Organic allotment growing

In your first veg patch or allotment plot, you know you want to grow organically, yet you might be wondering where to begin? Maybe you are faced with a large area of weeds - and yet you don’t want to use toxic chemical weedkillers.

One of the main reasons new allotment holders give up on their plot, is because they run out of time and energy by trying to cultivate the whole plot straight away.

We’ve put together a guide to starting, and managing, your allotment the organic way. It includes:

  • clearing your plot of weeds
  • how to plan your crops
  • no dig
  • encouraging neighbours to be organic

In just a few hours a week, you will enjoy producing cost effective, delicious fruit and veg. All done the organic way - the smart way!

And if you have any questions about the rules and regulations for allotment holders, we recommend contacting the National Allotment Society

Preparing your plot

If your new plot is thick with weeds and overgrown with grass, don’t try clear it all before planting. Hours of digging will only lead to back ache and the depressing sight of weeds returning.

Instead, divide the plot in half. Dig one half, and cover the other half with a thick organic mulch.

It's a win win decision! In half the time you have prepared the plot, as well as making it more productive. Here’s how to do it.

1 For the mulched half, cut down the larger weed foliage to just above soil level using a satisfying slash technique (much of the foliage goes on your new compost heap, so long as it has no seeds within). Then cover the area with a mulch that will exclude light. You can use a variety of materials to do this – a thick (20 cms) layer of compost or manure is ideal, topped by cardboard (add another layer of manure so it doesn’t blow away), or a black plastic membrane, pinned down. (Don’t use carpet – many of the dyes have toxic chemicals that can leach into your precious soil.)

Leave this for at least 6 - 12 months. It’s that simple. You don’t have to do a thing, as the weeds will weaken in the dark and the earthworms do their work to enrich the soil. Go to No Dig method for more information.

2 Now you only have half a plot to dig. Make sure you get out all the roots of the weeds. Compost their foliage, and drown the roots in a bucket of water for 2 months, before adding them to the compost heap. Turn a layer of compost into the first 5 – 10 cms of the soil and you are ready to plant or sow.

Planning your crops

Let’s assume you can’t work on the allotment all day, every day. With only a few growing hours a week, you want to make sure that what you grow is what you want to eat.

If you can easily buy organic potatoes and carrots we recommend you don’t waste time on such cheap items. Go instead for luxury crops – strawberries, raspberries and asparagus. Many are easier to grow than carrots, and considerably more expensive to buy organic.

Similarly, herbs are easy to grow and you will have generous quantities to use, unlike the expensive small supermarket bunches. Kale, a popular and probably overpriced vegetable, is very easy to grow – and keeps you in green veg throughout the winter.

For all veg and fruit, check out the Garden Organic How to Grow cards. And plan where to put your first season’s crop.

If you plant a fruit tree, see How to grow organic fruit, make sure it is a variety not usually found in supermarkets – and from an organic nursery. Why grow Golden Delicious when you can have a juicy Beauty of Bath, or Conference pears when you can have creamy Beurre Hardy?

Your time is precious, so concentrate on delicious fruit and veg that will give you a sense of achievement in growing, and a delight on your plate.

Other organic growing tips can be found in our managing your soil pages. We show you how to make compost, how to grow comfrey to feed your plants, and how to use green manures instead of compost. We help you keep on top of weeds, as well as pests and diseases.

Good neighbour

It is common that organic and non-organic neighbours cultivate land next door to each other in allotment sites. This can be a great opportunity for organic growers to share their expertise. Here is a small poster which highlights the 'Do's and Don'ts' of successful growing, and below are some key arguments in favour of the organic way:

  1. Chemical weedkillers are toxic. They are often created as a mix of glyphosate and toxic surfactants which attack the plant and can create a residue in the soil. They are skin and eye irritants, and some research has shown them to be potentially carcinogenic. Spraying can travel in the wind, which leaves a residue on neighbouring growth. As well as being poisonous to the weed, glyphosate formulations in the soil can inhibit the root uptake of nutrients – causing a crop to struggle more. For further information see the Glyphosate debate
  2. Pesticides will kill indiscriminately. Although sprays are aimed at aphids or other pests, they also kill other harmless insects. Worse than that, many of these insects are of great use to the grower. Ladybirds and hoverflies will not only eat the aphids, but also help bees and butterflies as pollinators. Pesticides can also create a health hazard for birds or frogs.
  3. Slugs ….. ah slugs! Tempting though it is to scatter pellets around the baby lettuce plants, there are other ways to deter slugs and snails. Check out the National Allotment Society’s own slug and snail advice in their helpful leaflet on Wildlife gardening And for quick reference see this paragraph in our own growing advice:

*Protection of vulnerable plants is the key. And don't rely on only one method. Always renew barriers after rain, and accept that some damage is inevitable. The following may help: dig to disrupt both slug and its eggs; encourage natural controls such a beetles, frogs, birds and hedgehogs; frequently inspect your plants and hand pick off (particularly in damp weather and at night); create barriers of dry material which slugs find hard to traverse, such as grit – and renew after rain. If you use traps ( ie beer in a container), empty them frequently. To avoid killing ground beetles, which eat the slugs, it is better to put your beer into a saucer with raised edges. Use of nemotodes (microscopic organisms, available to buy online) can have some success, but they only work once in a season, and the conditions are very specific for the nemotodes to function. Iron phosphate pellets, sold as organic pellets, should only be used when absolutely necessary, and sparingly. See Slugs and Snailsfor further information *