Welcome to allotment gardening

We have put these notes together for beginners, so please accept our apologies in advance if it is all old hat to you! You may have better ideas of your own. One of the joys of allotment plots is trying things out as you fancy.

The Plot

Our plots are let as "10 yards" for a full plot, which means one-sixteenth of an acre. The small plots are half that size. Allow for paths - which you should try to keep two feet or more wide, and well-cut.

The Tools

You can work a plot with no more than a fork, spade, hoe, rake, and trowel. Forks and spades come in two sizes; the smaller often called a "border" fork, or spade. For good digging the larger ones are needed, choose a comfortable height. Also a ball of string and two sticks to give you a straight line for digging or sowing. Beyond this it is up to you to choose as you gain experience.

Shops often price second-hand tools rather dear, so check on the new price first - they are not all expensive. It depends what sort. Stainless steel ones are lighter and easier to work with, but expensive. There should be no cracks or rust on the join between the handle and the blade or fork. Old borrowed tools are a good start to cut costs.

Digging

It is important to be a good digger. You get to know the soil as you turn it. It is best to start with the spade. The fork can be used later for breaking down clods and lifting roots left in. Try not to bring soil from the bottom of your trench on to the surface. If you have ordered manure, you can mix it in as you dig. Unless you want a job for life, leave the stones were you find them (except any very big ones)!

If the ground is thick with weeds cut them down first. Your fellow plot-holders may be able to help with strimming the ground. Otherwise rake off as much you can and "skim" the weeds off the surface with a spade before digging. On a slope start at the top, take the row right across the shorter side of the plot, and turn the soil up the hill.

If you are lucky enough to have turf on your plot, cut it out in strips and stack it upside-down. It makes excellent soil as it rots, and gives bumblebees a home! Or bury it upside-down at the bottom of the trench, along with other small weeds.

The Hoe

Keep this going on the paths that you walk across the plot, and round your plants: little weeds are easy to deal with!

The Rake

Rake the soil to a fine tilth for sowing small seeds. You can use the handle of the rake, or a garden cane, to make a small straight groove for sprinkling the seeds in, and cover them with the fine soil by using the back of the rake. If the ground is dry or rough, and you can afford to take the trouble, sprinkle handfuls of compost along the drill and then set the seeds in that to get them started. Water seed drills before you plant the seeds

Compost Heap

Most garden waste is suitable, and a free-standing heap works perfectly well. It is best to stand it on the ground to keep it moist and allow drainage. For neatness some people set up a framework of wooden shutters or chicken netting, and containers can be purchased commercially, but are rather pricey. Leaves of all sorts, chopped-up hard stems, grass if it is mixed with the rest, and kitchen waste can be used (but not meat scraps or fast food to attract rats). Pat it down, water it, and cover with an old piece of sacking or even carpet. Nature will do the rest, as long as you do not let it dry out.

Avoid the white roots of perennial weeds like couch grass and convolvulus. There is no need to mix in soil or manure or earth or lime, or additives of any sort.

Bonfires

These should be very rare. Woody plants and twigs, dry material, perennial roots, any diseased plants (such as potato hulmes or tomatoes with blight) are best burnt. Make a small hot bright fire with cardboard, paper or wood and a firelighter, so it burns with a blaze that is soon over. Do not pile damp weeds or old plastic or rubber etc on it to make a smoke-stack as that is unhealthy, often against the Council's rules, and annoys everyone else: use the compost heap, and take the rest home.

Paths

These should be level and two feet or more wide to give a safe footing. Trim the edges and throw the earth in to the plot away from the path to give a clear border - where you can sprinkle slug-killer or smear creosote to discourage those pests.

pH

All soil is neutral, acid, or alkaline. pH metres do not need batteries and are inexpensive. The numbers run from 0 to 14. 7 is neutral, higher than 7 is alkaline, lower is acid. Most vegetables do best in soil around 6.5, but the machines come with full instructions. Swedes enjoy lime, for example. You can dress the soil by rows. Lime (alkaline) should be spread and left to wash in, otherwise the surface soil is untreated.

Rotation

Root crops - Brassicas - Others

Just follow the circuit round - split the land into three. This prevents any one crop exhausting the soil and building up pests and diseases.

Roots: (do not add manure or lime) include beetroot, carrot, chicory, parsnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, salsify

Brassicas: (you can add well-rotted manure) include broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kohl rabbi, kale, swedes, radishes, and turnips

Others: (add plenty of well-rotted manure when digging) includes beans, peppers, celery and celeriac, endive, cucumbers, leeks, spinach beet, lettuce, marrows, onions, tomatoes, sweet corn, peas, and spinach

A general-purpose fertiliser such as Growmore or Blood, Fish and Bone can be used for all of them
Sometimes this rotation cannot be worked out exactly, if a large area is taken for potatoes, for example.

Do not forget the flowers and fruit -nasturtiums are tasty in salad (flowers or leaves) and the newly formed seeds preserved in wine vinegar are like capers. Flowers for picking and for beauty are a good idea too.

Should I dig the whole plot all at once?

No. Slow and steady wins the race. Half an hour is enough for the first day if you are unused to exercise. Stop while you feel you want to go on. Choose days when the ground is neither frozen nor too sticky and wet. Choose a spade of the right height, comfortable to use, keep it clean with a stick or wet cloth if need be, and insert it vertically, not at an angle.

It is better not to dig and prepare a seedbed all at once - let the soil settle and break down first.

Start at the top of any slope, on the narrowest edge of your plot, and work steadily down. If you make slow progress, you can cover the other end with black plastic to keep the weeds down; better not to use old carpet, as seeds will grow through and in it till you have a remover's nightmare. Or use a soil-friendly weedkiller such as Round-up or similar. NB do not spray weed-killers on, use a watering-can and sprinkler bar - or you will spoil the next plot's crops. Apply them from a watering can fitted with a special weed-killer rose (most shops sell these now) using clean water and on a calm day, keeping the spout low to the ground. Perhaps keep the can just for that purpose. Follow the maker's advice.

Sheds and Greenhouses

A shed is normally put at one end of the plot. A lockable box will do instead, or you can take your tools home! A bit of a task! There is always a small risk of theft, so do not leave valuables there. If you are unlucky and have things stolen, tell the Association or phone the Council allotment officer at once, and also be sure to tell the police - they act only on statistics of the number of complaints made! It was an offence to damage allotments or allow others to do so (1971 Criminal Damage Act) Report each incident separately to the Police to register on their records.

Check your tenancy agreement to see if Greenhouses can be built anywhere on the plot - tell your landlord or association of your plans first, though. But a cold frame is useful, as are cloches, and plastic tunnels.

Books

There are lots of books to help you. The Vegetable Expert by Dr. D G Hessayon is widely available. Grow Your Own magazine is full of useful information each month, and there are many gardening tips in newspapers and journals these days. It may be wise not to try too many things too quickly - see how much is involved in getting good results first. You may discover an interest in one or two sorts, and begin to specialise.

Brown's Seeds can be bought at a discount by SWCAA members. Catalogues are sent round, and you can contact them through the seed secretary, (or directly yourself for a smaller discount.)

Satisfaction

Is almost guaranteed: allotments meet one of our basic needs- finding a patch of land and growing your own food survive. But they do far more than that - they let us grow sometimes beautiful things, let us work steadily with nature still in this fast-moving age, provide solitude, peace and a place to think and unwind, let us reconnect with the seasons and the soil. They also bring us into contact with other gardeners, who will offer advice and help.

Never hesitate to ask questions, or to seek help and advice. SWCAA are here to advise if we can.   email swcaa.cic@outlook.com