The Allotment Year

 

 

Introduction:

This journal has been written so that the new allotment holder can benefit from experience gained over some years of using an allotment plot. Often it is beneficial to visit the local library, bookshops, car boot sales and garden centres in search of books on vegetable plot gardening. There is a series of booklets by Dr D.G.Hessayon and published by Pan Britannica Industries Ltd (pbi) that are very helpful to the vegetable plotter.

The Horsham Shelley Allotments site is leased from the local Council primarily for use by local residents for leisure gardening, including cultivation for growing vegetables, fruit and flowers primarily for ones own consumption.

Plots are usually oriented on a north/south line so that east/west rows get maximum benefit from the movement of the sun across the sky. But on the Horsham Shelley Allotment site the plots to the north are correctly oriented whilst those on the rest of the site align with the boundaries and paths to better utilize the land.

The plots come in large, medium and small sizes. The large plots at 10 (square) rods are approximately 300 sq yards, the medium plot is half (5 rods) and the small plot is a third (3 rods) of a large one. Although the large plot may, at first sight, seem too much for a beginner, once a medium sized plot is in cultivation and being used it soon becomes full.

 

Where to begin?

If one were to ask each of a dozen plot holders when they thought the allotment year started each would come up with a different answer.

In practice it doesn’t have a beginning. The allotment year is a cycle where each one is different from the last. You will soon find that each year has its own character.

In the Horsham Shelley Allotment Society the annual rent day is in mid-March and is when most new plot holder start. Those new plot holders who have cultivated an allotment plot previously will have started things off in their own garden, green house, balcony or window sill. If you are a new, inexperienced, plot holder you probably would appreciate some assistance in getting started.

If you have taken over a plot that was cultivated the previous year you are well on the way but if you have taken on a plot that has not been touched for many years don’t be disheartened, help and advice are at hand. See “Clearing a rough plot”.

Ideally a new plot holder should take over a plot in the autumn, when the previous holder has harvested their summer and autumn crops and in time to dig over some of the plot and plant over-wintering varieties. Although ideal this is not always possible.

It would be convenient to set out a journal such as this on a month by month basis, like a diary, however, it is near impossible to predict the phasing of the seasons so we shall start our year in the lead up to Spring, after our mid-March rent day.

 

Leading up to spring:

The very first thing to do is spend a wet afternoon planning your plot layout. Decide whether you want any perennial plants such as asparagus and strawberries or fruit bushes, e.g. raspberries or gooseberries and set aside some space for them. Divide the remainder of your plot into three, for root crops, brassica crops and other crops, so that you can “rotate” the crops on a three-year cycle. It is usual to plant rows approximately on a north/south line (across the plot) and for care to be taken in placing taller plants so that they do not shield the shorter ones from the sun.

After the weather has been dry for at least three days dig over those areas that will be needed during the spring. If possible cover the rows that will be sown first with carpet, cloches, etc, to warm the ground.

Don’t be tempted to sow seeds directly in the ground too soon because heavy rain will wash them away and frost will kill any shoots that show through.

As spring approaches seeds for above ground plants, e.g. bean, tomato and brassica (not root crop seeds) can be sown in seed boxes/trays and germinated on windowsills or in the greenhouse. Don’t forget to keep them moist and don’t be impatient, when the seeds are ready, they will show through. Take care not to over-water seed trays on windowsills because they leak. Sow seeds thinly.

 

Spring:

Buy potatoes (a second early and a main crop). Place the potatoes in open egg boxes with the chits (eyes) uppermost in a light and airy location, such as a south-facing windowsill.

When the ground has warmed up sow root crops directly into prepared row of finely tilled soil. Water them if appear dry. Do not over-water because the seeds will probably be washed away.

Seed box seedlings will need to be “hardened off” by gradually introducing them to the cooler environment outdoors. When the seed box seedlings are large enough to handle, plant them out into prepared rows. The spacing does not need to be the final spacing. In the early stages half spacing can be used. Later on alternate plants are moved into a row of their own. Protect seedlings from pests, e.g. slugs, birds, etc.

When the potatoes have 2/3 inch shoots and the ground has warmed up plant them in a trench. When the shoots are 6 to 9 inches tall earth them up. That is: draw earth up on both sides so that the growth is just covered. Sprinkle some Growmore over the rows.

When the ground has become friable or crumbly areas that have not been dug over yet or are well covered with grass or other weeds can be started. It is easy to knock the earth from roots.

 

Summer:

Tend the rows, watering as necessary. Weed as required because most crops don’t flourish in the face of competition. This is the main growing season. It is usually a waste to sow seeds in the late summer because they do not germinate. However, some plants, e.g. leeks, which will over-winter can be sown directly in the ground.

 

Autumn:

Plant out onion and shallot sets. Take care to protect them from the birds until the roots have taken hold.

When the leeks have grown to be 9 to 12 inches tall they can be replanted in their final growing positions. A row that has not recently been dug is ideal. A row is prepared by making holes 12 ins apart and 6 to 9 ins deep with a dibber (the handle of a rake or hoe will do). Trim the roots from the leek seedlings leaving them appx. 1/8 inch long and trim the tips from the leaves. Place one seedling in each hole and fill it with water. If the weather is particularly dry, water the holes a few times.

Plant an over-wintering variety of broad bean seeds in double rows.

Cloches are ideal for protection against the worst frosts and the birds, squirrels, foxes, etc.

Order manure and when delivered, if necessary, move it to better location and consolidate into a tidy heap. Cover it if possible to keep it dry-ish. Spread some manure around bases of brassicas and, after digging, over the rows that will be used first, next spring. Also spread some manure around those long-term plants, e.g. asparagus, fruit bushes, etc.

Harvest root crops as needed. Most root crops, e.g. Parsnips, Swede, can be left in the ground until needed. Don’t forget them and remember that you are competing with the supermarkets that prepare their vegetables ready for the kitchen.

If you haven’t covered brassicas with netting already do so because the birds decimate them during the winter.

 

Winter:

Spend a wet winter afternoon planning your next years plot layout. It is good practice to rotate the crops around the plot. That is, avoid planting the one type of crop in the same place every year. There are some exceptions to this, e.g. runner beans.

Harvest the brassicas (sprouts, etc.) as required. When finished, compost the softer parts and leave rest to dry out.

After it’s been dry for a few days and the ground is not frozen, dig over those areas that will be needed first. Leave the ground rough dug, the frost and rain will break down the clods. Try to have most of the plot dug over before next rent day.

Those vegetables that didn’t grow to full size can either be dug in or roughly cut up and composted. Some plot holders dig a trench where the runner beans are to be planted and fill it with compostable material.

Wait for spring!