Now that Covid lockdowns are easing a little, if you haven’t already found an allotment near you to keep busy and grow your own fruit and vegetables, now could be a good time to start.
As you may know, breathing in the fresh air, feeling the warm sun on your skin, and working with the soil, all have both visible and hidden benefits to your health and, therefore, your mental health.
Finding your allotment
The first step, especially if you’re fairly new to the area, is to talk to your neighbours. They may know of one or even have one of their own.
You could take a stroll through the neighbourhood — if you have a dog, this looks less suspicious — and keep an eye out for little alleyways between the houses, gates at the end of rows of houses that seem to go nowhere, or grassy areas.
How to start
Don’t expect a perfect, weed-free plot of ground. In fact, it might not be in an ideal condition at all. There may even be some rubbish that needs clearing.
If you’re lucky, there may already be a shed or greenhouse on the plot. If the previous holder has let the weeds and grass get a good hold, it might look a mess.
There are a number of ways to deal with this. Getting friends and family down to help is a great idea. They can each bring a spade or fork, a few flasks of tea or coffee and packets of biscuits and you all can make a day out of it.
You’ll need a spade and a fork to start with. If you don’t have them already for the garden, boot sales or online are good places for second-hand tools. Just make sure it’s not too big or too small for you to use effectively.
If you want to buy new ones, go for a good quality one.
In between all the evenings and weekends spent digging and clearing your allotment, you might want to research what crops to grow.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on growing vegetables, and of course, the Internet does help a lot.
Assuming you’re working alone and have dug by hand, you’ve probably dug multiple strips on your plot in the last few weeks, but have not finished the whole thing yet.
It may take the rest of the year to clear the remainder. It’s hard work but you’ve got enough space cleared to start planting your seeds or plants.
From now on, you can do perhaps 10–20 minutes of heavy digging each time you come over. The rest of your time will be sowing, planting and hoeing what’s already planted.
Hoeing is intended to loosen the roots of the weeds growing around your rows of seedlings so that your carrots or peas get the soil’s goodness.
Keep a journal
Every day that you go over to your new allotment or whenever you do anything related to it (like buying or sowing seeds), write it down. Date your entries too for future referrals.
It’s also useful if you have a crop failure, for example, a blight on the tomatoes so you can start working on growing a blight-resistant variety. Or perhaps, the parsnips were massive this year, so next year you’ll buy the same variety.
On those frustrating rainy days when you’d normally be working on the plot, you can read over the journal and make plans for the future.
Crop rotation is a vital part of growing your allotment. Never grow the same crop in the same place as last year. A three-year crop rotation is pretty standard.
How an allotment improves your mental health
In general terms, the exercise will improve your physical health and in turn, your mental health as well.
Although at times the clearing can be back-breaking work, the ground should be relatively easy to maintain once you’ve done it.
Two or three hours a week ideally spread out over the days should be enough to keep your plot looking pretty good and keep you healthy.
Simply spending time in nature is proven to reduce anxiety and depression. The creativity of gardening, whether at home or at the allotment, is like a balm to the soul.
On top of that, journaling is a well-known method for reducing stress. Putting thoughts onto paper helps to clear the mind of clutter and is an opportunity to see what you achieved.
Meeting other plot-holders and socialising, even at the present two metres, is good for you both.
You or other plot-holders may have an excess of produce and offering these to others can encourage conversation as well as make you feel good and part of the community.
Susan Butler is an editor for Psychreg. She is passionate about finding ways to lead more balanced lives and improve overall health and well-being.