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Starting a retirement allotment

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This is what your new plot might look like before you get started on turning it into a productive unit.
This is what your new plot might look like before you get started on turning it into a productive unit.

Before you start work on your allotment, you need to put some thought into planning for the months ahead. Vegetable growing is a continuous cycle, so you need to make sure that what you are doing now is right for the time of year.

Where to start?

Before anything else, you will have to clear the ground. You can of course use weed killer, but that will only kill the weeds. It is no longer thought necessary to “double dig” but certainly you should turn over the ground to one fork’s depth. This will break up and aerate the soil, which is important. Rotorvating is not always the best solution.  Perennial weed roots will be chopped up and replanted at their ideal depth, and will add to your weeding problems later on.

Any weeds or large stones should be removed and piled up separately, and the ground broken up with the back of the fork. Stones can be used to reinforce the fence protection around the outer boundary of the site, and will help deter any animals trying to dig their way in.

Weeds can be used to start your compost heap. However, any weeds that have flowered and gone to seed should be disposed of elsewhere – preferably at your local recycling centre. It is difficult to neutralise wild plant seed, and adding them to the compost heap will only cause more weed infestation when dug back into the soil.

Planning the allotment layout

You will have to put some sort of plan together so your plot has a logical layout.

There are no hard and fast rules. However, it is worth selecting one corner at an early stage for a soft fruit area, if you decide to grow that type of crop. Once planted you will want to move bushes around as little as possible.

Modular compost systems can be moved around, and are easily "turned" to get at well rotted contents. Note a practical storage solution for canes, etc.
Modular compost systems can be moved around, and are easily “turned” to get at well rotted contents. Note a practical storage solution for canes, etc.

 

 

You need to decide how you are going to manage your compost heap.  This is an important item for your plot, so all waste vegetation can be recycled and returned to the soil as a valuable nutrient. Some modular systems can be moved from year to year as the contents are turned.

Sheds, greenhouses and any other permanent structures should be sited on the North side of the plot so that they do not cast shade across your crops.

Some crops should be planted in blocks. For instance sweet corn should be grown in a closely planted square or rectangular clump to maximise pollination.

Most plants should be grown in rows from one side of the plot to the other. Unless the site is well sheltered from winds, it is better to plant in a row on the same axis as prevailing strong winds. In most parts of the UK the strongest winds come from the West so rows should be planted West to East. This applies particularly to Autumn sown plants such as broad beans and winter greens, which can be exposed to gales in Winter and early Spring.

What vegetables should I plant first?

Vegetable growing is a year round cycle, so any time is a good time to start.

In the UK the main growing season lasts only over the spring and summer months. You can start digging over and preparing ground any time, but Spring and Autumn are the best times of year to avoid the midday heat or cold and frosts of winter. Also moist soil is easier to dig than when it is bone dry.

Some vegetables will tolerate or even benefit from cold weather and frost, and these should be sown in early summer or autumn. Other crops will not survive cold spells, and so should not be planted out until May when all risks of frost have passed.

Summer vegetables should be started well before you can plant them outside. Potatoes for instance should be “chitted” before planting so you should buy them in January and February, and then plant mid to late April.  By the time the first shoots appear above ground, any risk of frost should have passed.

Other vegetables such as French beans and runner beans can be sown indoors or in heated greenhouses in April/May and planted out late May or early June.

Winter cabbages, broccoli and sprouts can be sown outdoors in May or June, and will survive the winter cold. They will be ready from December onwards and well into March.

Leeks can be sown indoors in March and will be ready for planting out in July. They will be ready before Christmas and will last well into Spring. Broad beans can be sown in November and will grow steadily through the winter months – alternatively you can sow them outdoors in February for a later crop. Some varieties of onion sets can be planted out in the Autumn and will be ready for harvesting the following July or August.

So the only months when you cannot sow seed or plant out seedlings are December and January, but that is the time when you should be ordering seeds and working out next year’s growing plan.

So here are some priorities based on when you have ground ready for planting:

Spring:

You can plant early and main crop potatoes, avoiding ground where grass was growing previously. Potatoes will not tolerate frost, so at the earliest plant 3 weeks before expected last cold weather. Fertilise the ground with an all-round product such as Growmore, and start earthing up as soon as the first shoots appear above ground.

Oninon and garlic sets (small bulblets) can be planted outside with a general feriliser top dressing.

Early March you can sow leek and tomato seeds in seed trays, but these should be kept under glass until May. Tomato seeds should be kept at a higher temperature to promte early germination. Oninon and garlic sets (small bulblets) can be planted outside.

Summer:

Sow runner and French beans indoors in seed trays in May. Protect from direct sunlight so that the compost does not dry out, but French bean seeds rot easily if over-watered. Given a bit of warmth they will germinate within two weeks, and will be ready to plant out in June. To plant out dig a shallow trench, and fill the bottom with any dead or rotted vegetable matter.  This will help conserve moisture. It is important not to over fertilise beans. They will extract nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, so any high nitrogen fertiliser will only promote excessive leaf growth at the expense of bean pods.

As soon as the soil starts to warm up you can sow beetroot, spring onions and other salads directly into the ground. We also Swiss shard as a long term stand-by. Sow winter greens (broccoli, spring cabbage and brussel sprouts) directly into the ground for transplanting later. Protect from white butterflies and birds.

Plant out courgettes and keep well watered until established.

Plant out leek seedlings as soon as they are as thick as a pencil. Leeks and other leaf vegetables require a lot of nitrogen, so dig in a general fertiliser and top dress with a high nitrogen fertiliser such as dried chicken manure. Now is also the time to plant out other winter vegetables. These are all hungry nitrogen feeders, so fork in some general fertiliser.

Autumn:

Plant out soft fruit plants: gooseberries, black currants, raspberries and strawberries. Also rhubarb. Dig as much vegetable matter as you have available under each plant. Bacteria released through decomposition will enrich the soil, and the added humus will hold moisture when the soil is drying out next summer.

Winter:

You can plant some broad bean varieties (e.g. Acquaclaudia Dulce) in November so that they are just showing through by mid December. November sown broad beans are said to be more productive than those sown in the Spring, and will be ready 4 – 6 weeks earlier. Broad beans benefit from having vegetable matter dug in before planting but don’t add fertiliser. Plant in a double row running in the direction of prevailing winds.

Allotment management

A lot has been written about crop rotation and there’s every temptation to take it too scientifically. The practice of growing different crops in successive years has been followed  for centuries, and it all boils down to a few very simple principles.  Follow these and you won’t need a complicated list of does and donts.

  1.  The growing medium (or soil as most of us call it) is the most important asset on your allotment.  Caring for it is as important as weeding and cultivating vegetables. In fact you won’t be able to produce quality crops if you neglect the soil they are growing in.
  2. So you should be continuously improving the texture and structure of your soil.  That means digging in compost every time you prepare the ground for a new crop. For some of the more robust plants the vegetable matter you return to the soil does not even have to be composted.  Simply bury “green” fertiliser a few inches deep.  The natural bacteria in the soil will break down leaves and stalks – even dry grass stems and straw.
  3. The result will be an increase in the humus content of the soil.  This contains valuable trace elements for healthy plants and nitrogen for growth. Just as important humus absorbs and stores water that will benefit your plants during times of drought and reduce run off.
  4. Crops such as potatoes are heavy feeders so benefit from added manure or a general fertiliser such as Growmore. Growmore was developed by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1942 to boost home-grown food production when the German U-boat campaign was threatening the UK from starvation. It boosted food production by 50% and has been a gardener’s standby for the past 75 years. It’s also cheap. You shouldn’t have to pay more than £10.00 for a 10 kilo tub.
  5. Horse manure is of course a first class fertiliser and soil additive.  However it must be well rotted to avoid root burn, and it has a high Nitrogen content (see 6 below).
  6. Crops such as all the beans (broad beans, runners, French beans) should not be grown on newly fertilised ground.  They extract their own Nitrogen requirements directly from the atmosphere, and the added Nitrogen from fertiliser or manures will only encourage lush foliage at the expense of bean pods.
  7. Foliage crops such as cabbages, broccoli, sprouts, leaks do not synthesise their own Nitrogen needs so will benefit from a fertiliser with high Nitrogen content such as horse manure, dried poultry pellets or blood, fish and bone.
  8. Above all else, vegetables require water to grow. Continually re-cycling rotted or green compost back into the soil will build up the moisture preserving properties of your soil. Natural rainfall in the South of England has been as much as 50% below average over the past two/three years. If climate change continues to reduce natural irrigation, water retention in the top layer of soil has to be a top priority. Water retention will also reduce nutrient loss through runoff.

Pests and diseases

With few exceptions healthy, vigorous plants have there own natural protection against most plant diseases. Some of the more prevalent diseases, such as potato blight, can be avoided by selecting varieties bred to resist attack.

All brassicas are vulnerable to caterpillars hatched from the eggs of the cabbage white butterfly. These can strip the leaves off a plant in days. The only real protection is fleece or muslin. Even then crops can show signs of infestation. Cabbage white butterflies seem to be fewer now than in past years but you can reduce the amount of damage by transplanting later in the season.

Slugs can be a big problem.  Unless you are prepared to use a chemical slug killer the best way to control slugs is through keeping your plot tidier and removing dead leaves etc. You should reduce as much as possible

A simple storage solution for unused support canes.
A simple storage solution for unused support canes.

potential hiding and over wintering places such as piles of dead weeds, unused plant pots and canes. Weeds should go on the compost heap, where they will attract slugs, but this just helps the composting process. Canes can be stored in simple racks that can be moved around out of the way to an unused part of the allotment.

Wireworms can cause a lot of damage to onions, potatoes and other root crops by drilling tunnels deep in side. At best the damage is unsightly. At worst the crop can be unusable. The wireworm is the larval form of the click beetle, which prefers to lay its eggs in uncultivated ground, particularly where grass is growing.

So you can eliminate wireworm by avoiding planting potatoes and other vulnerable crops in newly cultivated soil where you have had to dig out a lot of grass. The wireworm larvae live in the top layer of soil, so by forking over the ground you will also expose the larvae and eggs to natural predators such as birds. Wireworms avoid cold weather by migrating deeper into the ground, so the roots of Autumn sown crops such as winter brassicas and broad beans will be protected and deprive the larvae of nutrition.

There are no effective pesticide antidotes to wireworms available to the home-grower, but these simple management steps should solve the problem wihout too much difficulty.

The leek moth is becoming a major problem. Infestations started in the South of England and are slowly spreading North. The adult moth itself is very small, as are the larvae that

A bad attack of leek moth. A sad sight after all the work that has gone into the crop.
A bad attack of leek moth. A sad sight after all the work that has gone into the crop.

burrow down into the leaves of the growing plant. There is no effective pesticide, at least one that is available to the allotment gardener, so the only effective way to prevent it is to cover growing plants with an insect-proof mesh.

Otherwise the infestation only becomes apparent when it is too late, by which time the damage is done. Leek moth will also attack other produce of the same family, such as onions, shallots and garlic.

Progress

With a bit of hard work and common sense you can quickly start to produce top quality food for the table.  Check out our own first two months’ results from the home allotment plot here, and that was starting from scratch on an uncultivated plot that hadn’t produced anything other than weeds for the previous 15 years!

 

 

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