The National Allotment Society Q and A with Di Appleyard
Date Published: 14-02-2022
You will notice that those brave winter vegetables will begin to look a little healthier and fruit trees and bushes will start to show a bit of life as the buds begin to swell. Late February is an ideal time to sow the first batch of peas and broad beans. This will then open the door to sowing the seeds of other vegetables; short horn carrots, early lettuce types and even parsnip seeds if your part of the country has begun to thaw. Taking care to properly prepare a seed bed is vital before any sowing. Early efforts will be beneficial in the long run, in addition to other important considerations at this time of year.
Winter pruning of soft fruit bushes should also be completed in February. Fruit trees and soft fruit bushes should be top dressed with a general fertiliser and checked rigorously for damage or disease. Any late-fruiting raspberries should be pruned down as low as possible and summer fruiting pinch pruned back to around 6ft to allow for side growths.
February is also the right time to cover the soil with plastic sheets or cloches to warm the soil for the next batch of sowing and planting, while newspapers can be used to cover any chitting potatoes which may succumb to frosty nights.
We caught up with Di Appleyard from The National Allotment Society for a Q and A session. Di’s knowledge was outstanding and the advice is recommended!
The National Allotment Society (NAS) is the leading national organisation upholding the interests and rights of the allotment community across the UK. We work with government at national and local levels, other organisations and landlords to provide, promote and preserve allotments for all. We offer support, guidance and advice to our members and those with an interest in allotment gardening. In 2011, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales kindly agreed to become the Patron of the Society. The Prince is an avid gardener himself and advocate of green issues. He is also keen to promote and protect the UK's enduring traditions.
The last two years have seen a marked increase in interest in allotment gardening and there are welcome signs that will result in more land available for growing. We hope that the on-going research in to the potential of allotments to contribute to food security, along with the many other health and well-being benefits they provide will serve to convince national government that there is a case to offer support to Local Authorities to increase their allotment portfolios.
Q. Do you have any tips to share or recommendations on what to grow during cold months?
It’s important to get year round use out of your allotment plot and there are crops that will extend the cropping season. In November you should be able to start harvesting winter cabbage, Brussels sprouts, leeks and parsnips. Depending on where you are situated, the sprouting broccoli should be ready from March onwards. If you are lucky enough to have a polytunnel or other cover, spinach, spring onions, oriental greens and winter lettuce are a possibility.
Q. What’s your favourite produce to grow and why?
I only grow what I like to eat- sweetcorn, squash, soft fruit, rhubarb, French beans, sprouting broccoli etc along with something new I haven’t tried before. This year that will be peanuts.
Q. Do you have any advice for those who are new to the allotment life?
- Make a plan - assess the aspect of your plot and check the soil type
- Harvest rainwater ready for summer droughts
- Work little and often
- Stay safe. Wear strong footwear and keep your tetanus jabs up to date
- Resist the rotovator, unless the soil is completely free of weed roots
- Brush up on your knowledge, nsalg.org.uk/growing-advice/
- Check with other plot-holders what grows well on site
- Work out a rotation plan
- Record what works and what does not
Q. Do you know the approximate ratio of people growing food for personal consumption versus people growing food for selling purposes?
Commercial activity is not permitted on most allotments. Councils interpret this piece of allotment law as prohibiting growing to sell, although it is permissible to sell genuine surplus. The Society would recommend that this is only done to benefit the site as a whole.
“an allotment not exceeding 40 poles in extent which is wholly or mainly cultivated by the occupier in the production of vegetable or fruit crops for consumption by himself or his family” (section 22(1), Allotments Act 1922);
Q. My parents grow vegetables in their garden and I have very vivid memories or them complaining of bad backs after manually digging up potatoes, carrots and the like! Any tips to avoid this?
Yes! Don’t dig! Although some people actually enjoy digging, there is an increasingly popular trend to follow a no-dig system as championed by Charles Dowding. By not disturbing the soil structure, fertility is increased, moisture retained and the yearly application of mulch reduces weed growth. It’s even possible to grow potatoes this way; they are planted in the mulch layer and more compost is dropped over the plants as they develop.
Q. Is there one all-important tool that every allotment attendee should have?
That will depend on what sort of gardener you are – there are lots of different orthodoxies but the tool I use most is a hand fork (I use no-dig and have clay soil), although I am considering buying a hori-hori knife - a slim trowel with one serrated edge and one knife edge.
Q. How has the culture changed in the time you’ve been working for The National Allotment Society?
I have worked for the Society for the last 10 years and had an allotment for 13 years. I would say that the culture change began in the early 21 century. In the 1990s perhaps 10% of plot-holders were women and many of these intrepid souls, who were brave enough to rent a plot in this period, report being met with disbelief and disdain, especially if they tried anything that went against traditional allotment practice. Thankfully, that no longer rings true and allotment sites are now, in the main, a reflection of the local community with women, younger people, families and, if the area is multi-cultural, plot-holders from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Q. Are there any other options for people who have been on a waiting list for a plot at their local allotment space for some considerable time? Can they volunteer at their allotment to join the community early?
People keen to get growing their own food could volunteer at a community garden or try growing at home.
Q. Do you have any memorable uplifting stories from individuals or communities in the allotment to share with us?
Our members’ magazine contains lots of stories about how working an allotment and being part of a community has helped people through grief or illness. Many people have said their plot was a lifesaver during the pandemic, not only because of the access to food but also the safe social contact that happens on site. Our latest magazine has a story about a member in Leicester who, unable to work any more due to the affects of his treatment for cancer, diverted his energy and passion into developing not one but two allotment plots. Here is what he had to say
“The allotment scene has a lot to be said for it and I don’t think other people realise how much of an asset it is to an area. It’s not your old people in overalls being grumpy and arguing who’s grown the biggest onion or carrots. There are people from all age groups and no one, as far as I’ve met anyway, that chats any different to each regardless of age. I’ve walked into this stage of my life to relax and enjoy everything it has to offer down here and plan to carry on doing so. My plans for the future?? Well, to just carry on enjoying it as best I can and help others here to do the same if I can”
Q. Do you know if there are going to be more green spaces created within our urban landscapes in the future to benefit our cities?
In the latest APSE State of the Market Report, 36% of respondents (Local Authorities) indicated that they planned to increase the number of allotments, with an increasing percentage being delivered by home builders.
Q. Are there any exciting projects / events this year involving The Allotment Society that you’d like to shout about?
Each year we hold a campaign week – National Allotments Week. This year it runs from 8th to 14th August and our theme is Bees, Bugs and Butterflies. Amongst other initiatives, we are working with Buglife to organise a Citizen Science Survey on allotment plots looking at pollinators, predators and decomposers and recording what steps plot-holders are taking to preserve a balanced eco-system.
Q. What's the most ambitious plant or project you’ve heard about to date?
I think that one of the most important research projects that has been running for several years now is the MYHarvest Project at Sheffield University. The team have been canvassing allotment growers so that they can confidently estimate the contribution people who grow their own fruit and vegetable crops are making to UK national food production and food security. This will be key to providing the vital evidence base to support the use of land for growing spaces within our cities and towns, at a time when people are becoming increasingly interested in growing their own fruit and vegetables.
Q. If you were to sum up the allotment way of life in a sentence or a word what would it be?
Allotments are eclectic places – one word would never be enough!
So there’s just some guidance for February in the allotment, an ever-popular concept with roots (excuse the pun) dating back to the 1600s! And talking of roots, check out our new Harvest store poster: