How to start your allotment
Clearing your plot
Clear the plot of unwanted materials and debris. You may be able to get help with this from the allotment management team
Smothering weeds with opaque mulches (carpet is no longer recommended) requires at least one growing season to work well. This can be an effective way of dealing with parts of a plot that are not intended to be planted for that season (it's easy to overdo it with a new allotment so take your time and don't worry if it takes several seasons to fully bring an overgrown plot into cultivation)
Limited use of a weeedkiller might be worth considering on more challenging plots, for example a stumpkiller might be used where woody stumps cannot be readily removed. And where the deep-rooted pernicious weed horsetail is present, repeated use of a non-residual systemic weedkiller based on glyphosate applied from mid-spring until mid-autumn should help knock it back (though it is unlikely to eliminate the problem)
Working your plot
Outfit the plot with compost bins, a shed and other useful items
Now you are ready to start planting!
A shady plot
Ideally your new allotment will be in a sunny position but this, inevitably, is not always the case. If you have been given a plot which is partly or totally in shade, choosing fruit and vegetables that tolerant these conditions is essential.
Fruit in shade
Redcurrants, white currants and gooseberries, as well as fruit such as raspberries, blackcurrants and rhubarb which originate from woodland edges will produce reasonable crops in some shade.
Apples, pears and plums prefer a more open position, but cooking apples can tolerate a partially shaded position. ‘Morello’ cherries are also productive on a shady wall.
Vegetables in shade
Beetroot, chard, kale, kohl rabi and lettuce are all relatively tolerant of some shade, but sowing seeds in modules in bright conditions and then transplanting will get them off to an early start with an established root system.
Find out what to do this month with our gardeners' calendar
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.
What Weeds do You Have?
Next, take a look at what weeds you have. Some weeds like nettles, docks, buttercups and daisy all indicate that your soil is acidic as does the dreaded Mare’s tail (Equistum Arvense). Other difficult weeds are bindweed and couch grass. They all share the ability to re-grow from small pieces of root. If you’ve a mass of brambles then I’m afraid you really do have your work cut out, but it isn’t impossible.
Looking down 30 metres of weeds is enough to make anyone despair but break the heavy work of clearing and digging down into patches you can cope with in one go without feeling like death for two days. I found 8 square metres enough, gradually worked up to 10 but younger and fitter people may well do more in a session.
Take comfort from the fact that a mass of lush nettles and other weeds indicates the soil is in good heart with lots of fertility.
What to do to Clear the Plot
If you’ve a lot of tall weeds, then it’s worth borrowing or hiring a petrol strimmer with a brush-cutter blade and taking them down to about 15cm above the ground, leave brambles a little longer – anything up to 60cm.
Ordinary grass and annual weeds can be lifted like turfs. A mattock is very good for this, the flat blade going in almost horizontal under the root-mat and levering up but a decent spade will do the job as well.
Stack the turfs, grass side down and make into a box which you can cover with a tarpaulin to exclude light and water. In a year you’ll have some lovely loamy soil to use.
Fork the ground over and remove any perennial weed roots. Docks go deep but like dandelions are fairly easy to remove. Nettles have a mass of thin yellow roots which are difficult but you can get them out.
Bindweed and couch grass are hard work, a piece of root as longer than 3cm may have enough energy to start and grow again. With Mare’s tail though, you have real problems. The thin brown roots are hard to see and go down to Hades (they’ve been found 2 metres down!) Just do your best but I’d say the only way to really win against Mares Tail, Bindweed and Couch Grass is to go chemical (see below)
Don’t cold compost weed roots
These weed roots present another problem for you. If you put them on a cold compost heap, they’ll re-grow. You can put them in a black plastic sack and hopefully they’ll rot away in six months or so but better to drown them in a tub of water. Takes about 3 weeks.
With a bramble patch, it’s tough work digging out the roots. Leaving some cane on at least gives you something to pull at!
This is the easiest and quickest way to clear a plot. Clear the rubbish and strim down to a few inches above ground level. Rake up the strimmings and pop onto the compost heap.
Feed the Soil – Not the Plants
Roots naturally follow the easiest route to get where they want, be that horizontally or vertically. They find gaps and pores from as small as 0.2 mm to exploit by growing in.
Have enough water available.
Rain comes intermittently but the plant needs it consistently available to grow well. So the ideal soil will allow water to percolate down and contain enough organic matter (humus) to store that water when it’s not raining.
Have air available
Roots do require air. Friable soil has enough gaps in it to allow air in and to allow water to drain so that the roots don’t drown. They don’t need a lot of air, but they do need some. That’s why plants in a waterlogged pot die.
Be at the pH the plant has evolved for
Some plants like blueberries hate lime and have evolved to grow in an acid soil. Most vegetables, however, grow best in a soil pH between 6.00 and 7.00 – 7.00 being neutral.
Has the nutrients the plant requires available.
The operative word here is ‘available‘. For a start, the pH of the soil affects nutrient availability. As a general rule, both the major nutrients (NPK) and micro-nutrients are most available between pH 6.00 to 7.00
There are also symbiotic relationships between plants and the microbes and fungi in the soil.
Legumes have nodules on their roots containing bacteria that fix nitrogen which is necessary for the plant’s growth. They may not supply all the nitrogen the plant needs but at worst they give it an advantage over non-leguminous plants.
The relationship of fungi and plants is another one of mutual benefit. The fungi make nutrients more available to the plant and in return the plant helps feed the fungi. These relationships have only recently, in gardening terms, been discovered and research continues.
The benefits of inoculating the soil around trees and bushes with mycorrhizal fungi are clear. Those are effectively permanent plantings though and the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi with annuals are still very much the subject of debate. Personally I’m very sceptical about the benefits for those vegetables like lettuce that are only in the ground for a short while.
To recap: the ideal soil is deep, friable, retains water but sheds excess water, has the right pH and high nutrient availability.
What is soil?
At this point it’s worth stepping back again and looking at what soil actually is.
The starting point is particles of rock. The size of the particles determines if it’s a clay (heavy) soil or light (sandy) soil. Only around half of soil is actually those particles. The rest of the volume comprises water and air spaces – the proportion of these varies according to how much rain there has been recently.
Finally a small portion is organic matter which typically ranges from as little as 1% to 5% but can be near 10% with help. It’s this organic matter that is so important and makes the difference between crushed rock and soil.
What is organic matter?
Organic matter is dead, decaying vegetation, micro-organisms and creatures that live in the soil along with humus. Humus technically is dead vegetable matter and micro-organisms converted by the action of the soil microbes into a dark material that gives topsoil its dark colour. It glues together small particles of rock helping a clay soil become more friable.
Unfortunately, humus is also food for microbes and so there is a continual process of creation and destruction of humus in the soil.
Feeding the Soil
Now from the above, we’re getting to the meaning of ‘feed the soil’. Obviously you can’t feed rock, water or air. Nor can you feed dead vegetation. But you can feed the organisms that live in the soil, from bacteria to earthworms and everything in between
Composts, Composting & Making Compost
Home-made compost is mainly best used as a soil improving fertiliser although you can make your own growing mediums for seeds and potting instead of buying bags of commercial compost from the garden centre.
What is compost
Compost is a bit confusing to say the least for new gardeners. The term ‘compost’ is also used to refer to growing mediums like multi-purpose compost, seed compost, John Innes compost etc. Commercial composts are made by combining materials with a base like peat or coir and sterilised to avoid problems with diseases and weed seeds sprouting.
Home made compost is quite different and usually used as a soil conditioning fertiliser. One of the major benefits of compost is that it not only adds humus and the major nutrients (NPK) but a multitude of micro-nutrients from the varied ingredients.
Manures like horse, cow, sheep etc. are valuable and important to the vegetable plot but because of those micro-nutrients home produced compost is arguably of more value. In an ideal plot you would add manure every 3 years but compost can be added every year and during the growing season too, which is not normally the time to add manure.
What makes compost?
Home made compost is the result of microbial and fungal digestion of material with help from worms in the presence of oxygen. This is technically called aerobic digestion and differs in process from anaerobic digestion which is used by commercial plants for producing power from food wastes, manures and specially produced crops like maize.
What can be composted?
The simple answer is anything organic. If it has grown or, like dung, been produced by an animal or is a dead animal it can, in theory, be composted and recycled. This method is suitable for composting most garden waste, some food wastes, herbivore manure in moderation and some other materials.
What you should not compost by this method:
Cat, Dog or Human Manure for health reasons – I’d also avoid pig manure but mainly because of the smell.
Cooked food waste, meat and bones. These will attract rats and mice into the garden and plot which we don’t want.
Fresh perennial weed roots and weed seeds. In theory these are killed in a hot compost but often home heaps do not heat up enough. If you drown these in a tub of water for six weeks they will be killed. The resulting liquid can be used as a liquid plant tonic and the sludge on the heap.
How long does compost take to make?
How long the compost will take depends on a number of factors. The compost will be produced faster in warm summer weather and slower in winter. The size of the pieces will affect the timing. Smaller pieces, i.e. shredded, will break down far faster than large.
A summer compost can be produced in six weeks on average with this method but a winter compost is likely to take 3 or 4 months.
Greens & Browns in Composting
If you read up on composting you will come across references to ‘Greens & Browns’. By ‘greens’ they mean leafy materials which are fairly high in nitrogen and by ‘browns’ materials rich in carbon. The reason is that they want to balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio to optimise the composting process.
Personally I think far too much is made of this, at least in basic compost making. Adding shredded paper or torn up brown cardboard adds ‘browns’ to the mix but more importantly helps to keep the compost open allowing air to the microbes.
Dried out weeds, twigs and chipped wood all add those carbon-rich ‘browns’ but don’t worry about balancing and getting the right ratio. In my experience I’ve successfully had excellent compost without adding any ‘browns’ to the ‘greens’
Simple Method of Making Compost
Collect the Materials
Collect a pile of garden waste, preferably enough to fill the compost bin. It doesn’t matter if it takes a week or two to collect a reasonable amount.
Build the Base
Start by putting some branches or stalks from sweetcorn etc. at the base. The reason is to allow air to enter the heap from the base. When the heap heats up it will draw air in rather like a bonfire.
If you have a shredder, now is the time to shred any tough or woody materials like brassica stems. Don’t shred until you are actually building the heap or things will heat prematurely and partially.
Shredding reduces the size of the materials, which means an increased surface area in relation to volume. This allows the microbes to get to work more efficiently and the heap will heat up far faster. In fact with shredded material it will be heating up before you’ve finished building the heap!
Making Compost – Compost Heap Layers
Put a layer of leafy materials down and then whatever you have about 15 to 20 cm thick. Mix your Browns and Greens as you go.
Next put a layer of activator on to start the bacterial bonfire. This could be some fresh manure, chicken manure is great for activating a compost heap, or some high nitrogen fertiliser like sulphate of ammonia or prilled urea. Growmore or blood, fish & bone can be used as an activator if no high nitrogen fertiliser or manure is available.
Another activator you can use is urine, diluted 10:1 and sprinkled through a rose on the watering can. Urine is sterile when produced so perfectly safe if a little distasteful. A bottle in the shed to build up the store is useful as direct application in public view could get you arrested!
Next place another layer of composting material down and this time, instead of an activator, dust with garden lime. A good handful is usually enough for the average heap.
The lime will counteract acidity caused by the activator and keep the heap sweet for the microbes and worms.
Follow this with another layer of material, followed by an activator and then another layer followed by lime. Keep repeating until the bin is full. If the green waste is proud of the bin, don’t worry as it will go down very quickly.
Water if Dry
If the materials are dry, wet them with a watering can as you build the heap. You don’t want it soaking wet, just nicely damp.
Older books often used the layer system for composting but with the addition of a layer of soil to ensure the necessary microbes were introduced into the heap. It’s not really needed as the weeds will have soil on their roots.
Neither is it necessary to inoculate the heap with material from a previous heap.
Topping off the Compost Heap
Top off the heap with something to stop rain soaking into the heap. I used to use old carpet but this is frowned upon on many allotment sites now. Plastic sheet will do fine. Outside of summer’s hot weather, layer some sheets of cardboard on top of the heap under the waterproof sheet to keep the heat in.
After anything from a few hours to a week, the heap should heat up. Ideally we want it to hit around 60ºC in the middle. You should be able to feel the heat with your hand and see steam rising from the heap.
If it seems to be drying out, sprinkle with a can or two of water using a fine rose.
Turning the Heap
After a while the heap should have reduced to about half of the original size and be cooling down. This is the time to turn the heap. The task is made a lot easier with a two bay bin system.
Once again, start with a layer of woody material to allow air to get into the heap. This material may take a few years to rot down but that’s OK as it’s just re-used until then.
The second heap isn’t layered. Just put the material from the top to the base and the material from the outside to the middle, loosening and mixing with a fork. A flat bladed fork is best for this but any fork will do.
Finish off with some insulating cardboard and a waterproof sheet. The heat should re-heat although rarely as hot as the first heap. If it fails to go water with dilute urine or sulphate of ammonia mixed in water to re-activate it.
Once the heap has cooled down and shrunk, the compost is finished and ready to use. It should be dark in colour, crumbly textured and sweet smelling. You shouldn’t be able to recognise any of the original materials except the sticks used at the base to get air in.
These and any undigested material can be picked out and put into the next heap.
If it’s going to be a while before using the compost, keep the rain from washing the nutrients out.
The great thing about saving seeds is that you often get an awful lot of seeds from very few plants, and in many cases they will keep for yonks, which means you can really slash the cost of your seed bill even if seeds are readily available.
So, using the table below you can see that you’ll need to save seeds of parsnips, leeks, onions and shallots at least every other year, while the chunky seeds of squash only need re-saving every six years (assuming you have gathered enough seed to last you that length of time of course!).
Seed Saving for Food Security
Most gardeners will remember all too well the struggle to acquire seeds this past spring. Demand soared to an incredible ten times normal levels in some areas, shops (while they were still open) sold out, and online seed suppliers’ websites crashed under the strain. En masse, millions of people decided to take charge of their food supply and turned to gardening as an at-home source of interest and exercise – and the result was meltdown.
Things have recovered somewhat, but without wanting to get all doom-and-gloomy, if there’s another major spike in COVID-19 cases next year then I expect we’ll see a similar pattern of panic seed-buying. This, in tandem with already-strained seed supplies, means that we may not be able to reliably acquire our favorite seeds again for a while. So it’s only sensible for gardeners to take matters into our own (grubby) hands. There is a way to avoid seed-sourcing calamities, and you can do it even if you’re unable to travel beyond your own back garden.
SEED STORAGE LIFE OF COMMON VEGETABLES
CROP EXPECTED SEED LIFE
Parsnips 2 years
Leeks, onions and shallots 2 years
Peppers (sweet and hot) 3 years
Sweet corn 3 years
Broad beans / Fava beans 4 years
Climbing / pole and dwarf / bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) 4 years
Peas 4 years
Runner beans 4 years
Tomatoes 5 years
Aubergine / Eggplant 5 years
Beetroot and Swiss chard 5 years
Cucumber 5 years
Lettuce 6 years
Brassicas (eg broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, radishes etc) 6 years
Carrot 6 years
Celery and celeriac 6 years
Squash (winter, summer, pumpkin) 6 years
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the size guidelines used to categories a plot
A: Category A* or M (Mini plot ) - up to 100 sq yds
Category A (Small) - 101-200 sq yds
Category B or C (Standard) - 201-400 sq yds
Category D or E (Large) - 401-600 sq yds
Q: Can I use a hosepipe on my plot
A: Hosepipes are only permitted to fill water containers (NOTE Excluding the 1000l containers.) Tenants must not water crops directly from a hosepipe. If you are found doing so, you can lose your tenancy.
Q: Is there a maximum size for structures on allotments?
A: There are maximum sizes for structures on allotment plots these can be found in the attachment below.
Q: Can I have a bonfire on my plot
A: Yes, bonfires are permitted on allotments/plots. However, there are strict rules regarding bonfires which must be adhered to.
Allotment Rule 6.2 Bonfires are only permitted during the months of March and November for the burning of diseased plant material. Fires should not be allowed to cause a nuisance to neighboring residents and under no circumstances should be left unattended. Where local circumstances necessitate, bonfires may not be permitted at any time.
Q: Can i have bees on my allotment
A: Yes. However, any proposal to site hives on an allotment plot must be agreed in advance with the Allotment Association.
Beekeepers must have public liability insurance and be a member of the National Bee Keepers Association.
Q: Can I keep chickens on my plot?
A: Yes. However, the husbandry conditions laid down by the City Council must be observed. For further information, please download the documents provided below.
HENS CONDITIONS & GUIDELINES.pdf (207.42KB)