Allotments are amazing spaces that allow us to grow fruit, veg and flowers throughout the year, it’s so exciting thinking of all the potential when starting out but it can also be really overwhelming trying to figure out where to begin.

This handy guide should set you on the right path and give you some structure in how to plan the layout your allotment.

  1. Assess your plot.

You might have been lucky enough to have inherited a wonderfully kept, pristine plot, but this is unlikely as most are overgrown and unused for long periods of time before they are passed on.

This doesn't mean that you are starting from scratch though so take some time to look around your plot and see what you can find.

  • Is there any infrastructure in place that you can keep?

Are there any paths, beds or sheds that are in decent shape? There may be some fruit trees or bushes that are already established that you can work around.

  • Hidden gems

There are plenty of things that can be repurposed or reused on an allotment. Big pile of dirt? Great use it to fill a bed. Dirty old carpet? Use it as weed cover. Old wood from posts and raised beds? Fantastic if you can’t keep for raised beds you can reuse to make supports, seed frames or compost bins. Even weeds can be repurposed into great compost!

  • Where is the sun?

Where is north and south? South facing plots will benefit from good amounts of sunshine but some crops prefer shade. There might be fences, hedges, sheds, trees or other structures casting shade on your plot, visit at different times of day to get a good idea of where the sun and shade will be throughout the day.

  • Wind and rain

How exposed is your plot? Are you on a windy hill or nestled in the valley? Maybe your area is prone to flooding or droughts? Ask around, established allotmenters are often thrilled to share their expertise and will have already tackled many of the problems you might encounter.

2. Infrastructure.

Next you’ve got some practical elements to consider, and some decisions to make. Are you a raised bed kinda person, a no-dig, or a digger? How are you going to water your crops and what structures are you going to invest in?

  • Water!

The most important infrastructure you need is a good water supply. You won’t grow much without it and each allotment has different access. You might be lucky and have piped water but if not one of the first things you’re going to need to do is start collecting some. This might be from some suspended tarp, a shelter or shed but it’s precious so make sure you're storing it correctly too. Asking around will give you a good idea of how many water butts you might need for your plot size. Water butts can often be picked up cheaply enough, or you can even make use of IBC containers, just make sure it’s opaque and covered.

  • Structures

Most likely you will need some kind of storage for tools or handy equipment. Maybe you want a greenhouse or shed? How much of your plot will this take up, will it cast shade on your crops. Think about practical placement to make your life easier, but also to harness its full potential. A big structure is often an investment and might be something you work up too, corrugated plastic or metal on a frame makes a cost effective cover to begin.

  • How do you want to grow your veg?

Raised beds? Dig? No dig? How are you going to grow your crops? Raised beds are ideal if you want to control the soil or find working on the ground difficult. No dig can require a lot of compostable materials to start. Digging is hard, physical work. Each method has its benefits and weaknesses but do some research and this will determine the size of beds you will need.

  • How many beds?

This might well be determined by the size of beds you make but generally 4 beds as a minimum allow for crop rotation. Again if you are choosing to plant in a permaculture style or companion plant crop rotation may not be as essential.

  • Fruit bushes and trees

Perennial plants like fruit bushes and trees are really rewarding for growers but often need time to establish and don't fruit the first year. If they are already present in your plot consider working around them as growing from scratch could be a big set back.

  • Compost

It is inevitable that you will have garden waste so making sure you have plans on how to cope with it is essential. Compost is the most valuable thing you can add to you plot to get it right from day one. I like a 3 bin system made with old pallets which makes it easy to turn over soil year on year, but you might want to add in a loam pile or make your own leaf mould.

  • Paths and walkways

You need to be able to move around your plot, and probably with a wheelbarrow too. Practical considerations are managing weeds and mud. I have chosen a wood chip path as the materials were free and it’s easy to top up whilst keeping the mud at bay. Get creative, look into grass alternatives like clover or Corsican Thyme and get sweet smells every time you walk your garden path.

  • Pests

Ask around to find out what common problems you might face. Regular visits from rabbits and deer may need additional fencing and rats might need careful compost management.

  • Think of the children!

Baby plants and seedlings need special attention. You may need to allocate a sheltered area or cold frame for your young plants to grow on.

  • Rest

An often forgotten essential, where will you enjoy your plot from? A comfy chair outside your shed? Or a picnic bench where you can admire the fruits of your labour eating your lunch? Consider making some space for you in your plot, you’ve earned it!

3. So what are you going to plant?

The list is endless, the varieties and variations can quickly suck you into a wormhole of options that can make choosing a practical number of crops seem impossible but there are some considerations what should narrow it down.

  • What do you like?

It seems simple doesn't it? Grow what you like to eat. Don’t feel pressured especially when starting out to grow thousands of varieties or veg you’ve never tried before. If you’re not sure go simple, it’s really rewarding to eat what you’ve grown so make sure you can enjoy the fruits of your hard labour and not let it go to waste in the bottom of the compost bin!

  • What is the climate like?

I would love to grow melons, alas the cold British weather does not make it easy. If you have a greenhouse or covered area you can increase the variety of plants you can grow successfully and extend your growing season, but for a stress free life working with mother nature is easier. If your a tropical fanatic consider adding heating to a greenhouse to boost your growing potential.

  • How much space do you have?

Some plants are great growers…too great, climbing, trailing vine plants like courgettes and pumpkins can run rampant if left to their own devices so consider how and where might be best to plant them. Consider vertical space too, this can dramatically increase your growing space. Frames supports or arches are a good way to add to any bed.

  • Labour intensity

Annual plants can give bumper crops but often need lots of feeding and care to get the most out of them. Consider adding some perennial plants, shrubs, trees, fruits that will perform year on year and can be very self sufficient once established.

  • What can grow together?

This might depend on your style, some prefer to separate out crops and rotate, others prefer companion painting or permaculture, but experiment with combinations to see how you can get the most out of your space. You might find that you can squeeze more in with a mixture of styles.

4. Make it

You’ve assessed your plot, you know what practical infrastructure you need and how you’re going to maintain your plot. Now its time to put pen to paper and figure out exactly how it all fits together

  • Measure and map

If you haven't done so already now it the time to take some accurate measurements of your space. Remember to plot out any existing structures or plants you want to keep and work around.

  • Draw it

Use a grid, either hand drawn if thats your style or there are plenty of websites that will boast snazzy tools to help. I used an excel sheet and used a 0.5m per 1 square grid reference to make my layout. Try to be creative and make a number of variations for you to choose from.

  • Lay it out

The exciting bit! Take some string and pegs or even spray paint and mark out your plan on your plot. This will give you a good feel for the space you will have and make adjustments as needed. Once you're happy the hard work begins, now you can get your wellies on and get creating!

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