Taking on a new allotment
If you’re lucky enough to be offered an allotment (and most people I know are still waiting … still waiting ….) it will come in one of three forms:
Brand new – these are rare, but increasingly local authorities are recognising the value of creating new allotment sites – here you’ll have to contend with whatever was on the land before, builder’s rubble, industrial waste or grass.
Fallow – a lot of plots haven’t been worked very much (or at all!) in recent years, either because the allotment holder hasn’t been up to it, or because (as is often the case) they’ve agreed to pay their rent by direct debit and while the money’s been going out regularly, the plot-holder hasn’t! It’s amazing how often an allotment holder will just ‘forget’ about their plot and not visit it for years. On fallow land you’re going to have a problem with perennial weeds that will have got a good hold, and you may find that neighbours have been using bits of your plot as annexes to their own, which can cause friction if they’ve taken over ‘your’ raspberry canes or compost bin …
Well-worked – if you’re lucky, you’ll get a plot that has been lovingly looked after by its previous allotment holder. There can still be issues to deal with though. Perhaps the previous plot holder wasn’t organic and you are. Perhaps he or she had strong preferences permanent plants like gooseberries or asparagus which you detest and complain when you dig up their prized crops (yes, your former plot holder is usually around somewhere, watching critically from the allotment of their crony and criticising your every move). Above all, you need to know if they’ve been using a crop rotation system and to fit in with it.
The standard system is potatoes into heavily manured soil, legumes (podded plants) into the same bed a year later, brassicas (cabbage family plants) into the same bed the year after that. Then you either let the bed lie fallow, or plant a green manure, or go back to potatoes again! If you break the system you will probably find that the soil is too exhausted to grow potatoes, or doesn’t have enough nitrogen (given by legumes) for brassicas.
Catching up with allotment crops
Sometimes you don’t have time to get to your allotment and sometimes it’s the weather that’s against you, or – especially for those of us relatively new to the business – you just forget that something you want to eat in six month’s time needs to go in the ground now!
It doesn’t have to be a disaster though – garlic stuck in the ground now, especially if it’s sprouting, will still produce a respectable crop at summer’s end, lettuce can be sown and harvested at almost any time of year, if you give it the necessary shelter in the cold months and enough water in the summer – look out for cut and come again or ‘all season’ packs of lettuce seed as these are best for sowing whenever you have a moment.
Potatoes and parsnip don’t catch up well, sadly, so if you miss planting season, there’s not a lot you can do to obtain a crop by playing catch-up. Carrots though, will be a bit more forgiving, and if you missed the potato planting season, it’s said that sweet potatoes, which are even more nutritious and serve the same purpose on your plate, can be planted up to six weeks later.
Allotment tasks – planting a pond
There’s any number of reasons for having a pond on an allotment:
It’s good for wildlife, and that means pollinating insects will be taking up residence on your plot – good for producing lots of crops
It helps create a microclimate – while irrigating plants is important for growth, it’s not the whole story; many plants need water in the form of mist or vapour and respond to various climatic cues such as dew falling and rising, which allow the plant to know whether it should be preparing for ‘rest’ or readying itself for photosynthesis. Having open water also reduces the amount of water you need to use around plant roots from a hose or watering can as plants can draw water from the atmosphere as well as the ground.
A well set up and mature pond (say three to five years old) should be a self sustaining eco-system: the water should provide enough miniscule aquatic life to keep fish healthy. Of course if your pond is younger than that, or smaller than say two metres across and four feet deep, you will need to keep feeding fish between late April and October because the water probably won’t be rich enough to sustain fish life. Remember though, that on an allotment, wildlife in the form of snails and insects, water beetles, pond skaters and who knows what, will all turn up as they migrate, get blown onto your plot, or arrive in the treads of wheelbarrows or on the soles of other people’s shoes as they pass by. You need to keep it filled with rainwater, because the chlorine in tapwater is very bad for fish.
So that’s me, pondering Maurice’s pond, which has to go into the ground in the next few weeks, and wondering how long it will take to fill with rainwater.
Allotments in bad weather
The March gales certainly put paid to some of our gardening plans! All over the site, people were battening down and preparing for bad weather, which was a good thing, because the storms hit us hard, as they did most people. As you can see in the photograph, the clouds were gathering overhead as most of us were running around trying to get everything tied down, brought in, or tucked under cover.
A lot of allotment holders were in the process of hardening off their autumn sown brassicas – the plants, which have been kept under cover during the winter, need acclimatisation to prepare them for the permanent move to outdoor conditions so it’s been commonplace to see allotment holders carrying trays of young plants out on fine days, to adjust, and bringing them back in overnight, but there was a rush to get them all back indoors, or under protection, when we realised how bad the weather was going to get. It’s going to mean a bit of a check on their progress, as we’ve had four or five days in our region, when there was no opportunity to get them outside without them either blowing away or being drenched by sleety rain, so the hardening off process will now take a week longer than everybody had planned.
Lots of folk were planning to plant out their dormant rhubarb this week too, picking the sunniest spots on their plots to give the stems plenty of chance to turn pink or ruby, depending on variety, but that’s had to be put on hold too, as the ground has been more like a swamp than anything else.
What it has been possible to do, in the breaks in the weather, is divide perennial herbs like mint and chives, as they are outdoors all year anyway, so there’s been at least one task we’ve all been able to get on with. And, of course, because every cloud has a silver lining, we’ve been enjoying watching our water butts and tanks brimming over, which is great because we all prefer to water with rainwater where we can.
Things you learn on allotments
Garlic and onions: One neighbour of mine is trying a new idea – garlic doesn’t bolt, while some onions do (the heat-treated sets don’t do it so much, but aren’t always the varieties keen gardeners want to grow) … so, if one grew garlic in between rows of onion sets, might the garlic inhibit the bolting in the onions? Nobody seems to know, but it seems a worthwhile experiment and I shall be watching the results with interest.
Leaf beets: these are variously known as perpetual spinach, Swiss chard, silver beet, ruby chard, and seakale. They are really easy to grow and you can cut and come again to the plants right through the winter, although as soon as the weather warms up, they run to seed. They have almost no pests or problems, even slugs will only eat them if there is nothing else around. What I didn’t know was that they are maritime plants (growing on or near the coast) and that to get the best from them, you should feed them with marine products like seaweed. We’ve only given them the standard compost treatment we give most leafy greens, so next year we’re going to try a regular seaweed feed on our ruby chard (see photo) and see what happens.
Jerusalem artichokes: can be invasive! Seriously, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself but visiting a South London allotment this weekend I was treated to the site of an entire plot taken over by these tubers! The plot holder had left them in over the winter assuming the bad weather would kill them off, but instead they’d simply colonised the entire area! I came home with a bagful … they make lovely soup.
Gardening Tasks - March
Little as I like it, this is spring cleaning time, and my first task of the next week or so is to clean off our patio and paving.
Because we’re trying to be as organic as possible, the initial project is to get an old kitchen knife and use it to remove all the weeds and moss that are growing in cracks in between slabs and cracks. Many plants can be killed by an application of boiling water, and where we have really stubborn monsters that we can’t get right down to the root of – like dandelions that spring up in the smallest crevices, we give them a lovely dose straight from the kettle, making sure, of course, that the run off won’t kill anything we want to keep!
Then it’s a much more pleasant job – planting up containers with spring bedding. Such plants, from garden centres, nurseries and even supermarkets, are available at pocket money prices, so I really let rip with the pansies and polyanthus at this time. It’s always worth planting your spring bedding into the garden when it’s ‘gone over’ if you have nooks and corners that need filling up – our polyanthus get to find a new home near the compost bins where they seem to thrive and last year, were actually in flower before their forced cousins appeared in the shops! They won’t be as big as the greenhouse grown types, of course, but they still give a splash of colour year after year.
Potager plants for handsome allotments
I was in North Yorks recently and saw some very good looking allotments – a group of four that are being run as potagers (French for kitchen garden), which means that they are planned with as much of an eye to beauty as to productivity. It got me thinking about the way most allotments are laid out – for maximum yield of crops, but not for eye candy. And yet so many of the crops we grow are really pretty. So now I’m thinking again about layouts and plants, to see if there are opportunities to make things look more attractive:
Globe artichokes are lovely tall plants, with fantastic silvery-blue leaves. We tend to use ours as focal points in summer, with lower crops growing around them, and you have to cover them in winter or they suffer from frost death. However, on one of the allotments I visited, they were being grown in a row to form a hedge – stunningly attractive.
All the chards tend to be pretty and relatively compact, with big shiny heavily veined green leaves and stems in every colour from cream through ruby to purple. We’ve always had ours in a single bed, but in North Yorks they were interplanting them with salvias and it looked stunning.
Aubergines are grown for their fruit, but their gorgeous flowers deserve to be highlighted as much as any petunia.
Mixed lettuces come in a range of colours and were being grown along paths as a kind of wavy fringe to an otherwise geometric edge – in between there were nasturtiums (self seeding of course) and perennial marigolds to offer both a splash of colour and some companion planting – as both flowering plants are great for attracting aphids away from other crops.
Allotment tasks – everything in the ground
I can vouch for the fact that lettuce is a tough plant – apparently you can start sowing seed outdoors from early March, or, if you have cloches or polytunnels or some other form of shelter, from the middle of February! I don’t know about that, but we’re actually still harvesting our October sown lettuce which went right though the winter (okay it bolted but who cares?) with just a bit of horticultural mesh as protection. Just like carrots, you need to sow lettuce seed over a period of a couple of months to avoid a glut. I’ve never managed to get this right, I sow fortnightly and still get a glut, but I don’t mind, lettuce is perhaps the one crop I’m happy to see go from garden to compost bin without feeling guilt – it’s just so cheap and easy to grow!
If you remembered to sow spring lettuce last year, these should be coming ready for harvest at the beginning of March onwards.
Our neighbours are planting out both maincrop and new potatoes, or to be more accurate, the first plantings of new potatoes were going in on Sunday and the maincrops will be planted in mid March – we are growing our potatoes at home this year, using the tall bucket method, having been given the tall buckets, so it will be interesting to see how it goes in comparison to planting in the ground.
Allotment or Garden? Globe Artichokes
Why? Well if you grow them from seed, artichoke plants tend to be variable with only 60-70% of the plants producing big edible chokes – almost all plants will produce small ones though. So on the allotment, grown from seed, there can be quite a disappointment if nearly half your plants don’t produce a good crop, however, in the garden, tucked in among other plants, the globe artichoke looks great even if it doesn’t ‘choke up’.
The answer is probably to grow both!
It’s a fussy old thing, insisting on good soil, regular watering and feeding, and frost protection in winter, but the reward is delicious. On top of all that cosseting, it doesn’t last forever – canny allotment holders will plant rooted suckers each spring so that mature specimens can be disposed of after a few years.
Use offsets (rooted suckers) that are about 9 inches tall – they must have roots attached or nothing will happen. Raising plants from seed is possible, but often considered too much trouble for the reason given above. Assuming you do grow seed stock (I do) look for the American variety Imperial Star, which is much more uniform in choke production from seed than previous varieties. For purple globe artichoke, relatively tolerant of both heat and cold and good when grown from seed, seek out Purple Sicilian.
Seed sowing technique: Sow thinly in one inch deep drills mid March to April – the drills should be a foot apart. Thin to nine inches between plants, protect over the winter, and plant out in ‘permanent’ positions in the following spring.
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