Getting Started

Helpful advice for new allotment holders

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Getting Started' page

Q. What can I grow on my allotment?
A. Allotments are provided for growing fruit, flowers and vegetables for family consumption. In addition many sites now have a small pond and grassed area for wildlife and leisure.

Q. What tools do I need?
A. Most allotment gardeners have four basic tools: digging fork, spade, rake and hoe. Hand tools needed: weeding fork and dibber or trowel. In time more can be added but a budget of £100 would give good quality, long lasting tools. Some suppliers give discounts to older customers and allotment gardeners; second-hand tools are also worth considering. However choosing the right tools is important. You may be able to share the cost of additional tools with other allotment holders

Q. How much time does it take?
A. This is difficult to answer and it varies between Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter and whether you have a full or a half plot. This advice is for a half plot (so double it for a full one!):  If you want a show standard plot then you are going to need to spend 10+ hours a week on your plot  But if, like most of us, you have more modest aims (keep on top of things, and have some fresh veg throughout the year), then if you work your plot for 2-4 hours a week in winter and a short day (4-5 hours) every week in summer you will cope.  But if you miss weeks in the spring and summer you will really struggle to keep up.  Its a bit like having a pet cat – it doesn’t mean you can’t go away for the weekend but you do have to plan for it!  So if you go away for a weekend in summer, then you’ll need to visit one evening to water before you go away, if you are away in spring, expect to do twice as much the next weekend to keep the weeds down.  You can miss weeks in the winter and it won’t be a problem – but its best to come along every week so it becomes a habit and starts to fit into your life.  And of course you need to come to the plot to pick your veg!  Winter is the time for clearing – if you leave it until the spring you will be running to catch up the whole time, as Spring will be a frenzy of planting and weeding – you won’t have time to clear your plot then!

Q. Crop Rotation sounds difficult.
A. Explained simply it is a way to get the most from your crops by moving them on a 3 or 4 year rotation in different blocks. This prevents build up of diseases and allows heavy and light manuring to suit crop.

  • Three year rotation 1. Brassicas (Cabbage family). 2. Potatoes and roots. 3. Peas, beans and onions.
  • Four year rotation  1. Brassicas   2. Onions/ roots   3. Potatoes   4. Peas and beans.

Crops that do not fit into any of these groups are beetroot, lettuce, spinach, sweet corn and marrows- these can be fitted into any of the areas.

For a guide go to Crop Rotation by Bob Flowerdew from Gardeners' Question Time, sensible and succinct.

Q. If the plot is overgrown, how can I break it in?
A. You may have no choice but to take on a plot that has been uncultivated for several years, Brighton & Hove Council may be able to help clear very overgrown plots and remove rubbish. Contact the Allotments Officer for further information on this service. The secret really is to tackle this job in easy stages.

Take a small area and clear it thoroughly, rather than trying to tackle the whole plot at once. If necessary, remove any undergrowth with a petrol strimmer - these can be hired by the day from a hire shop or by joining a site society some of whom hire equipment to members for use on the allotment. (see list of equipment on front page with newsletter)

If weeds are actively growing you could apply a weedkiller based on Glyphosate, which is the only suitable weedkiller as it only kills growing plants and if used properly should not affect the soil. Leave it for two weeks or more until all the weeds appear to be dead. Work slowly and methodically, forking through the soil and removing as much weed root as you can.Bindweed(a trailing vine with white flowers overground, looks like spaghetti underground) and Couch grass(grass top above ground and very matted roots that look like bamboo canes with notches every 3inches)are notorious allotment weeds, anything you can do to control them now will have a long term benefit.

An alternative is to use layers of newspaper or cardboard to supress the weed growth but this must be covered with compost to prevent it drying out and blowing away.

Most plots which have been overgrown for some time form a weed seed bank that will germinate when exposed. Once cleared (to help stop weeds growing) rake in quick germinating mustard seeds which will act as green manure. This not only smothers weeds but can be dug in thereby helping to improve the soil structure. Cut when 230mm (9 inches) high and do not allow to go to seed.

Q. Should I rotovate?
A. Rotovation is different to ploughing which simply cuts sods of soil and turns it over. Rotovation breaks up the soil and shreds weed roots.

A disadvantage is that when infested ground is rotovated the couch grass and bindweed is chopped up into small pieces, most of which will grow again.
On shallow sticky soils it can break the sub soil and make drainage poor. If you do rotovate the soil it will need to be hoed very frequently to keep the re-emerging weeds under control.

Some growers flame gun the surface to kill off weed seeds (especially meadow grass) but this may also kill off useful insect life (care must be used to prevent any flames spreading to the surrounding area).

Q. How should I prepare the plot for sowing and planting?
A. If a plot is in good condition, it is worthwhile clearing any crop remains and digging it roughly, removing any perennial weeds. On heavy soils, rough dig before mid-winter and leave for the frost to create a crumbly soil structure. On lighter soils it is better to leave digging until late winter. As you dig, work in a generous amount of organic matter- a barrow load to every 1.7 square metres (2 square yards) should be plenty.

Someone on the allotment site will be able to tell you where to get bulky organic matter (farmyard or stable manure or mushroom compost) locally. The aim should be to have the whole plot ready by early spring to start sowing and planting. Fresh manure should be stored and turned for a year before digging in to avoid scorching crops.

As an alternative to digging the whole plot you may wish to consider using a permanent bed system with slightly raised beds which allow access from both sides via a path system.  Pathways can be grass, woodchip gravel or paving slabs.

Q. Do I need to do a soil test?
A. Soil testing tells you what the pH of the soil is (whether it is acid or alkaline) using a colour chart to read the result. Most vegetables prefer a neutral soil but brassicas (cabbage) family prefer it slightly acid. If your soil is too acid apply garden lime.

Soil tests are also available to give the levels of important nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus.

Soil testing kits with instructions are available from most garden centres or by sending away soil samples for analysis for example ' Gardening from 'Which'' 0645 03 7035 who will send a bag and instructions on how to collect the sample from different parts of the allotment. Soil testing is useful but not widely done and once in 3 years is adequate.

Q. How can I get the soil right?
A. Working in organic material e.g. Farmyard manure, mushroom compost or Well-rotted compost will improve the soil. Sowing a green manure will enrich the soil and stop sun, wind and rain erosion, whatever the soil type. This increases the humus content, an important factor for growing, moisture retention, and plant nutrients.

Allotments that have not been worked for many years or have had nothing put back in to the soil would benefit from an annual application of manure or mushroom compost. If supplies are limited, concentrate it where you intend to grow potatoes or members of the cabbage family. If you practise crop rotation you will gradually improve the whole area. Start a compost bin immediately and recycle as much organic matter as possible.

Q. Where do I buy my seeds and fertilisers?
A. Most supermarkets, DIY stores, hardware shops and garden centres carry proprietary branded seeds of one or two suppliers and many also have own shop brands, which are usually cheaper. Seven sites have society run distribution centres on the site open usually on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Seeds are available at very competitive prices as well as fertilisers, pesticides, weed-killers and gardening sundries. Storekeepers are volunteers and have a fund of knowledge on 'How To' questions not confined to growing. Many seeds are foil wrapped and last if properly stored at for at least two years, and have printed on them the number of seeds they contain.

Q. How do I grow organically?
A. Follow the advice on from HDRA , the national charity for organic growing.The organic gardening resource which has information on how to transform your garden/allotment with information,seeds,advice on pest control and tools, on http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk (this is the Henry Doubleday research association - tel 024 7630 3517 and also http://www.organiccatalog.com .

Another excellent source of information on Organic's is the Brighton and Hove Organic Group(BHOGG), at www.bhogg.org or e-mail bhoggroup@yahoo.co.uk

Q. How do I know what to use?
A. In the main by reading the labels of proprietary branded fertilisers. Fertilisers are divided into two main categories. Organic - farmyard and stable manure, compost, peat, bonemeal, calcified seaweed and liquefied comfrey. Inorganic - which are chemically based - include Growmore (which is balanced between three main nutrients Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus) and many other proprietary brands.

Q. What are the first steps I need to take when looking at my new allotment?
A. Walk around the site, see where bean rows tend to be, where compost heaps, manure hoppers and sheds are. How do others arrange their paths? Is there vehicle access to the plot for manure delivery and where is the nearest water supply. Sit down on your plot. Check the lie of the land in relation to the sun, do the trees suggest the wind from a certain direction, and does the plot slope in any one direction. Next is decision time. Where is or will your shed be? Where is the compost heap? The manure hopper? The water butt? Where will the paths be? Do I need to include some form of shelter or windbreak for plants? Now you have the infrastructure sorted out the blocks will be clear for crop planning.

Q. Best time to start?
A. Definitely autumn or early winter - give yourself plenty time to clear and prepare beds for the new growing season, and you'll have the time in spring to invest in sowing and tending your crops.   If you start in spring, it's a bit harder to juggle the time you need to do both tasks well.

Again - take it easy; don't overdo it, or be over-ambitious!   Better to clear a small bed really well, and have good crops from it; cover the unused part of your plot with the plastic (don't use carpet as it is banned as it contains chemicals which can leech into the soil), and come back to clearing it later in the season.

This page was added by Jack Latimer on 09/08/2006.