no dig allotment in summer

A lot of people take over an allotment with high hopes only to give up a few years, or even a few months later. The reasons vary, but, primarily most people are time poor and spend way too much time digging and way too little time growing food.

I’ve owned an allotment for over ten years now and it’s only recently that I have managed to work out a system that allows me to grow the maximum amount of food with the least amount of effort. One thing I would say before starting out on this journey is “if you don’t know how to cook, please learn as soon as possible”. Huge amounts of food are grown on UK allotments only to be dumped in the compost or fed to grateful chickens. Learning to cook is the best way to combat this waste, and French provincial is definitely the way to go, as the French seem to have a way of cooking almost anything to make delicious meals. Cabbage au gratin with bacon and onions springs to mind. Glazed carrots with fresh herbs, white sauces to raise the profile of even the most bland vegetable on the plot.

In short, it is very important to eat all (or as much as you can) you grow.

So, to point one. Adopt a no dig system.

I spent years digging the allotment over. I added pelleted chicken manure, horse manure, pig manure, compost and anything else I could find to improve the fertility. But, the results were very hit and miss and very tiring to boot. I even did my knee in and couldn’t walk for a week! Hour after hour spent weeding and digging, digging and weeding. Is it any wonder people give up on their allotments?

Compost costs money, but, so does food and good food costs more than bland food. Last year, I decided to buy in compost from the local supplier. I chose to use the “Clover” brand because it works, every time, and is used by many professional nurseries throughout the UK. I probably spent the best part of £100 on compost and my allotment costs just over £50 a year to rent. You need to buy seeds too and that can cost another £50, but £200 for a LOT of GREAT (organic) food is worth every penny.

You will need some tools too. The tool I use most in the no dig system is a strimmer. I use the strimmer to get rid of weeds off the surface of the soil. It’s a lot faster than weeding by hand and a decent strimmer can be picked up for £50 or less. If your allotment is overgrown when you take it over, strim it hard to get down to the soil level. Remove the debris and lay out compost on the ground to form beds. You’ll need enough space between the beds to strim the weeds away as they emerge over the season. Two to three inches of compost is enough to get things going…

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

The sooner you get planting, the sooner you get connected with your land and a no dig method is the fastest way to get your allotment going. By laying two to three inches of compost on the surface to form beds, you can plant, onions, peas, beans, sweetcorn, cabbage, kale, calabrese, spinach, courgette, squash, lettuce, turnips, leeks and more. You can even lay down cardboard over the weeds and spread your compost on that if you don’t want to spend time strimming.

Plant into grow bags on the surface of the soil.

I tried planting potatoes and carrots into the beds of compost, but it didn’t work for me. Too much slug damage, carrot fly, birds and bugs. So, I started to plant into grow bags on the surface. you can grow carrots, parsnips, potatoes and even tomatoes this way. Buy the right bags on Ebay and fill with compost. It’s easy. Please read my article on growing potatoes here

Sowing carrots into sacks

No dig carrots sown into sacks on the surface of the soil

For protection from damage, net your delicious vegetables.

Seeing vegetables you have grown from seed, decimated by caterpillars, birds, and slugs can really put a strain on your relationship with your allotment.  Cabbages, kale, calabrese, lettuce, spinach etc. are all susceptible, so get some good netting, some plastic piping and some canes and get building protective nets for the vegetables at risk. I find scaffolding netting works well as the weave is very fine. Plastic piping forms hoops and canes support the structure tied with garden wire or string. Weigh the structure down with bricks or soil to prevent wind damage.

netting protection for vegetables

Do it yourself netting

Get some chickens.

Chickens need attention and bind you to your allotment like no vegetable can. You can buy point of lay from local suppliers or hatch them yourself from fertilised eggs as I describe in this article. Fresh eggs can be used to make omelettes, cakes, pasta, fried rice, pancakes and lots, lots more. Three chickens or more and you’ll have a great flock. Protect them from foxes by building a chicken wire run and provide them with a nesting box, a perch, feeder and waterer. To keep maintenance low, make your nesting box roll the eggs away for storage (and cleanliness), get a treadle feeder and a large waterer (mine is 5 gallons). My treadle feeder keeps the rats out and holds 10kg of layers pellets. I have been on holiday for a week and the chickens have been fine on my return.

Get a greenhouse or a polytunnel (or both!)

To keep costs down, you can grow all your vegetables from seed and of course these can be propagated on the windowsill at home, but nothing beats sitting in your own greenhouse sowing seeds for the coming season. Buy a secondhand one if you can find a decent one. Maybe you can get one off one of the allotment holders who is packing in. Polytunnel’s can be had for around £50 on Ebay, but do ensure it is lashed down to prevent wind damage. Last season my new polytunnel blew away to the other side of the allotment site. I should have used storm lashings of course.

Grow salad in your greenhouse (or polytunnel).

Cut and come again salads can grow as quickly as twenty one days and they are a great way to get something on your plate as fast as possible. In fact, if you have chickens and grow your own salad leaves, you can have an egg mayonnaise starter with a few meals this week. I wrote an article a couple of years about growing salad leaves in the greenhouse, you can find it here.

So, there are a few tips for a low maintenance allotment. No dig, is easy but you’ll need to buy a few bags of compost. One of the things I have learned over the years is that the best growers use the most compost. One of the best allotments on our site uses a pallet of compost each season and the owner is always in the running for best allotment.

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allotment salad leaves

If you consider that a bag of salad is going to cost at least 50p in the supermarket, growing salad in the greenhouse can soon mount up to a substantial saving.
I like to grow salad leaves in plastic six packs. I fill the six packs with compost, then sprinkle the seeds onto the surface. I then press down the compost to firm and sprinkle compost over to cover the seeds. I finish off by watering in.

growing salad leaves on the allotment

I could fit about 100 six packs on my greenhouse shelves and over a season, I reckon I could grow around three hundred packs. I can certainly grow all the salad leaves I need and this represents a significant saving.

Of course, if you don’t like salad, you may think this is not for you, however, you can still benefit from this quick to grow food source. I don’t particularly like salads myself, but, I don’t mind a starter of egg mayonnaise salad and I don’t particularly mind adding salads to my sandwiches. Also, soups can be made from salad leaves.

Once you start to introduce simple salad starters to your meals on a daily basis, it is surprising how quickly you get used to the idea.

I grow the salad leaves in the greenhouse and then transport some packs to my house where they sit on the window sill until we need to cut off the leaves when preparing a meal. I don’t really bother with cut and come again concepts. Once the salad pack is depleted, I simply put the soil into the compost bin and then plant out another lot. I usually plant at least one a day. Additionally, because my wife likes radishes, I plant these out in six packs too. Six seeds per pack. Radishes grow extremely fast and are a useful addition to salads (if you like them of course).

I grow salad leaves all year round. Later on in the season, you can harvest new potatoes (if you want them really early, grow in the greenhouse) and tomatoes for a more substantial main course salad meal.

Due to consistency, quality and high germination rates, I like to purchase the best seed I can afford, but, I’ve had good results from salad leaf seeds bought in cheaper supermarkets. My most recent purchase was a pack of “Bright & Spicy” Salad Leaves by Thompson & Morgan. This particular mix should be ready to harvest in thirty days or less.

Now that I have discovered the benefits of growing salad leaves I am really getting into it. Why not give it a go, and if you grow too much, you can always give some away to neighbours and friends or even flog it at the Farmers Market!

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