Wondering what to do on your allotment? Growing your own fruit and veg is rewarding, and crops brim with flavour that can’t be found in shop-bought produce. Haynes reveals everything you need to know about planning an allotment.
How do I get an allotment?
Find an allotment site near you by looking on your local authority’s website. However, many councils have waiting lists, so it’s best to phone and discuss the situation before registering.
Visit potential sites and talk to tenants to check that the allotments are well managed and don’t suffer from vandalism. Find out if sites are managed by the local authority or an association (often called devolved or self-managed).
If local sites are full, search on Google to see if privately owned allotments are available in your area. Rents may be higher than council-owned plots though. For advice, contact the National Allotment Society (www.nsalg.org.uk).
To learn about allotments, check out the Haynes Allotment Manual
What should I grow on my allotment?
The simple answer is to grow what you enjoy eating, and only sow what you can manage. For many plot-holders, essentials are tomatoes, potatoes, runner beans, onions, lettuce, carrots, sweetcorn and herbs. What you can grow successfully will depend on your soil type – see below.
How big is an allotment?
Allotments are measured in old-fashioned rods, poles and perches. Ten poles is the standard size of an allotment and is equivalent to 250 square metres. That can be too big for beginners, so some local authorities now offer half and quarter-size plots for lower rents.
Chemical or organic allotments?
Organic gardening – gardening without chemicals – has been made popular by TV gardeners such as Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh. However, it takes more skill and patience. Organic pest controls are increasingly available but can require more repeat applications than their chemical counterparts.
Modern chemicals control pests and diseases effectively but the harvest interval (the gap between application and harvesting) must be observed.
What is crop rotation and is it necessary on an allotment?
Crop rotation means not growing the same crop on the same piece of ground year-after-year. If you grow the same veg in the same place each year, pests and diseases that target those crops will build-up in the soil. It helps to group crops together that have similar nutritional requirements, then rotate them.
The three popular groups to consider when planning rotation are: 1. Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, calabrese and Brussels sprouts), 2. Legumes (peas, French beans, runner beans and broad beans) and Alliums (leeks, onion, garlic and shallots). If your plot is too small for effective rotation, grow veg in containers, using fresh compost each year.
Learn more about growing your own with the Haynes Home-Grown Vegetable Manual
How do I test the soil?
You need to know what lies beneath your feet. Testing your soil’s pH will tell you if its acid, neutral or alkaline – this will determine what crops you can grow (pH 14 is very alkaline, 7 is neutral and 1 is very acidic).
Few soils are lower than 3 or higher than 9. Most veg will grow from pH 6 to 7.5. Soil testing kits cost around five pounds at garden centres. Also, dig into the soil to see if it is sandy, silty, loamy or clay.
If you’re not sure, ask neighbouring plot-holders. All soil will benefit from the addition of well-rotted manure or compost. Never dig when soil is frozen though, or it’ll take longer to warm-up come spring.
Should I grow in raised beds on my allotment?
Raised beds look attractive and make gardening easier, as there’s less bending down to plant, weed and harvest your crops. They boost drainage on heavy soils and can be filled with the correct soil type for the fruit and veg you want to grow.
Raised beds are easily built from timber decking or old railway sleepers, and they help soil to warm-up quickly in spring. However, you will probably have to buy-in topsoil in bulk to fill them, which can be costly, and raised beds dry out quickly during hot spells, so they’ll need a lot of watering.
Can I keep hens on my allotment?
The 1950 Allotment Act states that hens can be kept on local authority-owned allotments, provided they are not being reared for profit. However, gardeners are advised to check tenancy agreements first, as rules vary between sites.
Cockerels are often banned from allotments under local by-laws, due to the noise they make. You’ll also want to stop foxes from attacking your chickens by building strong cages.
Do I need to leave space for paths?
Yes – paths are essential. Not just for planting, but to provide daily access for weeding, watering and harvesting. They can be as basic as a muddy walkway or length or turf, or you can lay weed-suppressing membrane and cover it with bark, gravel or slate.
How do I kill weeds on my allotment?
Weeds compete with crops for water and nutrients. If left to flower and set seed, weed infestations become worse. It’s essential to tackle weeds before you plant crops. The easiest way is to spray weeds with a glyphosate-based weedkiller (such as Roundup), which kills both foliage and roots, while weeds are actively growing.
Choose a dry, calm day when rain isn’t forecast. If you’re organic or prefer not to use weedkiller, lay thick black polythene sheeting (held down with bricks) or old carpet over weed-infested soil for at least six months over autumn and winter before planting. Some weed re-growth may occur.
Can I have a shed, greenhouse or polytunnel on an allotment?
Check your tenancy agreement. Greenhouses and polytunnels extend the growing season, enabling you to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, sweet peppers and grapes, to name a few. A shed will allow you to keep tools on-site.
However, buildings can cast shadows across neighbouring allotments and attract vandals, so some sites have maximum dimensions for structures, while other sites will not allow buildings.
Learn more about garden buildings with the Haynes Garden Buildings Manual
How do light levels affect crops?
Light levels are critical for high yields. Never rent an allotment that’s under the shade of trees (trees also suck water and nutrients from the soil). If your plot runs north-south it will have good light levels all day. If it runs east-west, shadows and cooler areas will be likely
Do allotments have water supplies?
Most do – but check how far your plot is from standpipes. If it’s some distance, invest in large plastic containers and a wheelbarrow to transport them to your plot once full.
Fit water butts to gutters on sheds and greenhouses to catch every drop of rainwater. You’ll need to water at least once a day in high-summer.