Sustainable gardening on your allotment – fruit on your plot


Gorgeous jewels of deliciousness are coming ripe and ready now – red and black and white currants, raspberries, blueberries, dessert and culinary gooseberries, strawberries, hybrid josta and Worcester berries – but if you want to enjoy your soft fruit you’ll need to deprive the birds of that delight. Red fruits are more attractive to birds, but that doesn’t mean your blackcurrants, blueberries and gooseberries are safe at all (though the yellow raspberries do seem to be fairly immune); gooseberries tend to ripen first of the soft fruits and are a real favourite of the pigeons – and they’ve got big bellies! Netting fruit is a tedious job, but a very necessary one, and a real art. You need to make sure it’s weighted down at ground level, that you sew up any holes (nets can be used for decades if you look after them – just as well as the majority are still plastic based), and that there are no gaps where you overlap net on net. Try to have the nets like a cage around your bushes; if the net is just draped over them, birds will happily perch on top and have a feast through the holes. And while keeping the birds out is the main aim, you need to be careful that a bird can’t get in and get stuck and tangled in the net; however vindictive you may feel about pigeons, it’s very distressing for them, and for you, to have a struggle and possible death on your plot. 

Netting cherries is a harder job as the mature trees are quite large; a good tip is to use net bags that your seed potatoes might have come in, or onions and carrots bought in bulk; you can slip these onto a branch like a sleeve and tie it on. Blackbirds adore cherries: if you don’t net them, you won’t get them.

Soft fruit are a really worthwhile part of your plot patchwork of crops. There’s no need to water them unless in a very dry year; if you have weeded and mulched effectively around them earlier in the year, there should be plenty of moisture deep down where the roots can find it, especially after the very wet start to the year we have had. Currants and berries are expensive to buy in shops and inevitably not as fresh as those you grow yourself and pick regularly and frequently. When fruit ages, even a matter of a day, it loses its valuable vitamin C and the antioxidant polyphenol constituents diminish. You can easily pick and freeze your produce to give winter meals a bright nourishing glow. Simply put them into bags of an appropriate size for your eating habits, and stack them on the freezer shelves. There’s no need at all to lay them on trays so each is separate; when they thaw they will be soft and juicy and run together anyway, so save yourself some time at this busy period of the year – use it to crop your beans and thin your carrots (if you’re lucky enough to have had any germinate this terrible year!) and pick off slugs.

Once you have picked all the fruit, take the nets off promptly so the bushes don’t grow through the nets. Although some folk like to prune blackcurrants at this time of year, by cutting out a quarter or so of the older wood with fruit on it, which makes for easy picking, the main time to prune soft fruits is after their leaves have fallen in late autumn, early winter. Make sure you know the different pruning requirements of the different fruits; there’s an earlier Plotlines on this subject.

Enjoy the fruit feast and boost your health while they last…….

Sustainable gardening on your allotment – water

Watering can

It’s been wet, for sure; it’s been wet for months. We’ve probably all had a good grumble about that, and about the slugs having their most successful year ever as a consequence. But water scarcity is equally a feature of the climate emergency we are facing; perhaps the extremes and the unpredictability are the trickiest aspects to deal with.

So through the wet times, are you using systems to catch and store rain water? Some allotment sites make it a tenancy condition to have at least one water butt installed on each plot, to reduce usage of mains water. You may be thinking that there must be plenty of water around in the water network, but you are probably aware too of reports of the leaks in pipes and the lack of adequate reservoir catchments, so saving rain water has to be a central activity for sustainable gardening. And it takes a lot of energy to clean and to direct water into the mains supply anyway. Having water butts on your plot needn’t mean buying an expensive, new bit of specially made plastic kit; you can rig up a down flow from the roof of a shed or greenhouse and collect the rain in any large container.

An equally crucial consideration is how good your soil is at retaining water in order for your crops to grow well. That’s more important than spending time and labour carrying water to your plot – if your soil dries out quickly it’s a sure indication that it’s lacking in humus and in need of compost as a mulch or lightly hoed into the top of the soil prior to planting. And remind yourself to grown some green manures on any empty bed, and as beds are cleared over the next few months. That will help protect soil structure and stop it drying out. If your soil is in good condition, plants can access what they need through their roots. So soil care is, as ever, the prime consideration and the key gardening activity.

Remember that hose pipes should primarily be used only to fill water butts, not to water crops directly. Waving a hose pipe around is fun but incredibly wasteful: lots evaporates before it reaches either crop or the ground, and it’s important anyway to water the ground, not the crop above ground, so that the roots can take up what they need. Water splashing the leaves of crops can spread fungal diseases or cause fungal problems. Watering should be done early or late in the day, not in the middle of the day when a lot of moisture is lost through evaporation and it’s really just a waste of time as well as water. Using watering cans mean you can direct the water where it’s needed, or even make little ring reservoirs round thirsty big crops like courgettes and squashes, and for greenhouse crops that won’t get rained on.

Not all plants have the same needs for water anyway, so prioritise your time and your water. Young plants and transplants need gentle water, from the rose of a can, to allow the roots to settle and take up the moisture and nutrients required for growth. Most established plants don’t need watering unless a long drought persists. And if plants are well mulched then you won’t have to water as much or as often. So you can spend a pleasant quarter of an hour having a refreshing drink on your plot yourself!

Sustainable gardening on your allotment – weeds


The Celtic festival of Beltane is around the full moon at the beginning of May: a celebration of rising energy, growth, and a rushing headlong to midsummer now. And along with all your crops growing, weeds become really prominent on the allotment. Some gardeners get very agitated about this, and work hard to achieve a bare soil look with tidy rows of sown and planted vegetables and fruit with nothing in between. And some allotments look as though they have been dedicated to re-wilding, with rampant weeds covering almost every inch of space and their gardeners struggling to maintain pathetically small little growing patches. So let’s think a bit more about what grows where you didn’t plan and haven’t cultivated, and how to make the best of our plots at this busy time of year.

A common definition of a weed is ‘a plant in the wrong place’. That kind of thinking definitely positions the gardener as a controller, deciding what is right and wrong, where plants can and can’t be. Perhaps we can rather celebrate the resilience of weeds, how capable they are of adapting to their environment, and their use in medicine and as food.

Of course there’s an important distinction to be made between perennial and annual weeds. Annual weeds, like groundsel, herb Robert, speedwell, chickweed, cleavers, can be hoed off and composted in your regular bin or heap. The perennial ones are the most robust and tenacious, now putting on strong growth and reaching out both below and above ground. Hedge and field bindweeds, nettle, buttercups, ground elder, horsetails, couch grass and docks will limit how well your intended crops will grow, and so it is a good idea to dig out any you find – and resolve to cover your soil well over the winter to prevent them spreading. But their strong root systems mean that they are very effective at taking up soil nutrients and minerals, so you can compost them separately from your regular compost heaps, perhaps in old seed compost sacks; in a year they will have rotted to a fine dark material that can be used as a mulch to give back that richness to the soil and your crops. Nettles also make a fine plant tonic, left for a few weeks in a big container of water; the nutrients being water soluble yields a really good boost to crop growth. They also make a delicious soup, or can be added to stews or other dishes where you might add spinach: a risotto, or with pasta. Garlic mustard can be used in similar ways.

Many so called weeds can be eaten, which is really valuable at this time of year, the ‘hungry gap’ between the finished winter crops and the not yet ready summer ones. You need to learn what’s what, using a good field guide, and weeds picked when young and tender are always more tender and flavoursome. Chickweed and bittercress are lovely in a mixed salad. So called weeds might also be known as ‘wild flowers’ or ‘herbs’. Their health benefits can be considerable, and learning what you have on your plot and how to use them, is another aspect of relationship to your allotment.

It is well known that dandelion flowers are an important early source of nectar for pollinating insects – and who can deny their gorgeous sunny colour, especially in the gloomy start to spring this year. Other ‘plants in the wrong place’, like forget me nots and red dead nettle are also valuable to pollinators, and other kinds of insects and beetles relish their homes and food source on your weeds. So it’s worth enjoying all that grows on your plot – while keeping plenty of space to grow your chosen crops.

Plotlines series 2: sustainable gardening on your allotment



It can be confusing for new gardeners to understand how the term ‘compost’ is used, and the different meanings it can have. And those differences matter! Using the right stuff can make all the difference to the success of your crops.

You may be familiar with the garden centre use of ‘compost’: big plastic sacks full of various growing media for sowing seeds, potting plants, or ‘multipurpose’, that they are very keen to sell to you as essential to your gardening, especially at this time of year. Only very recently has the peat-free campaign really taken off; if you’re going to buy the bagged stuff, make sure it’s 100% peat free. Otherwise you’re contributing to the destruction of some of the most valuable, and beautiful, carbon storing ecosystems of the world. Of course, many organic gardeners have been banging on about this for years (and suffered scorn from others in allotment associations for trying to bring about change); at last, the Royal Horticultural Society and commercial producers have got it, and peat free is becoming the legal standard for bagged compost. (Hopefully your allotment association is no longer selling anything with peat in it….) Peat was attractive to growers because of its excellent water retention, the even suspension of nutrients within the medium, and how light it is to carry around. Some producers use coir, coconut fibre, instead; of course we don’t grow coconuts in Britain, and so the material has to be transported across the world for our ease and comfort, which doesn’t seem quite right.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more sustainable alternatives: commercial producers tend to use municipal green waste, shredded bark, or fibres left from anaerobic digesters, but if you’re avoiding the bought product and making your own, we have access to the most wonderful free resource: leaves! They fall in their millions in the autumn and you can collect them up, contain them in a simple wire enclosure, leave them for a year or more, and enjoy the gorgeous soft material, known as leafmould, that results. Leafmould can form the basis of making your own ‘John Innes type’ seed and plant compost; you may need to sieve it if you’re sowing fine seeds like salads, brassicas, carrots or tomatoes. Mix with equal quantities of horticultural sand or grit or vermiculite for drainage, and some fine soil, also known as loam, from your plot beds for a few nutrients – but seeds need barely any nutrients to germinate so they will be fine for a few weeks till you move them on to bigger pots or open ground.

The other key kind of compost is what you make yourself to spread as mulch on your plot beds, to enrich the soil by providing nutrients and bulk which helps water retention. Every allotment needs this kind of compost, and as much as you can possibly generate: alternate layers of green and brown (nitrogen and carbon) and use grass clippings, unprinted cardboard, vegetarian pet and animal bedding (but not cat or dog faeces), partly rotted wood bark or chippings, comfrey and nettle tops, annual weeds, uncoloured paper and kitchen waste. It’s generally best not to include meat, fish or dairy remains in case of rats, but anything that lived will rot of course, in time. You might set up a collection from non-composting neighbours in your street! It’s impossible to have too much to go in your bin, and the more there is the hotter it will get and the quicker it will rot. It will also make compost out of waste more rapidly if you add what Lawrence Hills, the founder of Henry Doubleday Research Association, which has become Garden Organic, described as Household Liquid Manure, or HLM. Otherwise known as urine! Work out a system for yourself…. An efficient composting process will generate useable compost for adding to your beds within six months. You can make a simple enclosure from pallets or scrap wood and chicken wire; there’s no need to buy another bit of plastic that will last lifetimes. When you come to pot on your seedlings, you can add some sieved compost to the leafmould and sand/grit and loam to provide more nutrients as the plants grow on.

Compost is the foundation of your allotment and, apart from your time, its most valuable component.

Gardening for the climate and biodiversity crises

A compost bay made of pallets

There’s still thinking time before the urgency of doing kicks in at the end of the month and into March. Time to think about how to have a gentle, light touch on your plot while still making it productive and beautiful. Time to think about your soil. Time to consider how much stuff you bought in last year, how much of it was plastic, or came plastic wrapped, and how you might be able to reduce that. Time to let your imagination envision a lovely rich diversity of creatures and plants on your plot, living in balance with each other, and what you need to do – or not do – in order to help those processes along. Time too to spend some of the warmer brighter days simply observing, noticing and reflecting on your plot and the life there. And still time for cosy winter evenings reading up on no-dig or permaculture, and watching inspirational videos about growing techniques and gardens. Maybe, too, planning your time as best you can, so you have an idea of where all those necessary plot hours will fit in your week, come the spring.

It always starts with the soil. There is nothing more important for your crops, or for the earth. So getting soil in a good state for the coming year should be a real priority. Try not to walk on it, which will cause compaction, and make sure you mulch as much as possible. That might be with cardboard or rotted down leaves or grass cuttings, or, best of all, your own compost. So your other priority should be to ensure you make as much compost as possible. You don’t need to house it in another plastic item which will never decompose and persist for lifetimes: just make some compost bins out of scrap wood, pallets wired together or re-used planks nailed to some uprights. Your more tender green manures, like mustards, clovers, phaecelia, may not have survived the winter frosts but it’s fine to leave them to rot down on the soil surface. Tougher green manures, like rye grass, will need to be cut down, then either left to rot on the surface or composted, and you’ll need to hoe off the top growth.

See how little you can buy in this next season! Everyone has plenty of spare trays and pots so just ask around other gardeners. Could you make your own seed sowing compost? Make a blend of one part each of sieved soil, rotted leaves (known as ‘leaf mould’) and some ‘sharp’ horticultural sand or fine grit. Maybe your plot site committee have been enlightened enough to buy sowing and potting compost in bulk so you can refill your old sacks. Nor do you need to buy canes and supports for crops: most sites have plenty of scrub edges where you can cut some sticks instead – or you could use your fruit tree prunings. Plan to save seeds from your current crops and those you’re planning; salads and kales readily make flowers and then seeds over the next months – watch out for them and harvest to store them dry and cool.

Old tools can often be acquired at car boot sales, or from people who have had to give up gardening. Their old wooden handles will be smooth by age and use, and you can sharpen hoe and spade blades easily with a sharpening stone. Nets can be re-used for years so dismantle them patiently and store them carefully.

Let’s make our allotment gardening be part of the solution, not adding to the problems.

Apple and pear tree pruning

Apples and Pears


  • To maintain a balance between fruiting and growth
  • To maintain an appropriate shape and size to tree
  • To keep tree healthy as well as productive

General principles:

  • Use clean, sharp tools
  • Take larger branches out in sections
  • Cut cleanly on a slant, leave no snags (so cut to an outward facing bud or sideshoot)
  • Cut weak growth hard, strong growth more lightly
  • Keep the centre of the tree open (so you can throw your hat through!); keep the tree’s shape balanced around its centre of gravity
  • Keep growth low and horizontal
  • Know your shoots: growth buds lie flat to the branch, fruit buds are fatter (and furry later in spring)

Pruning process and steps:

  • Prune trained trees (fans cordons and espaliers) in summer; prune bush and pyramid shaped trees in winter
  • Stand back to look at the whole tree often, as you work methodically around it
  • Remove dead, diseased or damaged wood
  • Remove crossing branches that might rub each other
  • Aim for fruiting branches to be horizontal (so cut out any dramatic verticals – although they may bend when laden)
  • The tree should ideally have about 10 main permanent framework branches, with laterals (side branches) which produce fruit and are eventually replaced
  • Cut sideshoots back by about a quarter to a third each year to make them branch to form fruiting laterals
  • After about four years, these laterals should be removed in favour of new fruiting lateral shoots (this is renewal pruning)

New Year’s Resolutions….

Seedlings in growing modules

As we begin to emerge from the darkness and into a new season, it’s time to be positive in our hopes and intentions for allotment growing this year. We review the past year; we anticipate the one to come. And having received your bill for the year, or perhaps having just been allocated your long awaited plot, it’s also time to be realistic! Be honest: did your plot get away from you? Did you spend enough time there to keep it in a productive, cared-for state? Have you thought through what you might be taking on? Waiting lists are long! If you can’t manage it, maybe it’s time to let it go to someone on the list.

Once your plot is in a basically orderly and tended state, the vast majority given to growing crops not perennial weeds or with paths or rubbish, you can assume it will still occupy a significant part of your time each week. In the growing season, March to October, you should expect to spend at least 10-15 hours a week working there (and yes: working is the word!), depending on its size. And from October to March you still need to be there regularly, pruning, preparing beds, looking after any structures and making sure hedges are kept in good order.

If you’re committed to your gardening for another year, now is the time to be ordering your seeds and, again, balancing hope and optimism with realism! To be sure of being able to get your favourite varieties, it’s a good idea to get your order in promptly. If you’re a committed organic grower, you’ll want to make sure your seeds come from organic suppliers, confident that the seeds have come from organically cultivated and most likely open-pollinated plants, contributing to growing systems that are ecologically sustainable. Choosing non-hybrid seeds also means that you’ll be able to save your own seed: a virtuous circle. Alongside making your seed list, you can also be planning the rotation of your crops so that the precious soil isn’t exhausted by growing the same thing in the same place in successive years, and pests and diseases don’t get a chance to build up. The main groups are brassicas, legumes, roots, cucurbits and tomatoes, and potatoes. Draw up a nice plan that you can refer to as the year progresses; it’s usually best to do this at the plot so you can see realistically what space there is and remember what grew where last season.

Winter is also an ideal time to plant a fruit tree – as well as time for pruning carefully any you already have. Optimism and realism called for again! Many plots end up with badly looked after fruit trees, that are too big for the space available. Do a bit of research to decide what varieties you want, what rootstock the tree should be on, where you can plant it, and how big it will eventually get. Pruning is a skill and an art; it’s worth learning how to care for your trees confidently, for aesthetics and productivity. If you haven’t got much space, use a trained form like a cordon or espalier, and learn how to prune them to retain their elegant form.

On we go!

Into the dark

Roasted root vegetables

We are heading into deep winter now; whatever the weather may be doing, there’s no arguing about the long twilight and long nights. A time of minimal earth activity, tipped away from the light and into quiet reflection (if you can avoid the festive craziness that is….).  So as there is little growth just now, it’s a good time to take stock, make plans, and to get on with jobs that may have been neglected during the growing season.

It’s a particularly good time to cut hedges and, once the leaves have fallen, to get on with pruning soft fruit (and later the tree top fruit as well). If you leave hedges till the new year, before you know it birds will begin looking for nesting sites – and it’s illegal to disturb nesting birds. You could learn how to lay your hedges: an old craft that cuts half way through stems low to the ground (traditionally using a billhook, but a small pruning saw works too), and bending them horizontal. This makes for a really sturdy and robustly dense hedge that is hugely attractive as shelter for all sorts of wildlife. (Take a great deal of care if you’re working with blackthorn; a thorn puncture can very easily go septic so wear safety glasses and strong thick gloves.) If you’re just trimming the top of your hedge to a more reasonable height, you can still use the cuttings by lying them neatly under the hedge. There’s no need to have a polluting cancinogenic bonfire!

Not all soft fruit needs the same treatment by way of pruning so make sure to check you know what you’re doing – and that you’re not cutting off the branches that will bear fruit next year. Currants and gooseberries have different pruning needs according to their age as well, so look up the processes before you head out with your secateurs. You should already have cut out the summer’s fruited canes on summer raspberries, and tied in the fresh new growth; autumn raspberries can all be cut right down to the ground, but you don’t need to do that until late January. You can leave blackberry pruning till then too, taking out the old fruited wood and training in the new growth.

How are your winter crops holding up? Have you got enough to see you through to the early purple sprouting broccoli and cauliflowers and wild rocket next year? The root crops should be at their most delicious and of course it’s a great season for tasty roasted parsnips, carrots, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and stored potatoes, squash, garlic and onions. With good planning you should have plenty of fresh greens too: leeks, kales, salads and herbs. There is strong evidence for the higher nutrient quality of fresh and organically cultivated fruit and vegetables, so make sure you are helping your microbiome and immune system, as well as the soil biota, by growing without chemicals.

Permaculture systems use the idea of zoning for designing and planting, and that may feel very appropriate at this time of year. You might want to pot up a few herbs and salads from your plot and take them home to have handy near the door for days you don’t make it up to the allotment before dark, or for when the weather is just too horrible to get up there. Keep cosy, keep gardening!

Those autumn leaves

Autumn leaves

It was the old festival of Sawhain this week, a time to acknowledge the dark, the unseen, what lies beneath. Traditionally this was the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. If we work with this way of being part of the natural world, we get some indications of how to be on our plots just now.

Raking up leaves to make leaf mould – separate from your compost bins, in a wire cage to stop them blowing away again –  is a meditative activity, rhythmic and colourful, golds and yellows and some reds. And it’s certainly a gathering of the past year’s growth, and a wonderful resource for next year or the one after, to use in potting composts or as mulch. You can’t have too many leaves and there’s enough for everyone!

Thinking about what is unseen and hidden brings us to an appreciation of the living soil we depend on, with all its amazing microbial activity. So this is a great time of year to focus on caring for your plot’s soil, enriching it, protecting it, nurturing it. Try to fork out all the perennial weed roots that may have crept in over the growing season, but take care not to disturb the soil any more than you must. Annual weeds can just be hoed off and either composted or left on the surface for creatures to incorporate them into the earth. Putting a cover of well anchored cardboard on beds you aren’t going to crop till next year will protect them from weather erosion. And as much compost as you have to mulch and cover beds is a marvellous enrichment in terms of nutrients and structure.

We’ve only had one frost in the city so far; we need a few more for the starches in parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes to turn into sugars for that delicious taste in your winter roasts. It’s worth waiting to harvest them till they have had the cold chilling. If you have planned well this year you should have a bountiful crop of vegetables to eat just now, in addition to all those you’ve preserved from earlier months. You could be eating leeks, kales, cabbages, cauliflowers (for another few weeks), celeriac, carrots, plenty of salad leaves, pak choi, and squashes that you’ve got safely indoors in store now.

Once your plot itself is organised and prepared for the next season, it’s a good time to look at its structure: how are your paths? Are they encroaching on your beds? Remember that the great majority of your plot should be for produce! Could your greenhouse do with some glass repairs and a wash down inside (avoiding spills onto your crops of salad and herbs)? How’s your shed bearing up? Maybe it needs a coating of non-toxic oil or preservative and some new felt on the roof? And are your tools in needs of cleaning and sharpening?

And if you’re regretting not having been so well organised and assiduous this last year, with few crops to enjoy now, this traditional new year is the time for resolutions and planning for the future.

Shifting seasons

Apples on a tree in dappled autumn light

Well: the year has shifted again and here we are past the festival of Mabon, the autumnal equinox, and into a new season. A shift in what we’re growing, harvesting and eating: squashes finally curing in the last of the sun under glass, the final courgettes being eaten or chutneyed (are you resolving to have a more reasonable number of plants next year?), probably the last runner beans blown down in the gales and your drying beans safely stored away for winter stews. Some apple varieties will still be on the trees, not yet ready for picking and laying down over winter, but pears will all be harvested and safely stored in a cool dry place. Leeks, kales, spinach beet and chards are coming into their own now as the summer greens go over.

If you’ve got a cold frame, a light windowsill or greenhouse, there’s still just about time to sow some winter salads and greens: the spicy mustardy ones do really well over winter and can be cut or picked leaf by leaf to keep them producing. Or look carefully for self sown rocket, land cress and lamb’s lettuce that you can transplant to a prepared bed, or under glass.

As ever, it’s time to look ahead – as well as relax and enjoy reflecting on your successes of the last season. It’s easy to save seeds from many of your crops, so it’s worth leaving a few to ripen and collect – put a paper bag over the seed head so they dry out well and don’t just get blown away. Tomato, squash  and capsicum seeds can be dried and stored away for next year. Flower and herb seeds can also be dried and stored (don’t forget to label the bags, even if you think you’ll remember for sure!): feverfew, calendula, hollyhocks, knapweed, yarrow, foxgloves and more.

And it’s a great time of year to think of extending the variety of fruit you’re growing. Apple Day is coming up this month and many community orchards in the city, as well as big nurseries and RHS gardens, will offer events where you can taste samples of all kinds of top fruit. Lots of folk choose an apple tree for their plot – and lots of the trees end up poorly pruned and not very productive. Not so many people choose a pear or a plum, gage or damson though, and adding those to your plot will give you future trading potential with neighbours and friends, as well as fruit to store for the winter time. None need take up a lot of room (on your own plot – or overhanging your neighbour’s plot!): you can learn how to espalier or cordon the tree so that it has a neat narrow profile well suited to providing a divider on your plot or as an edge. Think of choosing fruit for your plot like getting a pet! You’ve got to know how to care for it, look after its health (prune, mulch), and lovingly appreciate its needs, giving it space and light and air.  There are many wonderful varieties to choose from so have some cosy evenings reading up on them and choose one you know you like, or that sounds delicious, or that will keep a good long while if you are aiming for greater self sufficiency in your food stores.