Cleve says don’t lose the plot over your allotment

A Generic Photo of vegetables growing in an allotment. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.
A Generic Photo of vegetables growing in an allotment. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

His commitment to show gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has meant that garden designer Cleve West’s allotment has suffered.

Weeds have sprung up and slugs and snails have built their own thriving community among his prized vegetables.

While city dwellers may have romantic notions about wandering down to their plot on a balmy summer’s evening to admire their crops and pick ripening fruits to add to their organic dinner table, West is much more realistic, 13 years after he took on his London plot (now expanded to 20 rods, four times the normal size).

“Many have bought into allotments since they became part of the horticultural zeitgeist that seemed to sweep in as the new millennium got under way.

“But what the books don’t tell you is that a large proportion of new allotment tenants give up within a year, overwhelmed by the time needed to keep the plot in good shape,” he observes as he charts his own allotment experiences in his book, Our Plot.

“Allotments have been billed as something wonderfully romantic, which they can be. But writers often turn a blind eye to the fact that tending an allotment does take up a lot of time and people get disillusioned quite quickly when they do all the initial clearing and then within about three or four weeks it’s all weedy again. They didn’t see that as part of the bargain.”

So how much time will you need to spend on a plot?

“Well, if you’re growing food to save money, whatever you do, don’t add up the time it takes to produce your own food and apply an hourly rate to it. It will only depress you,” he warns.

“The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners estimates that, for a five-rod plot (250 square metres), a gardener will spend just over 200 hours a year tending it. That sounds about right. We each spend at least one full day a week at the plot and often more during the busy period of sowing and growing between March and July.”

When West says a day, he doesn’t mean office hours. He’s talking at least 12 hours, but it is possible, he points out.

“One year I started to get up really early and get down there by 5.30am. It was worth it and you get used to it. If you’re disciplined, you can find the time.

“Those that do persevere are often pleasantly surprised to find that allotments are not only about growing food, they are a way of life.”

When West and partner Christine Eatwell, his former college tutor, took on the allotment in 1999 he immediately put his design stamp on it, building what became known as ‘The Wonky Shed’, without a spirit level, but had a woeful harvest the first year, producing one strawberry and a sackful of potatoes.

Neglecting his allotment in the past two years while he was busy notching up Chelsea awards (he won best in show in 2011 and 2012) has taken its toll.

“The weeds have got worse but I’ve just about managed to keep it under control. This year I’ve knocked it into shape, but everyone’s strapped for time.

“The good thing is that these days you can buy plug plants, which means you can catch up a bit. The thing that takes time is the weeding and watering.

“If you have leeks or carrots or anything that needs a bit of space in between, where weeds are going to grow, they may be things to avoid, but we like them so we persevere.”

Despite his work commitments, he managed to grow squash, cucumbers and tomatoes on his allotment last year, with help from his partner and some of their allotment friends, who helped out with the watering.

He advises newcomer plotholders to keep motivated by growing potatoes, squash or other vegetables with big leaves, which will be good ground cover and help prevent weeds.

“Take it slow, even if you grow permanent crops like rhubarb and fruit trees. Do the work regularly and in small doses rather than all in one hit, or you’ll tire yourself out.”

* Our Plot by Cleve West is published in paperback by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99.

Jobs for the week:

* Cover summer brassicas and carrots with crop covers to stop flying pests.

* Plant all hardy vegetables sown indoors when the weather is suitable, including garlic, onions and maincrop potatoes.

* Prepare trenches for celery and runner beans by manuring a strip of ground for each.

* Start dahlia tubers into growth in a warm greenhouse and take cuttings from those already producing shoots.

* Repot houseplants and give them a couple of weeks in the greenhouse to convalesce.

* Protect emerging hostas from slugs and snails.

* Thin out autumn-sown annuals.

* Firm in newly planted fruit trees and bushes after frost.

* Sow herbs in a cold frame.

* Continue to spike and scarify your lawn to improve drainage and remove thatch.

Good enough to eat

Florence fennel is grown for its fleshy stem and it’s also an extremely pretty plant with its feathery foliage, so looks good in an ornamental border.

Fennel’s aniseed stem base adds depth to many dishes including casseroles, or combined with new potatoes or salads.

It is known to be temperamental, as it is prone to bolting in fluctuating temperatures, and needs an open, sunny site, growing best during warm summers in warm, moist, fertile, sandy soil.

It doesn’t like having its roots disturbed, so if you want early crops, sow seeds in modules as single seedlings to avoid root damage and plant them out this month, once the roots fill the container.