Guest post by Marcia MacLeod
It's the first day on the plot you've been lucky enough to beg, borrow or steal - but one look at all that empty space is enough to put anyone off, however hard you worked to get it in the first place. What should you grow? When and how? And where do you start?
A lot depends on whether the plot has been worked recently or was derelict, the type of soil and the geographical location. Newbies taking over an active plot should be able to plant most crops in the first year. It would help, though, to find out what the old plot-holder grew, and where, as some things, like carrots and brassicas (broccoli, cabbages, etc), should not be planted in the same place in successive years. The old plot-holder can also tell you what worked well on the plot and what didn't, although you can pick up a lot of local information from other people on the site.
The key to a successful plot is to grow what you like to eat
If the plot has not been looked after properly or has been unused for some time, you will probably have to clear the ground before you can start. Get yourself a big tube of ointment for bruised and tired muscles (or a bigger bottle of whiskey!) because that means digging. Although some people advocate a 'no dig' method, involving covering the soil with a thick layer of compost and leaving it for a couple of months, most growers get a sense of satisfaction from digging. If nothing else, it gives you time to think about what you want to grow.
The key to a successful plot is to grow what you like to eat and to sow little and often to try to minimise gluts and provide a regular harvest of your favourite fruit and veg. Start with the easy things: potatoes, spinach and chard, lettuce, herbs, beans, courgettes, maybe a few carrots or tomatoes (although blight spreads on an allotment and producing blight-free crops without a greenhouse is difficult).
But even with easy crops, the type of soil can have a huge impact on how to treat your plot. For example, carrots don't like clay as they find it hard to push down into the soil; try short or round varieties instead. Blueberries need an acid soil. Soil testers, available from many garden centres or online retailers, will provide a fair idea of the plot's make-up.
Ask for advice from other gardeners and allotment owners in your area
Soil is often dependent on the geographical location: most of London, for example, has clay. But local weather also plays a part. Allotmenteers in the south can plant many crops earlier and later than those living in colder climes: broad beans can be sown in March, instead of April or even May, and fast-growing crops like spinach, Swiss chard and lettuces can be planted as late as late August and still be harvested before frost sets in. Remember that instructions on seed packets are geared to the average customer and cannot take account of regional differences.
For more advice, talk to fellow plot-holders, ask at a good garden centre, and read as many books and magazines as you can find, including Your Allotment of course!
Marcia MacLeod is the, Editor for 'Your Allotment' Magazine. Your Allotment covers allotments in north London , but offers practical advice and information for allotmenteers everywhere. Check out www.yourallotmentmagazine.com for more details.