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Hopefully by now we are now standing on the threshold of Spring and the new gardening season. The days are beginning to lengthen and although it may not feel like it at times the temperatures are slowly increasing day by day. More importantly the longer days are the real trigger to new growth and you will find that with the help of a little protection you can really go for those early sowings. They might not all make it but it is still worth a try and you will still have plenty of time to re-sow any misses. Your best friend this month is the weather man try to keep up to date with the local forecasts, better still ask the advice of the gardeners around you who have years of experience to draw on.
Sowing and Planting
Plant out early cultivars of potatoes as soon as possible and follow on planting out at regular intervals with the second ProfileVeg_Potatoesearlies and first maincrops until the end of the month. A little bit of forward planning, don’t be tempted to plant out more potatoes than you can protect from any frosty weather further down the line.
Transplant any early peas, broad beans, cabbages or lettuce you may have started off earlier.
Sow the seed of Brussels sprouts, summer cabbage, broccoli, onions and leeks in short rows on a “nursery seed bed”. These will be grown on to be transplanted in April.
Sow in rows in the open ground seeds of round seeded spinach, Swiss chard, early types of beetroot, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, Spring onions, peas, broad beans and turnips. Try sowing the seed of the white form of kohl rabi towards the end of the month.
Plant out onion sets, shallots and garlic before they start to produce shoots. If you are buying any from the site shed or garden centres reject any that are shooting they will only bolt during the summer. Transplant any onions that were grown from seed sown last summer into rows. It is best to treat these as a sacrificial crop to be harvested and used from August onwards.
If you can offer the protection of a greenhouse sow the seed of celery, celeriac, French beans (they are hardy enough to be planted out before the runners), cauliflowers to transplant on the open soil next month.
Complete any unfinished digging and winter pruning. Clear the old leaves off strawberry plants and clean up the ground in between the plants before giving them a top dressing of a general fertiliser. Keep some fleece handy to protect the developing strawberry flowers from frost. Any frost damaged flowers are easily identified as they display a tell-tale “black eye” at the centre of the dead flower.
When the weather conditions allow it, complete the preparations of seed beds for direct seed sowing. Spread the job out over several days to allow the surface of the soil to dry out.
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!