The plot thickens: It's time to get allotment fever

Beetroots and rocket and mustard leaves and radishes. If only I had the gumption to do it myself, says Emma Townshend

Leaning out the side window during an untypical August traffic jam, it's the perfect moment to gaze enviously at the ready-to-crop burstiness of the allotments we're slowly passing. Between the brambles along the fence are brief glimpses of the imminent harvest, armfuls of green stems garlanded up beanpoles, the tall tassels of sweetcorn, the not-yet-quite-golden curves of pumpkins.

That could have been me, I find myself occasionally thinking as I try to avoid breathing in diesel fumes. I made it to the top of this allotment garden's shortlist about two years ago, just at the point I'd realised I wasn't really cut out for the communal competitive trauma of being a plot-holder. (The annual scolding with clipboard for those whose patches weren't sufficiently weedless brought back memories of school sports vendettas against participants lacking proper kit. Plus, I never developed the deep, daily commitment that's essential for proper vegetable husbandry: unlike flowers, which you can leave for a week, crops grow mutantly massive in the same amount of time.)

It takes a particular kind of person to enjoy allotments, but those who do, really fall in love. At Kew Gardens last weekend, my friend Cath was clear: "The allotment's been my salvation this year; it's given me the most moments of joy of anything I do." As these veg patches come to fruit, joy is not that surprising: Mark Diacono, a regular on these pages, just posted on his blog (otterfarm.co.uk) some astonishing photos of the peaches he's grown in this lovely summer, big piles of fuzzy fruit.

But the phone call from the allotment committee awarding you tenure always seems to come at the wrong time of year. You've just moved house, your children are about to start school, you recently got a new job and now you cycle to work in a different direction. Not to say anything of beginners' vegetable-growing books, which for reasons of familiarity run from January to December. Dipping your toe into vegetable waters, you'd be forgiven for imagining that you'd have to wait till the purchase of a whole new calendar before actually planting anything. "Read alot but me minds boglled," as one desperate message-board contributor summed it up beautifully.

But if you should get the call-up this autumn, there's plenty you can do before next spring. The first obvious suggestion would be the sowing of a green manure. If your new veg patch is already in a reasonable state, consider sowing half to green manure, which will cover the soil over the winter, build fertility, avoid winter weathering, and hopefully keep down the weeds. No-brainer. Dobies has a special Winter Mix of Rye and Vetch, £1.49 a packet, that should be sown now for digging in during early spring (dobies.co.uk).

As far as actual autumn veg crops go, you could go for quick beetroots such as Action F1 (£1.69, also Dobies), which would rapidly give you the maturing crop in straight lines and the superior self-worth of an established plot-holder. In warmer parts of the UK, you could also start the swifter sorts of dwarf French beans, such as "Ferrari", which typically crops in 12 weeks (£1.99, as before). And you'll certainly use winter salad leaves, both rocket and lamb's lettuce, both of which should be sown as the weather cools down. Go for Verte de Cambrai (£1.99), and Franchi's cheeky "Restaurant Quality" wild rocket, (£2.49, both seedsofitaly.com). Tangy leaves such as Mizuna and Red Mustard also have appeal, in my salad bowl at least (Marshalls' Oriental Mustard Mix is £1.75, marshalls-seeds.co.uk). Add in some Radish "Rapid Red Sanova" (£1.99), also from Seeds of Italy, and you have all the makings of a spicy Bonfire Night feast.

My last suggestion is entirely ornamental. Treat yourself to a bag of mixed tulips for cutting and taking home, or just cheering you up on a damp spring day. A single patch will raise the tone on those cold mornings when your plot looks weedier than anyone else's. I'm going to prescribe at least three bags of 10 "Lily Flowered Mix" from Suttons (£5.99 each, suttons.co.uk), for a dainty but brightly coloured allotment-lining blast. And you can cheer me up during the traffic jams of spring.

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