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How to get the most from your allotment

His commitment to show gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show the past two years has meant that garden designer Cleve West’s beloved allotment has suffered as weeds have sprung up and slugs and snails have built their own thriving community among his prized vegetables.

Garden designer Cleve West at work in his allotment
Garden designer Cleve West at work in his allotment

While city dwellers may have romantic notions about wandering down to their plot on a balmy summer’s evening to admire their crops and pick ripening fruits to add to their organic dinner table, West is much more realistic, 13 years after he took on his plot (now expanded to 20 rods, four times the normal size).

“Many have bought into allotments since they became part of the horticultural zeitgeist that seemed to sweep in as the new millennium got under way.

“But what the books don’t tell you is that a large proportion of new allotment tenants give up within a year, overwhelmed by the time needed to keep the plot in good shape,” he observes as he charts his own allotment experiences in his book, Our Plot.

“Allotments have been billed as somethingwonderfully romantic, which they can be. But writers often turn a blind eye to the fact that tending an allotment does take up a lot of time and people get disillusioned quite quickly when they do all the initial clearing and then within about three or four weeks it’s all weedy again. They didn’t see that as being part of the bargain.”

So how much time will you need to spend on a plot?

“Well, if you’re growing food to save money, whatever you do, don’t add up the time it takes to produce your own food and apply an hourly rate to it. It will only depress you,” he warns.

“The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners estimates that, for a five-rod plot (250 square metres), a gardener will spend just over 200 hours a year tending it. That sounds about right. We each spend at least one full day a week at the plot and often more during the busy period of sowing and growing between March and July.”

When Cleve says a day, he doesn’t mean office hours. He’s talking at least 12 hours, but it’s not impossible, he points out.

Cleve West's garden at the 2012 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Cleve West's garden at the 2012 RHS Chelsea Flower Show

“One year I started to get up really early and get down there by 5.30am. It was worth it and you get used to it. If you’re disciplined, you can find the time.

“Those that do persevere are often pleasantly surprised to find that allotments are not only about growing food, they are a way of life.”

When Cleve and his partner, artist Christine Eatwell, his former college tutor, took on the allotment in 1999 he immediately put his design stamp on it, building what became known as ‘The Wonky Shed’, without a spirit level, but had a woeful harvest the first year, producing one strawberry and a sackful of potatoes.

Neglecting his allotment in the past two years while he was busy notching up Chelsea awards (he won best in show in 2011 and 2012) has taken its toll.

“The weeds have got worse but I’ve just about managed to keep it under control. This year I’ve knocked it into shape, but everyone’s strapped for time.

“The good thing is that these days you can buy plug plants, which means you can catch up a bit. The thing that takes time is the weeding and watering.

“If you have leeks or carrots or anything that needs a bit of space in-between, where weeds are going to grow, they may be things to avoid, but we like them so we still persevere.”

Cleve's allotment has sandy, alluvial soil, not good for potatoes, but his carrots, parsnips, onions, leeks and herbs grow extremely well.

And he still has ambitions. He has perfect soil for asparagus, but because there’s so much bindweed and couch grass, he’s never dug the area over enough.

“I’ve never had a decent asparagus crop, but I’m not giving up.”


Our Plot by Cleve West is published in paperback by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99

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