Advice for newbie allotmenteers
This is being turned into a more formal "manual" here
There seems to be a lot of folk at the moment taking on allotments (good!) which are very badly overgrown. Questions keep popping up on various fora such as usenet (uk.rec.gardening) or the BBC allotment bulletin board.
Q: So what should I do in that case?
Q: I can't dig the whole plot over just yet – what then?
Q: What about herbicides?
Q: I've got Horsetail (or marestail) – now what can I do?
Q: How about brambles?
Q: And of course bindweed…
Q: OK so I've just got a cleared plot, and I've got lots of new weeds growing! Help!
Q: It's going to take months to even see bare soil! Is it worth the rent?
Q: I now have a cleared plot: what should I do next?
Q: What does "crop rotation" mean?
2) Different crops also use different cultivation techniques, eg potatoes need regular earthing up, which means the soil is continually disturbed and weeds are not allowed to take hold. Also the potatoes break up the ground with their roots. This means that soil is ‘cleaned' by the weed removal. Other crops don't like disturbance once they're in, so weeding is tricky. Rotating means that weeds get clobbered every few years by the potato rotation even if you're not as careful about hand-weeding the carrots!
3) Different crops need different levels of plant food and humus. Some crops prefer more fertilisers than others and some hate it. Rotating means you can manure just the sections that are due to grow heavy feeders and 1) doesn't become a problem.
4) Rotation helps to control pests and diseases. This is probably the most important reason. The longer the rotation the less chance there is of a particular pest or disease building up to significant levels. A lot of insect pests overwinter underneath the place where the plants they fed on were: if another crop is there the next year, a large number will die before finding food.
for the simple reason that late leeks can follow early potatoes and not muck up the plan! There are variations on this, that may put the potatoes with the root crops for instance. I don't do that because potatoes are heavy feeders and need manuring while carrots and parsnips loathe freshly manured ground and need to be at the other end of the rotation. This way in year two, the carrots move to where the brassicas were (so there are two years after the manuring); after a general feeding the brassicas follow the spud area and the carrot area of year one is manured in the autumn and used to grow potatoes. A slight exception is the overwintering (Japanese) onions and garlic: they just like a general fertiliser. But I don't need much excuse to avoid digging in manure!
So in the second year you have and in the third, . Fourth year it all returns back to where you started. Things like marrows/courgettes I bung in wherever there's a gap!
The RHS have a five-year rotation plan here.
Most allotmenteers plant in the old traditional rows across the width of the plot. These look nice, but aren't necessarily the most efficient use of ground. Also you need a path every few feet so you can get to a row to weed or thin out seedlings. Netting has to be used to prevent pigeons/ rabbits/ butterflies getting to brassicas, and netting a long thin row isn't easy! Again from personal choice for ease of netting I grow in blocks rather than rows. This also lends itself for raised bed formation. I still haven't got much wood to do that though!! It also makes it easier to get between crops if you don't have to walk all the way down a row and up the next… See the Diary for photos of both styles.
Full length rows Half rows, or blocks
Planting and the gardening year
Ideally you start the year in the mid-autumn, with digging over a plot. This time of year, most crops are out and you can dig clear ground and weed any annoying additions out before adding either manure or fertiliser as dictated by the rotation. With all the will in the world, and the British weather to boot, you will likely as not still be digging plots come February. It's best to start with the onion area, and get in autumn onions and garlic cloves. Then you can dig the rest at relative leisure.
A lot of questions seem to come up mid-year saying help! What can I grow? I've only just got my allotment! I started in May, so I know this one. I also know how much stuff you can grow from May to October if you get a move on. And how much a second freezer costs when you realise how much you've grown and the neighbours are as fed up of marrows as you are…
The notes are from my own personal sowing date guides. Bear in mind I have a warm conservatory/greenhouse and heated propagator and live in the south of England, so a lot of these things are germinating under ideal conditions.
Same as August until midway through the month. Harvesting will be taking most time up now. After mid-September, the next cycle begins properly. Sow garlic cloves for overwintering, autumn onions and overwintering peas and broad beans (eg Aquadulce Claudia).