Breaking New Ground 2

 

Tackling large areas of grass and rough (dirty) ground.
There are a few ways of tackling weedy, grassy ground. But first it is best said that the time to turn dirty weedy ground into a fine looking fully cultivated plot is two to three seasons – and a lot of work. If you really don’t think your commitment is at or close to that level it might be best to consider allowing someone else to have that allotment garden resource – they are becoming more popular and quite scarce in some parts of the country.

 

Methods:

 

      1. Set it aside for a year and half (no more than two and a half) covered in heavy carpet or black plastic (heavy DPM). Provided it is held down flat, does not blow away or succumb to UV damage in that time, will then have dealt with the majority of difficult weeds, especially thistle and dock and have made a good impression on much of the bindweed or ground elder. This gives you a fighting chance provided you thoroughly dig the plot over, removing any live weeds as soon as it is lifted. Additionally, the rotted weeds will have provided good fertiliser and humus to the soil. Don’t leave carpet for much more than 24 months, if it too rots in situ you may well live to regret it! You can cover the edges of DPM with soil to keep it down, but again, this is not advised with carpets, as it will soon become part of the problem. Carpets are best as they allow some moisture penetration to maintain the rotting process. Don’t use foam or rubber backed carpets. Watch for the pile starting to drop out or the propylene backing weave breaking down badly under UV light – lift, bag and dispose of immediately.
      2. Rotavate or dig?. Nearly as controversial as bonfires, since unless the plot is very clean and well cultivated to start with, this will just break all the perennial weeds and grass roots up (bindweed, thistle and dock particularly), throw it about and bury it everywhere, creating a nightmare weed lawn again a few weeks after it next rains! Most live to regret using this modern mechanical marvel on an allotment plot full of turf and perennial weeds. If the weeds are simply annual varieties and light grasses (rather than couch) then it can be a fast way to prepare the plot – though frowned on by many traditional allotment plot holders – many are out for a good workout these days as well as good fresh crops; taken steadily, a good dig does wonders for strength, stamina and general fitness (remember that working men would have been hardened to physical labour from a much earlier age). If digging/weeding, make a point of standing up, taking a stretch and a look around at regular intervals – don’t wait until you ache!
      3. Cut the top turf/weed layer off with a spade. Then ‘clamp’ the turfs (stack back to back in a regular heap, cover with DPM or heavy carpet and leave for 18 months to 2 years) – the result? – perfect loam! Then one can dig over more easily the ground, removing the big weed roots by spot digging as you go – those big tap roots must come out, preferably ‘whole from the hole’. Sieve out with a fork anything that looks like thistle, dock, cow parsley, buttercup, bindweed, or ground elder – indeed anything perennial that looks the least bit alive – apart from the worms of course -chuck them onto freshly dug ground, they’ll live. If there were turfs on the top then the ground should have worms beneath – always a good sign. The first dig should be as deep and as thorough as your spirit and strength allows – but don’t attack the subsoil layer unless its full of deep tap roots or bindweed.
      4. Remove and knock out turfs, the top few inches, preferably onto a plank, corrugated iron or plastic sheet. The theory is that the soil around the turf and weed roots is the most fertile and rich in nitrogen and humus. So return it to the plot, having shaken out the weed and root growths, which then will compost much faster. Provided these are added to a good ‘hot’ aerobic heap, seeds and root weeds should be killed off. Otherwise, a long rotting period in a ‘cold’ heap, as in the ‘clamp’ method above should be used – these will eventually produce excellent compost. Before being used, material from this style of composting should be sieved, and any live weed recycled through the process a second time. Then check over the top surface for missed deep rooted weeds, chase down any tap-rooted weeds and especially fork carefully right under areas of bindweed, ground elder etc., attempting to remove every trace – so it’s said, 1/10th inch will grow again! Break up any large clods of soil, rake off the finished area and if possible, leave to settle a while before planting. Once levelled-off and ready, use a plank to walk on it for planting – you have spent a lot of energy aerating it!

 

Deep beds/ raised beds – what are they and where are the benefits?
These are promoted (principally by organic gardeners) as a way of providing easy access to a growing bed so that walking on the soil is unnecessary – avoiding compaction. They are particularly suited to plots running down a slope. Usually running across the plot and being no more than 5 ft in width, the soil is mounded up (Bob Flowerdew method) or contained by raised borders. Paths between the beds are often first sheeted with a weed suppressant (e.g. Mypex) before being mulched heavily with sand, pea-shingle, stones, wood chips (often available free on-site) or bark.
Provided that deep-rooted perennials are dug out properly to start with, annual mulching and the lack of compaction soon leads to good aerated soil with a high humus content and theoretically at least, few serious weeds – all without the necessity for annual digging. Light tilling and removal of annual weeds before planting and then around plants as they mature is necessary, but the mulching suppresses deep growth of the rapid spreading weed types.

 

Since some plots might be overrun with brambles and perennials, in order to ensure a nominally weed-free bed to start with, it might be wise to treat the newly dug area as a ‘stale seed bed’ first e.g. create a good tilth, rake it flat and then keep it damp for a couple of months – just to see what comes up! Weed that thoroughly and finish constructing the raised bed. Creating a set of raised beds naturally lends itself to a longer-term project, inviting a systematic approach to cultivating an allotment plot in stages over several seasons if the time to prepare the whole plot is limited. A first working bed can be prepared and sown, whilst other areas are undergoing the more thorough weeding that this form of gardening requires, remembering that the payback is not having to do the annual dig from end to end, nor the application of heavy manures. Don’t skimp on the preparation of paths, it will amaze a newcomer how some things can grow through almost any gap, and then sprout into a veritable jungle – nature is all powerful! Annual mulches should be applied at the right time – they can keep moisture out of the soil just as well as in – take advice. If using the banked-up method without solid borders, choose suitable varieties to grow on the sides, where some faces will get more direct sunlight and others less.

 

And remember, deep-beds are not necessarily a better, nor worse style of gardening than a ‘dug all over plot’- just different! They do, however, reduce the total area under cultivation.

 

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Allotment Handbook

 
We have recently revised our allotment handbook which you can see by clicking on the following link:
Sunnyside Allotments Handbook Revised May 2016
 
 

Ted Dyer

 
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Click on the image above to read the many tributes to Ted.

 

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