Getting a new allotment can be an exciting time. But wherever your allotment is located, there are a number of things to consider before you actually get growing. In this article, I want to discuss layout, and give new gardeners some tips to help them come up with a design that works for the space, and for them.
Consider Which Elements You Would Like To Include in Your Allotment Layout
First of all, it can be helpful to make a list of all the main elements you would like to include in your allotment layout. At this stage, you are not considering specific plants, but rather the broader elements in the garden design.
For example, it is likely that you might want to include a:
Greenhouse or polytunnel.
Rainwater harvesting system.
Of course, you will also likely have areas for annual fruits and vegetables. You might also consider making separate growing areas for herbs, fruit bushes, and perhaps fruit or nut trees, and other perennial plants.
Think About The Sun and Shade
Before you even begin to think about where to place these elements (and which plants you should grow) it is a good idea to spend some time observing the site. Spend some time getting to know how the sun travels across the site through each day and throughout the year. Think about how shade currently falls, and where it will fall as you position your structures, trees and other plants.
Remember, the sun rises (broadly speaking) in the east and sets in the west. So south facing areas will have a lot of sun, and north facing areas will be much more shaded.
It can often be a good idea, on open, sunny sites, to position a shed and other solid structures to the north of the plot, so they do not cast too much shade on the rest of the space. The northern end of a plot may also be the best place for fruit trees and other taller plants.
Think About Wind on Your Allotment
Once exception to the idea of placing taller structures to the north of the plot might be where there is a strong wind coming from one particular direction. For example, if strong winds come from the west, it might be a good idea to place a shed, trees and shrubs along the western boundary of the site to shelter the rest of your allotment.
Creating a wind break or shelter belt hedge could make a big difference to the usability of the site and make it possible for you to grow a wider range of plants successfully.
When determining the layout of your allotment, be sure to think about the prevailing wind direction. How sheltered or exposed the plot will be will also help you work out which plants to grow and how to grow them.
Think About Water on Your Allotment
Working out how to catch and store rainwater on your allotment is a great idea. Often, you will be able to harvest rainwater that falls on a shed, greenhouse or polytunnel.
But beyond this, you should also spend some time thinking about how water travels across the site. If your allotment is on a sloping site, you may be able to use layout and planting to slow water flow down to the lowest part of the plot.
It can also be helpful to position rainwater harvesting systems at a high point, so water can be gravity fed to a pond, container or irrigation system lower down on the allotment.
Look at the Land on Your Allotment
Slope is just one factor that may determine the best layout of the main elements of your allotment. In addition to thinking about slope, you should also think about other factors surrounding the land. For example, you should look at the soil, and how fertile it is. Is it rockier or less fertile in some areas than in others? Are some areas particularly soggy or free-draining? Are there frost pockets that take a lot longer to warm up in spring?
You might make your life a lot easier as a gardener by thinking about the land, and the different characteristics of different parts of your plot. It can help you work out the best places for growing areas, and areas best used for other structures and systems.
Consider Pathways and Your Own Patterns of Movement
When deciding where to place the main elements on your allotment, it is also very important to think about paths, and your own patterns of movement. Think about how you will move from A to B, and how often you will need to make the journeys between different elements.
A good layout always has pathways that work for your needs. Paths should be wide enough to allow free and easy access throughout. (With a wheelbarrow or other tools where necessary.)
Think about the inputs, outputs and characteristics of each of the elements you plan to include on your allotment. This will help you work out how often you will have to visit each one, and how often you will travel between them.
For example, annual beds will require more tending than perennial areas. They will likely require more water. So it may be better to position them closer to the area where you harvest rainwater, or to a water collection vessel or tap. You will likely also have to bring material from this area to a composting area frequently, and take compost to the beds once it is ready. So it is a good idea not to place them too far apart.
Once you have a rough idea about where you would like to place the different elements in your allotment layout, it is time to think about the growing areas or beds.
Whether you plan on predominantly in-ground growing, or plan to create raised beds for annual production, you need to think about the size and shape of each one.
One of the things to consider when deciding on the size and shape of your beds is edge. The edge is the most productive part of any ecosystem, and so maximising edge can be a good idea. Creating more, smaller beds, or making beds with irregular sides, can be two ways to do so.
Make Sure You Can Reach Across Beds Without Stepping On Them
Another thing to think about when thinking about the size and shape of your allotment beds or growing areas is accessibility. It is a good idea to make sure, when designing the layout, that you can reach all areas of these beds or growing areas without stepping on them. Stepping on the beds can cause issues with compaction. And it will make it more difficult to manage a garden in a way that takes care of the soil.
Plan for Polyculture Planting Schemes
Once you have determined the size, shape and location of each of your beds or growing areas, you can begin to think about the layout of the plants themselves.
The layout of each individual bed will depend upon its characteristics and exact location. But one general rule to remember is that it is best to aim for polyculture beds. Rather than having one bed for cabbages, one for carrots, one for potatoes and one for onions, for example, it is best to create diverse companion planting schemes. Grow guilds of plants in each one that can aid one another in a range of different ways.
When choosing plants and determining the final layout of your allotment, think about:
Environmental conditions.(For example, the shade plants cast, or the way plants create ground cover that helps retain moisture in the soil).
Beneficial wildlife. (Make sure you include plants in your layout that attract pollinators, predatory insects and other wildlife that will help keep pest numbers down.)
Growing plants together that like similar growing conditions.
Choosing the right plants for your location.
And for your own particular needs and preferences.
These are just some tips to help you determine the best layout for your allotment. Getting the basics in place and thinking carefully before you begin can help you avoid common pitfalls and create an allotment that can provide food and other yields for you and your family. An allotment with a good layout is far more likely to be successful and productive over the years to come.
Do you have an allotment? Do you have layout tips to share? Please feel free to do so in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.