Roehampton Garden Society

Starting Out

Starting an Allotment

Please do read your tenancy agreement with Enable (W.B.C) and our Society rules for Allotment holders – it might prevent conflicts in future. And don’t take on too much! Better to start with half an allotment, usually about 2.5 rods (a “rod” means a “square rod” and equates to 25.3 square metres), and discover how long it takes you to cultivate it fully.

Planning

Vegetables need as much sunshine as possible, full sun most of the day is ideal. Remember you will need space for compost bins and manure heaps and you may want to put up a shed. Plan for them to go where they will not shade part of your plot. Also decide where you want to put perennial plants (those that grow year after year in the same place), such as rhubarb and asparagus, and shrubs such as black currants and raspberries. Look around at other plots and decide whether you want separate beds, with permanent paths in between them, or single large areas where you can easily change the positions of the growing plants (and do not need to keep a number of paths under control). The ideal width of a bed is 4 feet (1.25 m) so that you can reach the whole bed from either side.

Tools

To start with you must have a strong fork; even a spade, a rake and a hoe can come later. At some point you will need smaller tools, such as trowels and a hand fork, as well as a watering can. You can sometimes pick up second hand tools at our Store .

Clearing the ground

It depends when you start your allotment. If it is autumn or winter, you can hope to clear the whole plot by the time you start planting in the Spring. If Spring or summer, clear a little at a time so that you can begin to plant. Nothing is more encouraging than eating your first successful crops.

Begin by removing the top growth of weeds and then start forking out the roots. Concentrate on removing all the weed tops that are flowering – because they will soon be scattering weed seeds. Tops can be composted (rotted down) in a bin, a bag or a heap. You must then try to remove all the weed roots from the soil. Some plants are so vigorous that even small pieces left in the soil will grow again. But reappearing in bare ground they are easily seen and removed. Of course, you must remove all rubbish, such as glass, metal and plastic. Remember that Wandsworth do not allow us to have bonfires – though we usually have bonfires once a year (to burn wood) on 5 November, Guy Fawkes night!

If you decide to use mechanical means, such as a rotovator, to “dig” over your plot, you will still have to remove all the undergound pieces when they regrow – and by then there will be many more smaller pieces. Whatever method you choose, no one can remove all the weeds the first time, digging out weeds is a never ending process..

Mulching

After you have cleared the ground, avoid large areas of bare soil which will quickly become covered again by weeds (from seeds if not from under the ground ). Recently “mulching” bare soil is recommended, i.e. covering the ground with either organic material, such as compost or manure, or inorganic material, such as polythene sheets. Plants, such as clover or vetches, can also be sown as a mulch (to grow quickly and suppress the weeds). The advantage of a “green” mulch is that it can later be dug in as a green manure. We have a selection of recommended “green manure” seeds for sale in the Store.

Planting

If the plot has previously been neglected, the first crop to grow could be potatoes. It is said that “potatoes clear the ground”. What this means is that you have to cultivate the ground before you plant them (giving you a chance to remove weeds), earth them up after they have started to grow (disturbing weeds between them) and dig the ground again when you harvest them (another chance to remove weeds). Seed potatoes are available in our Store from January to March.

A neglected plot will be full of slugs. Where possible, start seeds off in pots, trays and modules in sterile multipurpose compost and plant them out as sturdy transplants (accompanied by slug pellets?). This avoids inevitable massacre of seedlings by slugs, which happens when seeds are sown directly in the soil. It saves money and effort in the long run. Water your transplants before you lift them and water them well when they are in. (Unfortunately, some vegetables cannot be transplanted.)

Choose pest and disease-resistant varieties where possible.

Label the rows that you plant and make a written note of what you have planted and where. This will help in crop rotation (see below).

Improving the soil

Ideally you could add organic matter to your new plot to improve the soil but it is usually sufficient to get the plot back into production before undertaking the work of incorporating manure or compost. At the Store you can buy both inorganic or organic general-purpose fertilisers which you can simply scatter on the soil a couple of weeks before sowing and planting, in order to improve the soil and give the plants the nutrients they need for growth. A leaflet is also available which is a short guide to the use of fertilisers.

Use lime only in the autumn before planting brassicas, and then only if the soil is acid. (Simple Soil-Test Kits can be bought at Garden Centres.) Do not dig in manure before sowing root crops (carrots, parsnips) because it encourages them to “fork”. A Soil Texture Test may help to decide if drainage needs improving.

Rotation of crops

Different groups of plants have different “food” requirements and have different pests and diseases associated with them. Therefore never grow the same groups of plants year after year in the same place. A simple three-year rotation is shown below in which groups of plants follow one another. In other words, legumes (beans and peas) should be planted where potatoes were last grown; brassicas (the cabbage family, sprouts, cauliflowers, etc.) should follow legumes; potatoes should follow brassicas. (Root crops are grouped with potatoes; onions and other miscellaneous crops are grouped with legumes.) Stick meticulously to a succession of these groups.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Plot A Potatoes Legumes Brassicas
Plot B Legumes Brassicas Potatoes
Plot C Brassicas Potatoes Legumes

This basic three-year rotation is suggested by Joy Larkcom in Grow Your Own Vegetables, 2002, price £9.99, a useful general guide. Other parts of this leaflet are adapted from the Henry Doubleday Research Association’s Winter 2000 and from Kitchen Garden, March 2003, an expensive colourful monthly magazine. Further information is available at www.gardenorganic.org.uk