In this blog post we are going to cover the basics of what you need to think about when starting your first allotment or vegetable garden. Growing your own is so much fun but it is so easy to get overwhelmed and disillusioned so we wanted to give you some helpful advice to help you get the most out of your garden!
Survey your site
Often with allotments the previous owners have been behind on their plot maintenance. It is not uncommon to find your new plot completely covered with weeds which means you will not be able to just walk in and start growing without some major prep work.
It is important to assess the size of your plot, its general condition and if there are any existing plants/trees equipment that you can make use of.
At this point it is also worth, if you haven’t already, thinking about how much time you can reasonably dedicate to your plot – this will help you when planning what to grow. You may prefer to grow more plants that take care of themselves rather than things that will need a lot of attention.
Where to Start
Split the plot into sections if you can to make clearing it a more manageable process rather than trying to clear the whole site at once. That way you can start growing in the first section which is the fun part!
Weeds can be strimmed back and if you are using the ‘no dig’ method which we highly recommend then you can simply cover the ground with cardboard, place a thick layer of mulch on top and you can pretty much grow straight through it. The cardboard and the mulch layer will block the light to the existing weed roots which will give your new plants time to settle in and thrive. The theory is that by the time the cardboard has decomposed that the old weed roots will have died off due to the lack of light. Believe me you will never again throw away another Amazon delivery box!
Why are you ‘Growing your own’??
This is important to understand as it will help you plan the vegetables and flowers you want to grow and help you get the most out of your hobby. You could be growing your own to save money, to grow something that you don’t find in the supermarkets, to grow some older, more flavourful varieties, or perhaps it is for health or environmental reasons – maybe even a combination of all of the above!
If you are growing for environmental reasons you may want to grow more flowers and pollinating plants to attract beneficial insects and other wildlife to your plot.
Growing to save money is a really common reason – if this is the case it may be that you decide not to grow things like onions that will take a lot of room, have a long growing season and they are actually already very cheap in the supermarket or farm shop. Perhaps try some of our perennial spring onions which will pack a flavour punch, look after themselves and don’t take up a lot of space https://heritageorganicseeds.com/product/salad-onion-ishikura-seeds/
If you are growing for health reasons, again things like onions may not be as practical for this as it might be more important to dedicate the space to something of more nutritional value. Perhaps you need to make enough space for fruit trees and bushes in this case. By understanding your reasons for growing you can better decide what to focus your attention on and how much space to dedicate to each variety in order to achieve your primary goal.
Grow what you love
For me I think one of the most important things is to grow what you love. If you don’t like courgettes then don’t grow them. You won’t give them the attention they need and you will resent giving them the space that could have been given to something you do like!
It is important to be really serious about the time you have available to this hobby and plan accordingly. In the summer months the weeds really are relentless and can get you down if you are not prepared. For me I work full time so I find it really helpful to grow a lot of plants like potatoes that can take care of themselves for the most part. Squashes are also really great as they provide you with a lot of ground cover which will help no end in the battle of the weeds! Not only does growing squashes help save you time, you will be rewarded with lovely squashes to store over winter for some hearty soups…definitely a win win!
Don’t sow every seed in the packet
Whilst this may seem like an obvious one, believe me it is so easy to get a bit giddy when sowing seeds! It happens to us all! You should absolutely sow a couple of spares just in case of disaster but be realistic – you don’t want to be stuck with 10 courgette plants and your allotment neighbours probably also did the same as you and you won’t be able to find homes for the leftover plants – it is heartbreaking to have to throw them in the compost heap!
Don’t grow too many different varieties
It is so easy to get carried away trying to grow every vegetable you can think of but honestly if you have not grown your own before then don’t overdo it. It is so easy to get overwhelmed if you grow too many varieties too early on. It takes time and experience to learn about growth habits, pest control, harvest times, pruning requirements etc so my advice is to start with a few favourites and learn to grow them and build it up from there. From here on out your winters will be spent researching different varieties and how to grow them and whilst gardening involves constant learning it won’t be long at all before you have confidence in what you are doing and can expand your growing plans!
Pay attention to the weather
I have never fully appreciated the seasons until I became a gardener. I notice everything now…the temperature, rain, frosts, light conditions and notice how they change during the year and their impact on the garden. In your first year or two of growing really pay attention to the changes in your local area – the first and last frosts are key. Make a note of key dates…up here in Cheshire I will always keep a close eye on my potatoes even in May – for the last few years there has always been a last frost around the middle of May that has caught many plot neighbours out. Tomatoes will also never be planted out before this last frost either!
You probably won’t be lucky enough to know what was grown on your plot before you get it. It is helpful to talk to your plot neighbours as they may remember what was last grown where. Often all you can do is plant the first year where you want and then rotate your sections so that you are not growing the same plant in the same location for two years in a row. This helps to prevent a build-up of disease/pests in one particular spot. There is lots of information online about crop rotation – the RHS Website is particularly helpful and sets it out in an easy to understand way https://www.rhs.org.uk/vegetables/crop-rotation
I would encourage you to think about companion planting to help you get the most out of your plot. Companion planting means that certain plants are planted together to support each other’s growth and deter pests. Onions planted near carrots are said to help deter carrot fly. Calendula helps to keep repel whitefly from the tomatoes. Nasturtiums will help to attract cabbage white butterflies away from your brassicas. Think of companion planting like natural pest control – anything that can be done naturally and that can help to create an eco-system will help to save you time in the long term. The key is to create a garden that works in harmony with nature – if you go into a forest the weeds haven’t taken over – everything is maintained naturally without human intervention and it just works.
I hope this article has been helpful and has given you a few things to consider when starting your first vegetable garden. There are many more things to think about but it is also fun to learn as you go, learn from your successes and learn from your mistakes. Every year is a new year in gardening which makes it so much fun as you never know what joys the next year has in store for you!