Allotment with full beds and plenty of veg to harvest

Make your new allotment a success
Image: T.W. van Urk

If you’re a new allotment plot holder, you may be feeling completely daunted by the large slab of ground you’ve just taken charge of. Where do you start? What should you do first? 

Here are 8 helpful tips from some of the internet’s best allotment growers…

1: Make a detailed plan 

Do you have a clear picture of how you want your allotment to look and what you want to grow? Any time you spend planning before you begin will save time later on. Over at Pumpkins and Bunting, Karen advises sketching your allotment on paper to make it feel more manageable:

Think about what you’d like to grow, watch to see how much sun the plot receives and if there are any shady areas, make a note of fixed features such as a shed, water butts, compost bins etc. I used VegPlotter to plan out my allotment, it’s free and easy to navigate using a simple drag and drop interface…

2: Create access paths

Gardener with compost in a wheelbarrow

Clear paths provide easy access to both sides of these beds
Image: ajlatan

What is the best way to divide up your plot to make growing easier? Catharine Howard suggests that you start with the paths. You’ll need to be able to reach all your produce without standing on it, and you’ll want to move easily between the beds (perhaps with a wheelbarrow) to harvest, weed and feed your crops. Catharine’s tip:

Arm yourself with the following: tape measure, twine and short canes… Visit the plot and divide it into strips 1.2m wide. Peg each strip out with twine and leave [at least] 30cm gap between each one. These gaps will become your pathways. You’ll be able to tramp up and down these to hoe and sow without treading on your vegetable beds – and 1.2m is a perfect width [for a bed so you can] reach in from either side.

3: Talk to the old boys 

If you’re drawn to allotment growing for the community aspect as much as the extra space, making friends with your fellow growers is a great way to learn. In the early days of Real Men Sow, Jono’s new neighbours were happy to share their local knowledge:

There’s every chance that the same people have been working your neighbouring plots for years. They’ll be the ones who can tell you what grows well on the site, what to avoid, and all the other tricks that will get you on your way. From my experience, allotmenteerists are a lovely bunch, and they’ll only be too happy to help. Mind you, they did let me grow my sweetcorn and not tell me about the badgers!

4: Save money by starting small

Kale growing in an allotment

Concentrate on crops that are cheap to grow and expensive to buy, like Kale
Image: Alison Hancock

Starting an allotment from scratch can require a fairly hefty initial outlay, but each year it gets cheaper to grow your own fruit and veg as you learn to become more efficient, make your own compost and save seeds. In his excellent YouTube video, How to grow vegetables cheaply, Huw Richards suggests easy ways to keep the cost down:

Choose just three of your favourite vegetables to grow in your first year. By starting slowly you wont get overwhelmed. And opt for herbs and vegetables that are expensive to buy in the shops but cheap to grow. Leafy greens like Kale, swiss Chard and perpetual spinach are a good place to start.

5: Clear your plot

If your new plot is a bit overgrown, take a few days to clear away any rubbish and tackle the weeds before you start. Over at Allotment Lifestyle, Ian uses the ‘no-dig’ system which involves adding a thick layer of compost to the surface of the ground and planting into it. Ian says:

The tool I use most is a strimmer. If your allotment is overgrown when you take it over, strim it hard to get down to the soil level. Remove the debris and lay out compost on the ground to form beds. You’ll need enough space between the beds to strim the weeds away as they emerge over the season. Two to three inches of compost is enough to get things going…

6: At one with the earth

Gardener digging compost with a spade

Improve your soil with good quality compost
Image: Isha50

Whether you decide to dig over your beds or try the no-dig method, improving your soil is one of the most important things to get right. To keep things simple for fellow newbies, Jack from Jack Wallington Garden Design has four simple tips:

  • “Don’t tread on soil you’re growing on as it will squash the air pockets out and block root growth 
  • Replenish its nutrients annually with a thick layer of peat free compost or well rotted manure
  • Watch it carefully through the year to understand how it holds water
  • Rotate crops every year, never growing the same crops (except perennials) in the same place to prevent pest and disease build up.”

7: Weed little and often

Weeding isn’t much fun, but if you start each visit to the allotment with a quick 30-minute stint, you’ll prevent weeds from getting out of control and stealing vital nutrients from your crops. Over at Pumpkins and Bunting, Karen has a polite request:

Please try to avoid using weed killer, it’s usually unnecessary and it’s harmful to bees – I’d imagine human health too! Use a hoe to weaken small weed seedlings and lift larger weeds from the soil by hand. Try to get all of the root out, doing this regularly really will pay off in the long run.

8: Keep an eye on the harvest windows

Beetroot ‘Wodan’ F1 hybrid from T&M

Crops like beetroot have a more forgiving harvest window
Image: Beetroot ‘Wodan’ F1 hybrid from T&M

Having spent time and effort getting your allotment ready to produce healthy homegrown food, it’s a real shame if your crops spoil while waiting to be harvested. Over at Jack Wallington Garden Design, Jack admits that he was so focussed on growing that he hadn’t given enough thought to harvesting, storing and cooking:

I hadn’t appreciated that many vegetables and fruit have a limited 1 – 2 day window when they are perfect for eating – very difficult when I was down there only once or twice a week. In particular raspberries, courgettes, broccoli and beans. On one Saturday they wouldn’t be ready, then the following Saturday they’d gone past their best. I’ll be hotter this year on predicting the picking days.

Best low maintenance crops for beginners

If you’re keen to start allotment growing but can’t make it to your plot every day, don’t worry, there are plenty of fruits and vegetables that can cope with less frequent attention. With just a little weeding and watering, here are some of the best low-maintenance crops to get you started:

Squash and pumpkin

Chillies

Maincrop potatoes

Rhubarb

Beetroot and Swiss chard

Carrots

Kale

Onions and garlic

Perpetual spinach 

We hope you’ve found some of these tips useful and we wish you every success with your new allotment. Don’t forget to tag us on your photos so we can follow your progress!

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