2 - Getting the Best of Your Allotment
The Oldest Allotments in London
We are very proud of the fact that Northfield Allotments are the oldest allotments still existing in London, giving them considerable historical significance. Dr Jeremy Burchardt, Associate Professor of Rural History at the University of Reading and an authority on the history of allotments has confirmed this from his study of known records. They were created in 1832, when Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London and Lord of the Manor of Ealing, gave his consent to enclose the 20.5 acres of Ealing Dean Common and to use them for allotments. The original Ealing Dean Allotments were much larger, extending on the other side of Northfield Avenue. What remains is about one third of the original area.
As well as managing the allotment site on behalf of Pathways, our society has pledged to protect the remaining area, to promote it as a site of environmental and historical significance for Ealing and to make the site more open to the public. Following an application prepared by one of our members, in April 2017, the Council declared the allotments an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under the Localism Act 2012. We also have an application pending consideration by the Council to designate the allotments as Heritage Land and to include them as a Heritage Asset in the Council’s Local Heritage Register.
Read more: history of the allotments
Layout of Northfield Allotments
Northfield allotments are located on the eastern side of Northfield Avenue, aligned roughly north-south and bounded by Northfield Avenue, Mattock Lane, Radbourne Walk and Occupation Road. We have 98 full size, 10 pole (250 m2)plots, numbered from 146 at the Occupation Road end to 243 at the Mattock Lane gate - see Site Plan below. Many of the plots have been divided in two so that at any one time we have around 140 tenants.
The site is bisected east-west by the Central Path, with a gate on Northfield Avenue and Radbourne Walk. This is the only path accessible by vehicles (see Parking in Part 1). A second main path - the Long Walk - bisects the site roughly north-south, from Mattock Lane to Occupation Road, effectively linking all the plots on the site.
There is no source of electricity on the site. There are twelve mains water points, evenly distributed along the Long Walk, so no plot is far from a piped water supply, in the growing season. (See section on Water in Part 1 and Water Conservation below).
EDAS has installed two, environmentally-friendly, composting toilets: one on plot 178B; and a second one on plot 231A, adjacent to the Anderson Shelter. Never pour water into the toilet bowl as this interferes with the composting process. Please read the instructions on the door before using these toilets.
Getting Started on a New Plot
If you are lucky, your plot may be in reasonable condition, however even recently vacated plots may have been neglected and will require some hard work to get them in shape. The first thing to do is to make a plan, showing any existing features that you want to keep and your intended layout. It’s handy to have four similarly-sized areas to help with crop rotation, plus areas for flowers and permanent beds for fruit or vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes. See the specimen Layout Plan below. Decide if you want to have fixed beds and permanent paths and you will need a compost area. If there is no shed already, do you want one and where is best for it. Your plan will reflect what you want to grow and your chosen methods. A little planning at the start can save a lot of time later.
Calculate whether you can clear your plot by early spring in time for planting and sowing. If you are taking a half plot in October, this should be possible and would this give you its full potential from the outset. If you begin your tenancy later and do not have time to get it all planted, make a realistic plan of what you can achieve in your first season. It might be better to aim to clear part of the plot in the first year, then at least you can start growing. Note the definition of Cultivation Area in the Part 1. Speak to a committee member if you foresee problems in achieving this.
Clear the plot of unwanted materials and debris. Trees, shrubs and other woody plants should be pruned appropriately or cut down if unwanted. Brambles are best cut down and the roots dug out. Woody waste can be composted but will take longer to decompose than leafy waste. Vegetation can be buried during digging or dug out and composted. But you must remove the roots of perennial weeds such as bindweed, couch grass, ground elder and nettles. These are the bane of the allotmenteer and you will soon come to recognise them. Do not attempt to compost these perennials as they can reproduce themselves from small root fragments.
Start the work by cutting back any vegetation as close to the ground as you can (a strimmer will be useful); mark out the areas for beds, paths, compost bins and other features with pegs and string; roughen up the soil where the compost heap will be made; and get digging the beds.
In the autumn/winter dig it over roughly and let the frost break it up further. In early spring lightly fork it over and rake it to produce a ‘fine tilth’ ready for sowing and planting. Alternatively you may wish to adopt the ‘no dig’ method. There is further advice on the internet.
Weeds, Weeds, Weeds
Smothering weeds with dense organic mulches, cardboard or even an opaque tarpaulin (but not carpet) requires at least one growing season to work well. This can be an effective way to keep weeds down in the winter. You can also use it to deal with parts of a plot that you cannot get planted in your first season, but it is not considered acceptable to keep all or parts of your plot covered indefinitely. This is not cultivation - see Part 1. Limited use of a weed killer such as Glyphosate might be worth considering on more challenging plots, but be prepared for the need for repeat treatments.
Gardeners wishing to grow organically should employ non-chemical weed control measures only. All weeds can be controlled without weed killers, but persistent or deep-rooted weeds may be very difficult to eradicate. Ongoing control is likely to be necessary.
Annual weeds are easier to deal with, as they are usually shallow rooted. However, they can scatter seed prolifically, so usually reappear and require further control.
You have to be patient and accept you’ll never eliminate all the weeds – not on an allotment. There are just too many weed seeds already in the ground and blowing in from other unkempt plots. Get to the weeds when they are small and hoeing will keep them under control. Make it a priority to get them out before they seed.
A few years ago, Christina Fox wrote about getting rid of weeds on her new plot.
Tools and Equipment
Don’t buy too much, too quickly. You will learn by experience and from watching and talking to your neighbours. But you will need a fork, spade, trowel, gloves, and probably a rake and hoe. Hand cultivators (a sort of pronged hoe) are popular for breaking up previously dug soil. If you walk over your newly dug soil it will become impacted, so a plank or two to stand on would be useful. Buy two equal sized watering cans. This will ensure that you only need to do half the number of trips to the dip tank and that the weight is evenly distributed across your shoulders.
A strimmer/brush-cutter is very useful to clear an overgrown plot, but these are expensive items. You may be able to borrow or hire one. Contact a committee member if you have problems with initial clearance. But remember that other plot-holders are not obliged to help, being busy with their own plots and anyone who can help may require payment.
Example of a Simple Layout Plan
Crop rotation has a number of advantages. Different crops have different nutrient requirements. Changing crops annually reduces the chance of particular soil deficiencies developing as the balance of nutrients removed from the soil tends to even out over time.
It can also help with weed control as some crops with dense foliage, like potatoes, suppress weeds. Also soil pests and diseases tend to attack specific plant families over and over again. By rotating crops between sites the pests tend to decline during the seasons their host plants are absent.
There are several ways of rotating crops over three, four or even more years. The following example is a four year system. Divide your allotment into sections of equal size, plus an extra section for perennial crops, such as rhubarb and asparagus. Group your crops as below:
- Brassicas: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohl-rabi, oriental greens, radish, swede and turnips
- Legumes: peas, broad beans (French and runner beans suffer from fewer soil problems and can be grown wherever convenient)
- Onions: onion, garlic, shallot, leek
- Potato family: potato, tomato, (pepper and aubergine suffer from fewer problems and can be grown anywhere in the rotation)
- Roots: beetroot, carrot, celeriac, celery, Florence fennel, parsley, parsnip and all other root crops, except swedes and turnips, which are brassicas.
You can group onions with roots for a four year rotation and also with legumes for a three year rotation. Move each section of the plot a step forward every year so that, for example, brassicas follow legumes, potatoes follow brassicas and so on. Here is an example of a four-year rotation:
Compost and Manure
Making your own compost is a good way of getting rid of plant waste from your allotment (and kitchen) and provides a beneficial soil conditioner. You can use the plastic bin type or make your own compost bin from pallets or other materials. Aim for a mix of green material (grass, kitchen peelings and plant leaves) which is nitrogen-rich, with brown (dry dead plants, woody stems). Cut up woody material and chop up big roots to assist breakdown. If you don’t have enough brown material add shredded paper, cardboard or egg boxes. Covering will help to keep it warm, which speeds up the process. Turning the compost also helps mix and aerate the material (easier with large open bins) but as allotment compost bins are filled slowly and incrementally, it will rarely get to ideal temperatures. Never put meat or non-vegetable food waste in your compost bin as temperatures will not get hot enough to kill potential pathogens and the waste may attract rats and other pests. It will take at least 12 months to make good compost and longer for woody material. Ideally you need at least two bins on the go at any one time.
Farmyard manure can be an excellent soil conditioner, provided it is well rotted. Unfortunately, we do not have a ready source of bulk manure. It can be sourced from stables, but you need to be satisfied it does not contain herbicides or any other harmful chemicals. It may be purchased in bags from garden centres etc., but please ensure it is certified pesticide/herbicide free. Chicken pellets can be a quick and easy option for small areas. Leaf mould and rotted tree bark also make good mulching material.
Various green manures can be grown and dug in. These can also help keep weeds down between crops. There is plenty of advice in books, on the internet and from your allotment neighbours. Phacelia is a great manure as it provides nectar and pollen for bees, but dies down in winter and can be easily dug in.
Health and Personal Safety
If you are just starting out and are not used to much physical activity, start slowly and gradually build up your fitness. If you have a known medical condition, you should consider speaking to your doctor before starting work. Be careful when lifting heavy items and seek help if it is too much for you.
Wear gloves when doing heavier jobs and wash your hands or use an antiseptic gel, especially after handling chemicals or manure. Consider having a tetanus injection if you have not had one for a while.
Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for any power tools, so you know how to use them safely. Use goggles, ear defenders and any other recommended safety equipment.
Remember, the sun burns. If you are spending a long period working outdoors, use sun protection and have water to drink. You might also want to have a First Aid Kit handy for scratches, cuts and stings.
In addition to the mains water and dip-tanks, we have a number of pumps, utilising old well shafts made before mains water was provided. These pumps are on plots 155A, 161B, 164, 213 and 229, where the tenants are happy for other plot holders to have access to them. This water source is available all year round, so if you are trying to start some seedlings before the taps are turned on again on 1st May, you have a source of water. These water points are indicated on the Site Plan below.
We are all asked to conserve water, so if you have a shed or green house why not install some guttering and a water butt. Many plants prefer rainwater to mains. Also, if at all possible, water your plants early in the morning or in the evening when temperatures are lower and less water will be lost to evaporation. Mulching around the base of fruit bushes and other permanent crops will conserve water and help keep the weeds down. Free wood chips are available at intervals throughout the year. Notification is posted on our Facebook page when possible, but sometimes our contractor leaves them without any notice. So, if you want wood chips, it is best to keep a look-out for them on the Central Path.
Wildlife and Pests
We like to live in harmony with our wildlife and want the allotments to provide good habitat for a range of creatures. We need insects to pollinate our crops and many birds, insects and amphibians prey on those we consider as pests - aphids, slugs and snails. We have installed a number of loggeries for our endangered stag beetle and last year provided nest boxes and bird feeders. We would encourage everyone to keep the bird feeders well-stocked and consider growing some flowers to attract beneficial insects.
Rats and mice can be a nuisance and you should ensure seed is kept in a suitable container. Avoid leaving any food or food waste anywhere on the allotments. Also, generally keeping your allotment tidy, with no overgrown patches or piles of timber to provide hiding places will discourage them from making their home on your plot. Foxes like to burrow under sheds, so a slab base will help avoid this (but not a permanent cement/concrete base).
Physical barriers are more friendly to the environment than chemical treatments, so cover brassicas with enviromesh (to keep egg laying butterflies off) and net your fruit (but check regularly that birds are not trapped). There are various options for slugs and snails, like yoghurt pots placed around the base of seedlings, beer traps, nematode treatment and pet and wildlife friendly slug pellets based on Ferric Phosphate (rather than Methaldehyde). If you do use chemical sprays, please use them sparingly and always in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Be a Good Neighbour
Your Tenancy Agreement contains many dos and don’ts which basically amount to being a good neighbour. Please think how your actions may affect other people on the allotments and in neighbouring houses, whether this be noise, smoke from bonfires, children playing, pets, neglect of weeds, encroachment onto paths or adjoining plots or whatever. The allotments are a community and your enjoyment of your plot will be greatly enhanced if you have a friendly relationship with other plot holders and join in with our communal activities.
Your Membership of EDAS
All allotment holders are members of EDAS (Ealing Dean Allotment Society) by virtue of their tenancy. Your annual subscription of £1 is deemed to have been paid from the fee we receive from Pathways for managing the allotments.
We have an agreed Constitution which sets out our objects and the way the society is governed and this may be viewed on this website. A committee is elected each year at the Annual General Meeting. The Constitution gives the committee the authority to conduct EDAS’s business from year to year. All members are entitled to stand for committee membership and to attend and vote at the AGM. We welcome new people to come forward as committee members, so if you are interested and would like to find out more about what is involved, please contact a current member of the committee who will be pleased to speak to you. The minutes of our committee meetings and any rules the committee sets are also published on our website.
The best way to keep up to date and be involved with news and events on the allotments is to join our private Facebook group and look at our website. Details follow are on the "cover page" of this handbook.
Data Protection Policy
EDAS holds information about allotment tenants, both as members of our allotment society and also in our role, as managing agents for Northfield Allotments. We undertake to hold only information which is strictly required for these purposes, to keep it secure and not to release such information to others. The EDAS committee has adopted the following Privacy Statement:
Tenants’ contact details, allotment history and other information relevant to their tenancy of Northfield Allotments and membership of EDAS will be stored by EDAS, including being kept on computer. This information will be used only for the management and administration of EDAS and the Northfield Allotments site and will not be disclosed to third parties unless the Society is required to do so by law or in compliance with legal obligations. Tenants may inspect the information held by the Society about him or her on request.
Allotment Events and Volunteering
Since EDAS was formed in January 2014, we have promoted ourselves as an inclusive and outward-looking community. There can be so much more to having an allotment than just tending your own plot. Here are some of the activities that we have engaged in as a society, when plotholders, people on the waiting list and others from outside the allotments, have all joined together and given up some time to carry out worthwhile projects.
- Site Maintenance - apart from a few specialised jobs (eg tree surgery) all the grass cutting, hedge trimming, path repairs etc is carried out by our volunteering plotholders.
- Hedgerow Planting - we have obtained and planted native hedgerow trees from the Woodland Trust, to fill in some gaps. We will continue to improve the hedge as funds allow.
- Radbourne Walk- comprises the public footpath and adjoining land which runs along our eastern boundary, named after the stream which runs underground nearby. Ownership of the land was unknown and the area was overgrown and negleted, and a magnet for anti-social behaviour. As a community initiatve we have cleared the path of the worst of the mud, had trees lopped or removed, cut back nettles, planted wild flowers and installed loggeries. We continue to look after this area with the ibjective of making it a pleasant and safe place for walkers. There is a frequent litter-pick by volunteers.
- Open Days - since 2014 we have held four summer open days and, since 2016, three halloween events, which were all extremely successful and already seem to have become established fixtures in the Northfield calendar.
- History- we have researched the history of the allotments, which we celebrate and broadcast around the site and on this website.
In the future and as resources allow we intend to extend these activities by, for example, bringing some local schoolchildren onto the site and offering talks and practical demonstrations for plot-holders. We are also developing a communal area on plot 194, which will be used for open days, get togethers, talks and demonstrations.
We hold regular monthly volunteer workdays, on the first Saturday of the month and we welcome everyone’s participation. We particularly need help for our open days. If you would like to get involved look out for notifications on our website or ask to be included on a circulation list (see below). We look forward to seeing you there.
Plants and seeds
There are numerous online seed retailers as well as garden centres and DIY stores with garden departments. Locally, Wilkinsons in West Ealing is very handy (and cheap) for basics. There is also the trading hut at Haslemere Allotments (Haslemere Avenue) which you may join for a small annual fee.
We have an arrangement with Dobies Seeds, whereby all our tenants can get a 40% discount on seeds and 10% on other gardening products. Go to www.dobies.co.uk choose and order what you want and before paying type the code GD4016D into the box headed ‘Offer Code’ to get the discount. If you do use Dobies, EDAS will also get a small financial reward. Many seeds come in large quantities, which you can split with other plot holders and a shared order will reduce your delivery charges too.
That's it! We hope this has been a useful resource - if you can think of anything that would be useful to add, please get in touch with the the committe either by email (email@example.com) or via the contact form.