Sitting on a council allotment list, waiting for a plot to become available, can be a long, drawn-out affair. It took us four years of thumb-twiddling before our local allotment committee foolishly allowed us to take charge of our own plot – but at this time of year you might find yourself moving up a little quicker on the list. We are entering peak growing season, a time when many, once keen allotment holders, realise they can’t put in the hours required to maintain their patch and decide to jack it in, leaving behind nothing but muddy tears and waist-high weeds. For an average sized plot, you are looking at around 4-5 working hours a week to keep it properly maintained. Taking on an allotment garden is no small task. For the aspiring vegetablist, a plot presented to them midsummer can be rather overwhelming. Here’s our allotment guide for beginners to get you up and running.
A helping hand
You may well luck out and find yourself inheriting a fairly together, tidy-looking plot, but chances are you’ll be given an overgrown piece of land in need of urgent attention. Before you hire a rotavator and fire up the strimmer, check with your local council. Some councils will offer a ‘free of charge’ service to clear any existing rubbish and will cut back overgrown areas in lieu of your tenancy. To hit the ground running (and to cut out a lot of back-breaking work) it might be prudent to take them up on the offer.
Dig for treasure in your new allotment garden
Before you (or the council) wreak havoc with a fork, look carefully and you may well discover some horticultural gems hidden amongst the undergrowth of an abandoned plot. Plants to save from the spade are established raspberries and gooseberries; in fact, any berry-bearing bush is a keeper. Pray to the god of overpriced veg if you discover a patch of asparagus spearing skywards – this gives you a three-year head start on planting from scratch. And don’t be too hasty with plants that may be considered undesirable to entertain on a traditional allotment. Our own plot backs on to a native hedge, which we’ve mostly cut back, but have left a dog rose to ramble and dangle its fruits over our side. We’ll be turning those into rosehip syrup come autumn. And although it’s a tricky one to explain to the council allotment inspector, leaving a patch of nettles untouched will provide a valuable feeding and breeding habitat for insects. Also: nettle beer is GREAT.
Draw up an allotment plan
One of the most important steps in our allotment guide for beginners is to plan before you plant. Assign designated areas for composting – and if your local council allows – a place to make a bonfire on which to incinerate weeds and toast marshmallows. Don’t forget a seating area from which to survey your plot and to slurp refreshing beverages, but most important of all, don’t give yourself too much to do in your first year. Allotment gardens are hard work, especially when starting from scratch. Dig out a small area and focus on a couple of crops for starters, covering over the rest of the plot with a weed proof membrane. Ease yourself in to allotment life, just as you would a hot bath.
Get a shed
Not only does a shed stake your claim on your new allotment garden plot, it announces to your fellow allotment chums that you mean business. It’ll also provide shelter should it start bucketing down with rain whilst you’re on site, and provides a place to stash a few garden essentials, such as trowels, twine and the odd long handled tool. Just don’t keep anything in there that you wouldn’t want to lose – isolated allotment sheds can prove to be thief magnets. When your shed is up and running, install a water butt and guttering. Many allotments will have their water supply (if provided) turned off during droughts, so a butt or two will ensure you won’t get caught high and dry.
Don’t fall foul of Allotment Envy
Wandering around the plots of a mature allotment can often be dispiriting, especially for the greenhorn gardener. It’s difficult not to become envious of other folks plump, bounteous vegetables, glistening in the sunlight. Just remember that the most pristine Gardens of Eden on which your eyes reside are most likely owned by retired folk who can devote most of their days to keeping them in tip-top condition. Take inspiration and take note. Are fruit bushes netted up? This indicates that the local pigeon population is abundant. Is there low netting and chicken wire surrounding brassicas? This probably means that rabbits are rife, so protect your own crops accordingly. Are most people’s crops housed in cages? This sounds like deer. Best of luck with that one…
Obviously, the best advice will come from a good old fashioned, face-to-face chat with your fellow allotmenteers. Don’t be shy – most gardeners are a friendly bunch and will be only too happy to share their wisdom with an allotment beginner!
Are you a complete allotment newbie? Have you tried any of the tips in our allotment guide for beginners? Share your stories in the comment below.