I think it is fair to say that most people’s idea of allotment gardening is akin to my experience as I write this. The sun is shining, the plot is in ship shape order, and everything is, as they say, lovely in the garden!
Yes it can be like that and it is without doubt one of the most rewarding things my wife Caryl and I have ever done.
There is though a huge, huge but. If you are thinking of taking on a plot you should be aware that in order to get to the "isn’t this amazing" stage, you will be required to put in some hard work, then some more hard work, and, to top that off, just a bit more real hard work.
If that sounds like this article is trying to put you off it is (to an extent). Gardening should be fun and if you are not enjoying your allotment because it is just so much harder than you thought it would be then you are unlikely to keep coming. The purpose of this article is to give you some unvarnished truths about having an allotment. The sun does not always shine, nothing (other than weeds!) grow without you putting in the hard yards, plots don’t clear themselves and, unless you are lucky enough to inherit a structure, sheds and poly tunnels don’t build themselves. They can also blow down when the winds blow! If you read to the end of this and still fancy giving it go head straight to the sign up page!
THE PAINFUL TRUTH
Most new tenants are likely to be faced with a plot that has had little or no work done to it in several years. In general site managers are not looking to give existing tenants the order of the boot, but sometimes for various reasons people cannot work their plot and have left it for several seasons, in which time old Ma Nature has reclaimed back that which is hers.
This was our plot day one:
What you cannot see is the old ironmongery and carpet etc that is hidden beneath the 6 foot of thistles and couch grass!
However, if you are ever going to take on a project you need to have optimism and energy on day one or there is little point in starting!
One thing I would say about Moor Green Allotments (though I have no reason to think that other sites are any different) is that the people are lovely and are always willing to help.
We got our plot in May and our next door neighbour gave us some advice. He said, “clear a little patch, and get something in” at which point he gave us some squash plants from his poly tunnel. This is advice I would pass on to any new plot holder. You have taken on a pretty big elephant and you cannot eat it in one bite. However if you start to see things grow you might just get bitten by the bug.
This was our first little patch:
In my view, if you can (depending on the time of year you get the plot) get something that is easy to grow in, you will at least have the joy of seeing those first few plants flourish and you will get some reward for your labours. We worked on just the front part of that plot in the first year and managed to get a few things going:
BE AWARE YOU HAVE JUST OPENED AN OUTDOOR RESTAURANT!
That brings me on to all the critters that you share the site with. You might think you are growing lovely wholesome fruit and veg for your family, but no one tells the birds, slugs, badgers, squirrels and mice that!
As far as they are concerned you are making a veritable smorgasbord of delicious treats just for them. Different folks take different approaches to this question but be aware if you leave food lying around our skittering, crawling, slithering, and flying friends will come and take it!
Also a word about the weeds! If you are going to take on an allotment, until you are really on top of things avoid the two week holiday in June or July. If you do take that holiday, what was a reasonably clear plot is suddenly a carpet of stuff you certainly never planted. Although allotments can, and in many ways should, work in harmony with nature, you have to bear in mind nature does not give a toss and will claim back your hard work in no time if given the chance!
Assuming you are still with me (those who have bailed so far would never have made allotment gardeners!) Once you are through the summer, harvest what you can and get on with the real work.
Autumn gives you the chance to put in the hard yards. The weeds aren’t growing and what crops you have grown have been harvested. Now is the time to put in the effort that will pay dividends next spring. However be prepared for the plot to look pretty sorry for itself in the winter.
Imagination is required!
HOW MUCH TIME DOES IT TAKE?
There are two of us that work our full sized plot and we were able to give it a good half day every week. Over several months the weeds, the trees and all of the rubbish was eventually removed!
How you lay your plot out and what approach you take is very much up to you. We have gone for raised beds and employ a ‘no dig’ approach, although we didn’t at first. Initially we did a lot of digging and a lot of weed removal. Others rotavate and plant the whole plot without any paths or delineation. I don’t think there is any one correct ways to do it.
It has taken us 5 years to get where we are now, though I must say that lockdown has helped. I would say that unless you are willing to give the plot on average one ‘man day’ of work a week March to October you might find that you never find yourself getting to where you want to be.
For me one of the great joys of the allotment is that you need to build stuff! It is not essential but having a shed and or poly tunnel really makes a difference. The benefits are manifold, if you have a shed you can store stuff, there is somewhere to sit and have a
flask of something hot when not is cold out and lets face it every man worth the name should have a shed at least one time in his life!
A poly tunnel really extends the growing season and I would say it is probably the best investment we have made on our plot.
Not least of the advantages of structures is that you can use the roofs for rainwater collection and harvesting rainwater is really really advised on any allotment.
First to go up was the compost bin (far right)
Then the shed:
And finally the poly tunnel:
This is the same plot now with shed and poly tunnel:
Having said all the above some people have no structures on their plot and prefer it that way. As my old dad used to say ‘there is no act of parliament!’
How much do I need to spend? That question, to a certain degree, is that same as how long is a piece of string.
Some people spend very little, others are willing to invest more. Personally I don’t think we will see much of a financial return from our plot due to my love of building things! However, even if you like building things, if you are prepared to scavenge pallets and other wood you can do things at a low cost.
As far as plants are concerned, seeds are not expensive and the Seed Store will have young plants from time to time which you can pick up at very low cost.
So (over and above your rent) how much you spend is very much up to you.
ARE YOU STILL UP FOR IT?
If you are, in return for your hard work you can have access to your little slice of paradise. Somewhere where you can literally shut the rest of the world off and step into another world.
Please do not think that the lovely plots you see as you walk around the site make themselves. Everyone of those lovingly tended allotment gardens are the results of hours of sometimes quite back breaking work. They yield great joy and occasionally some disappointment. As a lifelong ‘non gardener’ it has taught me patience and the fact that there are times when you just have to wait for Ma Nature to work her magic.
But on days like today, when the sun has shone nonstop, and I wander the plot looking at the different types of bee that like comfrey, or the raspberries, I ask myself if it has all been worth it and I know there can only be one answer.