Kings Seeds allotment newcomer tips & advice
Taking on an allotment should be a rewarding challenge, giving you the opportunity to grow your own fruit and vegetables and is a great way to meet fellow plot holders where you can share and learn growing techniques and tips from one another. It is however also important to remember this is a big commitment and to achieve success allotment plots do require maintaining and nurturing throughout the year. Whatever effort you are prepared to put in, will pay dividends in what you will bring home to the kitchen throughout the growing season.
When visiting the site for the first time and if shown around by the site manager, ask as many questions as you can. What’s the soil type, are there frost pockets, are there any rules and regulations on what can and cannot be grown on site. After you have been given a plot, chat to neighboring plot holders, as they may be able to give you an indication of what the previous resident grew well, where did he last have Brassicas and potatoes as all this info will help you with crop rotation in the future.
Getting Started, Clean the Plot
The first task will be clearing the plot , if this has been cultivated recently this can be undertaken whilst digging over the soil removing any perennial weeds and the annual weeds can be turned into the soil acting as a green manure. If however when you receive your plot it is overgrown with weed , brambles and old crops, depending on the time of year you may wish to spray with a herbicide to kill off the growth before tackling the clearance. Otherwise it is probably wise to clear a small area at a time removing the debris and then digging this area over before progressing to the next piece. Then as each area becomes clear if you wish to start planting a few early crops you can, and these will be growing whilst you carry on with preparing the rest of the plot.
Always try to work out your soil type, as this will help you cultivate it better , there are five main types of soil, all will grow crops, although some are easier than others to manage.
Sandy soil (also known as light soil) this is gritty to touch and when rubbed through your fingers you will be able to feel sandy grains. This soil type tends to drain quickly and heat up quickly, but will often be low in nutrients and be very acidic.
Clay soil (also known as heavy soil) this will be sticky when wet and when rolled between your fingers it will have a shiny finish to it. This soil type tends to slow draining and takes a long time to warm up, but in the summer it will often bake hard, leaving wide open cracks on the surface.
Silt soil will hold more water than sandy soils but are not as heavy as clay soils and can easily be compacted in your hand. One precaution if left unplanted this soil can easily become eroded by the wind if on an exposed site.
Loams are a mixture of the best bits of clay, sand and silt. It is fertile, well-draining and usually easy to dig.
Chalky or lime-rich soils are largely very alkaline, made up of calcium carbonate.
Testing your pH level
The acidity of your soil will also help you to identify which plants you can grow more easily and if you need to add extra improvers to the soil. Soil testing kits can be bought in mail order catalogues and cost very little.
pH 3.0 – 5.0 is very acidic soil, tends to be lacking most nutrients often requires lime and nutrients added back into the soil.
pH 5.1 – 6.0 is acidic soil, add lime unless you plan to grow ericaceous plants like Blueberries. pH 6.1 – 7.0 is moderately acidic soil, loved by most plants, high in nutrients and worm activity.
pH 7.1 – 8.0 is an alkaline soil, some nutrients are usually lacking, but the brassicas family prefer this type of soil as risk of club root disease is minimized.
As a general rule if your soil is on the acid side, then you can always apply garden lime to make it more alkaline. If however your soil is very lime rich (alkaline) then you can add materials like sulphur to increase the acidity – it all depends on what fruit and vegetables you wish to grow. As a general rule the ideal pH for most crops is 5.5-7.
It is worth taking a few moments looking at the plot before planting any crops to see if it is exposed to strong winds, on a slope, exposed to shade part of the day or in full Sun. Armed with this information you can decide the best position for your crops taking all these factors into consideration.
Plan for long term structures
Before putting up any long term structures like a shed, glasshouse, a fruit cage, compost bin think about where they should be located. If your plot backs onto a tractor path where manure can be tipped keep this area free rather than create a permanent area restricting the access. If an area has very bad soil or has a lot of stones or is full of rubble use this area to build a shed, or compost bin. Always check with your site manager as some sites have rules on sizes of shed and the position they should be erected.
Digging or No-dig Raised Beds
Traditionally plots are dug over in the winter months incorporating plenty of organic matter (Farm yard manure, Mushroom compost or homemade compost). For most vegetables single digging (one spade spit deep) is sufficient. Double digging (dig out one spit and forking over bottom of trench) is only required if the ground is very heavy or has a hard pan that required breaking. If organic matter is added each year to the base of the trench, gradually digging of the soil will become easier. Digging in the winter allows the frosty weather to break down the soil, so in spring it can easily be pulled down to a workable structure either by hand with a rake , three prong cultivator or a crome (a bent fork on a long handle) or you could use a rotavator, many sites have these for hire.
In recent years many plot holders have changed their growing method to using raised beds. The plot is divided up into many smaller plots using boards creating a raised bed. These are no wider than 2m so the planting and maintaining of crops can all be done from the paths down each side. The soil of each raised bed can be dug over and well prepared for the first couple of years incorporating plenty of organic matter. In time all that will be required each year is for the soil to be cleaned up after cropping and a cultivator pulled through the soil or the top few inches lightly forked over reducing the need to dig. When you reach this stage it is wise to still add organic matter to the soil each autumn, usually spreading as mulch over the surface and allowing the worms to work it into the soil.
It is always wise to practice good crop rotation on your plot, this will help prevent the buildup of any soil borne diseases like brassica Clubroot or Onion White Rot. Crops should be rotated on a three year cycle of brassicas followed by root vegetables followed by other vegetables including legumes. For example in bed A, you could plant Cabbage in year one, carrots in year two and then Peas & beans in year three. Following this on a three year cycle allows the soil to have a balanced nutrient level rather than a buildup or reduction caused by growing the same crop on the same area year after year.
When sowing seeds always take into account the weather conditions at that time of year rather than sow regardless. If it is a very cold or wet spring you are far better to wait until the soil has warmed up sufficiently, rather than sow into cold damp soil. A good test to check if the soil is warm is to sow a few radish seeds, and see how long they take to germinate. If the soil is warm they will be up in less than 7 days, but if cold it can take much longer. Seed packets will give a guide to when seeds should be sown, but this is only a guide as gardeners must take the weather conditions into consideration. Seeds sown later when the soil is warm and the weather is favorable will usually overtake those sown into cold soils.
Some gardeners use the 7’s rule, which is they won’t sow any seeds direct into the plot until there has been seven successive nights with a temperature above 7C.
Be prepared for night frosts especially in May, another saying is however many foggy mornings there are in March is how many frost you will get in May. These may be old sayings but they are a good guide for gardeners to follow.
Investing in good quality tools is important, as is using the right tool for the right job as this will make your life much easier. If starting out the recommended basic list would be: - Digging Spade, Digging Fork, Swan neck hoe (to draw out seed drills), Rake (to rake over soil and cover over seed drills), Trowel and Dibber for planting, Dutch or Push pull hoe (for weeding), Garden Line (to mark out straight rows), 3 Prong cultivator (to break down soil) and a Watering Can.
Seeds & Sowing Techniques
Always buy new seed every year, sowing old seeds especially if the packets have been opened is false economy and gives poor results. Store your seed order when it arrives in a cool place in an air tight tin or container out of direct sunlight.
When sowing seeds direct outside into the plot always rake the soil down to a fine tilth (crumbly structure) and incorporate some general fertilizer (like Growmore) raked into the soil prior to sowing. Put down a garden line and draw out a seed drill to the depth indicated on the seed packet using a swan neck hoe. Sow the seeds thinly along the base of the seed drill and then using a rake lightly cover over with soil , and gently tamp down using the back of the rake. Make sure each row is labeled with the variety sown and the date it was sown. If sowing seeds during very dry spells of weather, it is wise to water the base of the seed drill prior to sowing and then cover over with dry soil trapping the moisture below where the seeds require it to germinate.
To achieve the best results when sowing seeds undercover into pots or seed trays, always use a good quality seed sowing compost. Fill the pots or trays and lightly firm the top so the surface is flat and level. Water the pots or trays using a can fitted with a fine rose so the compost is moist and allow it to drain prior to sowing. Always water using tap water never use water taken from a water butt as this may contain fungal diseases that can affect the germination of the seeds. Sow the seeds onto the surface of moist compost and then lightly cover with a fine sprinkling of compost or vermiculite. Place on a warm windowsill enclosed in a poly bag or in a propagator at the temperature indicated on the seed packet. As soon as the seeds germinate remove poly bag or take out of propagator and gradually acclimatise to the temperature of the glasshouse where they are to be grow on. Prick out (transplant) seedlings into small pots or modular trays filled with a good quality compost and place on the glasshouse staging until large enough to move out into a cold frame for hardening off for a few weeks before eventually planting on the plot.
In the unlikely event you have any problems with Kings Seeds or our products , we recommend you contact us immediately for help and advice.