How to start an organic allotment
of the best ways of getting a good supply of fresh chemical-free
produce is to take on an allotment and grow your own. A plot of land
ten by thirty yards which can be rented for as little as £10 per
year (equivalent to 20p a week) can produce a large amount - and
give you many hours of enjoyment too. However, sometimes taking on
an allotment can be a daunting prospect: it may be neglected and
covered with weeds; or it may be completely barren, with a soil that
is overworked and lifeless. But don't despair - there are organic
techniques for dealing with most problems.
The fundamental principles of organic growing are to build up the
soil fertility, and to create an environment in which plants stay
healthy without the use of chemical sprays. None of this can happen
overnight, but it should nevertheless form a basis for your plans
right from the start. The first step is to find out all you can
about your plot: about the soil, the weeds, the surrounding
environment; and what your neighbours can and can't grow. Only then
can you really tell what needs to be done. This leaflet indicates
what questions you should ask and what action you might take.
Although it is primarily written with allotments in mind, many of
the same principles apply to starting a vegetable or fruit plot in
What type is it?
Rub some moist top soil between your fingers. A soil that is
predominantly sand feels gritty; silt feels smooth - almost like
talcum powder; clay feels sticky. Now try moulding it: roll some
into a ball, then into a thin cylinder; see if this will bend into a
ring. The more pliable it is, the greater the clay content: a very
sandy soil will not even form a ball, whereas a clay soil is easily
formed into a ring; silt forms a weak ring.
The different soil types have different physical characteristics
which affect how they should be managed (see page 3). A clay soil is
heavy and sticky when wet, and sets hard when it is dry. It is slow
to warm up in spring. A silt tends to pack down excluding air and
the surface easily becomes compacted. A sandy soil is easy to work
and warms up quickly, but also dries out quickly in times of
How good is its structure?
When it is moist, a well- structured soil should crumble easily in
your hands -not turn to dust, stay in lumps or set like concrete. It
provides the best conditions for soil life and for root growth. Dig
a hole about two feet deep and look at the soil profile. Good signs
are: a deep layer of dark topsoil; plenty of air pores and earthworm
burrows; and long branching roots on any weeds or plants that you
Soil structure can only be improved by the constant addition of
organic matter - manure, compost, leafmould or any other suitable
material that you can get. It is important to keep the soil surface
covered, either with a crop or green manure (see page 11) or with a
mulch of organic material. Only dig or rotovate the soil when it is
really necessary, and avoid walking on it whenever possible,
particularly when it is wet.
How well does it drain?
Water sitting on the soil surface after a rainstorm is an obvious
sign of poor drainage, but you need to find the cause. It could be
because of: The soil type: Clays and silts will tend to drain badly.
Improving the structure will improve this. It can also help to use
the bed system, that is to divide the plot into narrow beds which
are worked only from the paths; organic matter is concentrated on
these beds, which are never compacted and become raised above the
original soil level.
A hard 'pan': Look again at the soil profile. If there are hard,
compacted layers preventing the water from escaping, these need to
be broken up. Such 'pans' can be caused by rotovating regularly to
the same depth.
Bad site drainage: If the hole you have dug collects water and this
takes several days to seep away, it means that the overall drainage
of the site is poor. The only really effective way of dealing with
this is to put in drains.
How acid or alkaline is it?
The acidity of the soil (its pH) is important as it effects its
overall fertility. Measure the pH with a testing kit which you can
buy in shops and garden centres, or send a sample away to be tested.
It is important to take a number of samples from different areas of
the allotment, since these could have been treated very differently
in the past.
Over-acidity can be corrected using ground limestone, dolomite
(magnesium limestone) or calcified seaweed. Correcting soils which
are too alkaline is more difficult, but the constant addition of
organic matter helps. A plot should never be limed without doing at
least an initial pH test, because routine liming in the past may
have made it very alkaline. On the other hand, use of artificial
fertilisers tends to make the soil acid.
Soil management on a new plot
Dig only when the soil
is just moist - not too wet and not too dry.
Avoid walking on the
soil whenever possible, especially if it is wet.
The soil should be
inherently fertile - but plenty of organic matter will be needed
to improve the structure.
Add fine compost or
leafmould to the surface of seedbeds or use it to cover seed
drills: this will help prevent the soil from 'capping' - setting
hard over emerging seedlings.
Use cloches to warm the
soil, or raise early crops in the greenhouse or on a windowsill
for transplanting later.
Grow suitable crops -
see Vegetables and annual flowers section
Add plenty of organic
matter to improve the structure and help water retention. o Dig
only when absolutely necessary - digging will cause the soil to
dry out and also cause organic matter to break down more
Mulch to stop water from
The soil is most likely
to lack plant nutrients - use compost, manure and, when
necessary, organic fertilisers.
Grow suitable crops -
see Vegetables and annual flowers section
Is it short of plant
Look how well any plants on
the plot are growing. A vigorous crop of weeds at least means that
the soil is not short of nutrients, even if it does mean more work
to start with. In contrast, sickly stunted growth indicates that
something is wrong. On a clear plot, sowing a quick growing green
manure can similarly give you an indication of fertility.
Poor growth could be simply
caused by the problems with drainage, soil structure or acidity
already described. However, it could also indicate a shortfall in
some element needed for plant growth. Excess nutrients, caused by
over-use of fertilisers in the past, can be equally damaging.
In these cases it is helpful to send a sample of soil away for
analysis - either to your local Ministry of Agriculture office or to
one of the firms that advertise this service in gardening magazines.
Sometimes your local College of Agriculture will also help. The
analyses will usually tell you the soil pH and levels of phosphorus
(P), potassium (K), and sometimes magnesium (Mg) and other elements.
For the organic grower, one difficulty in interpreting the results
of a soil test is that they only indicate the nutrients directly
available to the plants. In fact, much more can be made available in
an organically managed soil through the extra activity of the
microorganisms. Clay soils, for example, contain large reserves of
most plant foods even though this may not show up in an analysis:
the answer here is not to add nutrients to the soil, but to release
those that are already there: for example, by adding organic matter
and growing green manure crops. Soil analyses will also usually
recommend chemical fertilisers, whereas organic gardeners will want
to use those of natural origin - based mainly on ground rocks,
animal products and seaweed. However, Elm Farm Research Station do
an analysis specifically for organic growers.
Whatever type of analysis you have, you can compare the figures for
your soil with the recommended levels or indices that it gives. If
they are only slightly low, you can probably correct them with
regular supplies of manure and compost. If they show up major
deficiencies, then it may be worth applying ground rock fertilisers
- particularly on light sandy soils which have few natural reserves
(see table). These fertilisers are released very slowly over a
number of years. In the interim, as well as compost and manure, you
may need to use other quicker acting organic fertilisers such as
bonemeal, hoof and horn, and seaweed meal.
Ground rock fertilisers
Does it contain persistent pests or diseases?
sites can be infected with diseases which last in the soil for many
years - such as clubroot (on brassicas), and whiterot (on onions,
garlic and leeks). The microscopic pest, potato cyst eelworm (which
is one of the most damaging pests of potatoes) could also be
present. Ask neighbouring allotment holders if they have any such
problems, and look at their crops.
If you are taking over an allotment which has become heavily
overgrown, wireworms and leatherjackets are possible problems. (See
page 12 for books on pest and disease identification).
There are cultural techniques which will help cope with most of
these pests and diseases, although in the case of severe clubroot or
whiterot, the only course of action is to avoid growing susceptible
crops completely. Also keep on the lookout for larger pests such as
pigeons and rabbits - fencing and/or netting may be necessary.
Whether problems are obvious or not, it is unwise to grow too much
of any one crop in the first year on a new plot. Grow a whole range
of crops and check them regularly for signs of trouble.
What weeds are there on the site?
Only by identifying weeds can you decide how they are best dealt
with - there are good reference books to help you (see page 12). As
well as looking at the leaves and flowers, it can also help to dig
some up and look at the roots.
A plot overgrown with weeds may not be as bad as you think - they
could be shallow rooted annuals, such as fat hen or chickweed, that
are easy to remove and provide good material for your first compost
heap. Clean bare land, on the other hand, could hide deep roots of
pernicious perennials such as creeping thistle.
There are no spray-on weedkillers that organic growers can use but
there are many other ways of coping with weeds. These are summarised
here; more details are given in Step by Step 'Weed Control without
Chemicals' (see page 12).
Digging or forking
This traditional method of dealing with weeds can be very effective,
if hard work, and has the advantage that the land is available
immediately for sowing or planting. Forking and removing roots by
hand is good for tap-rooted weeds such as dandelions, and also for
shallow rooters such as creeping buttercup and couch, provided they
have not formed a dense mat of roots. Don't burn the roots that you
have taken out: put them in a covered heap and leave them to break
Digging and burying the weeds is another method that works well for
annuals and shallow-rooted perennials. The deeper they are buried
the better - but it is important not to dig down so far that the
topsoil becomes mixed with the subsoil. These methods are best
reserved for small areas that you want for immediate use.
This method can quickly clear annual weeds. However, if there are
perennial weeds with persistent roots present, it may make things
worse, because individual pieces of chopped root can regrow. To get
rid of such weeds, you will need to rotovate several times at two to
three week intervals when you see regrowth starting. And even this
will only be really effective if the weather is dry. Rotovating can
also destroy the soil structure.
Weeds need light to grow, so if you cover the soil surface with a
material which excludes the light, they will gradually die. Suitable
materials include cardboard, black polythene and old carpet. How
long it takes to clear the land depends on what weeds are present
and the time of year. The mulch will be most effective in the main
growing season when the weeds are trying to push through and the
roots exhaust themselves most quickly. One growing season is
sufficient to kill annuals and shallow-rooted perennials. Weeds with
deeper roots such as bindweed will take longer to clear, and some
with corms or bulbils such as celandines can be very persistent.
Mulching is a good way of letting one part of your allotment clear
itself, whilst you concentrate on cultivating the rest. However, if
you do not want to waste space, you can try planting through the
mulch. If necessary, roughly fork or rotovate the ground and add
organic material and/or fertilisers. For vegetables, put down the
mulch (black plastic is the easiest material to work with), then
make holes for your plants - choose robust ones such as broad beans,
tomatoes and marrows. For fruit and shrubs, mulch round the bushes
and trees after they have been planted. Cardboard held down with old
hay or straw both keeps down the weeds and adds organic matter to
On a weedy plot you may find it best to avoid direct sown crops at
first, particularly those with small seedlings such as carrots and
onions. Transplants have a much better chance of competing with
weeds and are easier to keep clean. Many crops that are normally
direct sown can be transplanted if they are sown in modules
(individual cells of compost - see Step by Step 'Growing from
What is the climate like?
The situation of the allotment, as well as what part of the country
it is in, will affect what you can and cannot grow. Is it on a warm
south-facing slope or in a frost-prone valley?
How sheltered is it?
The effects of frost and wind can be very local even from one plot
to another on the same allotment site.
The warmth of your site will determine your choice of tree and bush
fruit and which vegetable crops you can grow - for example, in most
years sweetcorn and outdoor tomatoes would not be worthwhile on a
cold site from the Midlands northwards. It will also determine when
you should sow and plant out (see Step by Step 'Growing from Seed').
You may want to make use of cloches or 'floating mulch' -
polypropylene fleece which can be laid directly on top of a crop or
Wind will reduce the yields of most vegetable and fruit crops
considerably, and spoil the appearance of flowers - as well as
simply blowing over tall plants. If the site is very windy, you
could consider investing in some windbreak material. Most types
consist of plastic mesh which you batten to wooden posts. They are
expensive, but can be expected to last three to ten years, depending
on the material. Alternatively, you could consider planting a hedge
or shrubs (see below).
How diverse is the site?
Allotments tend to be thought of simply as places for production -
whether it be of fruit, vegetables, or cut flowers. However, the
more variety of plants and habitats for wildlife there are on the
site the better. Organic growers rely on this variety to attract in
lots of different creatures, from small mammals to microscopic
bacteria and fungi. Each one has its natural enemies, so a natural
balance is built up where pests are unlikely to get out of hand.
Some suggestions for creating such diversity are given here (for
more details, particularly of plant varieties, see Step by Step
'Wildlife Gardening'). As well as encouraging wildlife, they can
also help to make the allotment a more pleasant place to be and
work. However, what you can do will sometimes depend on the rules of
your individual Allotment Association, so always check these first.
Hedges: A hedge not only acts as a windbreak, but can provide
valuable food and shelter for all sorts of creatures. You may be
lucky enough to have one on at least one side of your plot - but if
not, you might have room to plant one. A mixture of native species -
such as hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, buckthorn, field maple
and holly - is ideal. You would need to allow about 2m of the plot
for such a hedge if it were not to compete with adjacent crops.
Another idea for an open allotment site might be to suggest that the
whole site is hedged. Grants may be available for such a project.
A small tree: There are many small trees or large shrubs that could
be planted in an odd corner without causing too much competition to
your crops. Birds will appreciate the higher canopy of leaves and
any berries there are to feed on.
A pond: This can bring in a whole lot of new beneficial creatures,
including frogs and toads who will help control the slugs on your
plot. The pond doesn't have to be large, even one, two or three feet
across will do. However, it should have at least some shallow edges,
and if possible a depth of at least 60 cm (2ft). A flexible liner of
polythene or butyl is probably the best way of making it waterproof.
Site the pond in a fairly open spot, but have some low growing
plants around it to give the wildlife some cover.
Piles of logs or stones: The nooks and crannies between logs or
stones provide ideal homes for insects and small animals, so don't
be too tidy. Alternatively, you could use such materials to make a
seat or wall.
Perennial plants: Chosen carefully, herbaceous plants and small
shrubs can provide pollen and nectar for bees and other beneficial
insects and/or seeds and berries for birds. Ground cover plants and
evergreen shrubs also give good shelter.
Annual flowers: These are easy to fit into the vegetable plot, and
can be chosen to be of use to you as well as beneficial insects. For
example, some of the best flowers grown for drying, such as statice
and love-in-a-mist, are good attractant plants.
Planning the Plot
You should now know enough to make a plan. It helps to draw an
outline of the plot and mark on any existing features which affect
it: for example, there may be a large tree nearby which shades one
end. Make a list of things you want to include. You could need space
This means room for compost heaps to recycle material from your own
plot and possibly from outside (see Step by Step 'Composting'). If
you can also get strawy manure delivered from a local farm or
stable, you will need space to stack it. In addition, you could grow
your own compost activator and liquid feed by planting up a patch
with comfrey or nettles. Although they are taking cropping space,
none of these things are wasting space.
These might include a shed for storing tools and a water barrel, as
well as features such as the pond and walling or log seat mentioned
A seed bed
Raising your own bare-rooted plants - of cabbages, leeks and
wallflowers, for example - is better than buying them in, first
because you can look after them well right from the start and second
because you do not risk introducing diseases. These are both
important factors in organic growing. Having a special bed for
raising transplants makes it easier, because then there is no danger
of neighbouring crops swamping them. In addition, the surface of the
bed can be improved by adding fine compost or leafmould to help
At one time, having fruit trees on an allotment would have left
little space for anything else. Now, however, there are dwarfing
rootstocks not only for apples and pears but for plums and cherries.
Trees on such rootstocks also crop much earlier - perhaps after the
second year, rather than after five to eight years for the
traditional standard apple tree. Fruit trees could also be fitted in
by training them on posts and wires as cordons, espaliers or fans -
perhaps alongside a path or to divide one part of the plot from
another. If your Allotment Society rules state 'no fruit trees', it
is worth challenging them now that dwarfing stocks are available.
As already mentioned, what fruit you can successfully grow depends
on how sunny, warm and sheltered the site is. It also depends on the
soil - good drainage and a deep soil are essential for nearly all
types of fruit. Given the wrong conditions, they will never thrive
and will be more susceptible to pest and disease attack. For
example, pears and many varieties of dessert apple are much more
fussy than cooking apples.
Varieties that show resistance to diseases are also good choices for
organic growers. This applies to both tree and bush fruit, and it is
well worth looking up in books and catalogues before making your
choice. Above all, however, buy good quality plants from a reputable
nursery which you can be sure are free from disease. It is just not
worth accepting gifts of plants, runners or cuttings from
neighbouring allotment holders. They could bring in more trouble
than they are worth. Similarly, old fruit on your site could be
infected with disease. If so, remove these plants before you put in
Other permanent plants
As mentioned earlier, you may want to improve the environment of the
plot by planting shrubs or herbaceous plants. They can be chosen to
make use of spots where fruit and vegetables would never do well; in
a shady or boggy corner, for example. You could also set aside an
area for perennial herbs: they are useful for cooking and many
attract beneficial insects. Thyme and chives are good bee plants,
for example, and the flowers of fennel and angelica are popular with
hoverflies. If you are growing any perennial vegetables such as
globe artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb, you also need to keep them
separate from the annual crops.
Vegetables and annual flowers
Rotation: Crops in the same botanical family should be grown
together and moved round the vegetable plot so they do not occupy
the same ground year after year. This rotation of crops has two main
benefits: it helps to prevent pests and diseases from building up in
the soil, and it makes better use of the plant foods, since
different crops use up different nutrients. It also makes soil
treatments easier. For example, all brassicas (cabbage family) need
a rich soil so give the plot where they are to be grown priority
when applying compost or manure.
You should aim for a four (or more) year rotation; it then makes
planning easier if you divide the area you have set aside for
vegetables into four equal plots. The diagram gives a suggestion for
rotating the main groups of vegetables. Vegetables not in these
groups together with annual flowers and herbs can be used to fill in
the gaps. However, how much of each crop you have is obviously a
personal choice, depending on what you like to eat, whether you have
a freezer, when you go on holiday, and many other factors. Some may
do better than others on different soils (see box), particularly in
the first few years on a new plot before you have had chance to
improve the soil structure.
Disease resistant varieties: As with fruit,
there are vegetable varieties which have resistance to certain pests
and diseases. More are being introduced all the time, so keep a
lookout for them in the latest seed catalogues. It may be one way to
avoid a problem.
Covering the soil: Try to arrange crops so that ones that are
harvested at the same time are close together, since this makes soil
preparation for the following crop easier. On an organic allotment,
the soil should nearly always be covered - either with growing
plants or a mulch of a long-lasting organic material such as hay,
straw or leafmould. All too often you see plots neatly dug in autumn
- this may be satisfying to look at, but it is not good for the
soil. Its structure can be destroyed by heavy rain, and plant
nutrients washed out, especially if you have just dug in manure or
If there is a long gap between harvesting one crop and putting in
the next, try sowing a 'green manure' - a crop grown specifically to
be incorporated into the soil. Which green manure you choose will
depend on the time of year and how long it has to grow. For example,
mustard and phacelia are quick growing crops which will put on
useful growth in 4-10 weeks between April and September. One of the
most useful overwintering green manures is grazing rye - it can be
sown as late as October and dug in in spring, providing valuable
nutrients and organic matter. There are also a number of long-term
green manures you could grow on a patch that you were setting aside
for a year or more - they would stop weeds invading and give you
extra compost material. (More details are given in Step by Step
Vegetables for problem soils
Is an organic allotment possible?
Allotment sites and societies are not noted for their organic
outlook - bonfires, 'Growmore' and weedkillers tend to be the norm.
But it is possible to run an allotment organically and the number of
people doing so is increasing - at a time when interest in
'conventional' allotmenting is not. If you want control over how
your food is produced, growing your own is the simplest way.
The ideal would be to have 'all organic' allotment sites. We know of
none at present though some councils, such as Oxford, are discussing
the possibility. If you are looking for an allotment, it is at least
worth asking around to see which sites already have organic plot
holders. There might be the possibility of creating an organic
section on the site, and it is always pleasant to have like-minded
Your local HDRA/organic group could also be of help here. The Avon
group, for example, has compiled a list of organic allotment holders
in their area who can be contacted for advice.
Once you have a plot, it can be worthwhile - if you have the time
and energy - to get involved with the site management committee. A
few positive organic options put forward at the right time can be
worth far more than hours of anti-chemical campaigning.
If you do take on a plot that is far from organic, remember that it
can take time to convert it to an organic regime. At the start it is
all too easy to blame all failures on organic methods - and cynical
neighbouring plot holders may be only too keen to do this. But don't
give up. Follow the guidelines in this leaflet and see how, over the
years, your plot gradually comes back to life.
The following should be of help not just in setting up your
allotment but in managing it organically.
Step by Step Organic Gardening leaflets
from HDRA (address below)
What is Organic Gardening?
Growing from Seed
Weed Control without Chemicals
Gardening with Green Manures
Gardening for Wildlife
Pest Control without Poisons
On the Slug Trail
Books and Booklets
Raised Bed Gardening HDRA
Feeding the Soil the Organic Way, HDRA
The Photographic Guide to identify garden and field weeds, Roger
Phillips (Elm Tree Books)
Guide to the Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants, Stefan
Buczacki and Keith Harris (Collins)
How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Chris Baines (Elm Tree Books)
Wildlife Gardening, Fran Hill (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust)
The Organic Garden, Sue Stickland (Hamlyns)
Successful Organic Gardening, Geoff Hamilton (Doring Kindersley)
Planning the Organic Vegetable Garden, Dick Kitto (Thorsons)
Planning the Organic Flower Garden, Sue Stickland (Thorsons)
The Henry Doubleday Research Association (address below), Britain's
largest organisation researching and promoting organic methods of
growing. Publishes leaflets, booklets, a quarterly newsletter, and
an Organic Gardening Catalogue which lists a wide range of gardening
books, seeds and sundries.
The National Society of Allotment and Leisure
Gardeners, O'Dell House, Hunters Road, Corby NN17 1JE. Campaigns for
the provision of allotments; provides advice and various services
for members who may be allotment societies or individuals.
Elm Farm Research Centre, Hamstead Marshall,
Newbury, Berks RG15 0RH provides a soil analysis service especially
for organic growers.
HDRA, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry CV8 3LG.
Telephone Coventry (02476) 7630 3517