For low-maintenance plots, there are two aspects to consider, namely what you grow and how you grow it. When it comes to choosing low-maintenance crops, opt for winter squashes, drying beans, chillies, maincrop potatoes, rhubarb, globe and Jerusalem artichokes, beetroot, carrots, kale, onions, garlic, shallots, perpetual spinach and chard. All these crops, once planted, require a quick weed and water now and then, and no mollycoddling. If you don’t religiously water any of the above, chances are that, when you do eventually visit the plot, there will be something for you to harvest, and it will be of good edible quality (OK, so yields might not be huge, but what did you expect?).
That’s half the secret: choosing crops that won’t spoil if you don’t harvest them at a fleeting peak. Peas, sweetcorn, radishes, broad, French and runner beans, courgettes and calabrese are also low-maintenance but their harvest window is brief, so you’ve got to visit the plot every few days to pick your moment. Parsley, mint, oregano, thyme and chives are good candidates too (fennel also self-seeds everywhere on our site, so we’re never without it).
So, to the care of them. The solution for weeds? Plastic or cardboard mulches – they’re brilliant. Just lay them either side of your row, weigh them down and pop your hoe on eBay. Watering can be a bane in some years but a good occasional soak is far better than a daily light sprinkle, so visiting your site every fortnight for an hour of watering is a prudent use of your time. Sinking bottles by the roots of large plants such as squashes and corn will make things even quicker – just fill up the bottle and walk away. The moisture will slowly soak into the rootzone, right where it’s needed.
Low-maintenance pest- and disease-control is not going to happen – gardeners need to regularly check over plants and nip any problems in the bud. All you can do is grow crops that show resistance to diseases that are known to be prevalent on your plot, such as tomato/potato blight and clubroot, and follow the “prevention is better than cure” rule as closely as we can. Net all brassicas against pigeons and cabbage white caterpillars. Erect a wire perimeter fence if rabbits are a nuisance. If anyone knows of a low-maintenance slug and snail option, let me know – at the moment organic pellets are my best suggestion. I grow salads and other edible leaves in my back garden where I can give this pest more attention.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that you can’t spend more time on your allotment – many people do just that.