Getting started with an allotment

When you first take on a new allotment, it’s easy to be daunted by knee-high weeds and brambles, but do not give in at the first hurdle! Indeed, for the organic gardener, a good healthy crop of weeds is a perfect sign of things to come.

Because the soil has not been cultivated for a number of years, it will have rejuvenated itself and will be free of residual chemicals. Look for a site that is full of nettles, as this indicates a good fertile soil, as does chick weed and rough meadow grass. Mosses and sedges are a sign of wet soils while wild thyme, heath bedstraw and trefoil are all indicative of dry soils.

Surprisingly, the most ideal time to take an allotment is in late summer or early autumn. This doesn’t mean that you cannot take one at any time of the year – of course you can, but late summer/early autumn will give you time to find what is in the site, and to ask your neighbours what works and what doesn’t. You can also start to plan out the area: deciding where the beds are going to go, where would be a good place for a cold frame, can I squeeze in a greenhouse there, and where will the shed go?

Regardless of when you take on an allotment, remember to take it steady. There is a lot of work to be done, but not all in one day!

Whenever you take out an allotment, do it a bit at a time – but never more than you can manage.

The first steps

Measure the site and draw out a plan, marking in existing thing that you want to keep. Then the real fun begins! You now need to mark out the plot.

The very first thing to decide should be where the compost heap(s) will go. Then, when you are clearing the site, you can cut down the weeds and pile them straight onto the heap instead of dragging them here and there as you go along. Make the heaps about 1m3 – they should be large enough to be practical but not too large so that they take forever to rot down.

While you’re at it, why not make a leaf mould bin? Just hammer in four stakes into the ground to make a square and wrap chicken wire around it.

Use a strimmer to cut down all the large growth. Strimmers can be hired quite cheaply for a day. It’s surprising how different the site will look after a haircut! Don’t put in anything permanent, like fruit trees or canes, until the ground has been well cleared of weeds (or at least until they are well under control).

Ground cover that cuts out the light can be used as mulch. Old carpets or flattened cardboard boxes covered with straw will do. This will help keep down the weeds while you concentrate on other areas and will, if left long enough, kill the weeds completely.

Use a garden fork and dig the area over carefully, removing as many weed roots as possible. Green manure, like clover or alfalfa, can then be grown to protect the soil and help improve the fertility. Simply broadcast the seeds over the bare patch of ground. Depending on what you grow, the crop can be ready to be dug back in, in just a few weeks ready for the main crop to be sown.

The permanent bits

You should take time and plan where you want to put a shed, greenhouse or cold frame. Make sure you get these positioned right first time round, as they cannot be moved later.

Some of the crops you may want to grow will not tolerate being moved around. These are the perennial crops like rhubarb, asparagus, red and white currents, gooseberries, raspberries etc. Also consider where you want to plant herbs, as they will prefer full sun in well drained soil.

Mark out where you want to put the raised beds - if any. Raised beds are considered the best/easiest way to improve the soil, and it’s easier to keep a track of your crop rotation. Raised beds also mean that you only dig over the soil you will be growing in. It won’t matter if the soil between the beds becomes hard and compacted; you’re never going to plant there anyway!

Don’t forget to get a water butt or two. Any large water-tight container will do - well cleaned old dustbins are ideal, so are baths but they can look untidy. Please remember to place some mesh or something similar over the top of the butt as this will stop visiting wildlife falling in.

The last but most important feature to consider is where to put your chair! After a long afternoon sowing, planting or harvesting, you need somewhere just to sit and enjoy the results of all your hard work.