Allotment Frequently Asked Questions
This document captures answers to the most common questions that I get about our allotments, what we grow and how we grow.
How did you get into gardening?
When I was a teenager I borrowed John Seymour’s book on self-sufficiency from the library. I loved the idea of being more self-reliant, but the reality of earning a living got in the way. Over the many intervening decades I enjoyed a lot of TV shows and read a lot of books that kept my interest alive, I made a video about the most influential of them.
About 8 years ago I made two raised beds in the garden, where the kids swing used to be and I loved it. As soon as I retired I set myself some challenges, one was to eat mostly food I’d grown myself, that’s when I realised I needed an allotment if I really wanted to grow all my own veg.
When and why did you retire early?
For the last 16 years of my working life I was quite ill. I had an auto-immune condition called Adult Onset Stills Disease, which affects about 1 in 200,000 people. It’s rarely life threatening, but it’s quite difficult to live with. The biggest challenge is the unpredictability, one hour you can be out hiking and the next you can’t lift your leg for the pain. It affected all of my major joints and muscles with arthritis symptoms, along with high levels of fatigue, fevers, and crushing brain fog.
I worked part-time for most of those 16 years, but eventually I decided that it wasn’t practical to do a good job at work and manage my health, health was always suffering. At 52 I decided enough was enough, took a big financial risk and decided to live the good life.
I made a video about my journey back to health.
What did you do before the allotments?
I trained as a mechanical engineer and worked for British Aerospace in Airframe Systems when I graduated, but I found it slow and boring. I moved into IT and it was as exciting and fast paced as I’d hoped!
I worked initially in programming, then systems design, then business process re-engineering. I moved into technical architecture and then IT infrastructure management and solutions architecture. I did a lot of programme management and organisational change management. I ended up in business and IT strategy.
If you are interested in finding out more, take a look at the work related categories on my web site seasidelife.com
Where are you?
- North west
- Lytham St Annes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lytham_St_Annes
- Shepherd Road Allotments are here: https://goo.gl/maps/3XBLthZwqp8AddHh7
Are you really by the seaside?
The house is ½ a mile from the sea
- The allotment is about 1 mile
- We are just at the point where the Ribble Estuary transitions to the Irish sea https://email@example.com,-2.971947,7830m/data=!3m1!1e3
What’s your climate like?
- Roughly USA zone 8 maritime
- Warm (not hot) and fairly dry in spring and early summer, wetter in July and August
- Cool and windy in autumn and winter, but with little snow and only moderate, infrequent frosts
- For more detail https://weatherspark.com/y/39771/Average-Weather-in-Lytham-St-Annes-United-Kingdom-Year-Round
How many plots do you have?
We used to have three in our family. I have a full sized plot, my wife – Debbie – has a small plot and my middle daughter Jennie and her husband used to have a full sized plot. I did the planning for all three plots, everyone planted their own plot. In 2021 we are handing Jennie’s plot back to the council for wholly positive reasons explained in this video. A lot of the older videos on this channel feature the three plots.
Why did you give up Jennie’s plot?
As a family we put a lot of time, effort and love into Jennie’s plot. We transformed it into an incredibly productive winter allotment. At the same time we increased our growing space at home and increased the productivity of the other plots too. We went from growing £5k of food in 2017, to £7k in 2018 to £9.5k in 2019 and expect to harvest £12k in 2020. At the same time our local family grew much slower!
Our council doesn’t allow us to gift fruit and veg from the allotments to anyone but family, so we were struggling to find a way to use all of this food productively. In 2020 because of the pandemic the council gave us permission to feed our locked down friends and neighbours, but this was temporary.
During 2020 I realised that I could actually grow a lot more food than the £12k we were expecting. All I needed to do was a bit more interplanting and staged planting. Perhaps we could grow £13k in 2021? I day dreamed about this, because I do love to grow.
At the same time though I was reviewing my health and broader objectives for 2021 and beyond. One of our golden rules is that as we get older Debbie and I always try and make sure that we grow more, with less effort. I was also suffering with a few over-use issues: my knees were hurting from too much squatting/kneeling and my back ached from bending too much, trying to take the pressure off my knees. Finally Jennie and Jon let us know that they were planning to have another baby in 2021.
All these factors came together: the councils rules, our increasing productivity, my aching knees/back and our commitment to less time and more productivity. We decided that by growing smarter and growing just for our local (growing) family, we could address all of our issues and opportunities.
So we’ve decided to reduce our growing space by 1/3 and halve the number of people we grow for (sorry friends). We’ve also decided to grow more, but not much in terms of raw monetary value, rather more luxury products for more of the year. So more early strawberries and sweet peppers for example and more perennials.
How much growing area do you have?
About 200 square metres of intensive growing space. This excludes paths, flowers, grass, trees, compost, water, patio etc
A few people comment about the amount of space given over to paths and seating areas. This is because Jennie is disabled and I have a long history of arthritis and auto-immune issues, so the plots were designed to be easy to move around, with access for wheel barrows etc and lots of space to rest and chill out.
How much time does it take to manage?
My plot takes about 10 hours a week, the garden takes another 2 hours, Debbie plot takes about 5 hours a week. A lot of that time is spent harvesting
How much do you grow?
About 10,000 meals
- We peaked in 2020 at about £12k with the three plots
- Going forward with only two we expect to harvest £8-9,000 worth at organic fruit and veg prices
- About 200 varieties
How much land do I need to be self-sufficient?
It’s hard to answer this question as it depends what you eat and where you grow, but if you take Debbie and I as the example, here’s my best answer.
In theory an allotment was designed in years passed to feed a family of 4 on 250m2 of which perhaps only 150m2 was planted. We had a go at that but it wasn’t enough. It might be sufficient if you just eat leafy greens and potatoes, but if you want all of your root crops, summer fruit, autumn fruit, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, dried fruit, preserves, sauces etc then I think you need 300m2 of area including sheds, water, paths, compost bins etc and 200m2 of true intensive growing space. It’s worth having wide paths and some open areas for project work, especially as your get older and you will definitely need cold-frames and a polytunnel to have enough to eat all year round unless you really like frozen food.
You will inevitably have surpluses when you grow to be self-sufficient, because you will have to grow enough to have a contingency for crop failures and not everything will fail, so it pays to have a network of family and friends who will eat anything you give them. We garden on 200m2 of true intensive growing area, but we we feed our local family and a few friends with surpluses. We also have between 2 and 3 meals a day from the allotment every day of the year.
How do you calculate the value of your harvets?
We take the simplest possible approach:
- A few years ago I carefully tracked how much I harvested over a period of 2 months and priced it up using organic supermarket prices or organic veg box prices
- I also kept track of how many litres of veg we harvested during that time. We use standard 2L harvest boxes for most produce so that was easy.
- I divided the total harvest value for those 2 months by the number of 2L boxes and came up with £2.50 as an average value, too high for spinach, too low for tomatoes, much too low for raspberries
- We cross checked this a few times with organic veg box delivery schemes and we were about 25% too low, so we took that is a reasonable margin of safety
- Now all we do is count the number of harvest boxes and multiply by 2.5, in the end it’s just a bit of fun, but it’s a useful comparison from month to month and year to year
Are you really self-sufficient?
- We grow almost all (99%) of the veg that we eat
- We grow almost all of the fruit that we eat in season
- We classify tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers as fruit and we buy them out of season or receive them as gifts
How big is you polytunnel?
It’s 20 ft by 10 ft and we bought it from First Tunnels, this is the biggest tunnel that would fit on my plot. I really do recommend getting a big tunnel, the small extra cost is really worth it!
Do you heat your polytunnel?
No but we do lay down fleece on the dozen or so day’s when there’s a hard frost
How much does it cost to run the allotments?
- About 10% of harvest value
- This works out at an average of £300/plot and includes the cost of the polytunnel, raised beds, polythene, mesh, fleece, compost, seeds, rent etc
- We typically harvest enough food in January and February to pay off the costs for the whole year
What do you do with all that fruit and veg?
- We eat most of it ourselves
- We gift quite a bit to family
- We gift to other allotmenteers out of their season
- Anything that’s left over we gift to friends and neighbours
- Most of the food we gift comes from our garden, rather than the allotments
Where can I download your database?
Read this blog post https://steves.seasidelife.com/2020/01/26/how-to-plan-your-fruit-and-veg-garden-with-my-new-free-tools-demo/ and watch the associated videos
- The data resides in the cloud, but you can export it to a spreadsheet it you want to, there are also apps for Windows, OSX, IOS and Android as well as a great web app
- You can take your own copy, with or without my data
- You can change it to suit your needs
- I do an update once a year at least
What’s the variety name you mentioned?
Every variety we have ever grown can be found here: https://airtable.com/shriEHYVDlURL42Zk/tbllaCmnrTxhjvzSD?blocks=hide
What should I grow?
- Grow what you like to eat
- Grow things that commercial growers use a lot of pesticides on
- Grow things that you can’t buy organically
- Grow things that are expensive to buy, but cheap to grow
When should I sow?
Take a look at my full year sowing guide for inspiration https://steves.seasidelife.com/2020/01/18/all-year-round-vegetable-sowing-planting-guide/
If you want more look at my monthly sowing guide videos
If you want even more look at my weekly diary (top left to get a weekly email) https://steves.seasidelife.com/category/allotment-diary/
Where do you get your seeds?
- A complete – searchable – list of every seed packet I have is available here
- We get a lot of our staple seeds from Gerry at Growseed.co.uk, a real plantsman and lover of veg Gerry always has a recipe for everything he grows! Gerry sends me a lot of his favourites and trial varieties to try, which is greatly appreciated!
- We often source our more unusual seeds via Amazon, I love the fact that I can search everything I’ve ever bought and just click: Buy Again
- A few specialist varieties we get from https://www.realseeds.co.uk/ and https://seedsofitaly.com/ and seeds that we use a lot of (carrots, beets, radish etc) we get from https://www.wholesale.molesseeds.co.uk/
- We get a lot of basic seeds free with the magazine: Grow Your Own
- If you want to manage your seeds better, my database can help with that https://youtu.be/Wm3ll9yoWqg
Do you make all of your own compost?
- We don’t, we make a lot but the rest comes from KC Compost
Where do you get your xxx from?
- We get fleece from Amazon, we try not to use fleece outside as it degrades to quickly, instead we are trying this one
- We get most of our other mesh from Easy Nets, we particularly like this one
- Our growlights are from Mars Hydro and Spider Farmer (note these were gifted to me). I have the SF1000, the SP150 and the SP250.
- The bluetooth thermometers we use are from Sensor Push
- The containers we use are from Growseed, I like the 30 litre buckets, I’ve got some larger ones, but they sure are heavy, especially when wet and I’m getting older!
- The galvanised bins we grow our trees in are from Amazon or B&Q: 90L Extra Large Galvanised Metal Dustbin
- The wood we use is from our local timber merchants St Annes Timber
- The horse manure and mushroom compost we use is from KC Compost, we’ve also bought top soil from them as well as multi-purpose compost.
- The little black and red spring clamps that I use everywhere are from Wilko
- The fence pins I source from Amazon