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Allotment Advice / Getting started

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If you are new to allotment gardening here are some tips you may find useful.

On your first visit to your plot, decide what work you need to do to bring it back into cultivation. If the previous gardener looked after the plot well, you can probably use a fork and spade to hand-dig the soil. Digging loosens the earth, letting air and moisture in and breaking up hard compacted earth. Plant roots and seedlings can then grow through the soil easily, quickly making vigorous healthy plants. Fork in compost and soil improver to stop the soil compacting down again, to feed the plants and to help moisture where plant roots can reach it easily. Then level the soil using a rake.

Don't try to clear the whole plot straight away. Work on a section at a time clearing and planting it, before moving on to clear the next patch. This way you will be sure to have something to harvest in your first year.

The best time for digging is Autumn or early Winter if you want to be ready for seed sowing in Spring. Choose a dry spell and remember, if the soil sticks to your boots, it is probably too wet for digging.

Seed sowing and planting

Seeds need fine stone-free soil, warmth, moisture and air to germinate well. Wait until the weather warms up in Spring, then prepare a seed bed by lightly forking an area of your well-cultivated plot. Rake the surface to a fine tilth removing stones and firming the soil with the back of the rake. Then follow the directions on the seed packet. You will not go far wrong if you follow the golden rules.

  • Sow when the weather warms up the soil.
  • Cover the seeds with a thin layer of fine soil about as deep as the seed diameter.
  • Sow thinly in rows to make it easy to sort out the weeds from the seedlings.

How many seeds?

Most seed packets hold many more seeds than you will need at one sowing. For crops that cannot be stored such as lettuce, radish and fresh coriander leaves, sow a few seeds every couple of weeks, so you always have some ready for picking.

Thinning out and transplanting

Thin out the seedlings as soon as they appear so they are not overcrowded. Remove weeds at the same time. Gently firm the soil and water the seedlings to settle the soil around the roots.

You may need to transplant some crops, such as lettuce and marrow's. When the seedlings have produced a few true leaves they can be transplanted into rows for growing on. Gently lift the seedlings with a hand fork and replant in the new position. Lift the seedlings by a leaf not the stem, for if the stem is damaged the plant will die.

Harvesting your crops

Most crops are best harvested when they are small and tender, especially peas, carrots and beans. With some crops such as marrow's, cucumber, peas and beans picking regularly encourages the plants to produce more fruits or pods. Leaving mature fruits or pods on the plant may bring cropping to an end.

Love your soil

Organic gardening is all about the health of your soil. By using bulky organic composts instead of rapidly soluble artificial fertilisers the soil builds up flourishing populations of micro-organisms which allow natural fertility. Most plant material can be composted and dug back into the soil. Dolomitic limestone is a slow release alternative to lime that gently releases lime into the soil over a period of up to two years. It can take some years to get the soil back into good health if has been exhausted or contaminated by pesticides but healthy soil will repay you in the long run. Green manure's such as grazing rye, buckwheat and field beans work wonders on soil and are an alternative at any time of the year to bare soil, which can be eroded by wind and rain. A clump of the herbaceous plant comfrey may last for years and produces mounds of leaves that when composted give a high potash feed, especially good for tomatoes.

Organic gardening begins with collecting

If you want to go organic, use plenty of space and stockpile anything green you can get hold of for the future. Nettles and long grass from waster ground are marvelous. Fresh ground should grow wonderful potatoes in the first year, with nothing added to the soil. Just remember to keep the weeds down. Always dig the soil carefully and remove perennial weed roots fastidiously. Dig in manure or compost and sow grazing rye over the first winter and you have a beautiful, fibrous soil the next spring for peas and beans. You can then add dolomitic limestone and plant over-wintering onions the second winter. So far you should not have needed to use any pesticides. If your crops are attacked, don't give up, this is usually because of historical build-ups. Healthy soil will support a whole chain of predators to do your pest control work for you. You will need to keep the weeds down, though. The old saying is true, one year's weed is seven years seeds.

Rotating your crops

Crop rotation prevents a build up of pests and diseases. Clever companion planting can deter pests, a typical example is growing onions near your carrots to confuse the carrot root fly. Local wildlife should eat your slugs, so look after hedgehogs, toads and frogs, slugs' natural predators. Blackfly and greenfly can be squashed or brushed off and should attract predators such as ladybirds after a few weeks. Rusts and mildews are difficult to control, but growing resistant varieties will help reduce their spread.

If you grow the same type of vegetable in the same place each year, it will deplete the soil of the nutrients it needs and pests and diseases will increase. To avoid these problems, rotate your crops. Plant a different type of crop on each part of your plot each year. A simple rotation is shown below.

               Area 1 Area 2 Area 3
Year 1 Root Crops,
 potatoes, carrots, parsnips         
 cabbage, sprouts     
 Pod & Salad Crops, lettuce, peas,   onions
Year 2 Brassicas Pod & Salad Crops       Root crops
Year 3 Pod & Salad Crops Root Crops Brassicas 


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