Frequently Asked Questions and Practical Tips

These tips and FAQs (frequently asked questions) are based on the meetings Site Managers have with new tenants and the kinds of things discussed. They are only intended to cover the basic questions. There are plenty of books and websites for more detailed advice. Most plot holders, some of whom have many years experience, are willing to share information. The trading hut, open every Saturday and Sunday 10.30 – 11.30 is usually staffed by knowledgeable volunteers. Just ask!

Why do I want an allotment plot?

The answers should be to grow produce for your and your family’s use, harness nature to transform a tiny seed into a healthy plant or vegetable, enjoy gentle exercise in the fresh air, and have regular companionship with like-minded people. If you want all these things, these notes should help you.

What should I do first?

This depends on when you take over a plot. Gardening is a seasonal activity, which roughly goes as follows: preparing the ground in the autumn and winter, planting in the spring and summer and harvesting in summer and autumn.

Often by the time the plot is re-let and because of the inevitable delays between the previous tenant giving up the plot, and the new tenant taking over, the weeds have grown and the first job is clearing the ground.

The alternative courses of action are as follows:

1. Strim or scythe the grass and weeds, then dig it over gradually, keeping the remaining grass and weeds cut down in the mean time. In severe cases, the Site Manager will ask the City Council to initially strim the plot. The excess material can be composted (See composting advice section below). The remaining vegetation can be dug into the plot by turning it over spade by spade, the roots will be exposed to the sun in the summer and the frost in the winter, and will die off. The green foliage under the surface will rot down giving valuable humus to the soil. Air will be able to break down the soil and keep it sweet. Digging is heavy work, and it is suggested that you dig small areas at a time, to bring that area into cultivation, before tackling the rest of the plot.

2. Using a rotavator can save time, provided that you can dig deep enough, and you do not have perennial weeds on the plot. Rotovating those will merely break up the roots, and spread them, thus giving rise to greater future problems.

3. If the weedy area is very extensive, treat the majority of the area with a Glyphosate based weed killer such as Roundup. This works by acting on the green shoots, and because it is systemic, it works its way down to the roots to kill the plant. It neutralises on contact with the earth, so will not contaminate your plot. After two or three weeks the grass and weeds have turned brown, and can be dug over as mentioned above.

4. HOWEVER, a lot of plot holders wish to cultivate organically, and it is essential that if you use chemicals, you should comply strictly with the instructions for use, and ensure that you do not adversely affect other plot holders by wind drift if spraying, or by run off.

5. No plant is able to grow without light and water and most will die off eventually if light is excluded. Cardboard or permeable woven plastic is OK provided it is weighted down. Note the permeable plastic does fray and should be sealed on its edges, perhaps with gaffer tape. Impermeable black plastic not recommended and using carpet is against the city rules. They are unsightly, will not rot down, and are an ideal habitat for slugs and snails which will breed quite happily and feed on your and your neighbour’s young crops and seedlings.

6. Any covering will prevent birds from clearing grubs and insects for you, and thus covering the ground is only recommended in the autumn and winter.

What do I do with all the weeds I pull up?

Some people may say bag them up and take them to the re-cycling depot where they will be converted into compost. However, for most weeds this is a complete waste of time effort and money. You need to compost them yourself! (See the section on composting below.)

Once I have prepared some ground, what should I plant?

Most things you might grow are readily available, fresh or frozen and nowadays pretty well all through the year. The attractions of growing your own produce are:

  • The satisfaction of producing your own food or flowers by your own efforts

  • The taste and freshness of vegetables and fruit picked and eaten on the same day

  • Growing varieties that are not available in most shops

  • Growing unusual fruit and vegetables that are not generally available

  • Growing things from tiny seeds to complete plants, an almost magical process

  • Fresh air, exercise, a new interest and meeting new people

Grow things you like to eat. This sounds obvious, but it is easy to be swayed by advertising, friends, advice given into growing things that are easy, but you don’t actually want to eat!

If you are a first time gardener the easiest things to grow are generally those with large seeds such as potatoes, beans, onions from sets. Beetroot and salad leaves are also easy to grow and, in the case of salad leaves, produce a crop very quickly.

Buying in plants is a good idea for some things. Tomatoes, courgettes and squash plants are sold ready to plant out and are also easy to look after once they are large plants. Cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower are readily available as plants and are easy to grow except for the pigeons who love them. (See pests and diseases below.)

Perennial cutting flowers such as dahlias are useful, because they can be picked for the house, they attract pollinators, and the roots can be left in the ground over winter as long as they are protected from frost by a covering of cow manure. They will require staking in the summer. Comfrey is a good plant to grow on the border of your plot, as it attracts pollinators when flowering, and when cut down after flowering, can be put into a bucket of water to produce a very good liquid feed. Other perennials such as foxgloves will multiply naturally and spread seeds to other plots, so should be avoided.

Soft fruit such as raspberries, black currants, red currants, gooseberries, grow well, and only require mulching, annual pruning and being kept weed free. They are good value for money. Rhubarb is easy to grow, and if manured over the winter, will produce good quantities of shoots during most of the summer.

All new plots let are a maximum of 5 rods in size, which is roughly 50 square metres. This size will enable you to grow some soft fruit, and give sufficient area to rotate your crops in order to avoid diseases such as onion rot or cabbage root fly taking hold in a particular area. You could set aside an area for herbs especially perennials such as parsley, thyme or rosemary, although if you have room, they are more conveniently grown at home in pots.

How much work do I need to do on the plot?

Once a plot is in good order, this will vary by season. In the depths of winter, when not much is growing, you do not need and probably won’t want to spend a lot of time there. In spring and summer when things are growing quickly and weeding and watering are needed you will need, and hopefully want, to spend a lot more time there. The suggested time is about an hour per rod per week over the year, so about 5 hours a week for a 5 rod plot averaged out over the year.

The most important thing is to go regularly and do something each time you visit. Although not much grows in the winter, some things, like grass and many weeds, grow all year round. A bit of effort each week is so much better than trying to get it all done in Feb/March ready for planting. When it is cold and wet, digging will warm you up! Regular hoeing of tiny weeds is much easier, less time consuming, and more enjoyable than having to dig over large clumps of weeds or grass because you have let the plot get out of hand.

What grows best on this soil?

Topsham is traditionally a market garden area, which means the soil is suitable for most things. Cabbages and other leafy green plants prefer clay soil, but they will grow perfectly well here with the right care.

The soil here, and at Glasshouse Lane, is a sandy loam to give it its technical term. It is known locally as ‘quick and hungry’. This means that it warms up quickly, but also needs lots of compost to keep it in a good state for growing. It also dries out quickly and you will need to water your plants often to keep them going in summer.

What tools should I buy?

A spade, a fork, a rake, a hoe and a trowel are the essentials to work on the ground effectively. You should also buy a stone to sharpen your hoe, since this is the best way of weeding. Again if you are unsure of how to use any of your tools, do ask. None of these tools has to be new. Good second hand tools can be bought from charity shops, found in car boot sales and in the County’s recycling centres in Marsh Barton, (Exeter) and between Exmouth and Budleigh. Reconditioned tools are sold by ”Men in Sheds” shop which run by Exeter Age UK in Cowick, Exeter.

If you have an allotment shed, it is advisable not to leave expensive items or power tools in the shed because of potential theft. There are two schools of thought re padlocking sheds. The first is not to lock, on the assumption that once potential thieves have had a look in and decided there is nothing of value worth taking, they will move on.

The second school of thought is that if a shed is locked, the potential thief will believe that there is something valuable in there, and break down the door. If there is nothing of value, you will not lose anything, but will have a broken door. All instances of theft should be reported to the local police. See the notices on the notice boards.

It is possible to mark your valuable tools using the Smartwater system. This is an invisible ink which shows up under ultraviolet light. Shops taking second hand goods are linked into the system as are the police. The scheme is promoted by the police and regular visits to mark tools have been organised over the past few years. Check with your site manager or join TAGS for email updates on when this will be offered next

This point is not relevant to Glasshouse Lane as the site is protected by a padlocked gate.

What are the main pests and diseases?

Pests are things like pigeons and beetles. Diseases are things like rot and mould. This brief introduction cannot cover all the possible pests and diseases you might see. However, some important principles are worth remembering:

  • Something is likely to want to eat or destroy most things you grow at some point.

  • Plants are particularly vulnerable to pests and diseases when they are young.

  • Healthy plants which are well fed and watered are much less likely to suffer from pests and diseases.

  • The quicker you identify what is attacking your plant, the more chance you have of dealing with it successfully.

  • Fleece and Enviromesh, sold in the trading hut, can help to protect plants from bird and insect attack.

Some plants need protection all their lives. Pigeons are likely to strip brassicas such as cabbages and other green leafy vegetables at any time of year, though they particularly like young plants and new growth in the spring. Netting or fleece is essential for these vegetables.

Soft fruit such as strawberries, redcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries will be the target for birds, once the fruit ripens. A fruit cage or netting on tall posts using upturned small plastic pots on top to prevent the netting snagging, will keep the birds away from the fruit, and can be removed once the fruit has been picked. The netting mesh should be large enough to allow pollinators to reach the strawberry plants or fruit bushes, if you net them early.

Slugs and snails will destroy young seedlings very quickly, particularly when the weather is wet. Again seedlings need protection. Slug pellets have a mixed press, accused of poisoning birds and other wildlife by some and safe by others. They are not 100% effective and ‘slug pubs’ (see Organic Gardening catalogue for details) are certainly as effective though more time consuming to set up. Once bought however they are cheap to use. Keeping your plot free of covered or dense weedy areas, will discourage slugs and snails.

Aphids such as greenfly and blackfly don’t usually kill plants, but stunt their growth, especially blackfly on the tips of broad bean plants. They are easily controlled in the early stages by spraying affected plants with washing up liquid diluted as you would for a bowl of greasy dishes, or approved insecticides in solution, mixed with a little washing up liquid to improve the adherence to the plant foliage. Alternatively the tips of the broad bean plants can be nipped off by hand before the blackfly take hold.

Leeks suffer from leek moth, and the maggots burrow down the centre of the stem. The stems start looking limp, and you can see the channels of the larvae down the centre of the plant. Cut off all the leaves just below where the maggots have penetrated, and the plant will continue to grow. You may have to do this more than once. Alternatively use a proprietary pest control, or grow under raised arches covered with enviromesh or fleece. (Both obtainable from the trading hut.)

Carrots suffer from carrot fly. Avoid by growing under raised arches covered with enviromesh or fleece, or grow in a cold frame with sides at least 24 inches high. The theory is that the pests fly close to the ground, and on reaching an obstacle rise up and fly over the top of your young carrots.

Although they have not often been seen, it is probably badgers and/or deer that decimate the sweet corn plants, just as the cobs are almost ripe. A stout, well anchored wire fence is required to keep these powerful animals at bay! This does not apply to the Glasshouse Lane site, as it is completely surrounded by houses.

Tomatoes grown outside a greenhouse, can suffer blight if there is a lot of wet weather, and as they are the same genus as potatoes; if potatoes suffer blight. With tomatoes, the leaves turn black as well as the fruit, and the advice is to cut out all the affected leaves to see if that stops the problem. With potatoes, cut down the stalks immediately, hoping that the potatoes have grown enough to harvest straight away. The potatoes stalks and the tomato plants should be taken off site and burned or taken to re-cycling. (There, pests and diseases on plants are destroyed by heat treatment.) This disease is highly contagious as the spores are wind-blown, and other plot holders can be easily affected if you do not take action quickly enough.

Strawberries will suffer slug and snail damage, and will get soil damaged if left on bare soil. A good solution is to lay down some black weed cover (obtainable from the allotment hut) which is permeable, and make round cut outs for the plants. This prevents weeds growing between the plants and tends to discourage slugs and snails.

Weeds inevitably grow on all plots, especially on uncultivated ground. Regular hoeing with a sharp edged hoe is the easiest way to keep on top of them. They are most difficult to deal with when they have been left for a few weeks in the growing season. Even perennial weeds will weaken and eventually die if the new growth is regularly cut off. Hoeing also aerates and exposes the soil, allowing birds to feed on grubs etc. Let the birds do the work!

Crop rotation, or growing particular crops on different areas of your plot from year to year, helps to avoid soil diseases. Keep a plan for each year.

How do I deal with perennial weeds?

Convolvulus (Bindweed), couch grass, and ground elder are commonly found on plots. They can be individually treated with weed killers, but the roots are usually widespread, and do not kill off easily. You can try and carefully dig down and follow the roots to remove them intact, but any small piece of root left in the soil will continue to grow. Oxalis leaves look similar to clover, but if you dig down deep enough, you will find a cluster of tiny bulbs that will remain in the soil if you pull out the top leaves. Try and remove all the bulbs (they will break up and fall out of your hand very easily). One small bulb left in, will grow!

Dispose of these weeds either to re-cycling, or only if your compost gets hot enough, put them in your compost, if you are willing to take the risk. Hot composting as it is known will be hot enough to kill all weed seeds and roots of perennials. You will need to investigate how to do this. It is not complex but does involve turning the compost regularly to ensure that the process of decomposition happens quickly. Most people just rely on adding compostable materials to their compost bin and waiting for it to decompose. In winter this can take months but is much quicker in the summer when it is warmer.

What is the simple approach to composting?

Compost is simply plant material, which has rotted down. Compost contains beneficial soil organisms and adds bulk to the soil. Adding compost makes the difference between soil which is sandy with no body, which means nutrients run straight through, and soil which is darker, crumbly and productive.

Everything which grows, even trees, will rot down eventually to compost. Composting is the rotting down process. For composting to work well, the creatures such as worms and microorganisms which help the process, need air, food and water. Like all of us they like a mixed diet, so ideally a mixture of green, leafy plant materials such as weeds and dry, brown plant materials such as dead leaves should be put in, in roughly equal amounts. The green materials add nitrogen, and the brown materials add carbon, which are the chemicals you need. You can use commercial compost accelerators such as Garotta or sulphate of Ammonia, but they are not necessary if the compost is well mixed and maintains a high temperature. (At least a fairly consistent 50 degrees C) You should add water, particularly in summer. About a bucket of water for each bucket of plant material is about right but this will vary with the season and whether the material was wet from rain before it went in. If you have access to a lot of grass clippings, there is a risk that your compost heap will become soggy and anaerobic. This can be avoided by adding dry carbon based material such as shredded paper in layers between the clippings. The trading hut has a supply of shredded paper from time to time.

Your allotment will produce all you require for composting; lots of weeds, plants no longer producing crops, cuttings and other plant material. All this can be composted. Woody stems, such as cabbages should be broken down before composting. Sticks and twigs need to be cut into very small pieces and are probably better taken to re-cycling, or, if dry, can be burned on your allotment within the permitted times.

Compost bins are available from the trading hut. They have a convenient door in the bottom so you can add to the bin continuously from the top and fork out the compost from the bottom when it is ready. Compost is ready to use when the original plant materials are hardly recognisable, it has a faint earthy smell, is crumbly and dark brown. Most materials will rot down in about two months in the summer or longer over the winter. You can speed up the process by emptying the bin and mixing all the materials up with a fork, adding air in the process and then putting them back in the bin again. Again this is not essential. An alternative is to have two compost bins. Fill up one and let it rot down while using the other.

There are some things which should not go in:

Too much soil – shake weeds off before they go in.

The roots of perennial weeds such as dandelions, oxalis, and bindweed –they will probably survive the composting process and re-sprout if the temperature of the compost bin is not high enough.

Cooked foods, dairy products, meat, fish – all will attract unwanted rodents. Dog and cat litter – may contain parasites.

Once it is ready to use, your compost can be applied wherever you might have used bought bags of compost – for mulching to conserve moisture and cut down on watering; to improve the soil prior to planting; when planting out to help keep moisture in the soil, with cuttings and sowing larger seeds, such as beans or squash. With smaller seeds you may still want to use bought bags as these are specially designed for seed sowing and are completely weed free.

What are the rules about bonfires?

  • Rules on bonfires are posted on notice boards and must be observed.

  • Bonfires are permitted only in the autumn/winter between 1 September and 31 March.

  • Bonfires can only take place after midday on;

    • Tuesdays

    • Saturdays (September only)

    • The first Saturday of the month (October – March)

No bonfires are allowed in the summer from 1st April to 1st September. There is a great temptation to leave a fire burning at dusk (or when you go home). It must be extinguished. Even if you are allowed to burn according to the clock, avoid causing a nuisance to others by making sure that (a) what you burn IS combustible AND dry and (b) the wind isn’t blowing the smoke straight into someone else’s lungs.

How do I deal with common paths, hedges and water troughs?

You are responsible for paths on the relevant side(s) of your plot. (See specific site details at the end.) A push mower can be borrowed on Butts Park, Cemetery and Sunhill. Any hedges immediately adjacent to your plot are also your responsibility. That means cutting back and down to the general level. Note that those tenants of plots next to the hedge against Elm Grove Road at Butts Park West, need to be aware of the hedge laying project. About half the hedge (in 2020 that is) has been laid using the ‘stake and weave’ method. Tenants must cut back the hedge so that access along the grass path is open but only to the line of the hedge. Please leave the top of the hedge so that it can be laid in the future. Also, do water the tree whips, from time to time, in dry periods. (See 7.0 Topsham Allotments Projects.) Please don’t wash tools or produce in the water troughs, use your own bucket because of pollution and the dirt accumulation in the tank.

What about paths within the plot?

You will need some paths between rows of crops for access.

  1. Grass paths. Look nice but have to be kept trimmed. They also take up ground that could be cultivated, and hinder full use of the plot for crop rotation. Also because they are deemed to be uncultivated they are not included in your cultivated area calculation.

  2. Paths covered in plastic. Look unsightly, unless covered with bark chippings. Good beside raspberries and soft fruit for access, but not part of the cultivated area.

  3. Dirt paths. Have to be kept weed free, but can be brought into cultivation at any time, in order to facilitate crop rotation.

  4. Scaffold boards. Good for standing on without compressing the soil, but have to be moved around the plot

Who are the Site Managers?

Your Site Manager is on the Topsham Allotments & Gardens committee. Names and access details are in the introduction to this pack and on the site notice board. The Manager’s responsibilities include lettings, ensuring that the rules are observed and facilitating things that seem of benefit to allotment holders where possible as well as giving advice, reporting to the committee, helping with inspections and solving problems within their competence.

What about inspections?

They are carried out regularly in Spring and Autumn by a combination of Site Managers. The full committee also looks at sites on a triennial rotation. The result of inspections may be phone calls and letters when it seems a plot holder needs to be reminded of their responsibilities.

Can I have a shed or greenhouse?

Please ask your Site Manager if you wish to erect a shed or greenhouse. He/she will discuss the proposed location on your plot and the size. A formal consent form has to be completed and approved.

Change of address?

It is vital that a plot holder tells the Site Manager of a change of address, email address or phone number. If a plot is going to be neglected through illness or a long holiday then the situation should be discussed with neighbouring plot holders, friends and the relevant Site Manager. Do note that a well maintained plot, it has been estimated, might need about an hour per week per rod of work, averaged out over a year.

What about the Trading Hut at Butts Park?

This is open from 10.30 to 11.30 on Saturdays and Sundays. You have to be a member of TAGS to be able to take advantage of the competitive prices for various composts, basic pest control products, fertilizers, onion sets, garlic, seed potatoes, seeds of broad beans, peas etc. in season, watering cans, compost bins, netting and fleece. Look in and see what is there.

Toilet at Butts Park?

This was provided by the City Council in June 2013. It is environmentally friendly in that it is self- composting, and does not use any chemicals. We understand that the resulting compost can be used on plots after a period of years.

What is Topsham Allotments & Gardens Society (TAGS)?

Everyone is encouraged to become a member – see the enclosed application form for the benefits, or obtain a form from the allotment hut.

Can you help?

If you are able and willing to help in the range of jobs involved in the services we provide then please offer. You can offer to help for a few hours once a year, such as helping with the show or can help regularly. Any help to us is very welcome. There are a variety of jobs that need doing on an occasional basis such as unloading a trailer of manure for sale, or to help unload a lorry load of compost bags. There are also many jobs which require a regular commitment such as selling things in the trading hut. If you are interested in joining the committee, please contact your site manager or any member of the committee. Details of contacts are on the trading hut notice board.

What is the ‘Buddy Scheme’?

If you find your plot becomes too difficult for you to manage but you still want to carry on with it you may want to invite a friend or relative to help you (other than your immediate family who can help at any time). This is allowed, but any such arrangement must be agreed with your site manager. Contact your site manager for details.

We hope that you find these notes useful, but if you have any queries or suggestions, please discuss them with your Site Manager.

Do enjoy your plot and the friendly gardening community that surrounds it!