I don’t suppose there’s ever the perfect time to take on an allotment plot but even as an absolute beginner, I got the sense that starting in May was cutting it fine to have any chance of planting, growing and successfully plating something in our first season. At least being in a national lockdown and with a glorious run of weather, we had time to hit the plot hard in the first few weeks. So, rightly or wrongly we decided to start growing as quickly as possible rather than spending months preparing and planning – which is a bit out of my comfort zone. I generally don’t like to take things on unless I feel I’ve got at least a basic understanding but with a few give it a go pep talks and a very thoughtful gift, more on that later, I bit the bullet.
We’ve definitely had mixed levels of success. I’ve been borderline unacceptably smug about the potatoes but the Brussel Sprouts were decimated, the kale a non starter and I suffered more than one Halloween pumpkin loss – take a look at The Hits and Misses of 2020 for what went right and what went no so right. But all in all I’d say it was a fairly solid performance for a first year but here’s a few things I wish I’d known from the start.
Build defences early
Surely nothing can be worse (from GYO perspective) than raising something from seed, lovingly planting it out and then returning one day to find it has been absolutely demolished by pigeons, deer, rabbits, slugs, snails….
We were very light touch on defences in our first year and pretty much only built a barricade around/over something once it had already been obliterated which was pointless as the damage was done. Boris and Carrie (to the right), although frightfully fun were absolutely useless. So this year I’ll be factoring in defences (all non chemical/wildlife friendly of course) from the beginning. Netting for the brassicas (if you look behind Carrie in the pic, that’s my neighbour’s Brassica cage…Goals), egg shells around the sprouts, fleece over the carrots. Defence is the best form of attack.
Globe Artichokes are HUGE
If you’re lucky and have nice allotment neighbours (tips on how not to p*** people off in the A little bit on allotment etiquette article), you may well be gifted seeds, seedlings, compost. My welcome gifts included a lovely book called “Jack Says – more on that another time, tomato seedlings that went on to produce banging tomatoes all summer, compost (particularly generous considering it was lockdown and compost was on par with hand sanitizer, loo roll and pizza ovens in it’s scarcity) and… a whole packet of globe artichoke seeds. Giddy at the thought of growing something from seed, I went a little overboard and planted eight. Needless to say they all germinated, they all thrived and they all got lovingly planted out into recently dug side beds. Bad idea. Globe artichokes, whilst quite attractive with silvery-blue, Jurassic park leaves and deep purple, thistle flowers are massive and most won’t flower until their second year of growth. So once bedded in you can pretty much resign that space from being used for anything else and considering we were starting with limited planting space, this was far from ideal. The solution… sadly I had to condemn two to the great big compost heap in the sky – I quite literally couldn’t give them away- and I could see the slight smirk on people’s faces when they politely declined my offer of a “fun, little artichoke plant looking for a new home”. I’ll also need to move a couple more into new beds that’ll be dug along the front as more of a decorative border but that’s a job for another day. Of course, at some point I’d hope to get my hands on a tasty Globe Artichoke head but no sign of that for now.
Try and keep some order
I suppose this is the result of two things; no forward planning whatsoever and an initial lack of growing space. So what resulted in some cases was a complete hotch potch of things squeezed in and not really getting a fair chance at growing. Plus the fact that I did some cray cray things like put a
Straight lines are your friend. I’m ashamed to say that I had initially thought the neatly sprouting perfect rows in other plots was just an indication of extreme experience/neuroticism/a bit of both – it reminded me of childhood neighbour who used to cut the grass edge of our shared drive with kitchen scissors, affectionately known as Neat Ian. I now admit I was wrong, very wrong. My haphazard planting style (not helped by strong arm of a certain toddler) meant that for most of the summer I had genuinely no idea what was a plant, what was a weed. I couldn’t do fancy things like companion plant because my veg was sprouting all over the place and well it basically just looked a bit of a cramped mess.
Support your beans
Properly. I’d read that beans get heavy – top heavy – and that you need a good sturdy support in place but what can I say – my pleasing to the eye, bamboo cane wigwam just didn’t cut it. Our plot is quite exposed so after a bit of a blustery summer day I arrived to find the beans horizontal. I managed to prop them up with a wooden pole and they did continue to grow, flower and produce beans so it could have been a lot worse but still it taught me a lesson about structural integrity and adequate support!
Go easy on the courgettes
I was asked by the fella opposite “if I liked courgettes” when he saw me planting my fourth plant…. “yes! I love courgettes” and I do, I really do – but even I, somebody who would never get sick of a stuffed courgette flower and with what I thought was a pretty extensive recipe list for courgettes started to lose a bit of steam toward the end. The plants were prolific, definitely one of the hits in The Hits and Misses of 2020 but I think next year I’ll take my chances with just the two plants – there’s only so many courgette martinis a girl can or should drink!
Don’t forget to pinch out tomatoes as they grow
I had no idea what pinching out was until it was almost too late but thankfully another adorable plot neighbour came to my rescue to talk me through the procedure. I’ll come back to exactly what to do another time but for now “pinching out” is one of the bits of allotment lingo that I learned in 2020 and I’ve jotted them down here.
And the thoughtful gift I mentioned earlier…
This book – Allotment Month By Month by Alan Buckingham. I have no doubt there are plenty of options for a beginner’s grow your own book but for me this was excellent. Clear advice on exactly what I should be doing and when, plenty pictures and just generally a nice, informative book to leaf through.