complicated and you can follow a number of different formats for this. Try our quick summary guide on a simple crop rotation plan.

Think about the location of permanent structures/features. If these are sheds, or a greenhouse, then see the site handbook for information on positioning. Other permanent features can be things like raspberry frames, fruit trees etc. It is up to you where you place these, but try to avoid being too close to boundaries or neighbouring plots.

It is also worth noting that you need to be able to access areas. 4 rows of raspberries may look good when they are small, but if they are too close together you could end up with the fruit being mostly inaccessible. Remember, you need somewhere to walk.

Methods

The first choice you will have to make is whether to use weedkiller, to cover the area first or just start digging a larger area. This comes down to how truly organic you want to be and how many/what type of weeds you have. If you have taken on a plot with bad infestations of perennial weeds then weedkiller alone is unlikely to kill all the weeds. You will still needs to deal with the roots, although weedkiller might ‘knock’ back the growth and make the job a little more manageable. In most circumstances it is realistic to dig the weeds out! If you are unsure where to start, ask an experienced allotmenteer for their thoughts and guidance.

Raised beds, blocks/lines, dig/no dig? There are advantages and disadvantages to all the different gardening methods. Raised beds allow you to have permanent paths so you do not compact the soil by standing on it; whilst using the full plot with no permanent paths can mean you waste less space. Digging helps remove weed roots and can be used to turn in organic matter like manure, but other schools of thought say that too much soil disturbance can damage the natural structure of the soil. Your choice of method is a personal decision. Remember, the quicker you can on top of any weeds the more productive and under control your plot will be.

First steps

If you have taken a plot on in the growing season try to avoid letting weeds ‘go to seed’. There is an old gardeners saying of “One year’s seeds is seven years weeds”. Strimming and covering is a good way to control this. You can then uncover and tackle a small area at a time.

Regardless of your choice of method, when prepare your first bed ensure you remove all the perennial weeds, they will only come back to haunt you. Some perennial weeds will die off with covering to exclude the light using the ‘no dig’ method, but research this method fully as allotments can quickly go out of control if you provide extra nutrients but do not use this technique correctly.

It is better to dig little and often than trying to tackle the whole plot in one afternoon. If you aren’t used to it you can injure yourself.

Talk to fellow plotholders, they know the site, what works well and what doesn’t – don’t be shy!

Salad crops, radish/lettuce are quick growing crops during the summer. If you have taken a plot on near the end of the season then planting overwintering onions and garlic is a good start during September, October or November.

Essential tools:

Fork, rake, trowel, watering can, gardening gloves! There are many gardening ‘gadgets’, but if you have these basics you can tend your plot. Other helpful items include a: spade, shovel, sweeping brush and netting/fleece suitable for plant protection.

When/how often to visit:

Be mentally prepared that weeds will grow. You need regular visits to keep on top of the weeding. You don’t need a rigid plan, but do need to adapt your lifestyle to fit it in.

The 30 minute allotment is a bit of a myth, on an incredibly well tended and long established plot, maybe! The best maintained plots are by owners that are there frequently. You must decide on a routine that suits you. Some plot holders come once a week for nearly a whole day; others come every day for shorter time periods. It is up to you to develop a system that works for you.

Time of year:

This makes a huge difference on the approach you can take. If you take on your plot at the end of the growing season or in winter then you should focus on clearing and preparing the ground for spring. As mentioned earlier, planting overwintering onions, garlic and even broad beans or peas is a good motivator. This is probably the best time to take on a plot as, during the winter, most weeds are dormant so you can really have a good chance of making a really good start. If you have taken your plot on during the growing season then strimming down the weeds or covering up straight away is essential. You can then clear a small area and start planting crops. It can be very disheartening to go back a few days later to see all the weeds sprouting up again if left uncovered!

There are many ways to get on top of a plot and there are no right or wrongs. That said, there are recommendations:

DO:

  • Ask for advice off other plotholders
  • Plan how you want to use the area carefully
  • Cover up areas you are not working on
  • Make a compost heap
DON’T:

  • Rotovate without removing perennial weed roots
  • Spend too many hours digging at start
  • Make a big pile of weeds and leave it uncontained/big mounds of soil
  • Put perennials in the compost heap
  • Plant permanent structures close to boundaries of your plot.