So now you’ve cleared your new plot of weedy growth and carted any junk to your local municipal dump/recycling centre, it’s time to prepare the ground for planting. Before you grab the nearest spade and attack the earth, make a plan. Decide if you want your allotment to be one big swathe of soil or a series of beds divided by pathways. Ours is the latter, and although this reduces the overall growing area, we find individually marked-out beds easier to manage. (Note – this highly important stage in allotment planning is a great excuse to go down the pub to mull over planting schemes. We can attest that the pub is a fertile ground for germinating ideas – some of our greatest, bestest ideas have grown from pub discussions. And, come to think of it, some of our worst…)
Back on the plot and having decided on a plan of action, it’s time to get busy. Grab a sharp spade, then dig into the earth, lifting and turning as you go. Turn the sods upside down, with the earth-side facing skywards and leave it to dry out. After a few days under favourable weather conditions, fork off the dry soil and cast the grassy remains in the general direction of your compost heap.
Having cleared your planting area, now would be a good time to rotovate the soil to aerate it and break it down into a nice fine consistency. Before you do, give the area a quick once over with a fork and remove any weeds. Rotovation can compound weed problems by spreading rhizome-borne perennial pests such as bindweed, couch grass and horsetail so be certain your plot is free from such troublemakers before you start.
Stand back and admire your freshly made bed. Now grab a fistfull of soil and see what you have to work with. Squish it, squeeze it and observe – your soil will fall into one of the following six categories…
Characteristics: Reddy-brown soil that can easily be rolled into a ball without crumbling. Clay soil drains slowly and takes an age to warm up in spring. It bakes hard and cracks in summer, and will clog up the tread on your wellies in wet conditions.
How can I improve it? Add composted bark to improve its workability, and mulch around plants to help conserve moisture.
Characteristics: Check for chalky soil by filling a jam-jar with water and adding a handful of soil. Wait for the soil to settle – chalky soil will leave a layer of white grit at the bottom of the jar. Chalky soil drains easily, but is not that fertile. Some plants will thrive in deep areas of chalky soil, but they will need extra watering.
How can I improve it? Add compost or well-rotted manure on a regular basis. Mulch around plants to improve moisture retention.
Characteristics: A black, rich soil, high in organic matter with great moisture retention. If you’ve inherited an old allotment plot from a diligent gardener, your soil may already be peaty.
How can I improve it? Add sandy soil and manure to improve drainage.
Characteristics: Silty soil is slightly more favourable than clay. It can be fertile soil to work with, but can suffer from waterlogging.
How can I improve it? Mulch regularly, and don’t forget to dig in plenty of rotten organic matter.
Characteristics: Easily identified by its coarse, sandy texture. Sandy soil is light to dig but relatively low in nutrients. Drains freely.
How can I improve it? Yes, you’ve guessed it – dig in plenty of organic matter. You may also wish to add some fertilizer for good measure.
Characteristics: Made from a mixture of clay, sand and silt, it’s a dark brown soil that can be rolled into a ball but will crumble readily. It’s the perfect soil for vegetable growing.
How can I improve it? Keep adding organic matter throughout the season to keep it in peak condition.
But what if you want to grow a multitude of plants in different soil conditions? Get yourself some raised beds! Find out how to construct them in our next allotment instalment…