Allotments are becoming something of a must-have for urban families wanting to grow their own fresh produce – and there’s a huge demand for them. Official allotments are owned by local councils and change hands, when they do at all, in autumn.
There are long waiting lists in many areas so if you are interested in an allotment contact your council straight away. If no plots are available, you might consider looking at another arrangement – perhaps with a church, if it has some spare land, or with a neighbour whose garden has become too large for them. But don’t be overambitious and take on more than you can manage.
Traditional allotments are huge, so consider sharing with a friend or ask if half or quarter plots are available, otherwise you’ll be fighting a losing battle with the weeding and watering.
If you are taking over a plot that has been left idle for a while, it pays to start work on it now rather than waiting until spring. You’ll almost certainly have some undergrowth or serious weeds to clear.
Cut down saplings, brambles, nettles, thistles and other perennial weeds close to the ground and clear the stems. Once only the short stubs are left, the roots will be much easier to dig out. Get as many out as you can and shake the soil off.
Let weeds, roots and debris dry out then burn them, bag them and take them to the tip or let them stand in the sun to die before burying them in the base of a compost heap.
Start a compost heap now, as an allotment will generate lots of green waste that’s best recycled into the soil. Get some secondhand timber and build yourself a couple of large compost containers. They’ll make you many tons of well-rotted organic matter for free.
Then concentrate on improving the facilities. Some sites provide a shed for each plot but if yours doesn’t, ask if you can put one up. Winter is a good time to do it. Look in the local paper for a secondhand shed.
If there’s no water on site, install guttering and a butt to trap rainwater from the shed roof. It’s better than trying to haul containers of water from home when you have seedlings to care for.
You might also want a walk-in polytunnel or greenhouse for out-of-season crops. Put it up now as you’ll be too busy in spring.
Once the groundwork has been done it’s worth marking out beds, one for each of the main groups of plants. Put down paths of gravel, bark or paving slabs so it’s easy to walk around when wet, then start working out your cropping plan.
If you’ve never grown your own before, play safe for the first year or so and stick to reliable vegetables in small quantities spread throughout the year, or you’ll be swamped with stuff you can’t use – it’s usually lettuce – followed by nothing at all.
And I have two tips. Firstly, look for opportunities to economise on essential purchases. You can save a fortune on seeds and fertilisers by joining an allotment association or gardening club that has a bulk-buying arrangement with suppliers or which arranges for discounts at garden centres.
Secondly, if you aren’t sure you’ll be able to cultivate the whole patch first time round, sow clover. You can keep this mown – and it improves the soil – until you are ready to bring the area into use.
It might seem a lot, but come spring it’ll be all systems go and you’ll be glad you pushed ahead.