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We get a glimpse of the early signs of the arrival of Spring this month. The soil begins to warm up around the middle of February and we can see for the first time this year the buds beginning to swell on fruit trees and bushes. Overwintering vegetables begin to look less sorry for themselves and they start to produce new growth. These are the signals that it is now safe to think about sowing a row of early, peas and broad beans using a hardy cultivar. It is too late to sow the broad bean ‘Aquadulce’ it is only really suitable for growing overwinter.
Sowing and Planting
After the middle of the month it is safe to think about sowing the seeds of early vegetables. Prepare a seed bed and sow ‘White Lisbon’ Spring onion, early short horn carrots, early types of lettuce.
Top dress all of the fruit trees and soft fruit bushes with a general fertiliser at the recommended application rate. At the same time top dress the rest of the plot with a general fertiliser as land becomes available.
Check over any fruit trees and bushes for damage and disease problems and take appropriate action.
Prune late/autumn fruiting raspberries down as low as possible and mulch around them. Tip back summer fruiting back to around 6ft/1.9mts to encourage the development of fruiting side growths
Complete any outstanding winter pruning of soft fruit bushes cutting out down to soil level the older dark stemmed shoots of blackcurrants.
Cover the soil with cloches or sheets of plastic to warm it up in readiness for the next batch of sowing and planting. Don’t overdo it little and often is the plan over the coming weeks.
Check over the chitting potatoes and begin to rub off any eyes that are unwanted leaving three or four well-spaced shoots. Keep some fleece or newspapers nearby to cover them up on starry, frosty nights you don’t want to run the risk of losing them at this late date.
Keep checking frequently on the condition of any produce in store it will begin to wake up after its winter dormancy and start to regrow.
Sources of information
If you are new to gardening there are lots of allotment and gardening books available and, of course, lots of information on the internet to help get you started. An equally great source of information and advice will be your allotment neighbours. Some of our tenants have been working their plots for up to forty years so we have a wealth of experience. Once you have a plot take a walk around the site and see how other people manage their plots, everyone is happy to answer questions.
Clearing your plot
It is likely you will have taken on a plot that is overgrown. Your first job is to tackle the weeds and brambles. Ideally you will want to cut down the brambles and dig out their roots. They are quite near the surface of the soil. Other perennial weeds are best cut down and then the soil completely covered up. You can use black plastic or cardboard boxes. Covering up the soil for at least one year kills nearly all weeds.
Planning your plot: to dig, or not to dig?
There are three approaches to planning your plot. The traditional method is to dig. In the Autumn you dig over your plot, double digging the first year and single digging thereafter, the idea being that you turn over and aerate the soil which breaks down to a fine tilth over winter. You normally dig over quite large beds which you divide up based on crop types and rotate annually to try and keep down any soil diseases. A good example of this is the "Dig for Victory" plan from the Ministry of Food in WWII, this method worked well for a whole generation of gardeners.
The second approach is the "no dig" method which has been gaining popularity in recent years. The idea is that digging can actually damage the soil structure, and instead of digging in autumn if you just top dress your beds with organic matter, such as compost or manure, overwinter the worms will work this into your soil.
Building raised beds has become a popular approach. This is part of the "no dig" philosophy. You need some sort of barrier, such as scaffold boards bolted together to build something like a 13ft x 4ft bed. Your beds should be no wider than your reach so you can reach into the middle of the bed easily. You will also need to fill your beds with organic matter, compost, soil, manure etc. Be aware that a raised bed with the dimensions described filled to about four inches will be about 1/4 ton of material. If you plan on building a lot of raised beds you will need to source and bring onto the site a lot of organic matter.
The third approach is to have raised beds, but without any raised edges. You mark out your bed and add about two inches of manure to your beds (which you have already cleared of perennial weeds), preferably in autumn so that it breaks down over winter. You will still need some sort of edging to demarcate your beds from your paths, but this can be much shorter planks of wood, bricks etc.
Cultivating your plot - the importance of good soil
Once you have cleared your plot of weeds you can start cultivating your plot. Possibly you may want to cultivate the first quarter of your plot, while the rest is covered up. Each season you can bring another quarter of your plot into production. There are many approaches to how you cultivate an allotment. The two main approaches (as described above) are either to dig over your plot to break up the soil, or the "no dig" approach, where you bring on manure and compost to your plot and let the worms do the rest. Champions of either approach will agree that the quality of your soil is vital to the success of your plot. If you have a dig around your top soil and don't see many worms, it is likely you will need to bring on some soil improver to enrich your soil.
You will find a lot of advice online and in books about crop rotation, you can make this as complex as you like or keep it simple: each year try not to grow the same thing in the same area of your plot. This is to help prevent the build up of diseases and pests that can accumulate over time if you keep growing the same type of vegetable in the same place each year.
The difference between fresh manure and well-rotted manure
Fresh manure is brought on to the allotments for people to use. Be aware that it is not a good idea to put fresh manure onto your plot. What you want is well-rotted manure. This is manure that has weathered for at least a year. It will have broken down and taken on a more "compost-like" appearance, smell and texture. This will enrich your soil much more than fresh manure that will actually take nutrients from your soil as it rots down. It is a good idea to build up a pile of fresh manure in a corner of your plot and let it slowly rot down. This will be a perfect addition to your soil.
Creating compost bins out of pallets
We have pallets donated to the site. You will see that nearly all allotments make use of these to build compost bins. Making your own compost is another great soil addition, and is a good way of using up cuttings, green waste etc. There is plenty of information online about how to make compost bins out of pallets, as well as many sites dedicated to the creation of compost, or you can just have a look at what other tenants have done.
Maintaining your plot
Try to get down to your allotment as often as possible. Working your plot little and often is better than trying to catch up infrequently. You will be better able to keep on top of weeds and trouble shoot before any problems crop up.
Know your weeds!
If you have successfully cleared your plot of weeds you will no doubt already be on intimate terms with some of your plots biggest problems. As mentioned above most perennial weeds can be dealt with by covering up the plot to deny their roots light. Annual weed seeds can be in your soil and can also blow in, so even if you have cleared your allotment you will still have to deal with weeds. Again, the little and often approach is the best way forward to keep your plot clear of too many weeds.
Bindweed needs a special mention. This is one of the perennial weeds that has such long and quick spreading roots that even covering your plot you may still find it in the soil. The best way to gradually eradicate this is to keep pulling it up, with as much of the root as possible and you will gradually weaken the plant.
Enjoy your new allotment!