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Now that a reasonable sized area has been cleared, dug, cultivated and raked down level and to a fine tilth the question of what to grow emerges. There is no shortage of advice from other plotholders, but it all seems centred to their lifestyle, not mine.
The visitors ask me if I'm going to fill it with potatoes and I tell them I will not be growing any potatoes at all. No potatoes! This comes as something of a shock and they advise me that I must grow potatoes.
Everyone sees the plot differently. The Irish will tell you to grow potatoes, Italians say artichokes and squash, the Portugese advise Tomatoes and peppers, Jamaicans tell you to grow sweet corn and callalou... If you do not like those vegetables, don't grow them.
Remember. Your plot is yours to grow what you like, and my plot is mine to grow plants of my choice. I like all the vegetables listed, even the callalou, but I have my own priorities that will include a wide range of vegetables plus lots of flowers. Allotments are not just for growing potatoes. There is a whole range of different veg, not to mention fruits and of course, flowers.
Before making lists of seeds to buy, it is a good idea to sit back and get it straight exactly why you have taken on the allotment. There are almost as many different reasons for having an allotment as ther are people renting them. Some want to produce large quantities of food for an extended family, some are keen competitors at the shows and exhibitions. Some want to provide cut flowers for the house, others an extention to the garden. One man at my site has his own mini vinyard, and at the other end of the site, a local school uses a plot for education purposes.
My own aims are quite diverse but includes growing heirloom vegetables, lots of flowers and assessing crop yields under differing growing conditions. I have nothing against potatoes but things like jerusalems and parsnips provide more flavour, and higher yields in dry seasons.
Over producing vegetables that do not keep well is a major problem on an allotment and the butt of many jokes. What starts out as delicious tasty spring greens, rapidly matures into super hearty cabbages that will run to seed if not eaten.
Can you eat 5 cabbages a week? Maybe yes. Maybe no. If 1 cabbage a week is more in order, then it is important to sow or plant just very small rows. Remember, allotment vegetables will not obey supermarket specifications, and in good growing conditions may attain 4 or 5 times the size you are accustomed to.
Newcomers to allotment growing have a lot of knowledge to accuire in a very short space of time. Each vegetable will have a sowing time, spacing between plants, row spacing, height and time to maturity just for starters. Most of this information should be on the seed packets but you will need to calculate your requirements for the kitchen. How many kilos of onions are you likely to eat? For example. Do not be afraid to make lists even if all your neighbours are simply sticking things in until they run out of space.
While working on your plot, take a breather and get to know the path the sun takes across the sky. A good gardener should know roughly where the sun will be at any time during the day, and this knowledge is important when planting crops. Tall growing plants need careful consideration as to their position to ensure they get adequate sunshine without shading adjacent crops. Ideally, rows should run towards the lunchtime position of the sun but this does not matter too much if your chosen crops are all fairly low-growing.
My plan for this year is to sow or plant as many different crops as possible, but in small quantities so that I can get an understanding of the land and any problems without losing too much if any do not come up to scratch.
When writing articles of this nature it is easy to omit or quickly gloss over the failures leaving the reader to believe that I am infallible. If only that was the case. Every gardener will have problems with the crops almost on a daily basis, it's all part of the fun. The skill is in catching any trouble early and dealing with it in an appropriate manner, or writing off a crop to quickly re-claim the ground to make space for something else.
Early failures were carrot and parsnip as the emerging seedlings were slaughtered by countless slugs emerging from the adjacent untamed wilderness each night. A handful of parsnips have survived out of four rows and will be sent to the kitchen shortly, but the carrots only survived long enough for me to see their successful germination. Later sowings of lettuce, parsley and coriander all met the same fate.
By and large, the brassicas have been disapointing partly due to severe slug damage once again but also I suspect that the soil chemistry is not yet favorable for their growth. Flea beetles hindered their early growth and pigeons did their best to finish them off but there were some successes. Curly kale and broccoli make up for the summer cabbage which did not make it home. Swedes are giving some results but the roots are much smaller than they should be. More attention will have to be paid to soil condition and acidity next spring if these crops are to improve.
The biggest disappointment suffered this year was the tomatoes. Several varieties were planted and all grew well producing large trusses and cropping well. Just as the fruit began to ripen, the plants were struck with tomato bacterial spot and the plants ruined. I was not alone here. All the other plotholders growing tomatoes suffered the same fate. While this was initially put down to the sudden change in weather from dry and sunny to dull with heavy rain, the discovery of an alien insect pest called the Southern Green Shield bug (Nezara viridula) some weeks later shifts the blame to this pest. I'm treating this failure as an act of God and will try again next year better prepared to repel aliens.
Despite the best efforts of slugs, flea beetles, pigeons, foxes, hot weather, rainstorms and alien invaders, the overall results have been very good. So much so that at times it was an embarrasment. Early results were the onions and shallots along with radish and beetroot. The onions and shallots were of particularly high standards and I will be growing many more next season.
Heirloom peas (Alderman) and a new variety of runner bbeans (Red Flame) gave extremely good yields both with supreme flavour. For next season, I will have to sow more peas and at more frequent intervals to meet my requirements but the single wigwam of ten bean plants produced far more than my needs. This surplus was readily dispersed amongst my fellow plotholders.
Courgettes were prolific throughout the summer with the 5 surviving plants producing up to a kilo per day between them. Eventually, with the fridge stuffed full and everyone running away from me as I approached them laden with heavy carrier bags, I let the cougettes remain on the plants to develop into marrows. Most of these are still in storage at the end of October and should keep for a while yet. Yes this is far too much for one person to eat and next season I will reduce the number of plants to two only. Of the six cucumber plants I planted, two of them survived the initial onslaught of the slugs and went on to produce so many cucumbers that most were given away. For once the slugs are forgiven.
Early in the season I sowed seed of globe artichoke and cardoon and these have grown to truely impressive sizes. Cardoon is one of those vegetables that has dropped out of favour in recent years but still appears on the menus of posh nosh restaurants but I've never eaten them before. These plants require the stems tied up and covered to blanche them and this has been done. Even if they are not to my taste, they are stunning plants with great architectural merit for any garden. There is no requirement for allotments to just contain boring rows of vegatables and I encourage everyone to grow flowers as well as veg. The globe artichokes will not produce their first crop until next summer but the plants have grown to a large size and I have no doubt that they will produce a good crop.
Similar in name only is the jerusalem artichoke. This plant produces tubers that can be eaten like potatoes or made into a delicious soup. These plants have grown well througout the summer without any attention from me but will not be ready for harvest until late November onwards. The beauty of these is the crop remains in the ground throughout the winter where it keeps best. Roots are dug out as required and all the large tubers harvested leaving any small fry in the ground to grow a replacement plant the following season. They cost nothing to keep and succeed when the summer is too dry for potatoes.
When I inherited the site there were two unidentified prunus trees and a number of hazel bushes. The prunus turned out to be a cultivated variety of damson and 7 kilos made it home for jam production. Many more were noshed on site and I have decided that these trees are worth keeping, although I will reduce their height when time permits. The four hazels that I kept produced just over the single kilo of nuts and I am still unsure of their future. I may coppice the bushes to produce canes for use on the allotment instead.
Allotments are not just for growing vegetables. The exotic flowers gave me immense pleasure and without exception they all grew better than in previous years when kept in containers. Notably, the Cannas as shown in the photo, but also Mirabilis, Dahlia, Arum, Typhonium, Musa, Crinum and many more all grew to their best and it is with sadness that I now have to dig them all up before the frosts arrive.