Alison Swanson of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society has down-to-earth advice for first-time allotmenteers.

Your first allotment 
Tackling your first allotment is an emotional journey. Mostly it is a happy one but gardeners facing a neglected plot full of debris and smothered in weeds can easily become disheartened and overwhelmed. It needn’t be this way. The secret to turning a nightmare plot into a productive haven lies in a few simple strategies and being realistic about what can be achieved in a season.  

A Scottish allotment is 250 square metres, or the size of a tennis pitch. That space can hold a lot of weeds. No matter how overgrown your plot is however, resist the temptation to start spraying indiscriminately. Instead, put on some big boots, don a midgee hood, and dive into the undergrowth. This might scare the committee, which is always worthwhile, but more importantly you might discover some useful perennials. Unless an allotment has been neglected for decades it probably contains some gooseberries, blackcurrants and raspberries just quietly waiting to burst forth with fruit when the surrounding vegetation is cleared. Being too quick with a scorched earth policy could result in waiting years for a new plant to establish because a perfectly good specimen was glyphosated to death. Label everything for keeping and resist the temptation to move anything until plants become dormant in Autumn. 

Scottish Gardener:

The next step is to remove all debris and strim everything to the ground. Try and avoid damaging the plants you have saved. This creates a blank canvass and provides a psychological boost for any waning spirit, similar to a good spring clean. You can now start planning the structure of your plot and location of beds and sheds but be quick. Strimming merely cuts off top growth but it leaves the roots of weeds intact, so the jungle will start growing again soon. Drawing your plan on paper is fine but pacing it out on the ground and marking it with string or planks of wood is much better for visualising the final result. Quandaries such as where to put paths, or ensuring there is sufficient room to turn a wheelbarrow, are all better solved this way and you can gauge how you move around in the space.  

Most mortals will find digging over and planting up a full allotment to perfection in one season a challenge. Plotting is not a competitive sport however and the aim is fun, so accept your allotment will evolve over time and approach it in manageable chunks. In the first year it makes good sense to focus on clearing, digging and cultivating perhaps one half the allotment and to be more relaxed about the rest. Areas you can’t tackle immediately can be covered with a tarpaulin to smother the weeds till you are ready, or you could use landscape fabric. The latter allows the soil to breath and you can punch holes through it at strategic points to plant nasturtiums or marigolds through. These will scramble colourfully, making the plot look busy and cheerful. Sharing a plot with a friend is also a good idea, providing you get on well. They can dig and you can direct operations.

Quick gains
Preparing the soil, sowing seeds and waiting for crops can take months so plotting is all about deferred gratification. Staying motivated however also needs small rewards along the way. Having lettuce, rocket strawberries and spinach now keeps you in touch with the reason for having an allotment, which is to grow healthy food. This is where plug plants come in. Perfectionist plotters frown on on them but you too can grow everything perfectly from seed in a few years. For now though, a few plugs provide a quick and convenient hit to fill a space with semi grown plants. This compensates for lost time taking debris to the council tip, digging up dandelions, marshalling mother nature and fiddling with strimmer line.  

On well managed sites a new plotter should always be welcomed and encouraged but ultimately they are expected to demonstrate progress and commitment to cultivating their plot. As time goes by this will be easier but in the early years communicate your plans to the allotment committee. This is usually made up of experienced plotters so seek their advice and if necessary discuss and agree some realistic milestones. You might want to remove the midgee hood before doing so.