Gardening: Allotment graft pays off in the end

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Edinburgh’s allotment demand keeps rising and waiting times are up to nine years. Understanding this desire is easy. TV gardening shows show the range of crops that can be grown, often with an organic emphasis.

And a productive plot can grow over £1000 worth of organic vegetables for an annual outlay of about £150 – a good investment if you don’t count your time.

But a new plot holder’s enthusiasm is often dampened by the reality of taking over a derelict plot which hasn’t been kept in good condition. After one bad year, there is always the hope that next year will be better. But it isn’t, so the plot, with two years of abundant weed growth, is given up.

Keeping a plot in good condition requires about 12 hours per week in the summer and eight in the winter. Taking over a derelict plot requires a lot more.

One common problem is the thousands of dormant weed seeds in the soil. Once cleared of top growth, the plot may seem weed free. But after a few weeks in early summer the ground is weed covered. This is discouraging and needs hours of hoeing plus hand weeding round plants. If not removed, many weeds quickly flower and seed adding to the seeds in the soil. Another legacy can be soil contaminated with plant diseases. Most common are potato root eelworm, brassica club root and onion white rot which live in the soil for seven or more years. Crop rotation steadily reduces the level of soil pathogens.

Most plots are rectangular lending themselves to a four-square layout for a four year rotation. For some crops, like onions that occupy less than half of a section, an eight year rotation is possible by cropping at one end of the section then the other end four years later. The rotation I use is potatoes with added humus rich manure, brassicas with added lime, carrots, peas and onions then finally leeks, parsnips, beetroot and courgettes. The last two years don’t get manure, but organic Fish, Blood & Bone fertiliser can be used as a crop boost.

Having said all that, there are many new holders who set to turning a derelict plot into one producing abundantly in two years.

* George Sutherland is a past president of the Federation of Edinburgh and District Allotments and Gardens Association,