Gardens: New allotment-holders have no time to waste

Getting an allotment is like being thrown in at the deep end – sink or swim. While books and TV programmes are helpful, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. With a seven or eight-year waiting list for a plot, making preparations for an allotment doesn't seem too urgent. Reality kicks in when the long-awaited telephone call comes telling you about a vacant plot.

There is no time to lose, particularly in summer. Weeds won't stop growing while the new plotholder draws up a master plan which could wait until the dark winter evenings.

A small corner of nettles as food for butterflies may be just about acceptable but flowering thistles and dandelions do not endear the newcomer to those downwind of his plot.

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The Site Committee, informally known as the Weed Police, will be expecting progress. Draft in friends and relations with the promise of produce later on. Insist on your visitors doing some gardening as well as admiring your plot.

The surest way to buy a bit of breathing space is to get planting: salad stuff for a quick return, leeks and cabbages for winter and some green manure to grow in vacant patches.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones born into a family who gardened. My mother's forte was flamboyant bedding plants, and my father tended the vegetable patch. I still grow some of his favourites like French breakfast radishes and very early Tom Thumb lettuces.

For those with no gardening experience, it can be difficult to know where to turn for help. Most allotment sites are busiest at weekends, so that is the time to go and make friends with neighbouring plotholders who are bound to have some good advice about what flourishes locally and maybe hand on some surplus plants.

My hackles rose recently when I heard Horticultural Societies described as preoccupied with growing prize vegetables and keeping the secrets of success to themselves.

This is so far away from what my local horticultural society does that I want to set the record straight. Like many others, Musselburgh puts on an annual show which welcomes newcomers. The show schedule has a section with helpful hints to encourage first-time exhibitors. Winter lectures are aimed at education as well as amusement.

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For top advice from the best amateur veg growers in the country, consult The National Vegetable Society ( which holds its 50th anniversary championships this year in Dundee.

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 26, 2010