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Now that the Covid lockdowns are easing a little, if you haven’t already found an allotment near you to keep busy and grow your own fruit and vegetables, now could be a good time to start.
As you may know, breathing in the fresh air, feeling the warm sun on your skin, and working with the soil, all these have both visible and hidden benefits to your health and, therefore, your mental health.
Finding your allotment
The first step, especially if you’re fairly new to the area, is talk to your neighbours, they may know of one or even have one of their own. You could take a stroll through the neighbourhood – if you have a dog, this looks less suspicious – keeping an eye out for little alleyways between the houses, gates at the end of rows of houses which seem to go nowhere or to grassy areas. Often you will find a small block of allotments behind a row of houses. These can be the best allotments as they are tucked away, hidden from obvious view, and less likely to be vandalised or things stolen from them. If you find one nearby, great, talk to anyone on the site (weekends are usually busiest) and get a contact number for the person in charge or leave your number and name for someone to contact you. This may take time, so keep asking nicely.
If you can’t find one nearby, ring the local council and ask them – they will take your details and pass them on. Again, this can take some time as you will often go on a waiting list. My advice would be to keeping ringing and chasing in a pleasant manner. Another method is to visit the local library and ask there. Also look on Google maps at your local area, look closely at empty areas and zoom in to read what it says – I found a tiny patch of allotments near my daughter’s house that I’d walked past hundreds of times without realising it was there.
There are often larger allotment sites situated at the edges of residential areas. These generally have better access and more facilities such as a shop and toilet. They also have deliveries of manure on occasion. There are more people and, therefore, more advice may be garnered and more insights can be gained by talking to those already there.
When you finally get allocated an allotment (plot) you need to pay for it – prices vary up and down the country, from around £10–£50 a year. Dates usually run from the 1st of October to 30th September, so if you start half way through the year you may only have to pay half for the first year.
How to start
Now it’s time to go and look at it. Don’t expect a perfect, weed-free plot of ground, it might not be in an ideal condition. There may even be some rubbish that needs clearing. If you’re lucky, there may already be a shed or greenhouse on the plot. If the previous holder has let the weeds and grass get a good hold, whether through ill health or laziness, it might look a mess. This is quite common, but don’t worry, everyone has to start somewhere. There are a number of ways to deal with this. Getting friends and family down to help is a great idea. They can each bring a spade or fork and you can also bring a few flasks of tea or coffee and packets of biscuits and you can make a day of it.
Even with tea and biscuits supplied, chances are most of them will never want to come again, but if there is enough work done to start you off that’s great and you can be very grateful. Or if friends and family aren’t keen in the first place, you could ask other plot-holders what they recommend. One of them might have a rotovator or know someone who does, or you could hire one locally – costs will increase if you hire for several days. Get as big as one as you can handle; it’ll dig deeper and that will aerate the soil, especially if it’s been compacted or left for some time. It might need two of you to get the rotovator over there, but once you’re actually rotovating it’s not so hard, I can manage it even if it wobbles a bit from time to time.
Rotovating and digging should only be done when it’s not raining and the soil doesn’t stick to your boots too much. If the soil squelches underfoot, you’ll be doing more harm than good, so wait for a drier day. Rotovating the whole plot in one hit would take all day, so you’ll be exhausted the next day, and probably even dreading the next visit. However, in my opinion, rotovating should be a one-off affair. It shouldn’t need to be an ongoing requirement unless you let the plot get out of control or are so busy you can only get over there occasionally. There is also one major drawback to rotovating a grass and weed-invested plot: you’ll be rotovating all that plant growth back into the soil. While the grass will rot, the bad weeds will just come up again and may even spread as they can tolerate being chopped up.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother with rotovating at all, I don’t like paying out for the hire. I would personally dig it manually in bitesize chunks. Look for the clearest section, it might be where they took out their last crop before they gave up. Mark a section about a metre to a metre-and-a-half wide at the edge of the plot, using wooden sticks, a string between two sticks or whatever is handy; something visible that you can use as a guide to where to dig.
Now, it’s time to get digging
You’ll need a spade and a fork to start with – if you don’t have them already for the garden, boot sales or online are good places for second-hand tools, make sure it’s not too big or too small for you to use effectively. If you want to buy new, go for a good quality one and tell them what you’ll be using it for. The best time to dig is autumn but, assuming you’re digging right now, use the spade to slice into the soil at the edge of the plot. This breaks it free from the path, now step on the plot, turn, and start digging that metre wide strip working back across the plot. If it’s a nice crumbly loam, you’re in luck, you’ll be able to turn in the straggly bits of grass and light weeds fairly easily. Take out any long roots, particularly dandelion, couch grass, bindweed, throw them in a bucket and put them in the relevant bin, but don’t put them in your compost. You won’t want them coming up in the compost heap as you will be wanting to use that compost again to spread on the soil in autumn or winter for next year’s crops.
Incidentally, four old pallets can be cable-tied up into a basic compost heap, ideally at least a metre square or rectangular. You can buy folding panels in B&Q or gardens centres but they cost about £15 each and you need at least four or five to make a good size compost heap, so the pallet method is considerably cheaper.
Dig your way across the plot, using your guide markers. If it’s heavy soil, it’ll take more time. Stop before you’re worn out – I usually set myself a half hour or hour slot to dig a patch or strip. If you’re young and strong you’ll probably finish that metre wide strip across the plot within the hour. The key is not to wear yourself out in one go, that will put you off. I used to go straight to the plot from work, boots and spade in the back of the car, dig for 20 minutes then go home for dinner. It might sound a petty amount of time, but you can dig quite a few metre-wide rows in that time and you’re not worn out when you go home.
When you’ve finished that first strip, you can be proud of yourself. In two or three short weeks, it will be ready for you to plant your first crop. Move your markers for the next strip and you can start on that tomorrow.
In between all the evenings and weekends spent digging and clearing your allotment, hopefully you will have been researching what crops to grow. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on growing vegetables. I started many years ago with The Vegetable & Herb Expert and found it suited me very well. But there are many other excellent books out there as well as, of course, the internet – what can’t you find on the internet?
Most importantly, what do you like to eat? Potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, sweetcorn, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumber, onions? If you don’t like carrots or cabbage, don’t grow them as there’s no point. If you love tomatoes, sow extra seeds. If you don’t have time or space to sow your own seeds, visit garden centres, local shops, boot sales; here you can buy plants as well. It’s often a good idea to have a cold-frame or plastic mini-greenhouse to sow and grow your own little plants. A simple cold-frame is two or three layers of dry bricks covered with an old sheet of clear plastic, glass or acrylic and held down with spare bricks. This keeps the frost and bad weather off your seedlings so they can grow with lots of light and enough fresh air (you just have to water them).
Using your book (or the internet) as a how-to guide, use a hoe edge to make a drill across the plot and sow your first seeds into the soil of your recently dug ground. Your guide or the seed packet will tell you the best spacings for the varieties. Seed potatoes are different and need planting in either a 10-15cm deep trench or in holes dug across the plot, about 25–30cm from each other. I normally spade out a trench and plant early potatoes a little closer. Potatoes can be useful on a newly de-grassed plot – as soon as the potato shoots come up you can earth-up (use a rake to draw the soil into a ridge covering the shoots) – this serves also to disturb any weeds that have started to come up and saves on hoeing.
Assuming you’re working alone and have dug by hand, you’ve probably dug multiple strips on your plot in the last few weeks, but have not finished the whole thing yet. It may take the rest of the year to clear the remainder. It’s hard work but you’ve got enough space cleared to start planting your seeds or plants. From now on, you can do perhaps 10–20 minutes heavy digging each time you come over. The rest of your time will be sowing, planting and hoeing what’s already planted. Hoeing is intended to loosen the roots of the weeds growing around your rows of seedlings, so that your carrots or peas get the soil’s goodness rather than those weeds. My father is fantastic with a hoe – a couple of hours hoeing the whole plot and it’s clear – but he never tidies up the weeds left behind. We follow along and those little weeds go into the compost heap.
Keep a journal
We use a school exercise book. Every day that you go over to your new allotment or whenever you do anything related to it (like buying or sowing seeds) write it down. We date our entries too for future referrals, for example, last year we’d planted all our seed potatoes by this time, this year we haven’t even started due to the weather. It’s also useful if you have a crop failure, for example, blight on the tomatoes – next year you’ll grow a blight-resistant variety – or perhaps the parsnips were massive this year, so next year you’ll buy the same variety. On those frustrating rainy days when you’d normally be working on the plot, you can read over the journal and make plans for the future.
There have been many, many books written on crop rotation. I won’t go into the specifics here, but it is a vital part of growing on your allotment. Never grow the same crop in the same place as last year. A three-year crop rotation is pretty standard – others, brassicas, roots. We use a four-year rotation – potatoes, others, brassicas, roots – we like lots of potatoes and they store well. Peas and beans are another category which can be one group in a five-year crop rotation; we include these in our others section.
Fruit and trees
Some allotment sites, usually the smaller ones, don’t allow fruit trees unless they’re compact or miniature. A full size apple or pear tree can grow 10 metres or more if left unchecked. Those roots will suck up all the moisture from the soil and nothing much else can be grown in its shade. It can also become a big nuisance if it falls or needs to be removed. Fruit bushes, however, can be grown at most plots and in most regions, and that fruit can be very welcome when the supermarket prices are high. Juicy strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and many more at a fraction of shop prices. Home-made strawberry jam, made in December from June’s fresh frozen fruit – yummy. Research for the varieties that will suit your region and soil type.
You don’t have to grow only vegetable and salad crops, you can grow flowers as well. We grow flowers mainly to encourage pollinating insects, but also for cutting. One of the allotment holders has honey bees on his plot and grows lots of flowering plants and we want to encourage the bees to do their job well. I have even seen plots with nothing but flowers, the holder coming regularly to harvest beautiful flowers for the local church.
Enriching the soil
Manure is the classic method of enriching the soil – it adds organic matter and nutrients. We prefer horse manure as it has more texture – horses don’t digest grass as well as cows or sheep – and is less odorous and sloppy. So long as it’s free and doesn’t have too much straw, that’s fine, although straw is better than wood chips, which can be quite large and take a lot longer to rot down. Potatoes can cope with quite fresh manure, most of the other crops can’t tolerate it. We usually manure the ground for potatoes, then top up the compost heap with manure to rot for use later in the season – this will rot down by the end of the year and will be superb well-rotted matter for digging in for the next crop rotation. You can also buy fertilisers such as fish, blood, and bone, bonemeal, chicken manure, growmore, and numerous other natural and artificial products – we do use them on occasion to give crops a boost.
How does an allotment improve your mental health?
In general terms, the exercise will improve your physical health – digging, hoeing, breathing the fresh air, shoveling manure, sowing seeds, potting on and planting out those little seedlings. Although at times the clearing can be back-breaking work, once you’ve done it, the ground should be relatively easy to maintain. Two or three hours a week, ideally spread out over the days, should be enough to keep your plot looking pretty good and to keep you healthy. Physical health is closely linked to mental health.
Simply spending time in nature is proven to reduce anxiety and depression. The creativity of gardening whether at home or at the allotment is like a balm to the soul. Nurturing little seedlings that will one day produce delicious tomatoes or fresh peas – it’s a side to nature that many don’t see or don’t want to expend the effort on.
Journaling is well known as a method for reducing stress. Putting thoughts onto paper, helping to clear the mind of clutter – a chance to look at those thoughts or feelings or, in this case, what you did at the allotment last year or last week, is an opportunity to see what you achieved, your successes.
Meeting other plot-holders and socialising, even at the present two metres, is good for you both. Often you or other plot-holders may have an excess of produce, for example, courgettes or tomatoes – offering these to others can encourage conversation, it also makes you feel good and part of the community. Often small groups will get together for tea, biscuits and a gossip (hopefully we’ll get back to this again soon). The community spirit seems to be present as all have a plot, but not everyone is growing exactly the same crops. Comparing production and varieties is a common thing. I’ve seen some huge onions that would win a show, but they don’t store well. I grow medium onions like you can buy in the shops, but they store well into winter and beyond, if I’ve grown enough.
Susan Butler is an editor for Psychreg. She is passionate about finding ways to lead more balanced lives and improve overall health and well-being.