Vegitroubles: How to plan an allotment


On Friday Hayley and I got some wonderful news. For the first time in seven years we managed to get ourselves an allotment.  The news came out of the blue and delighted us both.  Hayley is from a long line of talented gardeners.  We used to live in Barnes and had a house with a garden. It was our first place together and I think we were very keen to start living the good life, so we planted what turned out to be a lush rainforest of edible plants.

I am not from a long line of gardeners but did a Zoology degree, and had one very interesting lecture about farming which imbued me with a strong desire to implement what I had learned. Thus began one of our most heated discussions to date.  In fact planning where vegetables should be sown is the only time it feels like Hayley and I are in fraught negotiations.

You can imagine the scene, Hayley an experienced gardener was looking forward to putting her own roots down and would no doubt soon be showing her mother and grandfather, both successful veg growers around our micro farm and would be explaining why we had planted where we had. I on the other hand, was a passionate science evangelist, who felt that we had nothing to lose from experimentation. I knew why my suggestion should result in higher yields, and that famine was unlikely if there was a catastrophic crop failure in our back yard, because Tescos was a short walk away, but if we were going to grow them then we should try and “maximise the yield”.

In one particularly heated exchange I fondly remember these words coming from my mouth: “Planting in rows is the traditional method and that is fine, but what I am talking about is integrated pest management”.  As you can imagine, that met with some resistance. And possibly the words: “I just want to plant some vegetables”.

I maintain that most people plant vegetables in the wrong way: we copy commercial farmers and plant our crops in rows. There is a small gap between the plants within the row and a big gap between the rows.  There is a good reason for commercial farmers to do it this way. They use massive machines to weed between the rows. They need a gap to fit the tires of their machines in so they can drive down their fields.

In the context of an allotment this is completely wrong. A lot of your small bed is exposed bare ground. You are not packing in as many plants as you could in the space. The bare ground is ripe for weeds to infect.

You are also putting plants within rows in very close proximity. This is bad because plants compete with each other for minerals in the ground. You don’t want weeds because they are stealing minerals from the soil that you want your crops to have. If the weeds succeed, they will grow up and over shadow your crops.

The worst kind of weed you could have would be one that needs the same minerals from the soil as your crop. From the point of view of an individual French bean, the worst thing to be planted right next to is another French bean. Because the one plant you can be certain needs all the same stuff from the soil as the first French bean is the second French bean.

If you plant large blocks of the same plant it’s a problem. Pests find their way to crops buy smell. We can eat everything in the veg garden, but a slug will get on much better with the soft watery lettuce. If you were a slow moving slug that likes to eat soft leaf plants, what would but the kindest thing a gardener could do for you? They could plant a large block of salad which is easy to sniff out. When you are done eating your first leafy plant, the very next plant you meet will be another plant you can eat quickly.

What we should do is mix all the plants in together. Not at random. You need to make sure you maximize the distance between plants of the same species. Rather than “rows” your plants are planted on a grid. The distance between the rows is the same as the distance within the rows. Very often one row is offset from the next row; this makes it look like a lattice of triangles

In the same bed you plant another crop that will be harvested at about the same time of year, again maximizing the distance between every plant. You keep going until you have filled that bed with a couple of crop plants.

As a human you will be able to see this regular pattern and find what you want. If you only have three or four types in a bed you will remember where stuff is. Slugs on the other had will find it hard to smell their way to what they want and if they do find a lettuce, the next plant they meet could be smelly and unpalatable garlic.

Obviously judgement is needed as you may not want to put a vigorous plant with massive leaves next to something slow growing that needs lots of light. This will get over shadowed, but therein lies the skill.

Within a bed you want plants that will be harvested within a couple of weeks of each other. That way you should be able to clear a bed and get it ready for some succession planting and still have growing plants on your other beds: you will have year round food. Most times you head to the garden you can pick something, and you stay motivated to keep going.

Sadly we had to leave that house and garden and haven’t had a veg plot until now. My recollection is that in Barnes we did adopt this approach. However last night as Hayley and I planned our new allotment, I got the distinct impression that Hayley had a very different memory. I now realise that what actually happened was that after much discussion we came to a compromise plan. It had areas of Integrated Crop management (ICM) and some blocks of mono-cropping.

In the end last night we finalised another hybrid plan for the allotment. Most excitingly of all we have even come across some new information that I hope will further increase our productivity. Unlike the other allotment holders who seem to have arranged their beds on an east west axis, we will cause consternation by pulling up the few existing beds, and arranging ours on a north south axis. Building long rectangular beds with a 1.2m width will mean a normal height person can comfortably lean in, pick and weed at the centre of the bed without stepping on and compacting the soil.

In this way we hope to structure our plot so it is difficult for pests to navigate and as easy as possible for us humans to work in. By having the long beds aligned on a north-south axis the gaps made by our access paths will allow the sun to get to the plants with as little shading as possible.

We hope the plan is: Pro-Vegetable, Pro-Human, Anti-bugs and Anti-Weeds but only time will tell…