Starting Out: 10 Important Lessons for Your Allotment

You have recently acquired an allotment plot – congratulations! Successfully getting a plot is a truly thrilling moment. After all the enquires and site visits and waiting lists, it is amazing to finally be given your key, to step on to your new plot, and dream about collecting bountiful harvest whilst wearing straw hats and dungarees… And then, you visit your site and the above picture is what usually awaits you.

This was our first plot when we started this adventure in autumn 2017 – and notice, this is after my husband had mowed some of the grass and lightly dug a corner of soil to get a sense of what we had, so just imagine how bad it really was! When we first got here, the grass was about waist high and the plot was inundated with deeply rooted dock, stinging nettle, stones, and debris.

To be completely honest, I was terrified when I saw this. I – like many others who have signed an allotment contract – did not truly appreciate the derelict state of so many of the long unused plots and what exactly we would be getting. We were energetic and enthusiastic to start but also slightly overwhelmed by the amount of work that lay before us. I remember standing there on that overcast October day, nervously clutching a rusty fork, thinking ‘Oh sh*t… What do I do now!?’

I was new and inexperienced and had no clue how to start! I was wearing running trainers instead of waterproof boots, I could barely wield a spade, and – apart from some tomato plants on a rooftop garden in New York – I had never really grown anything edible. Although I was willing and ready to go, I didn’t know where to start.

This first post is for all of you who have suddenly found yourself in my soaking wet shoes, nervous but excited to start going. These are top 10 most important lessons – among countless others that I will share on this site – that I wish I knew when I was just starting this allotment adventure.

Trust Your Instincts: There may be times when you will feel overwhelmed and unsure of yourself – in fact, these are the feelings I tend to experience the most – but this is a good thing. It means that you are remaining humble, realistic, and keeping yourself grounded. I am by no means an advanced or experienced gardener – indeed, I would consider myself very much a novice – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t naturally have certain instincts when it comes to gardening. For example, your seed packet may say to sow outdoors directly from March, but if you’re unsure of how well a small seed would survive in the claggy, wet, and freezing soil we often experience in early spring, then listen to your gut and hold off until conditions improve. It is always better to be a bit later and end up with successful, bountiful plants than too early with nothing to show for it.

No matter your experience level, trust your own natural instincts. You know more than you think you do.

Invest in Good Tools: This is something that I cannot stress enough! When you are first starting out you may be surprised by some of the unexpected hidden costs – bags of store bought compost and materials like wood, netting, and canes can quickly add up. While I would say that you can scrimp and economise with items like these, it is always a good idea to splash out a bit more for good quality tools. That cheap spade and fork you may find at a discount store will only take you so far and, especially when you’re digging hard earth or breaking up an overgrown plot, you’ll be thankful for paying a bit more on galvanised steel blades instead of flimsy hollow metal tools. We have Kent & Stowe brand items and they have served us faithfully for years.

Go to a local hardware store or garden centre and spend time looking at the tools. See what feels most natural in your hands and remember to factor in the weight of the tool – after a couple of hours of hard manual labour, you don’t want the additional weight of a spade or fork to add more effort.

On that note, what type of tools you will actually need is another important discussion. For advice on what you will need (and actually use) for your plot, watch this space for an upcoming post.

Our trusty Kent & Stowe fork nestled in a bed of first early potatoes.

Start Small: It is easy to get carried away with grand ideas when you’re just starting out – trust me, I certainly did! You see a bare plot as a blank canvas and your enthusiasm gets the better of you. When you’re first starting out it is a good idea to only utilise a small part of your plot. Take the time to carefully dig, fertilise, and improve the soil rather than rushing to get as many plants in the ground as possible.

Our first growing season on the plot, I was so excited to get started that I didn’t properly take the time to learn about my site. I just wanted to get growing and the image of full and beautifully planted beds drove me to do more, often to the disadvantage of my soil and seeds. Your first year on the plot, only grow on a fraction of the site. It is better to start small with a portion of your site so you a) do not become overwhelmed with the suddenly large amount of work, b) get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your plot, like natural drainage spots, where gets the most sunlight, and any pockets of microclimates that may effect your growing, and c) to allow time for your site to get properly up and running rather than rushing the digging, weeding, hoeing, etc.

Always Ask Questions: One of the best things about growing veg on an allotment rather than in a backyard, is the presence of fellow gardeners who are often willing to share the wisdom, experience, and excess produce with you. There will always be a small handful of allotmenteers on any site who prefer to quietly work with their head down and who do not go there to socialise – but I am very much not one of them! In fact, one of the things I love the most about an allotment is that it is one way to meet like minded people, often from different backgrounds and walks of life who you would have never met outside of your plot. Allotment gardeners range widely in age, class, and origin – it is this unique melting pot of people which makes the allotment as much as a place to make new friends as anything else. Equally important, it is the expertise of other gardeners which make the social interaction all the more vital when you are first starting out.

I firmly believe that gardeners are some of the most generous, salt-of-the-earth sort of people in existence. Gardening has a tendency to ground you (pun intended) and brings out a willingness to share your knowledge and good fortune. I know or have had a conversation with every person on my plot and I find these relationships really vital to the health and production of my garden.

When you first get on your site, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the neighbours. Have a natter with them, offer a cup of tea, and ask them what they’re growing. Look enviously and ambitiously on their well manicured and bountiful plots – just remember that their plots didn’t always look like that! Feel free to ask them for planting advice, what they think grows best on the site, any particular pests or problems they frequently encounter, and much more. The neighbours on my allotment have given me use of their heavy duty tools like rotovators to ease my digging, have helped me rebuild my inherited cold frame/greenhouse, given me excess plants or produce, offered invaluable growing advice, and provided some good old fashioned neighbourhood gossip, to boot!

Make Mistakes: Before you know what you’ve done, you’ve bought and installed the wrong type of netting to cover your brassicas, sun loving tomatoes are hidden behind taller sweetcorn or beans, and you didn’t take the proper amount of time to thoroughly prepare the soil for carrots, leading to forked or rotted specimens. These may seem like silly mistakes to make, but it is surprising how easily you can commit retrospectively foolish decisions without realising the implications. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from gardening it is this: MAKE MISTAKES!

One of the best ways to learn about gardening is to get your hands (literally) dirty and to experience failures. Since I have started this journey of seriously gardening in 2017, I have read something about vegetable growing almost every day (I’m not exaggerating here, I really am this addicted). The knowledge that I’ve gained from reading about gardening techniques is tremendous, but even I can admit that there’s nothing quite so educational about trying something for yourself, failing, and then trying something else. Even the most experienced gardener will make mistakes and it is a very wise grower who admits that they only know a fraction of what they would like to know. Once you realise that gardening is not about controlling nature but is instead about providing the right conditions for nature to flourish, the easier your experience will be.

Be Prepared to Work Hard: This is something I cannot stress enough – maintaining a thriving and well tended allotment plot takes a lot of time and a lot of muscle. Apart from one use of a neighbour’s rotovator and the occasional assistance of my father-in-law, my husband and I dug, conditioned, and cleared both plots with nothing more sophisticated than a spade, a fork, and some serious elbow grease. I admittedly post beautiful pictures of the finished project but rarely show the tremendous amount of work behind those snapshots. What takes a moment to photograph and share took hours of sweat, blood, and often tears to accomplish. To my chagrin, I also rarely show my the piles of failures, preferring instead to show the successful specimen rather than its discarded and long dead companions. Take it from me – it’s hard work to run a successful plot and ‘live’ off the land.

There are times when you will work significantly harder than at other points of the year. I often find spring and autumn are the most physically taxing, as you’re waking the beds from winter dormancy on one side of summer and then preparing it to lie fallow on the other. My husband and I will often go to the plot for an hour or two after work during the weekdays and spend several hours there at the weekend. Although this is a lot of time, please remember that we are crazy and have two plots – but also, it is what we love to do! You can’t truly commit to something like this unless you have that passion and drive to go, it is an absolute addiction. I find myself craving the hard physical work and I can get lost in working my plot for hours at a time. Feeling the sun on your back, breathing the fresh air, hearing the birds sing, and tending to the earth is one of the most meditative experiences I’ve ever had. It is something I desperately tried to find in running, climbing, or other outdoor pursuits, but I just couldn’t experience until I found gardening. It is definitely a labour of love, but one that gives back as much as it takes. Be prepared to work and you’ll be amazed by what you can do.

Taking a much needed photography break from the hard digging required on the second plot. The bricks and stones in the bottom of the picture were dug out of the soil

Grow What You Like to Eat: This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would really be surprised at how easily you can forget this simple rule.

Our first year at the plot we were only working about a quarter of it and, as we came rather late to the planting season, we decided to buy some plants from a local nursery to get our garden started. We fell for the allure of the deal and bought 24 runner bean plants for around £8. Thinking this was such a great buy and casually saying ‘of course, we’ll eat this much’, neither of us took a moment to stop and consider how much 1 runner bean plant could produce, much less 24. We built a lovely and sturdy frame out of bamboo canes for them to climb and we were delighted when they ALL started to curl their way towards the sun and produce beans. And boy, did they produce beans!

By the second week of hauling several plastic carrier bags back home from each allotment visit, I truly started to hate runner beans. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the taste and think they make a lovely green addition to a meal – but enduring weeks of nothing but runner beans really put a damper on the situation. After a while, I couldn’t even give the damn things away! They became stockpiled in my fridge and freezer and it was with some small measure of delight when I was able to dig them up in autumn and joyfully chuck 24 spent runner bean plants onto the compost heap.

The lesson here is: grow what you absolutely love to eat and never, ever plant 24 runner beans unless you are feeding a commune.

All the things we love to grow are all the things we love to eat.

Patience is a Virtue: I have never been known for my patience and yes, this is the one lesson that I have yet to truly master. I am the woman on the allotment who is merrily planting out first early potatoes at the end of March while her locally raised neighbours are wisely waiting until early- to mid-April to plant theirs. A lot of this is from my own excitement to get growing and, thankfully, I’ve only killed off the occasional thing from sowing or planting out too early. Please learn from my own mistakes and over eagerness to get my hands in the soil – it is always better to wait and plant ‘too late’ than get something in the ground too early. Plants will catch up if the conditions are right but they will not do well from being sown too early and exposing them to the unpredictable British springtime weather.

Another thing that requires patience and responsible time management is the preparation of soil. Take the time to really dig, condition, fertilise, and rake your soil to a fine tilth before sowing or planting out. This may mean that you end up planting less, but what you have sown will stand a much better chance of success.

Get to Know Your Plot: Take the time to learn as much as you can about your site. Even the weeds can tell you more about the soil, draining, and sunlight conditions than you would expect. For example, the presence of nettles and broad-leafed dock on our plot suggested we had fertile alkaline soil, high nitrogen levels, and good amounts of moisture. Although these two weeds have now become the bane of my existence – especially with the sharp stings of nettles and the annoyingly deep roots of dock – they gave me a good indication of what I had.

When you first get your site, observe it at different times of the day. Monitor how much shade versus sunlight it gets, where is prone to waterlogging and where is the driest. Check from which direction come the prevailing winds and test to see if you need to provide shelter from gusts. Dig in the grass and see what lives there – if you see lots of slugs and snail shells then you might want to think about ways of encouraging frogs, hedgehogs, and other predatory animals that keep these plant destroyers at bay. If you dig up a small section of earth, see what is crawling beneath the surface. Multitudes of slightly pinkish and fat earthworms are a great sign – the larvae of destructive moths caterpillars, and beetles are unwelcome sights as are the plant hungry aphids, spider mites, earwigs, and white flies. Don’t be discouraged if you see any of these unwelcome visitors – it would be unheard of for you to have no pests at all – so things like this are a sign of a very normal garden. Just be prepared to do your research on keeping these intruders away from your previous veg.

Plan, Change, and Adapt: Since I’ve started working my allotment – and especially after taking on the second plot immediately adjacent to our first – I have been obsessed with planning, drawing, and mapping out every inch of growing space and scheduling the precise moments when I need to sow, plant, and harvest each item. This may seem a bit extreme and you wouldn’t be wrong in raising an eyebrow at the overzealous way in which I plan my garden. However, I would encourage you to go to your plot armed with measuring tape, a pad, and pencil to accurately sketch your beds as much as possible. Having a good plan of what should go where and approximately how much space it would take up will make your life much easier when it comes to actually planting out.

However, even the best laid plans can be altered by the slightest factors and my grand map is always changing and adapting to the realities of my space. Things that I thought would go brilliantly in one place may end up in another because something failed to grow, was much larger or smaller than I expected, or would be better suited in another part of the garden. Make a plan, but don’t set it in stone.

Now, go get started and happy digging!