You’ve waited months or maybe even years for the keys to your first plot – but now it all seems a little overwhelming. Alice Whitehead (aka @allotmentalice gives newbie allotmenteers some tips on how to keep the enthusiasm growing!
1. Don’t try to do it all at once
Just as you wouldn’t eat a whole pumpkin in one sitting, you need to approach your allotment in bite-size pieces too. With most allotments larger than the average urban garden (around 250 square metres to you and me), at first glance, your new plot can seem vast and intimidating.
But even if you're there every day (and few of us have time for that), accept that you won’t get it all done at once. And be okay with it.
Start by roughly chopping down the weeds to ground level and cover two thirds in large sheets of tarpaulin. This will allow you to peel back the sheet little by little to dig, hoe and clear small areas. Once you have most of the plot under control, keep this mini-plot perspective. Getting to grips with little pockets will make you feel like you’re achieving something each time you visit.
2. Don’t expect supermarket veg
Browse the supermarket shelves, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all apples are red and all carrots are perfectly straight. Even the vegetable seed packets and catalogues display exhibition winners.
Homegrown veg isn't always what we're used to.
But a homegrown crop, especially those grown without chemicals, won’t look the same – so embrace the ugly! I can vouch for the fact that knobbly roots, frayed leaves and holey fruit make up for their looks with incredible flavour and freshness that you can’t buy in the shops. Complete with the unbeatable satisfaction that you grew it yourself. In our house, a single bendy sweetcorn cob has been ceremoniously brought to the table for our family of three to share!
Be proud of what you grow, warts and all.
3. Don’t lose sleep over the weeds
Bare soils might look neat, but where do you ever see this in a natural setting? Nature abhors a vacuum – and for good reason. Weeds help maintain soil structure, reduce erosion (particularly important when there are no crops in the ground), improve fertility and attract beneficial insects.
So befriend your bittercress and buddy up with your bindweed. Get a guidebook: the way you deal with a perennial such as common dock will be far different from how you deal with an annual like chickweed. Eat them: dandelion, chickweed, plantain and many more are edible. Or, try the no-dig approach. While digging encourages a new flush of weed growth, hoeing off their heads and smothering with a thick layer of well-rotted compost each autumn, will rapidly reduce numbers year-on-year.
4. Don’t ignore your neighbours
While I’m the first to admit my allotment is a haven away from the world (and to that end I’m not the most sociable of gardeners!) – if you’re new to grow your own, plot pals can be a godsend.
They’re usually full of useful info (i.e. Bill on plot five makes a mean rhubarb gin) and growing tips (i.e. aubergines are a right faff). They’ll nod in all the right places about your allotment woes (i.e. the slugs ate all my lettuce/cabbage/beans – delete as appropriate), and should be the first port of call for seed and harvest swaps. They might just water your tomatoes when you go on holiday, and they’ll be glad to share a warm cuppa and a natter any time of year.
5. Forget Instagram-ready plots
Your vegetables are neatly arranged in raised beds, and your shed is painted a colourful hue with flowery curtains - right? If the answer is no, congratulations! You’ve got yourself a normal plot.
Forget what you see on your mobile, tablet or TV. All allotments have weeds, slugs and epic fails - and many have leaning sheds, slumping fences and wonky wigwams. Revel in the joy that is your unique patch of produce; make it your own and ignore social media.
And, if you see an Instagardener with tomatoes in May, remember everybody’s location, climate, soil conditions and leisure time is different. Each beautiful year at your plot will be different from the next, so what bombed this year might do brilliantly next year!