Don's Top 30 Tips For Getting Started
1. Join the club
For £4 you not only get unlimited advice from the likes of Don, but also access to massive discounts (see below).
You’ll also receive a regular newsletter and get invited to free monthly meetings (raffle tickets and tea are extra) featuring guest speakers, which will broaden your knowledge and widen your social circle. It will be the best £4 you spend this year.
Contact membership secretary Mr Barker on: 01793 481190.
2. Find a plot
There are 25 allotment sites in Swindon with 1,200 plots, but demand for them is great. Many sites have waiting lists, and seasoned growers will tell you they are dismayed that the council is more interested in selling off allotments than providing new ones, despite the undoubted resurgence in interest.
Click here for details if you live within the borough. The council only employs one worker part-time (Emma Burton) to administer its allotments, so she gets busy and you may need to leave a message (01793 463665 or email@example.com).
Being a member of the association (see above) will keep you better informed about what’s available and what’s new.
Allotments cost a maximum of £39.25 a year for a full-size (250-square metre) plot, but a half plot and concessions (including for Swindon Card holders) can bring costs down to as little as £4.75 per annum.
Once you have your plot, check out the Swindon Borough Council website for helpful hints about the management of your allotment.
People living in an area that has a parish or town council should contact them directly to find out if allotments are available, as the borough council is only concerned with its own allotments (see note on parishes below).
3. Think small!
Finding a full-size plot can be difficult, so why not start with a smaller space instead, or share?
Don says it’s best to start with half a plot anyway, and they may be easier to come by. His garden is smaller than a standard allotment, but still provides more than enough fruit and vegetables for him and his wife for the whole year.
Half a plot would also be more manageable for a novice, especially someone with limited time. Even though most modern gardens are small, they may still be large enough to grow fruit and vegetables, especially if you are willing to forgo the patio.
Ask for advice from experienced gardeners to help work out whether you have enough space on your doorstep. If you still can’t find a suitable plot, think about contacting neighbours with neglected gardens and utilising their land.
Elderly neighbours may be pleased to offer up their gardens to save themselves maintenance costs. Try advertising for a plot on SwindonWeb!
4. Forget that greenhouse
Although a greenhouse helps and is essential if you want to grow certain crops, a windowsill should be enough to grow all the seedlings you need, and a conservatory is more than enough.
Some plants must be grown in a greenhouse, but the likes of tomatoes and cucumbers have outside varieties that are easy to grow.
5. Get tooled up
A spade, a fork, a hoe and a trowel are literally all the tools you need to start gardening, plus secateurs for pruning certain crops.
They are easily picked up secondhand, although if you are buying new, go for good quality, more expensive versions that will last you a lifetime.
You’ll also need to make yourself a line and a couple of pegs. Don recommends Argyle Garden Supplies in Argyle Street for good quality tools.
6. Grab your wellies
A pair of wellies or some good gardening shoes (if you really want to treat yourself) are obviously necessary, and gardening gloves will be useful at the beginning, when there may be more digging and weeding to do.
Even gloves may not be necessary when light weeding, digging and harvesting become the norm.
7. Clear those weeds
Weeding is not the be all and end all of gardening.
Little and often is the secret, although when you first start out you will need to clear them all away.
If you have lots of perennial weeds - such as dandelions, couch grass and docks - you’ll need to get rid of them one-at-a-time. These also need to be disposed of through the council’s green waste recycling scheme (their giant compost heaps produces enormous heat to destroy stubborn seeds, but your little one won’t get hot enough).
Many less aggressive weeds can be composted yourself. Ask experienced gardeners to help you identify those that can be safely composted.
8. Will my old plot be up to it?
Yes. Even if you get a badly overgrown allotment plot, you’ll benefit from it having been worked before, regardless of how long it has been left untended.
9. Beat those pests
Pests come in all shapes and sizes.
Don is plagued with pigeons and bombarded by bullfinches, but always comes out smiling. You’ll find yourself devising all manner of nets and traps to beat the birds, and may have to go to great lengths to overcome some trespassers.
Don has installed an electric fence to deter badgers (a protected species) and although he has a very urban garden, he once had a visit from a hungry monkjack deer.
Badgers, by the way, are notoriously keen diggers, but they also rid the area of wasps’ nests, so even persistent pests may help.
Certain plants have certain creepy-crawlies that need to be eradicated too, so find out from books, the internet and other gardeners how they are overcome.
The trick is to look upon all pests as a challenge, and not be put off if you lose a few battles. You’re going to grow so much stuff that you’re sure to win the war in the end.
10. Get yourself a good book
Bookshops devote whole walls of shelving to gardening books, but you don’t really need them. Don has a couple of books that tell him everything he needs to know - and both of them are 30 or 40 years old.
Secondhand is good enough because, after all, food growing know-how hasn’t changed for generations. If anything, older books are better because they keep it simple. Both of Don’s books are based on a ‘calendar’ of the growing year, with information on what is needed in each month. Regardless of how much you know and how much advice you pick up, books are always a pleasure in the depths of winter (when Don does what he calls his ‘armchair gardening’).
Seed packets and seed catalogues are also a good source of simple information. Also, keep your own records of what you plant and what works best.
Remember: it’s easier than you think and there’s no need to make it difficult.
11. The seeds v plants question
Most food can be easily grown from seeds, started on your windowsill. They are much cheaper than young plants and also allow you the satisfaction of watching them sprout.
It is possible to grow almost anything from seeds, but some food is traditionally grown from other sources. For instance, onions and shallots are best grown from sets (bulbs, like mini versions of the mature plant) and potatoes are best started from old potatoes that have sprouted. Rhubarb is best grown from a root.
12. Getting seeds
The association makes one large bulk purchase of seeds annually, and this produces a huge discount. Members get access to a catalogue from which to choose - and 40 per cent off published prices! They are delivered in January.
In the meantime, seeds are available from garden centres and other outlets. Even at these higher rates, seeds are cheap and go a long way.
As a measure of just how cheap growing can be, a 500g bag of onion sets will yield about 80 onions but only cost about £3 to buy (or £1.80 following the association’s discount).
13. What to grow
Just grow what you like. Don recommends always growing potatoes, especially if you are a novice, because they grow well, and they’re especially good for filling up spare space.
Although they’re often cheap in the shops, the first new potatoes are much more expensive, so you stand to make great savings with the first crop of the year.
Runner beans are also “a must” because they are so easy. Other crops that are straightforward and have both a high yield and a very high chance of germinating include French (dwarf) beans, autumn cabbage, shallots, onions, broad beans, lettuce, beetroot, courgettes, garlic, marrow and outdoor tomatoes.
Peas are easy as long as you have fertile soil. Asparagus, which is very expensive in the shops, is relatively easy to grow but takes three years before it is edible, like fruit (see below).
14. What NOT to grow
Novices may have more difficulty growing celery. Although outdoor cucumber is possible, growing from seed is haphazard and comparatively expensive, so start with young cucumber plants rather than seeds.
15. What about fruit?
Growing fruit is generally no more difficult than vegetables, but note that plants take longer to mature and produce a crop.
Gooseberries are easy, for instance, but you’ll need to start with a two-year-old plant if you want a crop this year.
You’ll have to net some fruit, such as blackcurrants and raspberries, to protect them from the birds, but some, such as loganberries, are less attractive to birds, so take advice before spending good money on nets. “Some people think fruit growing is difficult and scientific,” says Don, “but it’s not.”
16. Fingers crossed
If you’re used to having your potted flowers die on you, the good news is anybody can expect a very high success rate from growing food.
For instance, broad beans can be more temperamental than other crops but even they will show a germination rate of about 80 per cent.
Carrots are a bit of a special case because only about a third will germinate, but there is an easy solution: plant more. “I sprinkle carrot seeds like salt,” says Don. Other crops are almost guaranteed to prosper at near-100 per cent germination rates.
17. Don’t plant too much at once
The mistake that many novices make is to plant a whole packetful of seeds, all at once. You should stagger the planting so that you harvest crops at different times. Beetroot, for instance, should be planted at three-weekly intervals, so you get a regular supply of nice, young plants.
Remember that surprisingly few seeds are likely to fail to germinate, so you don’t have to plant extra “for luck”. Note that a whole packetful of lettuce seeds will probably produce more than you can eat.
18. Dung deals
You might think that fertiliser is going to be very expensive, but it needn’t be. Don says he spends between £5 and £10 on his fertiliser – mostly in the form of pellets - which he gets from the allotment association shop, and it lasts him a whole year.
It is often applied in tiny quantities - say, an ounce per square yard. And some fertiliser is free. It’s more difficult to get hold of manure from farms than it used to be (as farmers use it themselves) but riding stables may be glad to give you some for nothing - and horse manure is best kind!
19. Make dinnertime more interesting
Behind every good gardener is a good cook. To make the most of the fruits of your labours, you owe it to yourself to find new and interesting ways to cook.
It’s also worth knowing what freezes well, so ask experienced gardeners and their partners for advice (they’ll tell you French beans and broad beans lose very little quality in the freezing process). Find out what recipes are good for freezing too, (such as leek and potato soup). Once again, other gardeners are the best source of advice when it comes to cooking.
20. Get real with sheds and cold frames
If you’re really serious about saving money, you don’t buy sheds and cloches - and you’ll also ask around to see what netting, fencing, paving and other scraps you can get hold of for free.
Don makes his own cold frames from old window frames and other donated glass and plastic. He made his shed from a large one that a neighbour was intending to scrap. You only need a small shed.
21. Compost corner
You’ll make your own compost, obviously, from your kitchen scraps - which, as a green-minded person you’re already recycling - and garden surplus such as leaves.
Leaves are best broken down by storing them in old grow bags with a few holes pierced by a fork.
It’s best to have a compost heap made up of three or four compartments, which allows for stuff to be cycled, plus a separate one for any grass cuttings. Don’t buy fancy ones or you’ll end up wasting money and depriving yourself of the fun of making a rustic version out of old wood and other materials that is in perfect keeping with your new enterprising lifestyle.
There are two kinds of gardener - those who buy new, expensive, elaborate stuff off the shelf, and those who would rather solve problems with their bare hands and on a tight budget. Guess which type Don is!
22. Herbs, spices and flowers
Herbs and spices are not mainstream allotment fare, but modern tastes mean that more and more people want to grow their own, so it’s worth making room for some.
Common herbs such as mint and sage are very easy to grow and will produce huge yields. They’ll even make your plot smell nice. Some allotment holders also prefer to grow flowers - gladioli, chrysanthemums and dahlias are still popular, even though you can’t eat them in a recession!
Why not reserve a little space for them and any of their wild cousins who drop by?
23. Getting the family involved
Children love planting seeds and seeing what comes up, and you’ll be doing them a big educational favour by getting them involved early.
Get them started on radishes and cress, and encourage them as much as possible. Don recalls his great uncle putting extra potatoes in the ground to increase the thrill of children digging them up. “It was only later that I realised that such a bumper crop from one plant wasn’t actually possible!”
24. Take it steady
Gardening may be simple, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of setting yourself too high a goal or having too big a plot.
Remember that much less ground is required than most novices think, and you want to keep weeding to a minimum. The most frustrating aspect of gardening is producing more than you need and turning it into compost. So start small and build up gradually.
25. Be narrow-minded
Wide aisles between rows of plants are a waste of space and make for hard work. Don has devised a neat arrangement of small beds which mostly have access on four sides, therefore making everything more manageable and saving work.
Once dug, he never walks on each bed because they are all easily reached from the aisle, minimising bending. “It’s one of the most common mistakes I see,” he says. “You don’t need much space between beds, and you don’t need big beds.”
26. Take your time
Keeping up a plot or an allotment is obviously a seasonal occupation, but even in the spring and summer, it can be managed in a relatively short space of time - perhaps two or three hours a week.
Then again, what’s the rush? For some people, the greatest pleasure from growing your own food is taking plenty of breaks with a flask of tea and surveying your new kingdom. Make sure you have a seat or a bench handy.
You’ll want to store some of your produce away, and if you know how, it can be made to last all year.
As well as advice on freezing (see above), there are various tips that other gardeners will be happy to pass on. You generally only need somewhere that’s dry, frost-free and safe from vermin, such as a stout shed or garage.
But there may be other old tricks you can utilise, such as building a ‘clamp’ - a pile of potatoes which, if properly protected, can be left outdoors through the winter.
Once again, the tip is: pick up some free advice.
28. Bring and buy
Once you become an established grower, you can grow a little extra for the allotment association’s annual bring and buy sale - usually held to coincide with the May AGM. Use the money you make to buy from other growers.
29. Pop into the shop
The Swindon Allotment and Leisure Gardens Association has its own shop, which is open to members between 10am and noon on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays between March and November.
It sells most of what you need - potting compost seriously undercuts even special offers elsewhere - and all advice is free.
In summer, surplus produce is often for sale and is sometimes given away by members. The shop, which is made up of five sheds, is attached to Pickards Fields at Pinehurst, Swindon’s largest allotment site. Look for the green double gate. The shop is down the track.
30. Last but not least - never stop learning
Information is free whenever you talk to fellow gardeners, and the association also provides various forums for people to learn even more.
Prepare to become fascinated by - not daunted by - the opportunities to learn more. For example, the allotment association had a ‘potato day’ in January when a large supplier from Somerset came up and passed on information about their 82 different potato varieties.
Even Don hasn’t stopped learning. “I recently went to an association talk where an expert recommended planting broad beans upright,” he explained. “That way, they are less likely to go rotten and more likely to germinate. I’d always planted them flat. I was thrilled. I’m 77 and I’ve been gardening since I was seven, but even I learned something!”
Parishes Remember that Swindon Borough Council only administers allotments in areas where there is not a separate parish or town council.
Those living in the following areas need to contact their parish or town council, not the borough council (but contact details are available by clicking here): Bishopstone and Hinto Parva, Blunsdon St Andrew, Castle Eaton, Chiseldon, Covingham, Hannington, Haydon Wick, Highworth, Inglesham, Liddington, South Marston, Stanton Fitzwarren, Stratton St Margaret, Wanborough, Wroughton.
*Many thanks to Don Reeve and his wife Mary for their time and help with the compilation of this feature.
Growing Your Own Food in Swindon
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Self-sufficiency For Townies