Dawn’s 'new' plot. What's the problem? At least there's a shed!
Dawn’s Top Ten Tips for choosing an allotment
• Close to home: My plot is 10 minutes walk away so I sit on my front doorstep pull on my wellies and away I go.
• Take a fork and test the ground for workablility, it can vary a lot.
• Near a water source saves time lugging watering cans about.
• Surrounded by developed plots helps to reduce problems with weeds.
• Look out for perennial weeds unless of course you like hard work.
• A sturdy shed is useful: mine is waterproof.
• Check for existing plants: I found fennel and ruby chard on mine.
• The time of year you take it over is important, nightfall in winter is very early
• Talk to the neighbouring plotholders to see what they are like, I forgot to!
• Visit the local museum to look at the maps to see if there is any buried treasure
• Tools: With tools, to an extent you get what you pay for, you need something durable and not too heavy to lift. You need a Spade and Fork for digging (If you are tall, ie around 6 foot, consider so called extra long ones).I mostly use a fork but a spade comes in useful. You need a hoe, for weeding on dry days, a rake for preparing a bed for seeds or small seedlings, a small trowel for digging out perennial weeds where you can’t use a fork and for planting young seedlings. You can make a line from two short, thin pieces of wood and some twine. A dibber is useful and an appropriate shaped piece of wood can also easily be used for this purpose.
• Materials: If you have somewhere to grow seedlings, like a conservatory, it gives them a start against the slugs etc. In which case you’ll need potting compost and cheap little reusable pots although you can pay more and get more sophisticated trays for seeds which split apart. It is worth saving the larger quart or litre plastic bottles as with the bottom cut off they make ideal protection against the elements and wildlife (slugs and birds especially) for young plants.
• You will probably need a barrow unless you can borrow one. When trench digging you need to shift soil from the starting trench to where you will finish, and you may need to shift manure around, too.
• Manure will improve the soil structure and may be used as a mulch to keep down the weeds. It also provides the plants with essential nutrients. It can cost about £25 a trailerfull where we live but most stables will let you collect it free if you have a trailer or van or some other way of getting it home. (Not recommended in the back of a hatchback unless very carefully bagged). The “correct” thing to do with the manure is to cover it with polythene until it rots down. It could be counterproductive and can actually spread weeds if it has not got hot and it’s not likely to do this if you spread it out before it has rotted properly. (It depends on what the horses have eaten). Also although many allotmenteers use it in autumn rather than in spring, like my dad did, it is better to save it in a heap because it will retain more of its nutrients which will otherwise leach away. Not much weed will grow during the winter and what does can be hoed off on a dry sunny day when you feel like it. It is a constant battle because there are so many seeds in the soil and borne on the wind and they survive for years. save it until the spring. Saving the manure until spring & covering it with polythene will help it get hot & rot down and will stop the goodness just leaching away, for winter is a long time. In spring dig it in unless you are happy to risk it having weeds in it (I wouldn't risk it) or if you particularly want to use it as a mulch to keep in moisture, in which case apply it after a period of wet weather.
• Seeds: I probably spend about £50 or less on seeds each year, because my basic order is around £30 and then there are potatoes and odd bits on top. Fruit bushes can be quite costly but if you ask they might bulk order them to reduce the price. If you don’t mind waiting you can take cuttings. Strawberries are much cheaper at a garden centre and again you can propagate them fairly easily to save money. Another £50+ would probably get you a good selection of fruit bushes to start with, although if you bought from a mail order catalogue I think you would pay more. You don’t have to do it all at once, anyway.
DIGGING: Watch out for pests
While digging, look out for cutworm, leatherjacket sand cockchafer grubs, these pests like living in grass and can be a particular problem in areas which have become grassed over. If you find them destroy them or they will have a go at your crops when the plants begin to grow.
Cutworm on my glove
If you come across any of these when you are digging give them a good sqeeze. Otherwise they will cut through the stems of your young plants at the base and leave them as if scythed down by a miniature scythe.So does the Leatherjacket, it looks very similar except its darker in colour, it is thinner and the lines on the cutworm's back are more patterned. You need to get rid of both these hooligans or they will destroy some of your plants.
The cockchafer larva lurks in the soil for three years wreaking havoc and is best destroyed when found during digging. It is one of the big plusses of turning the soil. Rejoice.
Centipede: friend, give it tea and biscuits
Also rejoice if you find these centipedes because they are a friend to the gardener. It is mainly carnivorous, feeding on live animals such as insects, earthworms, spiders, and slugs. The first pair of legs is modified into poisonous jaws located below the mouth to kill their prey. Centipedes’ antennae are longer than those of millipedes and have they one set of legs to each segment whereas the millipede has two. Millipedes are harmful, they nibble plant roots and will attack soft fruit such as strawberries which are accessible to them. The millipede is darker in colour: brown/black. It moves fast, so if you can catch it kill it, otherwise it will attack your plants. Contrary to its name the centipede does not have a hundred legs, try counting them. It’s not advisable to touch them. While they probably won’t break the skin, if they do they will give you a nasty nip.
DIGGING Technique and PLANNING the plot
If you are starting out in winter I would dig the plot when its fine and plan when its not. Digging puts you in touch with the plot, the contact is essential and the fresh air helps to recharge the batteries. Planning is important so you are at least one step ahead and, of course, both digging and planning are very enjoyable.
Prepare the ground by digging it over to remove the weeds and plan to begin planting in spring. Dig out a trench to one spade depth (or to the depth of the topsoil if less than this) and barrow the soil to the other end of the plot. If you want to ‘double dig’ you loosen soil to another spade's depth using a fork pushed into the soil then moving it backwards and forwards. If the soil is not too compacted I wouldn’t bother to double dig it. Continue filling up the previous trench with soil from the next one. moving backwards as you go so you don’t tread on what you have dug. This is a basic principle when hoeing, too, so you don’t tread the weeds back in. Finally, fill the final trench with the first soil removed.
Avoid mixing subsoil and topsoil, there is a change in colour where topsoil becomes subsoil.
Walking on the soil compacts it. The easiest way to avoid this is to create raised beds about 3 or 4 feet wide, so that all work can be carried out from walkways in between. Create these simply by throwing soil from the walkway onto the bed, as you go. Once you commit yourself to raised beds you never have to really dig again, except to maintain the walkways, for the effort required to turn the soil is minimal when it is not compacted.
I would plan what I intend to plant in each of the beds and make sure I have a crop rotation in mind.
Couch grass looks like grass but underneath the roots are brown or white and they extend along & underneath the surface. It's no good digging it in because it will just sprout & the more you split it the more it grows. You have to aim to get every last bit out & then when it sprouts up from the bits you miss you dig that out too. And so on until you get the lot. Obviously, using a rotavator on perennial weeds is going to make them worse, which is why I am doubtful that rotavating these weeds can save work in the long run.
Couch Grass and Bindweed are not too hard to remove unless they go very deep. As they become more established they are more and more difficult to shift.
It is fine to dig annuals in, especially if you dig a trench in front of you one spit(spade) deep and turn the top stuff into it. Alternatively you can safely put these weeds on the compost heap, preferably when they have not been let run to seed. Try to sort out any perennials like couch grass, dandelion, horsetail, and bindweed etc.