Saturday, 19 December 2015

What to expect when you take over an allotment.

Now that we are coming up to the new year, lots of people will be thinking about getting an allotment. Unfortunately their idea of an allotment is beautifully dug, friable soil and a little shed in the corner. If you are extremely lucky, then you will get one like this but most allotments are full of perennial weeds and junk. Although old lags like me would like to help as much as we can, we have our own allotments to cultivate. You will have to do almost all the work yourself. You will probably need to get a shed and transport it to the allotment. If you want a greenhouse then you will definitely have to find one yourself.

Make a plan for the allotment - and keep to it.
This was one of the allotments I took over in 2010.  I gave it up when I moved to a new site.
You will need to be prepared to do a lot of work for a couple of years to make the allotment  productive.  Lots of perennial weeds will cover the plot and you will need to be able to identify nettles, mare's tail, bindweed and couch grass and their rhizomes.  Rhizomes are underground stems that can regenerate the plants from tiny pieces - if you let them.  These will have to be removed no matter which method of cultivation you choose.  Covering the soil will relatively quickly clear the tops of weeds but it will not remove rhizomes unless you leave the cover on for about two years.  Even then you will get invasion from the sides. 
I would not use carpets to cover the soil because they attract rats.  There was a big colony under the carpet in the photograph above. 
Mostly bindweed and couch grass rhizomes.  There are a lot of nutrients locked up in these rhizomes so don't throw them
 away or burn them.
Most plants can be micro propagated from a few cells in a test tube so these rhizomes have a flying start if you leave them in the soil. 

So you will have to dig.  START DIGGING AT AN EDGE. 

If you are going to adopt a no dig method then you still need to dig the allotment to clear off the perennial weeds.  No dig does not mean an untidy allotment. 

The best digging technique is to double dig removing rhizomes as you go.  If the rhizomes are left out in the open, they will dry after about three to four weeks.  Then they can be composted.  

The amount of weeds will indicate how fertile your allotment is. 
I split this allotment into two with some string.  A trench was taken out this side of the allotment and put onto the soil on the other half.  I worked down this side and up the other digging trenches and filling them with clean topsoil.  As the subsoil is usually less fertile than top soil, it is best not to bring this to the surface.  But subsoil can be improved a lot if you add compost, manure or other fertilisers. 

As you can see, this allotment was not very fertile and was very waterlogged for about three months of the year.  It had a large colony of rats at the back and there was a lot of junk left scattered about.  The soil was mostly a sandy clay with very little organic matter mixed in.  As I had my other allotment on the go and it was highly productive, this one was given up and the bottom was turned into an environmental area by the allotment committee.  As I said you can't rent out a pond to cultivate. 

My first allotment in February 1982. Eventually this allotment came third in the Wolverhampton allotment
My first allotment I got in December 1981 and I double dug it, skimming off the grass and nettles burying them in the trench.  I would be wary of burying couch grass unless you know what you are doing. 

If you can find a gardening course that will introduce you to what to expect when taking on a new plot, then I would encourage you to take it.  The RHS level 2 diploma is quite good but does not really give you a realistic impression of how much work is involved. 

The reason why most people give up is because they don't realise what allotmenteering involves.
It is hard work. 

If I have put you off then probably you shouldn't have considered taking on a allotment in the first place.  However, if you still want to give it a go then I think you will enjoy the experience. 

Don't take too much land on especially if you have a full time job and a family.  I think that gardening is a lovely activity to do with the whole family, but it is not everyone's ideal pass time. 

I took on my new allotment in 2013.

I did cover part of the new allotment in carpet, although carpets attract rats and mice. However, they do clear the tops off quite quickly.  I did not clear the cage away until 2014.  It is where my peach greenhouse is now. 
I used carpets because they were already on the allotment.  Try to use all the resources already on the allotment because this can save you money. Eventually, though I had to clear the carpets away and took them down to the council waste disposal site. 

None of the weeds were burnt.  All of them were either composted or buried deeply in trenches.  In this way I kept all the nutrients, trapped in the weeds, on the allotment and recycled into the allotment soil.   
Covering the soil does not mean that you don't have to dig.  Once you get all the perennials out then you can adopt the no dig method.  This is the allotment in 2014.
My new allotment does not look like this now.  This allotment came fourth in the Wolverhampton allotment competition in 2015. 

Allotment in 2015 from a similar angle.

It has taken me three seasons to get the whole of my new allotment to a standard I think is acceptable.  Now I just have to improve the soil. 

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