Cheryl’s Plot

Got an allotment? Now what? Alys Fowler offers Cheryl Cagiola some key tips for getting started

Words & Film: Alys Fowler and Cheryl Cagiola

Have you ever considered taking on an allotment? All those fresh vegetables nurtured by your own fair hand. It is a fantastic way to feed your family but, be not mistaken, it is hard work! There again it’s the sort of hard work that makes you glow with pride and rude good health.

Cheryl, our commercial manager, has just taken on a new and slightly tired allotment in south London. She is full of enthusiasm but not absolutely sure what to do next.

Fear not, Cheryl, for we have arranged for Alys Fowler – Guru of Grow Your Own – to come and get you started. In our next Episode (due in January) we will return to see how Cheryl has got on.

What Should I Do About All Those Weeds?

Anything nasty and persistent (ie that wont come up without a fight) will have to be dug out.  Stuff like:

  • Brambles – prickly but at least it produces blackberries in Autumn.
  • Ground Elder – invasive but can make good pesto
  • Stinging nettles – bit furry but good for soup
  • Dock – sadly inedible but a comfort for nettle stings
  • Willow Herb – self-seeding pest.
  • Oxalis – a remarkably resilient little thing.

The easiest way to deal with annual weeds (which can easily be pulled up by hand) is to cover the soil with cardboard and then apply a couple of inches of mulch.  The mulch can be anything from leaf mould or processed bark or well-rotted manure (but avoid garden compost or fresh manure which will contain more weed seeds).  Worms will love this by and by wriggling their way through will not only get rid of the weeds but condition and turn the soil so you don’t have to dig.  Do this in the Autumn and the ground will be ready to plant in the spring.

How Can I Make the Soil Better?

Compaction – caused by walking across the plot – means that the soil can’t breathe or drain, it’ll dry fast, be hard to dig and plants will struggle to penetrate it with their roots. Mulching (as for annual weeds) is by far the easiest and best solution.

Like most people inheriting a plot or patch and hoping to grow veg feeding the soil will make all the difference to what you harvest.  The best way to feed is to shovel on a layer of organic matter.

You could use:

  • Green waste from the local council
  • Leaf mould
  • Garden compost
  • Manure
  • Mushroom compost

How Do I Make Good Compost

Good compost – ie delicious for the worms which are going to do the work – will be neither too wet nor too dry.  To reach the perfect balance build your heap in 25cm layers of alternating material.

Good things to put in your heap:

  • Kitchen waste (peelings, tea bags, coffee ground, egg shells)
  • Lawn clippings
  • Cardboard
  • Egg boxes

What not to put in:

  • Potato peelings (they will grow so that your plot is riddled with potato seedlings)
  • Meat/Fish (unless you want rats and mice)

Fixing problems:

If, like Cheryl, your heap is too dry nothing will happen.  The worms will sulk and you’ll be staring at yellowing prunings for months.  The answer is to add a layer of wet stuff (kitchen waste, lawn clippings)

If the compost is too wet add a layer of torn up egg boxes/cardboard/ or paper shreddings

And finally and most importantly TURN IT REGULARLY (once a week at least).

PS Pee really does help decomposition.  But, as ever, it’s all about balance.  Don’t drown the worms.  Male pee is more efficacious that female pee: and much easier to deliver.

Is There Anything Here Already That I can Eat?

Even before she sowed her first seeds Cheryl’s allotment proved to have plenty of fine foraging foods such as:

  • Dandelions – young leaves are great in salads, trying frying or roasting the roots
  • Mallow – put it in scrambled eggs
  • Hedge garlic/ Jack by the Hedge – first you taste the mustard, then the garlic.  Strange but good.
  • Nettles – pick in the autumn when there is less oxalic acid.  Use the tips only to make soups and in risotto
  • Lemon balm – a few leaves make excellent tea

Finding an Allotment

Your first port of call should be your Local Authority as they will have a list of sites and availability. You will almost certainly have to go on a waiting list – longer in urban areas.

Most councils will have a number of sites: it is worth visiting all of them to see what the conditions and facilities are like. One may be slightly further from home but offer better parking or a great on-site shop. Chat to other plot holders.

If there is a long waiting list it may be worth seeing if there are any older plot holders who would share produce in return for some help with the heavy work. You will learn a lot that way!

As an alternative to local councils try Landshare. They match up people wanting to grow their own with others who have spare land. This could be people whose gardens are too big or big farms and estates who have a field that is not doing much. Check it out here.

Useful Addresses

The National Allotment Society
Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens