Starting an allotment for many starts with good intentions which tail off into disillusionment when the grind of working without a plan hits home. So, you’ve chosen the plot, met the neighbours and are ready to get gardening. Here are some simple pearls of ‘earned’ wisdom from a fellow traveller.
Don’t try to take on too much at once. The first year for any bed is HARD work but the investment of time in preparation pays off later.
Compost now for use in the future
Looking around at the other plots, everybody else comes in for a couple of hours, an apparently aimless potter, a chat and leisurely flask of tea – and then they produce magnificent crops! There you are, sweaty with a sore back, faced with an intractable 100 square metres of a jungle consisting of brambles, thistles, couch grass, and worse. Cut all the weeds down, and start your compost heap.
Prepare one or two beds at a time – I prefer digging the land over, removing as much as I can of perennial and invasive weeds and their roots. Add these to your compost heap. This may well be the hardest work you will ever do on the allotment. Prepare the beds well now, right at the start, and you will save time and effort in the future.
This preparation has its own immediate rewards – other allotment-holders used to share with us their surplus harvest. Their generosity was just what we needed to keep their interest going over the first few months. And as long as I live, I will not forget the look on my children’s faces when they were able to return the favour the next year!
Alternative to hard graft
Use a rotovator – but beware! The blades will chop each piece of invasive thistle root into 100 pieces; where you had one thistle this year, next year you will have 100. Use a chemical weed killer – it may be quicker, it’s not organic, and you will still need to dig over and remove the most stubborn weed roots which have survived the chemical treatment. Use a mulch. Cover the beds with black plastic sheeting, old carpet (avoid carpet with the foam backing – it rots and flakes off into your bed), even layers of newspaper, all weighted down and left for several months. The weeds will die if they can’t get access to sunlight!
Allotment trials – learn from experience of others
- Women I worked with in West Africa laid out their market gardens in raised beds, 4 foot wide by whatever long. No theory or argument – just simple practicality.
- Work out your rotation plan for the next few years. Include the beds you are going to bring under cultivation.Choose your crops but keep it simple.
- I grew potatoes on half my new plot to clear the soil of weeds I’d missed (lots!).
- I chose a small selection of the easier and more reliable vegetables – peas, broad and French beans, beetroot, parsnips, onion and shallot sets, and leeks.
- My own brassica seedlings, so carefully nurtured, were a complete failure; but other allotment-holders had loads of plants to spare. Or buy seedlings from a garden centre the first year.
- My carrots were “disappointing”.
Starting an allotment … with children
Set aside a good area (in my plot about 20%) which is the kids’ own. They can plant what they want to plant (you’ll still have to do most of the work, though!). It has its risks – the first year my kids wanted strawberries and somebody came in and nicked all their plants!
This year however, Ayman and Halla grew some beautiful sweetcorn; Ayman tried lettuces another allotment holder gave him – and they were FAR better than mine. Tamanna grew superb leeks, Charlotte potatoes, brussels and kale, and herbs. The look of simple pride and bewilderment as she was able to share her potatoes with other allotmenteers was worth any amount of trouble and hard work!
One of the real pleasures of an allotment is working to an older, slower, longer rhythm. Take it easy. Do a bit at a time, but never more than you can manage.
Get a couple of beds working well the first year, a couple of new beds the next, and before you know it, your allotment looks as good as (and maybe better) than the others.Last modified: March 2, 2021