Having secured the tenancy of your plot, and met the ‘neighbours’, the time has come to get to work and cultivate the plot. The chances are you will be met with a plot overgrown with weeds, sorry-looking fruit bushes, and lots of abandoned junk, for only very rarely will you get a neat, well-cultivated plot ready for you to walk onto and start growing stuff!
You can be daunted at the prospect of the work ahead, and run away in fright! Or, you can plunge in wildly with great gusto, and spend the next 6 months in traction with a bad back. Or, you can take it steady and win.
The first thing to do is examine your plot and establish the correct boundaries. If not already marked properly you can hammer in some corner pegs and stretch some string between to establish the limits. Do this in consultation with your neighbours, and in case of any dispute that you can’t resolve between you, agree to call in the landlord (the council, usually) to act as arbiter. Do this amicably, for you don’t want your first step to be on the wrong foot!
When you have established the boundaries, measure the plot dimensions and determine the area, (council plans have been known to be inaccurate). If it differs markedly from what you’re being charged for, again take it up with the council. Next, take a spade and turn over a spade-ful of earth from half a dozen different areas and have a look what the soil is like, whether it is sandy and free draining or clayey and waterlogged. If you can take a pH measurement at this stage, so much the better, as it’ll determine just how acid it is. Also determine which side of the plot faces south, and whether there is any shade from overhanging trees, overgrown hedges or adjacent buildings. Go home and draw out your plot, roughly to scale, on some squared paper, marking access paths to your plot and any shade giving trees or structures. This is your basic outline plan, so make some copies, and then on one of the copies roughly sketch in what you want your finished plot to look like. This may seem like a lot of unproductive work, but try it, it’s fun, and it will save you lots of time later.
Whilst marking out your sketch plan keep the reason you want an allotment uppermost in your mind. The reason should be to successfully grow as much fruit and vegetables as you can on that area of ground, so the more paths, buildings, compost bins and junk piles you have, the less area you have to grow stuff! Think about the maintenance of any boundary hedges or fences, so don’t put anything up against them that will damage them or restrict access. Don’t site sheds or other structures so that they cast shade on your neighbour’s plot, and make sure you can access all round them for future maintenance without having to step onto adjoining plots. The council may have regulations governing the erection of structures, so make sure you abide by them.
Having decided where the paths are to go, the buildings and structures are to go, if you will need raised beds or not, the next thing is to decide where your permanent planting is to go. Permanent planting is anything that is going to be in that position for more than one season and includes such things as rhubarb, fruit bushes and perennial herbs and vegetables like globe artichokes and asparagus. Finally, what you’re left with is the area of ground where you can grow seasonal vegetables on a ‘crop rotation’ basis. You may need several attempts to get your layout the way you want it, but so far you have not wasted any energy on your plot without any clear idea of what you want to achieve, or undertaken any unnecessary expense, perhaps on things you don’t need.
Now, having saved your energy and your money, you can start work on your plot, by clearing it of weeds, junk and other unwanted stuff. First gather up the junk and sort it into a pile to get rid of immediately and a pile of stuff that might come in useful later. Be ruthless, if the previous tenant couldn’t find a use for it, chances are you won’t either, so get rid. Then having cleared the plot of obstacles you need to tackle the weeds. This is probably best done by strimming them down, and if bonfires are allowed, burning the dried strimmings, together with any combustible, non-hazardous unwanted junk. Allow the weeds to start to grow again and then treat the entire plot with a non-residual systemic herbicide, such as a glyphosate based weed killer (‘Round-Up’). Even if it is your intention to grow your future vegetables ‘organically’ it is better to do this now, to clear any persistent perennial weeds, like couch grass, before you actually start to grow anything, than struggle with them later when your crops are growing. You may need more than one application of herbicide, but if you do this thoroughly at the outset, you probably won’t need to use any herbicides again for as long as you have the allotment, and you can be as ‘organic’ as you like from thereon.
If there are any old fruit bushes on the plot, you are probably better off clearing those as well, as they will probably be past their best and disease ridden.
Depending upon what time of year you took over your plot will determine how much and how quickly you now need to bring it into cultivation. If you have time and the energy, ideally it would be better to dig over the entire plot with a spade, then roughly rotavate it, finally grading it to an even slope. If time is limited, mark out your pathways, and other non cultivated areas, with string and only dig over those areas required for immediate use. The ‘un-dug’ areas can be covered over with a mulch of woodchippings, or black weed-suppressant geotextile, until required. Don’t be tempted to use old carpets as these will have been treated with chemicals which might taint the soil. Apart from this, they look unsightly and don’t work, as the weeds grow through them ‘welding’ them to the ground beneath. They also provide a haven for slugs and snails and rats and mice. Then when you’ve finished with them, you have big problems getting rid of them. (a wet, mouldy, heavy and muddy old carpet doesn’t go too well in your nice clean car)
Once you have dug over the soil and broken down the clods it is as well to re-measure the pH and add the appropriate amount of lime to raise the pH. You can do this everywhere except where you want to plant potatoes in the near future. Leave the lime for a while, to allow the rain to wash it in, or turn it in with a fork or rotavator. Unless you have got access to really well-rotted manure that can be used immediately, you are probably better off not to spread any manure at this stage. Instead, stack the manure to allow it to ferment out and thoroughly rot down ready for use the following late winter/early spring. If you do have access to well-rotted manure, only spread it on areas that you haven’t applied lime, don’t mix manure with lime. If it is still early enough in the year you can give a base dressing of a general fertiliser (either ‘organic’ or synthetic, as you prefer), before starting to sow or plant-up you plot with it’s first crops.
Although more detailed descriptions of soil cultivation techniques will form the subject of another topic, here are some hints and tips about digging with a spade (and to a large extent with a fork too!)
A spade is a cutting tool, keep it sharp by running a file along the back edge. The manufacturers always seem to put a chamfer on the front face of the spade, presumably so it looks nice in the display rack. It wears on the back edge, so this is the side to sharpen, even (especially) when it’s a brand new spade. A stainless steel spade won’t rust and the soil won’t stick to the blade easily, but it doesn’t take an edge as easily nor keep it as long as a carbon steel blade. A carbon steel blade won’t rust if you keep it clean and oiled between use and it stays sharper and for longer. Coated blades on spades look OK cosmetically, but the paint increases the friction as it slices through the soil, making it more of an effort to dig. Don’t be fooled by good looks. Always try and get a spade with a shaft length to suit your height. There isn’t the same choice as there used to be, as the manufacturers seem to think it’s good to make them as ‘one-size fits all’. You can still get longer shafts for tall people, but not shorter shafts for folk under 6’ tall. Smaller, lighter spades, and forks, are available for use if you find a standard digging spade too big to handle easily, these are called ‘border’ spades (or forks).
If you’re right-handed, hold the handle with your right hand, place your left hand over it and dig with your left foot. As you lift the soil, slide your left hand down the spade shaft, and use it as a fulcrum while levering downwards with your right arm. As soon as the spade is high enough to clear the soil, flick your wrists clockwise to turn the soil off the blade. Don’t lift the soil higher than needed. Soil is heavy, so don’t ‘bite’ off more than you can comfortably lift, about 4” is comfortable for most folk. If you are left-handed, dig with your right foot and flick your wrists anticlockwise. This will prevent you ‘dancing a jig’, while you shuffle your feet to reposition your balance. This would waste energy.
Keep the blade vertical, by leaning the handle slightly forwards; that way you dig to a full ‘spit’ depth. When digging on a slope, face across the gradient or face uphill, there’s less chance of losing balance. Whenever possible dig while facing into the breeze. If you have a breeze on your back, tie a sweater round your midriff to stop your back muscles becoming chilled while you’re digging. It’ll save a stiff back and aches later.
Never ‘throw’ the spade at the soil, you might hit a brick or a buried root and the ‘jarring’ will hurt your wrist, plus there’s always the risk that you might miss your intended target and get your toe instead! Place it in position first. Never stamp or jump on the blade, you may still hit that brick and hurt your ankle, or your foot may slip off and you may scrape your leg on the sharp blade corner. Never dig with the toe or ball of your foot, your foot isn’t meant to bend that way. Never dig with your instep, you’ll end up bruising it and it becomes very tender and painful. Always, always dig with your heel. That way you get more leverage through your leg, you are less likely to damage yourself and you save effort.
Start slowly and then speed up as you get warmed-up and into a rhythm, and only work at a pace with which you are comfortable Never try and do too much in one digging session. When you’re getting tired, stop! Don’t risk back-strain by trying to do the lot in one go; it’s not a competition and no-one is holding a gun to your head; you’re supposed to be enjoying doing it!