When your name comes up on the allotment waiting list, you may imagine a plot of neat rows of vegetables left by the previous tenants. However, allotments are often left untended for a few months before being passed on, and are therefore rarely in good shape by the time you reach the top of the list.

Allotment plots can quickly be consumed by weeds such as couch grass and bindweed, while those left for over a year can be smothered in nettles and brambles. Other factors to consider are the aspect of the plot – does it get plenty of sun or is it shaded by trees? And does it have a shed and nearby access to water? If not, it's worth asking if other options are available – often site holders allocate a few plots at a time and there maybe several to choose from. While it’s in the best interests of the allotment site manager to allocate the worst plot on site, it’s in your best interests to take on something that’s realistically manageable, has plenty of light to grow sun-loving crops, a shed and access to water. Don't be afraid to ask for something better.

When to clear your allotment

Preparing allotment beds
Preparing allotment beds

Once you’ve got your allotment, it’s best to start clearing it as soon as possible. The ideal time to clear is in autumn and winter. This is when plants are dormant, so it’s easy to get on top of weeds before they start growing again in spring. If you leave the clearing of the plot until spring then, not only are you competing with plants rushing into new growth, but you also run the risk of missing out on seed-sowing and planting, because you’ll be too busy clearing.

In some instances, it’s a good idea to clear the plot one section at a time. This will enable you to grow some crops in your first year, rather than spend the whole time doing back-breaking clearing. Laying down flattened cardboard boxes or black plastic sheeting over the uncleared plot will help stop weeds growing, meaning you can leave it without worrying that it will become overgrown again while you work on the other area.

How to start your allotment

Gardener strimming long grass
Gardener strimming long grass

Clear away unwanted materials and debris, such as rubbish. Ask the site manager if the council collects waste, or if you can get help with this.

Dig out unwanted shrubs and other woody plants, but do try to keep existing trees in place as they not only absorb carbon dioxide but contribute to the biodiversity of the space. If you have a shredder then use it to shred and compost any waste, or simply pile it up in a corner where it will provide homes for wildlife such as bumblebees and hedgehogs. Avoid composting perennial weeds unless you have a hot compost bin, which will destroy the seeds.

Do bear in mind that long grass is a fantastic habitat for wildlife, and by removing it you are potentially harming some species. Tread gently – check long grass before strimming to avoid harming hedgehogs and other species such as slow worms, and check for caterpillars and chrysalises, which may be hidden among the thatch. It’s a good idea to keep an area of long grass for wildlife, as this will benefit declining species but also provide a habitat for animals that eat slugs and snails.

Tread gently – check long grass before strimming to avoid harming hedgehogs and other wildlife such as slow worms, and check for caterpillars and chrysalises, which may be hidden among the thatch

Digging up couch grass
Digging up couch grass

Once you’ve cleared the weeds, dig the soil and remove weed roots. It’s a good idea to dig the soil at least twice, to make sure you don’t miss anything. If ground is compacted you may need to double dig the soil, which involves digging to the depth of two spades, to release compacted soil and aid drainage.

At this stage, you may choose to build raised beds, or grow crops directly in the ground. Once you have decided which option to go for, add organic matter such as home-made compost or well-rotted manure to increase nutrients, and start planting as soon as you can. If you've cleared the ground before spring, simply cover it with cardboard or plastic sheeting to stop rain washing the nutrients away. If you use plastic to cover the ground then this will have the additional benefit of warming it, which will aid germination of seeds sown direct in the soil.

Tips for successful allotmenteering

  • Ask if you can take on a half plot to begin with, as full plots can be difficult to manage
  • Check if you're allowed to plant trees, keep bees, erect a greenhouse or polytunnel, and whether you can have a fire
  • Invest in a good set of basic tools, including a fork, spade, hand fork and trowel. String, gardening gloves, a hoe and a rake are also useful
  • Get to know your neighbours - they can help with growing advice and may even swap seeds, plants and produce with you
  • Grow easy veg - potatoes are easy to grow and can help break up the ground. Broad beans, garlic and courgettes are also simple to grow, requiring less effort and maintenance than other crops