A few tips for newbie allotmenteers

So you get your allotment and charge off full steam ahead with ambitious plans for what you’ll grow, but your plot is in a bad state and needs a lot of clearing – bindweed, couch grass, you name it. Or it’s in fair/good condition and you attempt to fill it with all sorts of fruit and veg in huge quantities. Hold on a minute!

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive (or even exhausting) list of how to set up and run an allotment, more of an outline of a few things I’ve learnt along the way with my own allotment or observations of other peoples’ plots.

It’s fundamental to your long-term success to be realistic about how much you can achieve.

  • Be aware of the how much time you will be able put into your plot in addition to commitments of work, family, volunteering, and other activities.
  • Remember that it’s not all about pottering around in summer but taking care of essential maintenance in winter too.
  • Share a plot with friends if you feel it’s a lot to take on – this also helps if there are waiting lists in your area.
  • How you will deal with gluts of produce or diseases such as blight.

If your plot needs a lot of clearing I recommend doing one section thoroughly in the first year. This means that you can plant crops and have something to show for it, and you’ll be saving some of the hard work for next season. It’s one answer to being realistic, see above! So many people do a lot of back-breaking work in the first year, plant very little or nothing, then give up even though they’ve now done the hard work.

If weeds are growing high, it might be a good idea to embrace your inner Poldark and scythe it off first before digging them out. Rotovating might be a way of getting the soil into usable condition but at the cost of damage to the soil structure and of spreading pernicious weeds such as bindweed around – even a tiny section of root can grow a big clump of the stuff! The remainder of your plot can be covered up with, say, heavy duty cardboard or old carpet (some Allotment sites disapprove of the latter) so that when you come to clear them the weeds will be easier to deal with. There are plenty more ideas of how to cover it on the internet. The RHS has some good ideas for weed control, and if you are growing organically (which I recommend) try Garden Organic’s advice

Your soil will improve, and the crops grow better if you are able to add some manure or composted material to it. Many stables are glad to give manure away, but it needs to be well rotted to work properly. Your local authority may sell compost they’ve made from garden and household waste collections. You can also start to compost your own waste once you have some crops to pick.

What to grow? It seems obvious, but grow what you like to eat – it’s surprising how many people don’t do this! There’s no point in putting your loving care into something you or your family won’t actually eat; this also means being realistic about how much of each crop to grow. Most seed will keep for at least a couple of years so don’t sow the whole packet. Bear in mind that some plants such as rhubarb and asparagus can’t be picked for at least a year, so it’s a long-term commitment.
Newbie Allotmenteers
If you only need a few, buy some plants from a farmers market or garden centre, or do swaps with friends. Look out for plants being given away on Freecycle or indeed put in a request – I recently got three lovely cucumber plants by doing so. Potatoes are good for opening up the soil and bringing up the soil’s nutrients from the deep, and there’s nothing like the taste of freshly dug potatoes, but just grow a small number if that’s what you’ll eat. Think about whether you need to grow vegetables that are cheap and easy to buy, such as parsnips. Consider growing shallots or red onions rather than yellow onions as the first two are much more expensive in the shops. If you’re a total beginner, look up which seeds germinate more easily than others, to avoid disappointment.

And finally, some tips about rules and etiquette at your site. You may be prohibited from growing fruit trees, having bonfires, using carpet to keep down weeds, and more besides – check the rules and observe them at least for a while – even if others break them, being a newcomer may mean that you get targeted first! If you’re lucky the council may mow the paths between plots but most don’t and remember it makes life easier for you and your neighbours if you keep your paths accessible. If you have an allotment association do join it – it may give you access to cheaper bulk orders of seeds, and to advise and social events. Listen to the advice of the old-timers but also take it with a pinch of salt as the old ways aren’t always the best! Find out from them which pests such as carrot rootfly are prevalent.

Above all, enjoy yourself and happy harvesting!

Comments and other tips welcome!

Me and my Eco journey

My name is Diana Morgan. I was born in the mid-1950s and became aware of environmental issues in my teens. We were a Guardian-reading family, getting good coverage of such matters; Doomwatch was on TV (a drama series about a secret government agency tackling environmental emergencies); Friends of the Earth launched with a publicity stunt dumping non-returnable glass bottles on the doorstep of Cadbury-Schweppes. The holes in the ozone layer at the poles (and the role of CFCs in that) became a concern, as did global warming, now more correctly known as climate change.

Not being good at sciences at school I pursued an arts degree; in any case, environmental science courses were in their infancy in those days. For a couple of decades afterwards, I took an avid interest in eco matters but did little of a practical nature, apart from being a member of organisations such as Friends of the Earth; although I do believe it is important to put your money where your mouth is even if you are not taking action yourself. My activism in the 1980s and 90s mainly involved going on CND and Anti-Apartheid demonstrations, both very pressing issues at the time. I recycled as much as I could in the days before kerbside collections.

Since moving out of London to Chichester in the mid-90s I have become an active member of Chichester Organic Gardening Society and Transition Chichester. In 2010 I became self-employed for the first time following redundancy, working as a freelance social media marketer (with green-related and local food clients where possible). Soon after, I added another business to my portfolio as a distributor for Wikaniko, a UK-based cooperative selling all kinds of eco-friendly, healthy, and natural goods. I trade as EcoStepByStep.

At the time of writing, I am stepping back from routine social media work in favour of more writing in the green sphere (blog posts and copywriting for clients) and of developing EcoStepByStep. I have also recently become one of a team of WI Climate Ambassadors.

My interests include nature, travel, photography and walking. At some point, I changed from the teenager who told her mother “I’m not an outdoor person” into … an outdoor person, some of the time!

So what’s next? Really, it’s wide open. I want to spend more time on environmental projects, both professionally and personally – working on turtle protection is one cause that really appeals to me!

This is the first stage of my evolution from eco worrier to eco-warrior!