Right your own plot: Getting an allotment looking just-so is a very personal affair

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The Independent Online

My friend Sonia puts a pretty, embroidered card through the door: "I finally got my allotment, have you got any advice?" Sonia has been on the waiting list for an allotment so long that the boyfriend with whom she jointly applied is now married to somebody else. But that's another story.

I am actually full of advice on the subject: there's so much to tell the triumphant possessor of a new allotment. Much of it is delicious, such as the pleasure of spending a day working in the spring sunshine, eating sandwiches outdoors and listening to birds sing; looking at a bed after you've dug it over and feeling terribly, well, smug; waking up aching and remembering how much extra cake you'll be able to eat on the basis of all that digging.

But there are also pitfalls along the way, as any disenchanted former plot-holder can tell you. One of the first and most important lessons is to try not to do too much at once. I felt a great sigh of relief when a model veg grower at my local site let slip that she had only dug a third of her plot in the first year. Yes, the first YEAR. Phew, I thought, the pressure's off.

But even digging a third, and planting up a third, and weeding a third, will take a good block of time every week. Think of your new plot not so much as a pleasant and optional new hobby and more as a violently possessive new girlfriend or boyfriend. OK, you can skip a look-in here and there, but if you aren't prepared to visit consistently, you might as well throw in the trowel right now. For a start, nurturing plants for many long weeks only to let them die mid-July because you've gone to Skiathos for a fortnight doesn't make any sense.

At the same time, it's also vital to play to your own strengths. If you are the kind of person who needs to have everything looking nice, you will have to ignore any well-meaning helpers who will try to press large pieces of plastic sheeting and other recycled undesirables upon you.

Your first task should be to plant a patch of dahlia tubers for cheerful colour, and then a row of runner beans to grow up and be covered with scarlet flowers as summer progresses. (Constructing an elegant frame for them will take up hours of your ingenuity, but leave you feeling that you've really become a vegetable gardener. Even if you don't actually get around to eating them all.)

And then there are the incurable planners, who require many hours of scholarly research and pages of graph paper before they can produce the ultimate allotment plan. If this describes you, don't take any notice of people who try to urge a few random tomato seedlings on you – unless you know their exact variety and provenance, you will spend all summer fuming at them resentfully for messing up your neat scheme.

So, put in the hours, but do it your own way – hopefully, a recipe for a very happy first summer.

Words from the wise

One for the down-to-earth

Alan Titchmarsh's How to Garden, Vegetables and Herbs (BBC, £6.99). Lots of photos of Alan, but also crammed with all the info you need.

One for the enthusiastic

River Cottage's head gardener Mark Diacono could persuade even reluctant small children to try salsify. His book Veg Patch (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is a cornucopia of fun stuff to grow and recipes to make.

One to inspire

Anna Pavord's classic Growing Food (Frances Lincoln, £7.99) includes 40 pages of detailed veg-garden plans, from a tiny balcony to a full allotment plot.

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