Your best plot

Red clover

As we harvest our precious crops, it’s a good time to appraise what worked and what didn’t, what you’ve really enjoyed eating and what was less popular – and what you’re coveting on your neighbours’ plots. What did you have too much of? What did you not have enough of? And so we can begin to plan for the next season, in a spirit of gratitude and with good intentions. Some plot holders put a lot of effort into the recent YACIO competition for ‘best plot’, which was judged on objective criteria; but what would your own ‘best’ be like, regardless of any competition or comparison? What do you want to enjoy cultivating and eating next year? It could be good to start keeping an allotment diary if you don’t already do that, with details of what grew where so you can rotate crops according to their grouping as well. Maybe you could illustrate it too, with sketches of crops and harvests, insects and birds…..

There might be more perennial crops you could try: there are some perennial kales, there’s asparagus (although it takes a lot of space and a lot of time to establish for a brief if delicious crop), Jerusalem and globe artichokes, Welsh onions, and of course many kinds of fruit bushes and trees. Or there might be different salad crops to try – and for winter it’s worth sowing lamb’s lettuce, purslane, chervil, endives, mizuma, land cress and rocket right now so you’ve got plenty of fresh greens to nourish you through the darker colder times. And how are your herbs looking? They’re such a beneficial addition to cooking as well as providing ready home medicine. You might collect some elder berries and make a tincture to take as a hot toddy against viral infection. You might think to grow some chamomile and lemon balm for their soothing qualities, some hyssop to attract late pollinators, or some tansy to support the endangered tansy beetle which have a home along our riverbanks, and is great as a flea deterrent when rubbed on your pets’ fur.

It’s also a good time to propagate and replant your strawberries; they will be sending out runners now – long stems with baby plants on the end, which will root readily if you take the time to plant them out and start a new bed for them. Autumn raspberries are much more reliable for fruit than the summer ones, so it’s worth finding the space for the canes as a late season treat, which can continue right through to the first frosts. There’s still time to sown green manures – soon it will be too late to get good germination. So as you clear beds of crops, don’t leave them bare with exposed soil. Choose a green manure like crimson clover or phacelia for its beautiful flowers as well as its benefits to the soil, or tares or mustard for a quick cover crop you can compost later in the year. And remember that if you miss getting them sown in time, your soil will still benefit from being covered with cardboard to keep weeds down and to keep the soil moist. Make sure you anchor it down so it doesn’t blow away in the equinoctial gales!

Waste not, want not


And so the year comes round to Lammas, the festival of harvest, the time of abundance and the realisation of plans and seeds sown and grown (on your land, in your life…). Hopefully, a time for gathering with friends and feasting on all your bounty. But if you’re going away on holiday, make sure none of your lovely crops go to waste: maybe a neighbour could pick for you, so you don’t come home to massive courgettes and huge stringy beans. Both need to be regularly picked in order to keep producing.

We’ve had a lot of rain this last month for sure. It’s such a valuable resource and one we really shouldn’t be wasting. Even if you haven’t time to get organised just now, make sure you resolve to put some effective rainwater harvesting measures in place on your plot come the autumn. Collect it via guttering and a down pipe from shed or green house rooves, or even install an open walled shelter that can serve that same purpose. Remember how dry it was in June!

If you really have big gluts of fruit or vegetables and you’ve made enough chutneys, jams, pickles, fermentations and cordials to fill your pantry and give away as midwinter presents, then there are many places around the city which will welcome your surplus. Food banks and community cafes and no-waste projects will be glad to see you coming with big bags and baskets of goodies. Some streets have an informal system of putting out unwanted fruit and vegetables (and even books and household things too) on front walls for anyone to help themselves. If that doesn’t happen where you live, maybe you could be the catalyst to get something started. Make sure your produce is enjoyed and appreciated, not going to waste.

Although of course nothing really goes to waste that ends up on your compost heap anyway! It’s always time to be thinking about how to improve your soil and its biome. If you have got any beds coming empty as you harvest, and you’ve nothing more to plant out for later in the season, try sowing some green manures. At this time of year, crimson clover, mustards and phacelia can establish quickly and protect your soil while providing a food source for insects. Another good way to protect your soil from winter erosion, while keeping weeds down too, is to lay down cardboard sheets, so this might be a good time to start collecting and saving boxes from your neighbourhood.

The wet weather tends to encourage fungal problems on fruit so pick plums and gages as they ripen, quickly removing any with brown rot before that can spread to the rest of the crop. Tie in the growth of autumn raspberries against wind and weather, if you haven’t already. And keep picking up fallen apples and pears, eating what is ripe, composting what isn’t. And if you haven’t got fruit trees on your plot, start looking around and asking for samples to taste from neighbours, so you can choose what to plant in the winter. If all else fails, most of our local sites are rich with brambles – don’t let them go to waste either!

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Past present future

Herbs tied ready for drying

There’s a subtle shift in season just now, as you’re probably noticing. As gardeners we’re always looking ahead – mindful living in the present moment doesn’t yield crops for next year! Which isn’t to say that it’s not wonderful to have some moments to sit and enjoy your plot at this point of high summer and productivity; just that we can also be planning for what comes next. It’s always good to keep notes of how your past plans have worked out, or not….as well as plans of the plot beds so you can rotate crops next year.

So as you lift second early potato crops, look ahead and sow some quick maturing brassicas and salads on those fertile beds. If you mulched the potatoes well, the soil will be gorgeous now: soft, moist, rich in organic matter and microbial activity. Chinese cabbages, pak chois, lettuces, land cress, turnips and radishes can all go in now, for green vitality later in the year. The wild rocket you may have been enjoying so far this summer will start to go to seed – which you can save for next year’s crop. But now summer rocket can be sown and those plants should stand through the winter well, going to seed in late spring. All those crops need netting of course, against other hungry species.

On warm dry mornings you can pick herbs to take home to dry. Generally their vigour, essential oils and taste and efficacy is strongest just before flowering. Lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, thyme, tarragon, dill, coriander are all ready for a first cropping now. There are so many uses for herbs, as teas, in cooking and in health promoting tinctures using alcohol or cider vinegar. Hang them in bunches somewhere dry, so maybe from your banisters rather than in the kitchen which might get too hot and steamy. Certainly there will be heat and steam if you’re making jam, chutneys or bottling fruits. Freshness is crucial here: it was found that bottled blackcurrants stored in a dark place for six months had a much higher vitamin c content than so called ‘fresh’ fruit bought from a greengrocer. So however you’re choosing to process, preserve and store your produce, pick it and deal with it within hours.

You could be harvesting your garlic and onions now, setting them to dry on open weave trays or racks or baskets before storing them somewhere cool and dark. It’s easy fun to make a traditional garlic plait which you can hang to impress your friends!

Some summer fruit pruning can be done: as raspberries ripen, cut out the old canes and tie in the new softer greener growth. This helps to reduce pest risk next year. You can stack the canes tidily at the bottom of a hedge to provide invertebrate habitat. It’s also a good time to shorten the new growth of espalier or cordon apples, so energy goes to fruit production not more vegetative growth. The same goes for tomatoes: take off the lower leaves now to let the trusses set well. And spend a bit of time picking up fallen apples and putting them on the compost to deter sawflies from completing their life cycle and getting into your fruit another time.

So still plenty to be doing and planning – but enjoy those quiet reflective moments in the present as well.

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Live and let live

Scarlet Pimpernel

‘There’s a rat in my compost what am I gonna do?’ as UB40 nearly sang (maybe you’re too young for that reference….). We live surrounded by rats, here, there and everywhere. So that naturally includes allotments. And like all creatures, they’re hungry; they have to feed dozens of baby rats a year, so if you’re putting out bird seed, any that fall to the ground will be a happy rat picnic spread. If you’re using your compost bin to get rid of food waste, you may see more than a fair share of peckish rodents. But be reassured, they’re not going to peck you; they’re much more scared of you than you are of them. Really.

If they’re in your compost then it’s likely far too dry and you should give the heap or the bin a good drenching. They won’t like that cosy home as much then. Nor do they like change, so turn your compost regularly (which should be happening anyway to speed up the effectiveness of the processing), and give the bin a kick or a whack with your spade to scare them off a bit. The only health hazard comes from the extremely low risk of Weil’s Disease from their urine; once the compost is spread on the ground, the soil bacteria (which of course you are encouraging in diverse ways already) will see off any risk. Only resort to poison, safely in a tube or pipe, if you have rats at home. On allotments, we’re never going to get rid of them. Learn to live with them, maybe even learn find them as interesting as your hamster or gerbil in a cage at home.

At this time of year, the so-called weeds may be growing more quickly and luxuriantly than your carefully tended crops. Are they weeds? What is a weed to you? It’s a fine line to draw with regard to weed control: if you remove all the weeds, you leave bare soil which may dry out, compact if you walk on it as well, and offers no food for insects or small birds. If you leave weeds that take a lot of moisture and nourishment from the ground, then they will impoverish your crops. And there’s a whole science of companion planting: marigolds near your tomatoes will help keep aphids away, for instance.

Certainly it’s important to make a distinction between those weeds you don’t want to live with, the perennials – like hedge and field bindweed, dock, horsetails, ground elder, couch grass, creeping buttercup – and those annual weeds that are easily controlled and can be hoed off when there are too many of them. Annual weeds can be pulled or hoed and added to your compost; perennials can be collected in old compost bags and rotted down for a year and then added to the compost. Because they have deep roots they effectively draw up important ground minerals which you can take advantage of. You might also soak them in a tub of rain water for a month or two, and use that strained liquid to feed hungry plants, like tomatoes and squash. But don’t let seed heads get in your brew in case they germinate on contact with the soil.

Learning to love weeds is about an appreciation of wild flowers: calendula, scarlet pimpernel, wall lettuce, oraches, speedwells, feverfew, fumitory, St John’s wort, borage, fat hen, poppies, spurges, clovers, wood avens, plantains, cranesbills, chickweed – and more, and more. You might make a list of what’s on your plot and be surprised at the rich diversity there.

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

June drop…

Tomatoes ripening

Are your fruit trees shedding their small fruits now? No need to worry; it’s a phenomenon known as The June Drop, whereby trees do some of a thinning job for you, so that fewer and larger fruits can develop to maturity. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also thin out apples and pears to the same end. The extent to which you do this will depend on the variety of the tree, its cropping habit, and how effectively you pruned it in the winter.

This can be a time of year when spirits drop too: everything seems a bit much, and the weeds go on growing thick and fast and you can already note crop failures and disappointments. And it seems always to be either too hot or too windy – or even, eventually, too wet. The combination of warm, humid and damp air is a perfect environment for potato blight. This is a really horrible disease, the spores borne on the air, and readily drifting in to York allotment sites from the surrounding industrial agricultural areas where potatoes are grown in huge fields of monoculture. It also affects tomatoes (they are in the same family, solanacae), which is a good reason to grow them under cover in a greenhouse, or even in your back yard at home where there are likely to be fewer spores drifting about. If you suspect you’ve got blight, warn your plot neighbours so they can possibly avert contagion by cutting down potato and tomato foliage (but don’t put it on a compost heap just yet – bag it and let it rot first). There are various web sites which show where blight is by post code, and you can even sign up for an alert system….but that might cause your spirits to drop still further!

So, more cheerily, as we pass the turn of the year at solstice, harvests should be coming well. Your soft fruits will be ripening brightly, attracting every hungry bird in the area as well as yourself, so keep the netting secure. Keep picking the beans and courgettes of course, while they’re young and small, so more are encouraged to mature. Now is a good time to sow crops that bolt (go to seed) all too readily, like Florence fennel and turnips, and some more salad crops if it’s not too hot.

Once crops are finished, it’s time to think about replanting those beds for winter: brassicas do well where beans and peas have been as they benefit from the nitrogen fixed in the soil by the pea and bean family (leguminacae). If you made sowings of winter greens earlier, kales and broccolis and savoy cabbages, they’ll be ready for a move to permanent placings now. You might have leek seedlings ready to plant out too, or you might trade or buy some, and they flourish on the well composted beds you prepared for the first potatoes, which will be ready to lift as soon as their flowers die off. Another pest to cause a drop of the spirits is leek moth, which seems to have arrived this far north a couple of years ago. They have a second brood towards mid July, so it is probably wisest, if tedious, to cover the beds with a mesh protection.

So June is not a time to let your energy drop, but a time of abundance right up to harvest season; enjoy your produce and celebrate summer.

Water, water everywhere…

Watering your crops in hot weather

It’s now over four weeks since we had any rain in York, as you will surely have noted. That’s bad for allotment holders, but disastrous for farmers growing field crops like wheat, barley and potatoes. Rain water butts will be long empty. Competition with fellow plot holders for a tap connection for hosepipes can get heated. How do we respond? By watering everywhere, watering anywhere, putting our heads in the ever drier soil?

It’s worth remembering the YACIO guidelines, which are that hosepipes should only be used to fill water butts, not to water the ground directly (unless you have a reason to be excepted from that rule). It’s a fairer system for everyone, but it’s also actually better gardening practice. Dampening the surface of your beds with water encourages the plant roots to come to the surface, exposing them to greater heat and drought. We need to encourage plants to get their roots down deep, to where the soil is cooler and there may be some dampness. Waving a hosepipe with spray attachment around just results in a large proportion of the water evaporating, and is no help to growing plants at all. And watering in the middle of the day is similarly wasteful and pointless: it’s best to water early morning or in the evening. The most effective approach is to use watering cans to direct the precious water to the most needy plants, not wetting the leaves as that may cause scorch and immediate evaporation, and watering the soil in a small area around each plant. The most needy plants are those that are fruiting imminently: peas and beans and soft fruits just now, courgettes, tomatoes and squash towards the end of the month.

Take a look at your soil in this dry time: is it looking dull and dusty, or beginning to harden and cake over, or even to crack? These are all signs that the soil is lacking sufficient body and bulk – and probably therefore nutrients too. Make a resolution to care better for your soil over the autumn, winter and early spring, making and applying as much compost as you can. Meanwhile, here and now, after watering apply whatever you can as mulch, and try not to have much bare soil at all. Collect grass cuttings, make another cut of comfrey, surround your courgettes with old woollies (no synthetics), and protect the soil from the drying sun and wind. In permaculture systems, there’s a very effective technique of ‘chop and drop’, whereby you leave your pulled weeds on the surface of the soil to protect it; any resulting seedlings are easy enough to hoe off later in the year.

And on the subject of weeds, have you tried eating some of them? We are still in the hungry gap, and fresh greens are at a premium. Many so called weeds are really rich in valuable minerals, as well as being tasty. Make sure you use a good guide to what is and isn’t edible, of course, but enjoy surprising harvests to enhance your meals. Fat hen (in the family Chenopodicaeae, like some spinaches) is fresh and succulent just now, and there’s a very attractive red leaved one to add colour to your salads or cooked very briefly like young spinach. Likewise sorrels (including a red veined one), dandelion leaves (rich in potassium), and chickweed. And there are lovely flowers to eat too: bright orange and yellow calendula and nasturtiums, and the starry blue flowers of borage, and of course lovely elder flowers. So even if your crops are slow to come in this hard dry time, there will be some good eatings to be had on your plot.

Long days…

Purple wild flowers

It’s the crazy time of year now, and the fast climb up to summer solstice. Growth is extraordinary and if you miss a few days on your plot the change is astonishing, and demands even more work of you.

Perhaps you’re finding yourself aching from all the hours weeding and sowing and planting. It’s always good to remember to extend forward from the hips, keeping the back and front bodies long and open, and your feet parallel to one another, rather than hunching up towards the ground. That really helps keep the lower back happy and free, so you can go on and on with all you need to do.

It’s a great time to be making compost, as you’re probably running out of what was already made as you spread it for your crops. When the weather is warmer the whole process speeds up, and having big heaps also helps the processing. Remember to build layers with greens and browns, nitrogen and carbon, with as much cut comfrey and nettle tops (not the roots) as you can generate. It’s best not to use coloured cardboard because of the inks or dyes, but brown cardboard boxes torn up are excellent compost material. If you have any grass paths, the cuttings will also contribute to rich fast maturing compost.

If you sowed green manures earlier in the year, they may be ready to be cut or hoed off now, and added to the compost, or used to mulch around your potatoes. (Potatoes need soil drawn up around the stems, to ensure that the developing tatties stay well underground; any light will turn them green and poisonous.) The green manures like phacelia or crimson clover will be coming into glorious flower, so you may want to leave at least some of them to attract pollinators to your beans, and just to enjoy the show. And if you have any unused space, unlikely as that is at this time of year, you can sow clover and phacelia still, or a mustard for a quick ground cover.

The worst thing about this time of year is netting! The birds are still hungry for food for their young and pigeons are insatiable. Your soft fruits definitely need to be netted to stop birds eating the jewelled currants and raspberries, but it’s a tricky job to make sure there are no gaps, even at ground level, weighting it down with stones or bricks or logs; if a bird does get in, they will scoff your fruit, but likely also get stuck in the netting which is a horrible fate. Sparrows will scuff up baby beetroot, and large white butterfly caterpillars will hungrily devour your brassicas (even though they’re not mentioned in that children’s story!).  Carrot root fly and leek moths are much tinier, but will home in on growing crops and spoil them, so use some mesh covering to keep them out. You can keep your nets for many years, and there are some available now which are not plastic and so obviously a better idea.

Meanwhile, amid all these jobs, don’t forget to keep sowing: main crop carrots, lettuces (as long as it’s not too hot), a further lot of French beans, and summer turnips like Purple Top Milan, so delicious fried with your lightly steamed first broad beans. It makes all the hard work worth it!

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Of cabbages and kings

Purple Srouting broccoli

Of cabbages and kings” (Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter) …. there’s plenty out there about kings just now, so let’s focus on cabbages, the brassica family: kales, cabbages, broccolis, cauliflowers. One cabbage worth growing is actually a king! January King is a lovely dense headed cabbage that stands all the winter can throw at it.

Your work now is for the end of the year.

It’s time to sow all your favourite brassicas outside, ready to plant on to mature and feed you through the later part of the year. There’s a happy symmetry to finishing your crop of purple sprouting broccoli now just as you sow for next season. Some brassicas are quicker to mature, like summer calabrese (what they sell in shops in chunky tasteless heads called ‘broccoli’ – unlike the tender fragrant flowerheads you can grow yourself), and summer cauliflowers. Sow them all finely, thinly and not too deeply; there are lots of seeds to a packet so maybe you can share with your plot neighbours. Once germinated, you’ll need to thin out the seedlings to give them space to grow into good sized plants. It feels hard to do that sometimes! So comfort yourself by giving the thinnings away or by scattering them in your next salad. Because they’re going to be in the ground for quite a while, make sure you enrich the soil with your best compost, and choose a bed that grew peas and beans last season which may have helped to fix nitrogen in the soil, which the brassicas love, being basically leafy. Protect the seedlings against slugs, snails and birds; caterpillars and aphids can be tolerated if you encourage their predators, like ladybirds and wasps and beetles, perhaps by sowing some calendula or nasturtium close by, and just accept a few losses.

Now is also a good time to sow leaf beet/perpetual spinach and chards, which come in green, yellow or red stemmed varieties. These are stalwart crops, which also stand a full year in the ground, giving you fresh leaves to eat full of vitamins and minerals, and so they like your rich compost mulch too. These seeds are much bigger and so it is easy to sow them individually, but again, thinnings make good eatings.

Comfrey is a wonderful plant with many medicinal properties, and with flowers that attract bees and other pollinators. It also makes wonderful plant fertiliser. If you’re planting later potato crops now, a layer of comfrey in the bottom of a trench will provide food for the maturing tubers. You can add the cut leaves to your compost as a tonic and activator. And you can make a rich brew by soaking the leaves in rain water, then after a few weeks add a cupful to a watering can of water to provide your fruiting crops, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, with the nutrients they need. Generally too, make sure you collect as much rain water as you can – from any surface, like a shed or greenhouse; it saves huge amounts of energy cleaning and pumping water to taps, and saves you energy back and forth with your watering can to your nearest tap on the site.

It’s also time to sow courgettes and squashes and cucumbers, indoors on a window sill or in your greenhouse. A piece of glass on top of the pots will warm the soil enough to get them going well, and then grow them on to plant out when there is no longer any threat of a frost – often the first week of June in York. There are lots of interesting varieties of squash, but the most useful are those you can store somewhere cool and airy right through till March next year. You do need a fair bit of space to grow them. So consider if you really are making the most of your whole plot, or if there are areas you could bring into cultivation to grow even more lovely produce?

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Ode to April

Apple blossom

A lot of poetic lines spring to mind about this time of year – and not irrelevantly either, before you click somewhere else! ‘April is the cruellest month’ (TS Eliot): for us gardeners, that’s probably about continuing frosts and chilly nights. ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s here’ (Robert Browning): and you could be enjoying purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb and salad leaves if you were organised last year. ‘When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March….then people long to go on pilgrimage’ (Geoffrey Chaucer) – we need to resist the temptation of holidays away and start tending our plots in earnest. We can catch up with late sowings for a while, and sometimes the weather demands we sensibly do so, but this really is the crucial time for your plot.

If you got a good start by preparing the land over the last few months, you will have a lovely fine warmed moist soil ready for sowing seeds. (It’s the soil that matters most of all, not the structures you may fancy installing.) If not, and if you’re new to your patch of land, then give the beds a good hoe down and rake them finely. Some crops are hungrier than others – broad beans, peas, chards and spinaches will benefit most from your rotted compost. Fast growing leafy salads, roots like carrots, parsnips, leeks and beetroot will do okay without enrichment, unless your soil is very impoverished. And it’s a good idea to be aware of grouping your crops in this kind of way, so that you can establish a rotation, a cycle of growing, where you don’t grow the same things on the same patch in subsequent years.

All those crops can now be sown direct outside. Water the drills, the little channels you make with your hoe for the seed, before you sow; that way the seeds don’t get washed away but they have a good moist start to get them germinated. Protecting the seedlings from slugs and snails is very necessary – but even some of the pellets approved for organic cultivation have harmful effects on worms, so try wool pellets as deterrent and encourage birds to your plot. Even those of us who’ve been growing for years still have failures – parsnips, for instance, are notoriously hard to germinate. The most reliable way is to save your own seed from a parsnip you leave deliberately to flower and produce fresh seeds. And buy all your seeds from a company that stores them well; while brassica (cabbage family) seed will keep a few years if dry and cool, parsnips just won’t. (More on brassiacs next time….)

Browning has his ‘blossomed pear tree in the hedge’ blooming ‘when May follows’, but you’ll likely find that yours is lovely with flowers this month. Lots of folk think to get an apple for their plot, but far fewer choose a gorgeous pear; there are many varieties and they really are delicious, warm and ripe and juicy in the autumn. If you haven’t got much space, you could try one espaliered, grown in vertical layers flat to a wall, fence or wires; look out for pruning workshops later in the year to learn how to do this. Pears attract all sorts of interesting beneficial insects, but they may also be susceptible to pear gall midge which distorts and ruins the little fruits as they set; check for blackened areas that contort the smooth swell of the fruitlets, and pick those off as soon as you see them and dispose of them well away from other trees. You’ll still have plenty of fruit to enjoy.

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Plotlines – direct sowing in Spring

Broadbeans under a cloche

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Spring is here, despite how chilly it still is this year, and a busy time of year for plot holders.  Given the chill, you might want carefully to wrap the blossom on your fruit trees in horticultural fleece – or old net curtains work well too. If the flowers get frosted, there’ll be no fruit. And no happy pollinators either. Similarly, if you’ve got broad beans or peas, or sweet peas for their gorgeous summer flowers, that you sowed indoors (on a window sill at home, or a greenhouse if you’re lucky), it’s worth covering them when you plant them outside about 9 inches apart. If it’s just a few plants, plastic pop or water bottles from someone’s recycling bin can be cut in half to make a little shelter for each individual plant.

Are you digging or no-digging? Either way, care for the soil is the most important allotment job; your soil for seed sowing should be warm and moist and have a fine tilth – so no dense clods of heavy soil that those delicate first shoots will struggle against. Give your seedlings a gentle start in life. If you thought ahead, you might have your first sowing area warming under some salvaged plastic sheeting.  March is the driest month of the year usually, so that may help to keep the ground nice and moist too, ready for your spring sowings.

What to sow in that lovely soil then? Broad beans and peas can be sown direct outdoors now. Beetroot likes an early start too – choose a variety that’s slow to bolt (make flowers), like Boltardy. Once you’ve raked your soil really fine, you can sow carrots as well – but cover the row with something like enviromesh to keep out the carrot root fly which will make holes in your lovely crop. It’s also time to start your salad bed, a first sowing of just a few seeds of your chosen varieties of lettuces, to heart-up or cut-and-come-again, some wild rocket (which won’t be perforated by leaf beetle), some parsley and radishes. Be gentle with your watering: the seeds are small and can be washed away by a deluge.

If you’re growing potatoes you’ve probably already chosen your favourite varieties, with a range of harvesting times, and they’re chitting (sprouting) in readiness for the big day when they go in the earth. Traditionally allotmenteers plant early potatoes on Good Friday; some say this is because that day, which is also Passover, is the first full moon after the vernal equinox – an auspicious time for root planting. Some say it’s because it’s a bank holiday, and so we had an extra day to spend on the plot. Either way, it’s a good time to get them in the ground. You could dig trenches and put some of the precious contents of the compost bin in the bottoms, or just make individual holes for each seed potato if you’re not digging. An allotment neighbour did a little experiment of both methods a few years ago and there was no difference in the yield – a lot of difference in the effort involved though. If you have grass cuttings, or leaf mould, or even chopped up nettles without their roots, you could mulch on top of the soil with that to keep the moisture in.

It’s an optimistic time of year – keep the soil warm and moist and our optimism might be realised…..