John Hall, 89, with prize-winning vegetables at his allotment at Foots Cray, London, 1942
John Hall, 89, with prize-winning vegetables at his allotment at Foots Cray, London, 1942 © Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Allotments are often tucked away in unlikely places — flanking train lines or slotted behind housing estates — so you may have to do some detective work to find your nearest plot.

In the UK, the biggest site owner is local authorities, so the first place to ask is your town or borough council, or check on this government page: gov.uk/apply-allotment.

Some allotments are owned by private landlords, so if nothing suitable is on offer from the local authority, use the online Ordnance Survey map to search for brown patches — the colour for allotments and community gardens — in your area.

Some sites have long waiting lists, particularly in big cities, so you may not be able to be picky about your plot.

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If you are lucky enough to be offered the chance to rent an allotment, check the site rules before you sign a tenancy agreement: there may be limitations on whether you can erect sheds or plant trees, use hosepipes or keep livestock, such as chickens, bees and rabbits.

Facilities such as a trading shed, where you can buy supplies, and on-site toilets are useful. A source of water and good security in the form of fencing and a padlocked gate are vital.

If you are offered a choice of plots, ask to visit. Check each carefully: how far is it from the tap and the access gate? Is it rampant with brambles, or overrun with half-buried rubbish? Or is it neat and ready to go? These factors will help your chances of successfully taming your plot.

Allotment sizes are measured in the archaic unit of poles — also known as rods: one pole is just over 5 metres. A “full plot” usually refers to ground covering 10 square poles, or about 253 sq m, which is slightly smaller than a tennis court. If you are starting out, it is probably wise to ask for a half plot, particularly if the land is overgrown.

Rents vary, but the UK’s National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners says you should expect to pay between £25 and £125 a year for a plot; concessions are often available for pensioners, the unemployed and students.

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Set aside time every week to maintain your plot: during the summer, it is not unusual to spend a whole day at the weekend and at least one evening there.

Bringing a full plot back into cultivation takes time and energy: tenancy agreements usually require plot holders to keep it in a good state and for it to be productive, although you will be given leeway to renovate an overgrown plot.

Landlords have the right to inspect plots and if you allow yours to become overgrown, you may receive an “untidy plot letter” and, eventually, face eviction if you fail to address the problem.

Once you have got your precious plot, do not rush in headlong with your spade: first, check over your patch, noting what is already there, from raised beds and compost bins to raspberry bushes and rhubarb plants.

Next, sketch out what you want to go where, from shed to beds. The cheapest option is a series of rectangular growing areas separated by grass paths. Raised beds made out of old scaffolding boards are a popular choice, especially on plots with heavy clay soil where they can improve drainage.

Your site may offer to rotovate your whole plot for a small fee, but think carefully before agreeing to this seemingly tempting possibility to dig over the ground without back-breaking work.

Unless you remove all the perennial weeds first, mechanical tillers will simply break every piece of invasive weed, such as couch grass and bramble root, into thousands of new weeds. Instead, try to split the space into chunks and tackle each one in turn, clearing perennial weeds.

Then you have a choice: digging over the ground, or a no-dig approach. The latter involves clearing perennial weeds, such as brambles and horsetail, then laying sheets of corrugated cardboard over the ground and covering with organic material such as compost or well-rotted manure.

Although digging may be a quicker way to establish productive beds, no-dig is less back-breaking and can help to enhance the structure and fertility of the soil. Visit charlesdowding.co.uk for expert advice.

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Once you have your first bed ready for planting, it is time to decide what to grow. Be realistic — self-sufficiency is, even for the experienced allotmenteer, a remote possibility. So it is vital to choose things you enjoy eating, rather than copying your neighbours.

If you are worried about food shortages, think about what will produce a speedy crop. First early potatoes planted now will be ready by June or July, and peas should be ready for harvesting about nine weeks after sowing.

Rather than planting everything at once, try to sow successionally — little and often every couple of weeks for crops such as lettuce, beetroot, chard, radishes and French beans will mean your harvest period is longer and will help you avoid gluts.

Do not forget flowers: they will liven up your plot, fill vases at home and encourage useful pollinators. Try sowing hardy annuals such as cornflowers, pot marigolds and sweet peas in rows between the veg.

Finally, if you cannot find a plot to rent, a window box, back step or tiny patio can become a productive space. The principle is the same: grow what you want to eat.

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