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May is always looked forward to as the first month of summer but it marks the end of the spring. It is a month when we can get caught out by mini droughts and heat waves. The biggest threat is to any young plants that have that have recently been transplanted into the open ground and any freshly emerging seedlings. Be sure to keep all of them well watered and if the young transplants look as if they are flagging give them some shade protection from the heat of the sun or drying winds. On the other hand May can be a complete disaster month bringing damaging frosts, cold winds with heavy rain or hail, so be prepared to take steps to protect plants if it is necessary.
Sprouting broccoli, cabbage, spinach, rhubarb, spring onions, early sown lettuce, beetroot, radish and peas. Cut asparagus regularly to maintain the supply. Start to remove the side shoots on tomatoes.
Use up of the last leeks. Clear away any old or finished crops and dig over the soil and prepare the site ready for the next crop.
Sowing and planting
Plant in pots or trays under glass, Dwarf and climbing French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, outdoor cucumbers, courgettes ,pumpkins, squashes, outdoor cucumbers – all which can be planted out next month.
Savoy cabbage, winter cabbage, endive, kale and sprouting broccoli can all be sown in the open ground now, ready to be planted out next month.
Continue making direct successional sowings in the soil of lettuce, radish, spinach, turnips (switch to kohl rabi when the weather becomes hot) beetroot for summer use and also maincrop beetroot to put into store at the end of summer. While the leeks, Brussels sprouts and French beans sown last month under glass, can now be planted out.
This is also your last opportunity to sow peas and parsnips this year
Thin out whilst still very small, the seedlings of beetroot, carrots, lettuce, onions, parsnips, turnips and always water along the row to settle the disturbed seedlings back in, once the job is completed.
Put up poles for runner and climbing French beans. Support peas and broad beans before they become too tall. Start to earth up potatoes especially if a frost is forecast.
Keep hoeing between crops to control weeds and also create a “dust mulch” to conserve precious soil moisture. Try to water in the cool of the evening if possible using a watering can to direct the water around the root area of the crops.
If you can get it, put some straw underneath the developing strawberry fruits to keep them off the soil and try to avoid watering overhead to reduce any problems with mildew.
Pest and diseases
Look out for blackfly on broad beans, greenfly on peas, lettuce, cabbage root fly, carrot fly, thrip damage on brassicas especially when the plants are small. Spray the affected plants with soapy water (diluted washing up liquid) or squash the flies with your thumb and finger. You can buy insecticides if you prefer, including a fatty acid soap to spray on the plants.
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!