We are not seeking to repeat many of the thousands of words on the subject but rather to point out some of the key issues which often lead to the high drop-out rate among new plotholders. Our commercial experience leads us to make a few suggestions to deal with these issues.
Assuming you are not inheriting a well worked and fertile plot preparation can be challenging and the stage that finishes many peoples interest! Most "new" plots are covered in a mixture of plants largely regarded as weeds, some of which can be difficult to remove or kill.
Much depends on how fast you want to reclaim the plot and how vigorous you are feeling. Ideally the landlord, usually the local Council, will not have rotavated the plot as this will merely convert a lot of couch grass or docks into a massive number. Machinery can readily clean up or speed up removal of weeds by dragging tines or metal prongs through the soil briskly and literally tearing roots out. This process also loosens the soil from an often all too compacted state. Paying a local farmer or grounds contractor to do this a couple of times may save tears, tares and time.
Removing undesirables such as thistles is easy from what is now on the way to tilth (finer soil). Using a rake or long handled cultivator to drag material out may reduce the need to walk on the soil. At all costs don't walk on wet soil, squashing out air and starting your own adobe brick factory. Doing the above entirely by hand is possible with a long handled fork (for leverage) but laborious.
A second strategy might be to cover most or all of plot with black plastic or other light excluding material, weighing down securely all along the edges. This will kill off most weeds plants particularly under high Summer temperatures, achieving in weeks what might not work well in Winter months (sometimes referred to as solarising). Dock or horsetail roots going down deeper can usually hold on to moisture enough to resist.
A third strategy is to clear sections bit by bit by hand but important to mow, strim or scythe remaining vegetation as close to the ground as possible (and cover as above). Vegetation or rubble such as bricks will always provide habitat for slugs and their eggs particularly and a scorched earth policy is the starting point here. Commercial growers always try and maintain at least one metre of bare fine tilth soil between any crop and potential slug habitat, a desert crossing for the latter except in very wet conditions.
An immediate test is to squeeze together a handful of soil and see how easily it sticks together, showing whether crudely clay or sand dominated. The sample may well also be low in organic matter. A sample can also be separated in water by leaving to separate in a tall jar and looking at the bands that emerge. Soil testing is professionally done by many agencies for the very keen including the pH figure. While you might be aiming for 6-6.5 (most crops happy within this band), the addition of lots of animal manure or very sandy conditions may drop the figure below this. The micro-nutrients are not the concern as much as general principles of improving and maintaining soil quality.
You will be raising organic material levels as well as avoiding bare soil particularly in the Winter. The key strategy is to avoid loss more than merely pour more in and create a soil full of biological activity. The bacteria sized life will be busy on healthy soil and the footsoldiers of life, earthworms, will be common. Most soils, heavy clay aside, can be significantly improved in nutrition, texture and productivity.
The existing soil may hold good nutrients: the keys ones are N,P+K (nitrate, phosphate and potassium). The nitrate is the trickiest as it is highly water soluble, but it is the dominant building block or fuel of plants. It is easy to have insufficient (or leeched out) nitrate but also possible to add too much which will pollute local water courses or lead to weak, sappy plant growth. The fertility outlined below will tend to deliver nutrients in appropriate proportions.
Sources might be as follows:
Compost, see below. A few millimetres thick layer contains a huge amount of nutrients and soil organisms.
Animal Manure, if well composted or turned on farm. Will "burn" plants if too raw. Its acidity will have to be balanced by lime addition every year or two. A layer of one inch contains a lot of nitrate/fertility.
Green Manures, live crops that cover ground acting as a blanket to prevent leeching of nutrients and sometimes weed suppression. The clover family (clovers, trefoil, vetch, alfalfa) add nitrate and break up soil with deep roots but all green manures add lots of organic matter when turned back into the soil. Clover can be difficult to establish on allotments and all green manures are easier to turn in with farm equipment than hand tools.
Green manures can be usefull for covering bare patches of ground, especially the fast growing and relatively hardy phacelia or rye grass. Each type of green manure has a specific to a time of year for sowing. Straw as a cheap material is feasible to cover up bare patches over Winter too.
Lots written again but still generally badly done. A compost heap or stack is a mixture of "green" (leafy vegetation, food waste) and "brown" (stems, straw, rotted leaves, cardboard) materials, in a 2:1 ratio, which with access to lots of fresh air, is decomposed by micro-organisms into compost full of accessible nutrients. It rises in temperature before cooling once finished or, as often, only half way there!
Better to have two stacks on the go, built from pre-piled ingredients and running alternately. Once built with alternate green and brown layers, the heap must be covered from rain and turned several times in the first 3 or 4 weeks. This is hard work, but the result is wonder material very effective in relatively small amounts (it should be for the volumes that are consumed to make it) Small garden turners or wormeries may be alternatives. Cold Winter temperatures mean stacking up ingredients until say March may be prudent. Small amounts of Lime or clay layers in the stack may well be beneficial particularly for sandy soils. Cooked food composts well and ripped up cardboard is great as an ingredient too.
Joy Larkcom’s Grow you own Vegetables is the bible of dates as to what to do when, but it' s important to grasp that very many crops are raised in modules or plant pots before planting in the ground. Some are set off in seed trays before being gently "pricked out" into a module tray (like miniature pots). Particularly for new plots the bigger the plant on going out the more chance of success, and small plants are very sweet to slugs.
Plant raising is usually done indoors or in a greenhouse or similar, but each plant has a temperature and daylength range -hence follow Joy or others' given dates. A reliable growing medium (compost) is an issue - we used Fertile Fibre as one of the few we trusted not to run out of nitrate particularly.
The key much misunderstood word and task. Removing weeds is tedious, slow and avoidable. Within a week of planting in new ground tiny "white hair" competing plants will emerge. For 2-4 days they are easily hoed off with a gentle shallow movement. This should done on a dry ideally warm and breezy to maximise effectiveness. The surface afterwards will consist of loose fine soil (sometimes called a dry mulch) sitting, indeed insulating to some extent, the moister soil below. Compare hoeing an emergent dock with one 2 weeks old if in any doubt. Such activity will reduce the overall seed bank in the soil to low levels over several years although some seeds such as dandelions can still blow in.
Use of stale seedbeds may help. Create a fine tilthed area (can be rolled to stimulate germination) and leave until a flush of weeds appears – usually after rain, or the area can be irrigated several times. Hoe off and repeat if time allows, each time reducing competing seeds.
Good soil holds moisture well, the organic matter acting as a sponge, but all young plants particularly require adequate (a lot) of water to their root ball. Gathering water from any roof is prudent. 1000 litre storage tanks are cheap with a handy threaded outflow tap, and can be supported off the ground on pallets. Water is heavy to move around and hoses (with taps on their ends) from the tank can help.
Rainfall rarely corresponds with plant needs and without some watering plants will suffer. If in doubt about how dry soil is take a sample from one or two inches or the root area and feel. Could roots readily draw moisture from this is the question to ask.
Many aren't .Better to interpret the arrival of aphids, red spider mite, flea beetles, etc, etc as a message to do something (or that its too late for something missed, usually moisture). Plants can resist most attacks as long as they are not stressed, for example by emitting substances to deter being eaten, so they can progress to maturity. Sources of stress are wide but note water, lack of nutrients, temperature (usually over- heating), pH too low. There are still creatures who consume healthy plants, notably pigeons, rabbits, butterfly caterpillars, cutworms (moth caterpillars), wireworms and some slugs/snails (although most are debris eaters). Rabbits, butterflies and pigeons have to be separated from the crop by a physical barrier and the other are scarce in well cultivated soil.
Tradition more evident than functionality on many UK plots.
Some tips here at least:
- Long handled forks and spades have much more leverage than short ones. Forged tools are much stronger than the cheap welded stuff generally on sale. Try "Bulldog" or similar - see our link page for further tips.
- Stirrup type hoes are better for most purposes than traditional stem slicing ones.
- Wheel hoes for bigger plots are a revelation as are some of the small cultivator machines, using little power to produce a nice tilth.
- Hand cultivators (3 prongs on end of a long handle) will always be useful.
- Earthway Seed Drills are worth sharing with neighbours.
- Lawnmowers ensure all surrounding grass is kept very short to remove potential slug habitat and grass and weeds going to seed.