Allotment Gardening for Beginners
First find your allotment
If you are a beginner at allotment gardening your first step will be to find a suitable allotment.
Depending on where you live it can be more or less difficult to get an allotment. If you live in the UK your first step should be to contact your local authority because most allotments are council owned. Allotments go in and out of fashion so you may or may not find there is a waiting list. But we will assume that the god's are smiling on you, that there is a vacant plot and that it has your name on it. You are entering a whole new way of life. It will be hard work but, if you stick with it, very rewarding.
A standard full size allotment is about 250 sq meters (300 square yards) but it is quite common to be offered a half size allotment. If you are new to allotment gardening and still finding your way that may be a wise option.
Getting to know your plot
Before you decide what you want to grow and where everything is going to go take a good look at your allotment and decide how it's all going to work.
You will need to look at the overall state of the plot? How overgrown is it? Has it been recently cultivated. What condition is the soil in? Where are the light and the shade? What direction does the prevailing wind come from? How well sheltered is the site?
Think where you are going to put your compost bins, a shed to store your tools and bits and pieces and, if you are on the nicest kind of allotment, an area where you can sit and eat and entertain your friends.
Check out where the nearest water is and where facilities like communal composting or manure heaps are. Look at other plots to get ideas. Better still get to know your neighbours. They know the soil and the conditions and will have invaluable information about what works or doesn't on the site.
Deciding what you will grow
With more space than most back gardens allow, an allotment gives you the opportunity to grow crops that take up a lot of space. There will be room for potatoes, pumpkins,winter squash, fruit trees and bushes. I'd advise three guiding principles. Grow what you like eating, grow things that are expensive or difficult to buy in the shops, go for lots of variety. A special word of caution on the last point. In her first season as an allotment holder my wife grew 30 foot rows of everything. She was literally wheeling surplus crops round in a wheel barrow desperate to give them away.
In our allotment this year we will be growing: three varieties of potatoes, artichokes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, leaks, swede, turnips, carrots, runner beans, chard, kale, broad beans, green beans, brussel sprouts, courgettes, pumpkins and winter squash, garlic, chalottes, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries , jostaberries, kiwi fruit, apples, pears, cherries, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers. We also grow cut flowers for the table, gladioli and plants to attract butterflies and bees onto the plot and generally get some germination going.
We also have a garden area near the shed with a few flowers, herbs and so on. Of course we have herbs at home for convenience too as the allotment is too far to go when you just want something to throw in the pot.
Some things, like soft fruit, freeze well but by and large we eat what is fresh, plentiful and in season.
Making a plan
It's a good idea, once you've got an idea of the basic layout, to draw a plan.
Some people like to grow everything in long rows but we prefer to divide our allotment into smaller beds for ease of access when weeding and watering. If beds are no wider than 6 foot wide you can dig them without standing on dug soil. This is particularly important if your soil is clay and liable to become compacted.
Think what you are going to put where. Read up on the different crops you plan to plant and learn their different needs and preferences. Bear in mind some of the space can be reused.
Early potatoes come out in June and can be replaced by plants like courgettes or French beans that don't like the frost. Crops that you will be picking in mid to late summer can be followed by spring cabbage or fast growing salad crops.
Try to stagger planting of crops that aren't easily stored so that everything doesn't come ready at the same time.
You will also need to think about crop rotation. Planting the same crop in the same ground year after year can help root diseases build up. Ideally you should only plant the same crop in the same ground once every four years. This is particularly important for plants like potatoes that are particularly susceptible to root disease.
The general principle many gardeners follow is to divide their ground into four with potatoes in one quarter, root veg in another, peas and beans in a third and the cabbage family (brassicas) in a fourth. Salads and other bits and pieces are planted gaps and odd corners.
Preparing the soil
Depending on the state of the plot, you may want someone to rotavate it for you. This is a good way of turning over soil that has not been dug for a while. But beware the rotavator is simply digging the weeds in for you. They will be back and back with a vengeance. There is no substitute for getting down and dirty with the soil, digging the old fashioned way, removing all the weeds and stones and getting to know the earth you will be working with. Until you have dug your plot through you won't really feel you own it.
You will probably need to spend your first winter clearing the site, giving it a good dig, removing weeds and stones and working in lots of manure. Most allotments have manure delivered. You should look for well rotted rather than fresh manure as the new stuff can be too acidic for delicate plants. if need be gather your own heap and keep it unil its good and ready. I love good well worked soil, crawling with worms and plenty of organic matter in it.
Don't use manure on areas that you plan to use for root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots or potatoes. It will not help them to establish good deep roots.
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Organic Matter and Fertiliser
Organic matter and fertiliser are two different things. You need both but they do different jobs. The healthy allotment garden needs both. Organic matter, like manure or compost, helps the soil retain its moisture and helps to keep the soil softer and looser. But your allotment garden also needs important nutrients like nitrogen, potash and phosphates that will feed the plants and help produce a good crop. The important nutrients come from fertiliser.
We are not strict organic gardeners but we use organic fertilisers as much as we can. The key fertilisers we use are: a general purpose feed, bonemeal, blood, fish and bone and pellets of chicken manure. We also use liquid seafood extract as a pick me up for plants that aren't looking particularly healthy and a specialist tomato feed.
Most allotment plants are grown from seed. You can buy plugs to get you going but this will clearly be more expensive. Get a good book or consult established growers to determine the best varities to grow. Make sure you buy seeds from a reputable dealer or save them from your own plants. You need to check which seeds need to be started indoors and which can be planted straight out in carefully prepared seed beds. A rule of thumb is that frost tender plants like runner beans, courgettes and pumpkins need to be started under cover. These plants will needto be hardened off by putting them outside gradually before they are exposed to the full rigours of the allotment.
The basic bits and pieces of equipment you need are a good spade and fork, a rake, a hoe and a set of watering cans. You will need small tools like, a trowel and hand fork. You will need netting to keep birds and predators off your crops and something to suspend it from. You will need poles to grow runner beans and similar crops up. You will probably need a good wheelbarrow.
There is so much more than I can cover in a short article that you will need a well stocked library of gardening books. There is a lot of hard work in keeping an allotment or a community garden but you can't beat the combination of fresh air, good food, healthy exercise and nearby friends. I highly recommend you give it a try.
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