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It's National Allotments Week and the perfect time to get started on growing your own. Whether you're new to the world of allotments and homegrown produce or you're an experienced green-fingered whizz, there is always more to learn about allotment planning and maintenance. What should you plant and when is the best time? We've put together a month-by-month allotment planner to help you grow your own fruit and veg and make the most of your little slice of gardening heaven...
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Allotments are plots of land which you rent from either your local council or a private landowner. As they are communal, you'll usually share water costs with the other allotment owners in your community. You can use your plot to grow your own fruit and vegetables, most commonly those suitable for the British climate, however some allotment owners also have greenhouses which allow them to grow things normally found in warmer climates. You can apply for an allotment through your local council. There are often waiting lists so make sure you do this earlier rather than later.
The cost of having an allotment varies from council to council and will depend on the size of your plot. Allotments are measured in rods - one rod equates to 25 square metres. A full allotment is normally 10 rods or 250 square metres. Your annual rent for a plot of this size could be as low as £10 for the year or as high as £100.
When you're working out whether an allotment is for you, don't forget to factor in the cost of seeds, compost and garden tools. Make sure to check out Gransnet's top discounts for over 60s before you head to your local garden centre.
Once you've secured yourself an allotment plot, you'll need to equip yourself with a few other things before you get started.
From the more intensive clearing process at the beginning (here's where you ask a family member or two to lend a hand) to the planting and watering later on, keeping an allotment is a brilliant form of exercise because you get to decide the pace.
"My husband and I took took over an allotment earlier this year and after a lot of work digging and clearing we're now planning what to plant next year."
If you do your homework and plan your new allotment carefully, before long you'll have more than enough homegrown, pesticide-free, super-nutritious fruit and vegetables. Whether you're trying to eat a little healthier or just can't get enough of fresh peas, getting an allotment is a great way of encouraging a more nutritious diet.
"I always loathed broad beans until a friend with an allotment brought me a bagful of freshly picked beans. I could have dined on the smell alone."
"We have lovely lunches of whatever is ready. A typical lunch is beetroot, fennel, courgettes, garlic, onions etc roasted in olive oil and balsamic vinegar with garlic bread to mop up the juices."
"Each day I'm gathering strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, broad beans, the last of the rhubarb, and a few Bramley apples. I love it when I can pick fruit and vegetables minutes before they're needed."
For more ideas on what to make with your bumper crop, check out our Gransnet food section.
Allotments are good for the environment because growing your own food helps to reduce your personal carbon footprint - beetroot that's travelled five minutes to get to your table is far better for the planet than the shop-bought version that's been flown 5,000 miles. You'll also use less packaging and pesticides.
Keeping an allotment is a great way of making friends. You'll quickly get a sense of your 'neighbours' and the allotment community to which you belong. They'll be more than willing to pass on growing tips to get you started. While there are many joys of allotments, from fresh air to homegrown produce, looking after your little plot makes you an active part of the local community.
"Your new best friends are the other allotment holders. At the one down our road they bulk buy everything you might need and share goods and seeds too."
If you have recently retired and struggle a little with the lack of daily tasks and routines, keeping an allotment could be the perfect solution. As well as keeping you busy, maintaining an allotment is a project which requires planning. Seeing a project through from start to finish or, in allotment terms, from clearing to produce can be extremely rewarding.
Once you get the hang of things - and your allotment starts to give back - growing your own produce can be a very cost-effective way of living, especially if you grow perennial fruit and vegetables.
"When I see the cost of raspberries in the shops, I think growing our own makes total sense."
It's no secret that children love the magic of DIY and growing your own produce on an allotment is no exception. Get the grandchildren involved in the planting and watering and visit the allotment together every few weeks to check-in on their little projects.
"Recently, my granddaughter was offered some asparagus to which the little madam said 'I don't like Sainsbury's asparagus. I only eat freshly picked asparagus from Nanna's allotment'. I offered her brother strawberries yesterday and he politely said 'no thank you', then discovered they were fresh off the allotment and changed his mind."
Your allotment produce may have suffered from the cold and wet weather, so the most important job for this month is disposing of damaged or rotten produce. If you've covered produce with straw to protect it from the winter frost, remember to remove it on sunnier days to let the plants breathe. In terms of harvesting, January is the month for leeks, cabbages and parsnips - perfect for whipping up a bowl of soup when you come in from a cold day on your plot.
February is the month to start sowing and planting early vegetables. Now that the soil is warming up, start by planting shallots, garlic and carrots mid-month.
With the days getting longer, this is the time when new growth really takes off. Firstly, transplant any early plants. March is the month to plant potatoes and sow the seed of broccoli, onions, spinach, spring onions, peas, broad beans and lettuce.
Although the days are much warmer now, prepare to cover new shoots with soil in case of frost. Plant globe and Jerusalem artichokes towards the end of the month. If you have a greenhouse, this is the time to plant runner beans, sweetcorn, courgettes, pumpkin, and squash - all will need transplanting in May. If you are producing runner beans, start prepping the poles.
This month, the most important thing to watch out for is drought. Make sure to keep recently transplanted plants and new seedlings well watered and protect them from the sun where needed. If you planted runner beans, sweetcorn, courgettes, pumpkin and squash last month using a greenhouse, now is the time to plant in the open soil. French beans can be planted under glass this month to be transplanted next month. You can also plant various kinds of cabbages and kale. Continue to sow radish, beetroot, spinach and lettuce for summer use - don't forget to thin out. It is also a good idea to support beans while they are still short.
In terms of harvest, May is the time for rhubarb, peas, cabbage, spinach, sprouting broccoli, spring onions, early sown lettuce, radish and beetroot.
During June you can continue to harvest beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, early peas, lettuce, rhubarb, spring onions, radish and spinach. It is also the time for broad beans and cauliflower. Towards the end of the month, you can start to lift potatoes. It is also time to pick the softest fruits. You can now re-plant all of your plants under glass (except leek, pumpkin and squash) out in the open soil. Don't forget to protect them with netting.
It is a good idea to train in beans and continue to put in support for other plants. Weeding and breaking up the soil will allow it to soak up water better.
Watering is the most important job during this dry month, preferably during the cooler morning or evening hours. During July, you can start planting your winter produce such as radicchio, kale, chicory, spinach beet, onions and carrots. Plant out your leeks, pumpkin and squash.
Water at least once a week during this month and break up the soil as much as possible. If the weather is hot and wet during July, you will need to protect your crop from the blight. Remember, the infected plants should never be composted as this will carry over the disease into next year.
July is the month where you'll harvest potatoes, garlic, onions and globe artichokes. For fruits, it is time for rhubarb and strawberries as well as plums if you are lucky enough to have them.
This month is the busiest for harvesting. If you have fruit trees, now is the time for thinning and summer pruning. In terms of the August harvest, raspberries will now be ready to be picked as well.
Finish the summer pruning during this month and make room for the new gardening year by digging out and clearing the plot of spolied crop. September is the time to harvest potatoes and onions as well as apples and pears if you have them. You may also have strawberries and raspberries to pick. In terms of sowing, lettuce suitable for winter and spinach are good options.
With their round and wholesome taste and vibrant colours, these vegetables have become synonymous with the start of autumn; this month you will be harvesting pumpkins and squash. Make lanterns with the grandchildren and use up any leftover pumpkin and squash in your autumn kitchen. Your crop this month will also include carrots, spinach, lettuce and chard.
This is the month to maintain your allotment. Dig, clear and make sure everything is ready for the frost. Make sure you remove old crops to stop them from rotting and clear the plot of vegetables such as carrots before the frost comes. When the frost comes, harvest parsnips and leeks over the next two months.
While you can harvest late cabbages, there isn't much you can sow during this month. December is a good time to think about which of your allotment ventures were successful and which were not, and start planning ahead for the coming year.
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If you're wondering which fruit and vegetables are most likely to turn out well, the best thing to do is to ask around in your allotment community. Look around for the most healthy-looking plot you can find and wait to have a chat with the owner. Who better to help you understand what will work and what won't than someone who has experience with the same soil, weather conditions and local nature?
"Since trying to eat fewer carbs I have become a great fan of cauliflower. It is so versatile - you can have it roasted, mashed or grated."
"I love finely shredded cabbage with finely sliced leeks, stir-fried in hot oil for about three minutes...yum!"
"We are currently cropping sprouts, Nero kale, curly kale, hungry gap kale (a rare heritage variety), a wide selection of oriental vegetables and salad leaves."
"I like shallots...fortunately I grow enough to last the whole year!"
"I grow Elephant Garlic - very large mild bulbs that are perfect for roasting. One of our favourites."
"I couldn't live without onions."
"Homegrown tomatoes - now they can't be beaten! Such delicious flavour. Roll on, summer."
"Broccoli is so easy to prepare and good for you too."
"They grow so quickly, you can end up with cricket bat-sized courgettes if you wait too long to harvest. Even a day can make a difference in a few inches."
"I love root vegetables!"
"Swiss chard is a good crop - very tasty."
"I once bought six unusual varieties of seed potato to grow on my allotment. I had them chitting in egg boxes that were carefully labelled but my granddaughter found them and mixed them all up. Unlike her elder sister, who once took a bite out of each one of a bag of raw potatoes, she did not sample them. Anyhow, when I came to plant them out I couldn't label them so we never knew which was which. They were all very good as it happens."
"Fresh sweetcorn tastes nothing like shop-bought."
"Broad beans are easy. I pod them, blanch for one minute and take the outer skin off when they are cool enough. They freeze really well and just need dipping in boiling water to thaw them and warm up."
"We're very fond of edamame beans and you can eat them raw. We usually boil and serve them in the pod with salt. Then people pop out the beans as they eat them."
"My granddad used to make strawberry and gooseberry jam - it still had the strawberry flavour, but not quite as sweet. Me and my daughter are going to make it next weekend."
"I have a Timperley rhubarb which is producing masses of stalks."
"Perfect and so easy to grow."
"In spring, I cut some down to half and some to the ground - that way I get a long season with the earlies on the ones not cut down, and lates for the others."
"Gooseberries make nice puddings and jam, but pick them early for jam as it doesn't set if they are overripe."
"I have a dwarf plum tree. It is four years old and very generous with its fruit. It gets a trim down in autumn and topped up with fresh compost each spring."
Crop rotation helps prevent the development of plant-specific pests and as each plants adds different nutrients to the soil, it improves soil fertility. While you should not rotate perennial crops (such as broccoli, rhubarb, spinach and raspberries), the following annual vegetables are good candidates for crop rotation:
As well as being an environmentally-friendly alternative to chemical fertilisers and saving you money, composting improves the health of your plants by adding nutrients to the soil. There are many ways to make your own 'compost heap' on your allotment - wooden crates, plastic bins or, if you have a little more space, simply a corner out of the way. Most importantly, your compost will fare much better if it is in direct contact with the soil.
"When I had my allotment I used a huge wooden crate which I filled with a mixture of vegetable peelings, shredded newspapers, lawn grass cuttings and horse manure. A good compost is supposed to have the consistency of a chocolate cake I'm told."
"Try to mix everything as you go. Don't put masses of grass cuttings or hedge clippings in one go - mix them with your kitchen peelings. I add dead leaves too. One tip; cover the whole pile with an old sack or a bit of old carpet to stop it getting soaked through. This well help to keep the heat in and speed up the rotting process. Some people add pieces of newspaper to the mix to absorb water."
"You put in anything that will rot down, but there are a few exceptions. Do not put in any cooked food, any meat or bones, bread, cheese, rice or pasta as these can attract vermin."
You'll soon notice that with a well-kept allotment, there are often times when you are inundated with fresh produce. While you can give away lots to family, friends and neighbours, sometimes you're still left with buckets - we're looking at you, courgette. So how do you use up gluts of fruits and vegetables so nothing goes to waste?
If you're not sure what you want to use your extra produce for, why not freeze it for later in the year? Frozen fruit and vegetables are excellent for casseroles, stews, roasts, soups and puddings and cakes.
"We have blueberries and blackcurrants which the grandchildren eat straight from the bush. Any excess I pop straight into the freezer ready for winter."
"I freeze dozens of courgettes in chopped up, single portion bags (without blanching) and they are fine throughout the winter in casseroles and soups."
One excellent way to use up the fruit glut from your allotment is to make jam - of course, you'll need to make an obligatory batch of scones to go with the jam. But if you've made enough strawberry and rhubarb jam to feed a small army, why not try combining different fruits and adding extra flavours such as vanilla or gin? Take inspiration from these gransnetters who know all about making homemade jam...
"I have started making jam since I retired. It's one of those things you learn as you go! I use jam sugar from the supermarket - you can get it with added pectin for fruits like strawberries. I often add cooking apples to my fruit to take an edge of the sweetness and add pectin naturally. I usually have some ready sliced in the freezer."
"We often make jam, mostly apricot which is my favourite. We use as little sugar as possible, and use the special jam sugar which has added pectin. With plums, try tasting one first to see how sweet they are. One of our plum trees has very sweet fruit, so I add lots of lemon juice and rind. The other one, a greeny yellow, is more tart."
"One tip about using stoned fruit; chop the fruit, but don't try to remove the stones as there is often quite a bit of fruit clinging to them. Boil up as usual and then add your sugar. You will then find the stones rise to the top and can be fished out. It is a good idea to count your fruit before you start and then you know how many stones you need to find."
"Gooseberry is one of my favourites as it's very tangy. Where I live 'gooseberry growing' is a competitive sport, like leek growing in the North East!"
"I usually add red currants to strawberry jam to get a better set (about half a pound to three pounds of strawberries). Red currants give the strawberries a lovely tang and bring out the flavour - freeze the strawberries whilst waiting for the currants to catch up."
"My all time favourite is plum and mulled wine jam. I use homemade spiced elderberry wine. It's not too sweet and is wonderful on toast."
Another brilliant way of preserving your produce is to make chutney. Delightfully spicy or sweet (or both!), these types of pickles make lovely accompaniments to meat dishes, pies and curries - and taste a dream in sandwiches and with cheeses.
"My favourite chutney is apple, date and raisin."
"This year, I made a chutney out of apple, aubergine, chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, a whole dried lime, ginger, clove and cinnamon as well as onion, garlic and vinegar."
"I'm making green tomato chutney. I use the same old recipe every year and usually leave it one or two years before eating."
"My friend makes gooseberry and courgette chutney. I tried some on toasted ciabatta with melted brie on top - amazing!"
"I make runner bean chutney in fairly large quantities...it helps to cope with the annual glut of beans and goes with lots of things."
"I have a lovely recipe for beetroot chutney - my husband eats it with EVERYTHING. It never lasts long, bless him."
"I make my own apple chutney and eat it with cold meats, pies and cheese. Sometimes I use it in cooking too."
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