A plot inherited
It is unusual to take over a pristine plot; many are in very bad shape, covered in weeds, debris and rubbish. The first step is looking at the plot as a whole and identifying what will give most pleasure and productivity.
Pretty and practical
If looks come first, a plot may be laborious and output may suffer: low, clipped hedges, for example, are troublesome, and narrow paved paths are awkward, inflexible and need a lot of weeding.
- Beans on wigwams and plantings of mixed foliage types are both practical and pretty
- Sheds can be festooned with spring-flowering clematis
- Raised beds with defined edges make it much easier to keep the plot looking neat
- Compost bins are not things of beauty, but can be positioned in the least-valued part of your plot and disguised with ornamental plants
- Ponds, wildflower areas and other ornamental features can be added without overly compromising the productivity of your allotment.
If changes in family, health, or work circumstances affect your time, it might be wise to downsize to a smaller plot for a while. Perhaps leave the plot for a year, covering the soil with a thick mulch or a weed-suppressing membrane.
Conditions often stipulate that at least two-thirds of a plot must be under cultivation, so you need to agree this in advance.
Dip tanks filled from the mains are the commonest watering arrangement on allotments.
Sprinklers, standpipes and hoses are rare, and push rents up. Much water used on plots is wasted. Water plants thoroughly in rotation, rather than distributing water widely and thinly.
The cost of water is included in the rent and you are expected to use it responsibly.
Look at what you've got
Plots may seem to be blank canvasses of earth, but no two are quite alike.
- Boughs can be pruned (with permission) for stakes, and their leaves composted.
- Terracing can be used on slopes to make easy-to-work raised beds.
- Wet patches are problematic, but are perfect if you hanker after a pond.
- Most sites have areas of neglect, such as banks, hedges and ditches, that offer potential sources of pea sticks, leaves for leafmould and vegetation for compost.
Exploiting these will keep them in better repair, but do agree any activities with the site management first.
Paths and boundaries
Good access to all parts, with paths to tend and gather your crops, is crucial. Paths within the plot use cropping space and are best avoided, but are essential for working beds.
Permanent paths between raised beds can be kept weed-free with a membrane or chipped wood. Council tree contractors often supply allotment sites with chipped timber. Temporary paths can be left as bare soil.
Edges and boundaries are crucial to a well-kept plot. Boards reduce the labour of trimming, often at the busiest time of the growing season. At a pinch, a narrow jet of a contact weedkiller along the edge can prevent incursion of grass and weeds.
Plan a rotation scheme
Never growing crops in the same place twice in a row thwarts soil-borne pests and diseases. For the crops a typical plot-holder grows, a four-course rotation is best. Each bed should grow, in order:
Year 1: potatoes and tomatoes
Year 2: root vegetables (including onions)
Year 3: peas and broad beans
Year 4: brassicas
Pumpkins, squash, courgettes, French and runner beans, sweetcorn and sweet potatoes have few pests or diseases and can be slotted in where convenient.
Mix up your crops
According to the theory of companion planting, mixing plants together confuses insects, especially if you mix a strongly scented plant such as French marigolds with vulnerable crops such as runner beans.
Successionally sow and intercrop
To 'intercrop', you sow and harvest a quick crop between a widely spaced, slow-growing crop. Widely spaced Brussels sprouts, for example, allow you to sow lettuce in early spring and crop before the sprouts, which are planted in late spring, grow too large. With skill (and good weather) you can fit in a quick-growing crop before or after the main crop is finished: early peas allow for a quick crop of autumn turnips, for example.
Successional sowing at intervals spreads a crop out: you might sow peas in early spring and then again each time the last sowing is 5cm (2in) high so they mature in turn without gluts.
Protection from the weather will boost growth and exclude pests. Fleece is cheap and gives a two-week ‘advance’ in spring-sown crops by providing extra warmth and shelter from wind; plastic cloches do slightly better. Both are vulnerable to wind and other damage, and often need netting over them.
Old windows are traditional allotment cold frames, but are also easily broken. Proprietary frames are expensive and you might think twice before leaving them on the plot, but a well-made frame can advance crops by up to a month, so it’s worth exercising your creative skills.