If you could imagine a perfect allotment, how would it look? Martyn Loach outlines his ideal plot and how it can be achieved.
Perfection would be a south facing plot that receives all day sunshine unhindered by trees and overhanging branches. Sheltered from the prevailing winds and with water taps within easy distance. Well drained soil, not too sandy or heavy, with a ph around 6.5 - 7.
But perfection is hard to obtain, so first look at the site and assess the prospects. Your choice of vegetables, and how well they will grow, depends on certain aspects some, but not all, of which can be manipulated.
It may be possible to get rid of branches that shade the allotment, but not the trees. You can't alter which way the sun goes around but you can have a large influence on soil composition. You can't move the site down south if you are up north, but you can grow vegetables that are more in tune with that climate.
First of all, analyse the soil. You can buy a ph tester kit to get an idea of the acidity / alkalinity or send off the soil for a professional analysis to discover the exact make-up. Just by looking around at other plots will indicate what types of plant grow well.
Judging by what you find, and whether it is a heavy or light soil, incorporate soil conditioners to improve the structure. Most soils will benefit from lots of organic matter, it will help water and nutrient retention in sandy soils and drainage in heavier earth. As required, work in conditioners such as animal manure (invaluable but make sure it is well rotted), mushroom compost (slightly
alkaline for acid soils), seaweed (rich in trace elements), spent hops (good conditioner with a few nutrients) or many others.
Plan ahead properly, sketching out what goes where in the first and subsequent years. You'll be surprised how quickly the allotment will fill up. Also consider whether you want to use raised or deep beds.
Boards, railway sleepers or something similar surround raised beds that are filled with top soil and organic matter to form a deep fertile environment of your own creation. Deep beds are similar but you dig down about a spade's depth, removing perennial weeds and fill with organic matter and soil. Don't make the beds too large as you should never walk on them compacting the soil.
These types of bed enable more vegetables to be grown at a greater concentration. There is less or no digging as there is little soil compaction and drainage is improved. Crops are within arm's reach and can be easily harvested. Weeds are also effectively dealt with, either eliminated or suppressed with a mulch. Bear in mind though that these beds are not suitable for certain crops such as runner beans and brussels sprouts.
What To Grow
You probably have some idea as to what to grow, obviously your favourite vegetables will probably top the list and you'll want to experiment with varieties that are difficult to obtain from the shops.
Whatever you plan it is best to rotate the crops. Grow the same veg in one bed every season and the particular nutrients that crop thrives on will become exhausted. Pests and diseases such as club root will also be more likely. By rotating the crop over three plots you will also save on resources, only for example spreading lime or manure where particular vegetables demand it.
With the exception of a permanent site for crops such as rhubarb or asparagus, a three year rotation pattern should be sufficient. In the first year one plot can have brassicas including cabbages, sprouts and cauliflowers; another root vegetables such as potatoes, beetroot, parnips plus onions, marrows, tomatoes; while growing on a third plot will be peas, beans, sweetcorn, spinach, lettuce.
Then in the second year, brassicas move to where the root vegetables were and the root vegetables go to the plot formerly occupied by peas and beans, that have moved onto the old brassica plot. And so on into the third and subsequent years.
As to what to grow and when, although it will certainly happen, plan not to grow more than you require, some produce will store well but others such as salad leaves deteriorate quickly and fresh is always best. Sow fast maturing crops at intervals to ensure a continuous supply.
Grow a good variety in moderation, so that you have rocket, spinach and lettuce for your sandwiches rather than a glut of one filling. Grow 'expensive' veg - economically main crop potatoes might not be worth the effort. Experiment a little to find out what grows best, if anything doesn't do well it's not the end of the world.