Horticulture Magazine

Starting An Allotment: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

an allotment in Britain

Picture this: it’s a lovely summer’s evening, and you’re sat with a cup of tea in the shade of an apple tree. You’re looking out onto several rows of plump, juicy vegetables, all of which you planted yourself. A sweet smell fills the air, and the sound of traffic is so distant as to be barely noticeable.

Sounds idyllic, right?

With an allotment, this vision can be made into a reality.

In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to start an allotment, from the application process right through to your first harvest.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is an allotment?
  • How to get one.
  • What you’re allowed to do on your allotment.
  • How to start your allotment.
  • How to look after it once it’s established.
  • What time of year to start an allotment.

Let’s begin!

What is an allotment?

Technically speaking, an allotment is just a plot of land made available for non-commercial gardening by your local authority.

According to the National Allotment Society though, “allotmenteering is a way of life not a plot of land.” 

And we’re inclined to agree.

Your allotment is an opportunity to create an oasis of calm away from the stresses of modern life, metaphorically and literally. It’s a space where you can shed the hustle and bustle and go back to your roots; where you can see the fruits of your labour bloom in real-time.

An allotment with shed and tree
Peaceful, tranquil, and productive

How to get an allotment

The first step is to get in touch with your local authority. The Gov.UK website has a page that will point you in the right direction.

In rare cases you’ll get an allotment straight away, however most of the time you’ll be added to a waiting list. In some boroughs, these are notoriously long, so prepare yourself for a long wait.

The application process and the subsequent waiting period can sometimes be tougher than actually starting the allotment!

Know what you’re allowed to do

Allotments are covered by their own laws, and as such, allotments come with legally defined restrictions. Ownership of an allotment comes with expectations and requirements, and failing to meet these can result in losing your plot.

The exact wording of your terms and conditions will vary between councils, but the core themes are as follows:

  • Keeping the allotment weed-free and in good condition.
  • Not using the allotment for any business activities.
  • Not causing nuisance or annoyance to other allotment owners, or obstructing paths on and between allotments. 
  • Not subletting the allotment without written consent.
  • Not building any structures without written consent.

These rules can feel stifling, especially the one about not building structures, but it’s important to understand that they are designed to make allotment ownership accessible for everyone. 

If and when you move on from your allotment, future owners deserve to be greeted with the same blank slate that you were, rather than spending time or money removing buildings.

How to start your allotment

Once you’ve got your allotment, the fun can begin. Remember that there’s no definitive right or wrong when starting out: it will depend on your skillset, what you want to achieve, the size of the plot, the condition it’s in, and various other factors.

The tips in this section are intended to guide you in the right direction. As you become familiar with your allotment and the work it requires, it’s very likely you’ll deviate from these points and decide how best to structure your time.

Make a plan

A good first step is to outline what you want to achieve with your allotment. 

Are you going to grow common veggies to save a bit of money on your shopping, or do you fancy growing something a bit more exotic? Or maybe you’re only interested in growing fruit? And do you want a year-round harvest, or would you rather have minimal involvement over winter?

Ask yourself questions about what you want to grow and when you want to harvest it, then research accordingly. If you know what you want to grow, write down the times you’ll need to sow and harvest. If you know when you want to be at your allotment, research plants and seeds that fit your preferred schedule.

Sowing calendar for growing veggies in an allotment
A sowing calendar might be helpful at this stage

A good plan will provide a structure for you to work towards. It should include:

  • What needs to be planted and when.
  • What needs to be harvested and when.
  • General workdays for things like weeding and clearing.

Be realistic

An allotment can feel like a blank slate, ready to be filled with all sorts of wonderful things, but remember that it’s you that has to make them happen! 

It’s important to stay realistic with your plans and to not overwhelm yourself, especially in the early stages. There’s nothing worse than getting demotivated because your wildly ambitious planting plans aren’t coming to fruition.

Here’s what to keep in mind:

How much help can you get? The amount of manpower you can draw on will determine what you can achieve. Some allotments have management teams who can help with initial clearance, for example. And what about friends and family: will you be able to count on their help in exchange for a share of the harvest?

How much time can you devote to your allotment? Gardening can be hard work. A session of 1-2 hours will feel like a good workout, especially if you do multiple sessions each week. Try to understand how long each task will take, and plan accordingly.

What condition is your allotment in? If you’ve inherited a plot in poor condition – with weeds and so on – you’ll need to allocate more time to make it more workable. If you did inherit lots of weeds, don’t despair. They’re a sign that the soil in your allotment is fertile: definitely a silver lining!

You should expect it to take a year or even more for the whole plot to be usable, so setting expectations early – and giving yourself an honest idea of what you’re up against – can help to tackle despair and frustration later on. 

Remember: allotmenting is a way of life and not just a plot of land, and you will notice a return on the time you invest in the early stages.

Organic or non-organic?

It’s good to make this decision early on, as certain gardening practices will be out of bounds if you decide to go for organic.

Organic gardeners believe that you should work with a garden rather than trying to exert control over it. Practices that support and encourage natural processes are used, rather than man-made solutions like pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

If you value things like recycling, renewable energy, reducing pollution, avoiding waste, and similar, then organic gardening could be for you.

The benefits:

  • Reduces the number of chemicals going into the ground and, by extension, into your crops.
  • Effective in managing pests, weeds and disease.
  • Effective in maintaining soil nutrients.

And the potential drawbacks:

  • Certain tasks may take longer: erecting netting is slower than spraying pesticide, for example.
  • There will likely be a bit more damage to your crops.

Whatever you decide, bear in mind that owners of nearby allotments may follow organic processes, and may feel compelled to say something if you’re spraying powerful chemical pesticides all over the place.

Make a map

Once you’ve got a plan, and you’ve made the decision of what type of allotment you’ll be growing, you can decide what it will look like.

A physical map of your space is a useful reference point when starting an allotment. It will help you to visualise what the space will eventually look like, which can be motivating in the early days when you’re faced with an overgrown patch of weeds. It’s also a great way of making sure the design flows together before you pick up any tools.

To make a map as useful as possible, include beds, paths, and structures. Marking the rough boundaries of different crops is a good way to keep track of what you’re growing, and to visualise crop rotation patterns (more on this later!).

The more detailed the map, the more useful it will be. Where will the compost bin go? And the water butts? What about an area to sit with a cup of tea and a sandwich after a long session?

Including shade and sunlight areas on the map is helpful when planning which plants will go where. Drawing a compass bearing on your map can help with this, as can lightly marking the shadows of structures and trees. Diligence at this stage will pay dividends later.

If you don’t fancy making a map, you should at least have a mental image of what you’re aiming for.

Clear your allotment

Now comes the physical stuff. Getting rid of everything you don’t want is a cathartic process, and can often cement the feeling that the allotment is yours rather than borrowed.

It’s an opportunity to look for another silver lining, too: although it’s hard work, you’re preparing a space to be filled only by the things you have chosen.

Rubbish can be removed easily, just take it away in bags to your bins at home, or to a dump.

Unwanted plants can be cut down and either composted or removed. This takes a little longer. Shrubs and bushes should be cut back to ground level. Consider borrowing a strimmer if you don’t fancy trimming entire bushes back with secateurs!

Then comes the weeding, which is potentially the longest job. So much so that we’ve dedicated a section to it…

Clear the weeds!

Depending on how severe the weeds are you can either remove them by hand or cover them with sheeting to starve them of sunlight. 

Removing them by hand will involve spending a lot of time on your knees, rummaging around in the dirt. It’s hard work and slow progress, but seeing a freshly weeded bed is very satisfying.

One thing to remember: don’t throw weeds in the compost! They’ll just infest your pile with weeds.

If you go for a sheet, you can throw it over the top and forget about it until next year (or at least the end of the next growing season). The weeds will die slowly as they are starved of sunlight, leaving a nice fresh bed for next season. Weigh down the corners and sides with stones to prevent the sheet from blowing away when it’s windy.

Also consider a sheet that water can run through: the weeds will take a bit longer to die off, but it’ll be easier to work with wet ground when it’s time to plant things.

Prepare the soil

With all the weeds removed, you can prepare your soil for planting. 

Breaking up the soil will make it easier to plant into, and mixing in compost or other organic matter will help to replenish any nutrients that may be missing.

If you’re feeling especially diligent you can do a PH test to find out the condition of the soil. This will give a clearer picture of what nutrients – if any – need to be restored.

A simple soil PH tester
A simple soil PH tester

Plant something!

Finally, the reason you got an allotment in the first place!

After lots of planning and preparation, you should now have beds of fresh, healthy soil to plant into. Refer back to your plan to see what needs planting and when.

We really recommend not waiting for the whole plot to be cleared before planting begins: you can plant in each bed as it becomes ready. This gives you the motivational boost of knowing that things are growing, even though there’s still work to be done.

The majority of seed packets have instructions on how and when to plant, so we won’t give instructions for every plant. What we will say is that it’s important to take heed of these, especially the recommended distances between seeds. They may seem ridiculously big considering the seed size, but you’ll be surprised how big your crops might grow.

Crop rotation

This is a long term investment, but having an awareness of the concept is useful when starting out.

As your plants grow, they’ll take certain nutrients from the soil. Different plants take different nutrients, meaning that the soil can become depleted over time.

(If you did a PH test earlier and noticed any issues, this is one possible reason why.)

Crop rotation is an organic gardening method designed to overcome soil depletion by rotating plants between beds over growing seasons. The idea is to alternate which nutrient is depleted each year, allowing the others to replenish and for the soil to stay balanced.

The groups usually used in crop rotation are: 

  • Potatoes.
  • Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli).
  • Legumes (peas and beans).
  • Root vegetables (carrots, parsnips).

You may decide to plant potatoes in a bed one year, then brassicas the next, then legumes, then roots. 

In a neighbouring bed you would plant roots first, then potatoes, then brassicas, then legumes.

In the next bed: legumes, roots, potatoes, brassicas. And in the final bed: brassicas, legumes, roots, potatoes.

At the end of four years, each bed will have been used to grow each crop once and – in theory – the soil in all four beds should be full of nutrients.

Looking after your allotment

It’s good to get into the habit of visiting your allotment often. Even if there’s not a big list of tasks to be done, regular contact with the space helps you keep an eye on things, and nip problems in the bud.

As we mentioned earlier, try to get help from friends and family. You could organise regular work days where people can drop in and out, offering tea and biscuits in exchange for their hard work.

Family planting in an allotment
Allotmenting can – and should be! – a social activity

The rules and regulations often state that you must not let your plot run to seed. If it becomes too overgrown, or if landlords have any reason to suspect that you are not taking proper care to maintain it, you risk losing ownership.

What time of year should you start an allotment?

Each month brings different considerations in allotment ownership. Spring is all about planting. Autumn is harvest time. Winter is for maintenance and making sure crops are protected.

If you’re wondering what jobs to do in your allotment in a particular month, we recommend the monthly jobs section of the National Allotment Society website.

And there it is…

Allotment ownership is hard work, but it is immensely rewarding. It’s hard to find an allotment owner who isn’t immensely proud of their space.

The benefits are real. You get to spend time outdoors, which is proven to be good for you. You stay active and get fit. You grow delicious food that you can use in your cooking and give to your friends and family.

And there’s nothing more amazing than seeing something come to life that you planted with your own hands.

Hopefully this guide has gotten you excited about allotment ownership. There are a lot of practical considerations, but you won’t look back.

Happy allotmenting!

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