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.
 This is the start of my attempt to distil the most frequent questions and the usual answers. 
 Keep a diary!!!!! That way you'll know when you planted something, when you harvested it, whether it could have been useful to plant earlier/later etc so you can adjust your dates the following year. Eventually you will just *know* what to do, but the diary will be there as a reminder.
I assume that the plot is bare of any permanent planting and this section will just stick to vegetables!

Q: My plot is very overgrown – should I hire a rotavator?
A: Depends if you want to spend the next year or six getting the weeds out. In general, a rotavator should be used on clean soil. Used in soil with perennial weeds such as dandelions, bindweed, couch grass and nettles, they will distribute tiny pieces of root or rhizome and a large number of these pieces will root, giving you many more weeds than there were to begin with.

Q: So what should I do in that case?
A: There is no real substitute for hand digging to begin with, carefully lifting each spadeful and removing all plants and their roots. A lot of weeds such as bindweed or horsetail will likely as not go down further than a spit (spade-depth) and even double digging will miss roots. Burn the pieces.

Q: I can't dig the whole plot over just yet – what then?
A: Cover the area you cannot dig with old carpet. It will exclude light and be heavy enough to prevent new shoots growing through it. Several months covered in this or heavy duty plastic will reduce the weed numbers significantly. Best choose a carpet with natural fibres and hessian backing, rather than plastic foam backed which can leach chemicals into the soil.

Q: What about herbicides?
A: Contact weedkillers such as weedol will kill off annual weeds such as chickweed, speedwell and scarlet pimpernel. It will kill off top growth of perennial weeds but they will regrow. Systemic weedkillers with glyphosate will have more effect in removing the perennial weeds, though many (eg bindweed, again) will need several applications.

Q: I've got Horsetail (or marestail) – now what can I do?
A: Nightmare! Bruise the stems and spray with concentrated glyphosate, or hoe, hoe, hoe. Both will keep them out of the bed, but likely as not they'll come back from the borders of the plot. They are swines to get rid of. The
BBC gardening site has advice on this). Do NOT under any circumstance rotavate!

Q: How about brambles?
A: Again two methods. Organic: hire a brushcutter (strimmer with a circular saw) and cut everything down to a few inches. Remove all the canes then put a fork under where each cane was growing. Lever out the quite shallow roots. Burn them. Alternatively spray with brushwood killer such as SBK, carefully following the instructions. The RHS has
advice on this.

Q: And of course bindweed…
A: keep on digging, hoeing or spraying! Best done June/July when the flowers open. The RHS says this.

Q: OK so I've just got a cleared plot, and I've got lots of new weeds growing! Help!
A: Annual weeds are often triggered into germinating by light, so if you disturb the soil, up they come. Hoeing with a sharp hoe will sever the stems from the roots and kill most of them. This is best done when it's dry, or they'll just re-root. I couldn't believe what a difference it made getting a new sharp hoe. The old saying is one year's seed, seven years' weed and they weren't joking… A lot of weed seeds can stay dormant for a lot more than seven years (field poppies have been known to be dormant for over 50). This battle you don't win, just keep on top of. I find that spending 15 minutes an evening weeding a bed means most of them are kept under control and that way they never come to seed. Unfortunately in most allotments there are untended plots and they reseed all the rest, grumble. And getting councils to mow them is not an easy task either!

Q: It's going to take months to even see bare soil! Is it worth the rent?
A: Nag the council to give you a rent-free or reduced period as you bring it back into cultivation. After all, you don't pay council tax on a house that is unfit for habitation… You never know - they might say yes.

Q: I now have a cleared plot: what should I do next?
A: Get out your pen and paper! Seriously, the best thing you can do is divide up your plot into three to five decent-sized sections. These form the basis of your
crop rotation. I've had a three-way for a few years as I've only had a small plot, but I´ve now got a second plot and so I´m moving up to four. More is better if you have the size.

    Q: What does "crop rotation" mean?
     It means growing different veg in a given patch of soil each year, for a number of reasons.

    1) Different crops take different nutrients out of the soil, so rotating makes sure a given area isn't depleted of too much of any nutrient too fast for it to be replenished.

    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.

    The minimal three-plot rotation I use is derived from an old Percy Thrower book


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   rotation_b  and in the third,   rotation_c  . 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.

Planting styles

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.

plot_layout_A    plot_layout_B

  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…

What can I grow if I get my allotment in…

(With advice from my own experience, the BBC Gardening website and the RHS). See the Diary.

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.

Leeks      4th wk
Order potatoes and buy garlic. Sow garlic cloves in compost-filled modular trays, giving them a boost before the ground is either dry or unfrozen enough to plant them. Sow leeks in modular trays. Save egg boxes for potato chitting next month. 

cauliflower  1st wk
shallots     2nd wk
As January, except you can sow caulis in modules as well. Start to chit any early potatoes you have received. This means putting them eyes-up in either a trayful of old compost or an egg tray, and leaving them in a cool light place. They will sprout short, stubby dark green sprouts. Shallots can be planted out. Sow summer cabbage and onions in a propagator.

cabbage   1st wk
leek         2nd wk
carrot       3rd wk
early potatoes 3rd wk
As previous months. Start to plant the early potatoes in trenches from mid-March. Sow a few lettuce and carrot seed under fleece. (In warmer areas you can do this in Feb too, if you're feeling brave). Crops you can sow outdoors include broad beans, beetroots, Brussels sprouts, summer cabbages, leeks, lettuces, hardy peas, garlic, beetroot and radishes. Shallots can be planted at the end of the month if the ground isn't too wet, as can onion sets. Most sowings are done in March and April.

gherkin       1st wk
carrot         2nd wk
calabrese   2nd wk
tomato       2nd wk
marrows/courgettes  3rd wk
sweetcorn  4th wk
The hardest month for sheer numbers of sowings. Seedlings are coming up all over the place inside, most can't go out for some time and you easily run out of places to grow them. If you haven't already done it, sow leeks, onions, plant onion sets, early potatoes and garlic. It's the last chance for the garlic, or it will not clove successfully. Plant maincrop potatoes. Succession sow salad.

Runner beans       1st wk
beetroot               1st wk
French beans climbing    2nd wk
French beans dwarf        2nd wk
The month where things can finally go out. Sow carrot, lettuce, radish, beans, sprouting broccoli, winter cauliflowers. You can just about get away with planting onions sets at the start of the month if you're very late, as they have 7 weeks before the days start to shorten. Onion size is related to how much leaf it has on the longest day. If you are only just getting under way, cheat. Go to the local garden centre or nursery and buy in module-sown veg. In my first year I bought in leeks, cabbages and caulis, though only the leeks really did anything as I didn't realise what a hungry pigeon could do to a brassica…  The Kitchen Gardener is very good, and grows all their seedlings in sterilised peat-based compost so you shouldn't get clubroot from any of their brassicas. By mid-May if the weather looks decent, start planting out hardened off plants into their allocated beds or rows and start direct sowing runner beans, dwarf and climbing French beans, kohl rabi, carrots, marrows, cauliflowers, peas, ridge cucumbers, sweetcorn, swede, lettuce, endive, squashes and spinach.  If in doubt, wait till mid-June. They catch up.

You can direct sow any remaining crops by now (same list as the end of May), and finish hardening off and planting all other greenhouse-raised plants. By the end of the first week the last frost should have passed in the south, and things like sweetcorn and courgettes and beans can be sown directly, into any gaps you might have got. By the end of the month, early potatoes will be starting to flower and be ready to dig and if you're very lucky, you may have got some courgettes too. After the solstice, you can sow chinese cabbage, which tends to bolt if planted before. Succession sow more salads.

Sow next year's spring cabbages in a nursery bed or modules. Leave outside to grow to 4-5 leaves, but don't leave them in plain view or the pigeons will scoff the lot. Sow turnips and more salad, chinese leaf, endive, kohl rabi, radish, winter spinach and turnips.

Same as July, really. Happy harvesting.


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).

As mid-September onwards. Order fruit bushes if you would like some.

Same again, though I'd recommend starting any onions off in modules so they don't just rot off before they get a chance to root.

Tradition has it that shallots are planted on the shortest day. Maybe, but it does mark the psychological start of another cycle. I have started off forced carrots and dwarf French beans at the end of the December in the house, giving me very early pest-free produce when it's fun to have something green growing.