Breaking New Ground 4

 

Stones
To remove or not – that is the question? Generally, unless large stones from the flint layer come up, anything less than an inch or so should never be removed (drainage, cooling and structure). Many will not bother removing any stones – it’s a bit like painting the forth bridge.
Try to rake the soil and not the stones – if they do pile up, just pick out the really big ones and skate the rest evenly back over the plot – during the next dig some will go back in and others will come to the top…
But if creating a stone path between beds, then the rake is the tool for gathering them and with a bit of skill, even grading them to some extent. Although the subsoil can be penetrated to create drainage where necessary, it’s not a good idea to fork out large stones in any underlying clay/flint layer – fortunately, its not easy either. It’s usually when chasing down large tap-rooted weeds or heavy runs of field bindweed that brings the larger stones up – a double-edged sword unfortunately.

 

Bonfires
An allotment plot holder’s divine right? Maybe today but unlikely tomorrow! Traditionally, perennial weed roots and even rough grass turf is burnt and sin of sin, annual weeds. What has to be burnt by common consensus are certain diseased crops, and possibly some weeds that have produced seeds e.g. tall grasses, although a good hot aerobic compost heap can even kill these off. Whatever you do, aim to have as few bonfires as possible (two, maybe three a year is all that is really necessary) and always allow vegetable matter time to dry out first – you’ll be amazed how little is left to burn and how quickly it all goes up. Unless very heavy rains persist, bonfire piles do not get saturated throughout and the top quickly dries again – and they can be covered easily with carpet, wood to be burnt or an old tarp. Choose your moment, check the wind direction and try not to annoy your neighbours – or the local townsfolk. Have a good flare-up occasionally if necessary – but don’t smoulder heaps of dank vegetation for days on end. (Some allotments already have a strict ban on bonfires at certain times or seasons).

 

The Goal
Remember, you are trying to build a layer of weed free fertile topsoil, 9″ to a foot thick, with a good loamy crumb structure, teeming with beneficial bacteria and micro-fungi. Mix the soil up depthwise, and plotwise to avoid areas of poor mineral, pH and nutrient balance. Then let the worms, bacteria and weather do its job, possibly with a good Autumn sowing of green manure. Apart from serious woody stems and diseased plants, give nature a chance to break-down and compost as much vegetable matter as possible – allow the space- then use it a year or two later to re-vitalise your soil.

 

* Perennial weeds:-
… learn to distinguish potential perennial nuisances…( it takes most newcomers a while learning to spot the devil incarnate at thirty paces!). Bindweed, both field and hedge varieties (convolvulus) come into this category, as does Dock – until you get stung, when its leaf-juice becomes the perfect panacea. Nettles, in the right place, are useful and are a good indication of fertile soil as well as excellent composting matter. Comfrey, perhaps in the same category as nettles, is valued highly by the organic gardener for general composting and making comfrey concentrate liquid feed but having a taproot akin to Dock. Another character is Horseradish – love it or hate it – very hard to eradicate due to its deep roots. And don’t be fooled by Buttercup – remove all traces, it’s a fast breeder and if it gets in amongst strawberries – move them – dig it out and then dig it out next year too.

 

A plot infested with Thistles can be quite (very) disheartening – they have lateral roots that snap off and if left in the ground, soon sprout verticals. One old farming tip I have heard of, is to plant hemp heavily over the area. A carpet mulch for at least 2 years can solve a heavy thistle problem- but both these methods require losing production for a while – planning your long term strategy is often necessary to avoid repetitive problems. Cow Parsley should be dug out thoroughly too – it tends to re-appear.

 

Bindweed (convolvulus) takes two forms at least, field and hedge varieties and the latter climbs high and is very pretty when in flower. This is, arguably, easier to eradicate having thicker white roots that can be teased out more easily, whilst the other type has thinner white roots that break up just by looking at them! It is essential to chase this ‘field’ variety right down to its thicker brown roots – keep digging these out for a year or two wherever found and despite what some pessimists say, you will definitely make inroads into its dominance over your plot! However, it is virtually a double dig trenching operation to get down deep enough over a large enough area – your choice – they lie down at or in the subsoil level and can survive years until a sufficient rainfall livens them back up – they have been seen yards down by the ‘navvies’ building railways. A long term carpet mulch or systemic weedkiller can also make them think a bit, but is unlikely to prove a permanent solution.

 

Recommendations:

 

  • When edging your plot’s paths, go deep, trying to remove any thick root-runs coming in from the paths – do this every year, creating a trench and throwing up a bank raising the level of the plot, deep-bed style (it is tempting to then rake stones off the plot into these trenches, but unless subsequently removed, you make regret it!)
  • Use a combination of the above tactics, where appropriate – and stick at it if you have the will, time and strength.
  • Attack specific bad areas vigorously, you will find that this improves matters for a larger area around due to upsetting underground lateral root systems.
  • Don’t rotavate a plot infested with bindweed, buttercup or couch grass.
  • Don’t take on a weed-ridden plot unless you have the commitment to turn it around over a number of years – take half a plot and work it, or wait for one that is in good condition.
  • Perennial roots will all die if left in the sun or daylight for a few days and they stay dry – immediate burning is just not necessary – when dead they can be composted.

 

by Clive Smith

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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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