Advice for novice allotment gardeners – Kettering.
Buy this book – łThe vegetable and herb expert˛ by Dr D G Hessayon. It is inexpensive, has sold more than 5 million copies and is probably the best single book on growing vegetables.
Visit your plot regularly, at least once a week, more frequently in the summer. Regular visits are essential if you are to keep on top of things. If you leave a long time between visits, the backlog of tasks you will face may overwhelm you.
Talk to your more experienced allotment neighbours and ask their advice. They will know what grows well and when to plant things. Having said that, we all have our own little ways of doing things, so donąt worry if everyone gives you contradictory suggestions. Do it your own way. You are free to ignore this document too!
Sheds are the most common targets for our unwelcome visitors (vandals, thieves). Do not leave valuables in sheds. Sheds are good for collecting rainwater in barrels, but an open structure with a roof is even better as it is less likely to be looked at by thieves.
Watering is rarely necessary. Our soil holds a lot of water and only dries out in extended drought. Exposing the soil dries it quickly, so mulch as much as possible (see below on smothering weeds). Another way that soil dries out is allowing weeds to grow. Established, well-weeded crops do not need watering as their roots go deep. Watering these plants does more harm than good. Sometimes you may need to water a seed drill or very young plants. Collect as much rainwater as you can in winter in barrels.
The chances are that your allotment became available because someone else couldnąt cope and gave up. It will be very weedy. Weeds are likely to be your main challenge in the first few years. Kettering soil is very fertile and weeds grow better than most crops. Previously overgrown plots have high weed populations with a huge reservoir of weed seeds in the soil. However, this weed population is where your soil fertility is stored. Once weeds are killed and decay, your soil will be very fertile. You will not need fertiliser or manure in the first year or two if you recycle dead weeds this way.
How you control weeds depends on the season and other factors but always remember the following:
Dead weed = good as it releases fertility when its rots and composts.
Live weed = bad as it competes with crops and robs light, water and nutrients.
Once you pull a weed out you have instantly converted a nuisance into a benefit.
Weeding is more important than watering and feeding.
How to control weeds.
Divide your plot into three sections and use digging and hoeing on one section, herbicide on another and smothering on the other. Use any pulled out weeds as the mulch on the latter.
1. Digging. This works best from September to February. Digging buries the weeds, but roots need to be removed and composted or they will re-grow.
2. Hoeing. This works best from March to August. Hoe between rows of crops at least once a week, whether you can see weeds or not. Thousands of weed seeds just germinating will be killed. Hoeing also helps to release soil minerals for crops (called mineralisation).
3. Burning. This only kills tops of weeds. The roots will re-grow. Fire is hazardous and may spread. A lot of the fertility goes up in smoke and is lost, although ash does contain some minerals.
4. Herbicide (weedkiller). Some herbicides only kill the leaves, so weeds re-grow. Glyphosate herbicide (eg Roundup) kills the roots. It is sprayed on any green plants; is transported down to the roots and kills the whole plant. Plants take up to two weeks to die. Glyphosate has no effect if sprayed on bark and other woody plant material and does not poison the soil, so crops may be grown after treatment. It works best from April to September when plants are actively growing. It still works at other times of year (but not in heavy rain, as the rain washes it off). If you wish to be an łorganic˛ gardener, you may choose not to use herbicides.
5. Smothering weeds with mulch. This blocks out the light, so weeds eventually die and decay. The dead weeds and the mulch become automatic compost. Smothering with cardboard, with at least 100mm (4 inches) of mulch on top is best. Mulch includes compost, manure, grass cuttings, hay or even weeds that have been dug out elsewhere. Whole wet newspapers will do if you donąt have card. Black plastic and similar materials can be bought as an alternative to cardboard and mulch. Crops plants can be planted through the mulch or plastic (cut a small hole). Carpet is not advisable as it contains chemicals and these leave residues in the soil. When crops are mulched, watering is not usually necessary. Most crops find the water that is stored in the soil from winter rains. Mulching prevents evaporation from soil and keeps the soil moist. A bucket full of mulch does more good than 10 cans of water, so donąt waste time and effort watering your crops, mulch them instead. Remember that weeds take a lot of water from the soil, so mulching conserves water in three ways – smothering weeds, preventing evaporation and increasing soil organic matter.
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