Getting started with an allotment

When you first take on a new allotment, it’s easy to be daunted by knee high weeds and brambles, but do not give in at the first hurdle! Indeed, for the organic gardener, a good healthy crop of weeds is a perfect sign of things to come.

Because the soil has not been cultivated for a number of years, it will have rejuvenated itself and will be free of residual chemicals. Look for a site that is full of nettles, as this indicates a good fertile soil, as does chick weed and rough meadow grass.

Surprisingly, possibly the best time to take an allotment is in late summer or early autumn. This doesn't mean that you cannot take one at any time of the year – of course you can, but  late summer/early autumn will give you time to find what is in the site, and to ask your neighbours what works and what doesn't.

You can also start to plan out the area: deciding where the beds are going to go, where would be a good place for a cold frame, can I squeeze in a greenhouse there, where will the shed go?

Regardless of when you take on an allotment, remember to take it steady. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, but be aware of your limits and plan your work accordingly. Whenever you take out an allotment, do it a bit at a time – but never more than you can manage.

The first steps

Measure the site and draw out a plan, marking in existing thing that you want to keep. Then the real fun begins! You now need to mark out the plot.

The very first thing to decide should be where the compost heap(s) will go! Then, when you are clearing the site, you can cut down the weeds and pile them straight onto the heap instead of dragging them here and there as you go along. Make the heaps about 1m3 – they should be large enough to be practical but not too large so that they take forever to rot down.

While you’re at it, why not make a leaf mould bin. Just hammer in four stakes into the ground to make a square and wrap chicken wire around it.

Ground cover that cuts out the light can be used as mulch. Old newspapers or flattened cardboard boxes covered with straw or manure will do. This will help keep down the weeds while you concentrate on other areas, and will, if left long enough kill the weeds completely.

Use a garden fork and dig the area over carefully, removing as many weed roots as possible. Green manure, like clover or alfalfa can then be grown to protect the soil and help improve the fertility. Simply broadcast the seeds over the bare patch of ground. Depending on what you grow, the crop can be ready to be dug back in, in just a few weeks ready for the main crop to be sown.

The permanent bits

You should take time and plan where you want to put a shed, greenhouse or cold frame. Make sure you get these positioned right first time round, as they cannot be moved later!

Some of the crops you may want to grow will not tolerate being moved around. These are the perennial crops like rhubarb, asparagus, red and white currents, gooseberries raspberries etc. Also consider where you want to plant herbs, as they will prefer full sun in well-drained soil.

Mark out where you want to put the raised beds – if any! Raised beds are considered the best/easiest way to improve the soil, and it’s easier to keep a track of your crop rotation. Raised beds also means that you only dig over the soil you will be growing in. It won’t matter if the soil between the beds becomes hard and compacted; you’re never going to plant there anyway!

Don’t forget to get a water butt or two. Any large water-tight container will do – well cleaned old dustbins are ideal, so are baths but they can look untidy. Please remember to place some mesh or something similar over the top of the butt, this will stop visiting wildlife falling in.

The last but most important feature to consider is where to put your chair! After a long afternoon sowing, planting or harvesting, you need somewhere just to sit and enjoy the results of all your hard work.

Clearing the plot

There are a range of different methods used for clearing plots of stubborn weeds, all of which have their own specific benefits and drawbacks. Consider which methods best suit your circumstances, resources, time and money - combination of methods may be needed to get the plot how you want it.

The following methods are tried and tested on allotment sites:

  • mulches
  • rotovation
  • strimming
  • herbicides (weedkillers)

Mulches

Photosynthesis is the method of turning sunlight into sugars which the plant uses for energy.  All plants use photosynthesis to survive.  Mulches work by stopping light reaching the weeds which prevents them from growing.  Cover them for long enough, and the weed will die, although some perennial weeds like bindweed and docks will take longer than annual weeds like chickweed.

All mulches are used in one of two basic ways:

  • A temporary manmade (inorganic) covering eg plastic or a tarpaulin sheet is laid on the soil and removed in sections as and when the weeds are cleared. It should be left in place and then removed at the end of the process. This method may be best if you are trying to kill off perennial weeds like couch grass, as it can be left in place for a number of months without being damaged. The entire plot can be covered completely with smaller areas of plastic removed as the plot is worked.
  • Alternatively place a layer of natural (organic) covering i.e. well soaked cardboard / thick layer of newspaper which is then covered with manure over the growing area. This permanent mulch is left in place and will eventually rot down. This additional of organic material will also help improve the soil as the layers rot down. It can be planted straight through without having to be removed first. 

Alternatively just the actual growing areas or beds can be mulched while the paths and other areas left uncovered. However the weeds will still have to be controlled.

Carpet

Carpets are not allowed on Authority managed allotments.

There are serious environmental concerns about the various dye(s) used in the manufacture of carpets which may leach into soil and cause contamination.

There are also the practical concerns about the disposal of carpets from allotments once they have outlived their purpose. They do not rot down well and are extremely heavy and difficult to remove once they become soaked and caked with mud and weeds.

Remember do not bring any mulches onto the allotment site that you will not be able to dispose of appropriately later. 

Rotovation

Using a rotovator is a great way to quickly dig over your allotment but it must be remembered that the blades also cut up any weed roots as well as the soil and so a couple of dock or mares tail plants will very quickly become a couple of dozen new little plants.

Rotovating is best done only after the weeds have been killed first – either by spraying them or covering the ground with a plastic mulch covering.

Rotovating can also damage the soil structure if it is done on heavy clay soils which are still wet – wait for a two week period of dry weather before attempting to turn the soil.

Green manures are unlikely to combat very heavy weed infestation, but can be useful after the initial clearance of weeds from a plot and to help suppress weeds on small areas of uncultivated plots. Green manures are also useful to sow in areas between crops to compete against weeds.

Alfalfa, red clover, winter field beans and trefoil should be sown in late summer/autumn as they can withstand hard frost and can be left in the ground over winter. Mustard, crimson clover, fenugreek and buckwheat are sown in the spring as they grow quickly to cover empty ground and can then be dug in before planting other crops.

Strimming

Strimming is a quick effective method of cutting down all the weed growth down to ground level although some thicker weed stems like brambles will need to be cut with a brush cutter.  The only difference between the two is that the strimmer uses nylon thread to cut the stems while the brushcutter has a metal blade.

A petrol strimmer can be hired from local hire shops, or your site association may have one.

Always wear the correct safety clothing when using either of these machines – long trousers, safety boots and eye and ear protectors.

Weedkillers (Herbicides)

There are many types of chemicals is available in garden centres, and they all need to be used with care and within the Control of Pesticides Regulations (amended) (COPRA) (1997).

The most common weedkiller available to gardeners is Glyphosate, which is sold under the trade names: Roundup, SBK Brushwood Killer and Tumbleweed.

Glyphosate is a systemic weedkiller that works over a period of a few weeks. It is absorbed through the leaves, flowers and stems into the whole plant where it is taken right down into the roots killing the whole plant, not just the bits it touches.

Although it is advertised as an environmentally-friendly herbicide, the correct care and precautions should be taken when using as it still has a number of harmful effects on human health, such as skin and lung irritation. Recent research has shown is it lethal to frogs.

Spray in spring on a dry, still day, when weeds have lots of young leaf cover, or in autumn when the plant is passing sugars to the roots for storage. Spray again 14 days later and then (if plot is not used immediately) cover area with a plastic mulch. For added effectiveness, rotovate or dig the bed over 14 days after the first spraying (in dry conditions), leave the soil for another 14 days, spray again and then cover.

Perennial weeds like docks and couch grass may need two or more applications before they are fully eradicated.

Composting weeds

Perennial weeds should not be composted in a standard compost heap as the plant material will re-grow if exposed to any light. Docks or couch grass can be placed in a heavy-duty plastic sack e.g. a fertiliser or old compost bag to break down completely; however you will need to leaves the sacks tied up for 2- 3 years!

Dry out horsetail or bindweed for several days in hot sun before composting or, as a last resort, burn it. Soil and organic matter lost from the plot by weed removal can cause the plot’s soil level to drop noticeably. This will produce a water logged and poorly aerated soil. Remove as little soil as possible when weeding and add generous quantities of organic matter to the soil to compensate.

Planting vigorous ‘pioneer’ species on newly cultivated soil like potatoes, squashes and broad beans, will help to break up the soil and improve its structure.

Tackling rubbish on plots

Wear sturdy gloves and shoes when removing rubbish from plots. The majority of rubbish can be either composted or bagged up and taken to your local recycling centre. 

Asbestos

All grades of asbestos now constitute controlled waste which will be removed by approved contractors. Please contact either your site rep or the Allotments Office on 01274 431000

Glass

Allotments are often littered with broken glass, hidden in undergrowth. If an area of broken glass is found, mark out and cover area with mulch until weeds are dead, making it easier to find and remove glass pieces. The mulch should be something that can be easily removed in one piece.

Paths and boundaries

Wood chip is an attractive path material. Wherever possible to prolong the use of the woodchip, it is best to have a water permeable membrane underneath. Do not use heavy duty polythene unless the wood chip layer is very thick, or the path will become slippery. Wood chip will eventually rot down and will need to be removed and replaced every 3-5 years.

Grass paths can be slippery when muddy, and the grass should be kept neatly cut right up to the edges. All tenants are responsible for the paths outside their plots, as well as those inside and shared paths are a joint responsibility. 

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Council Address : Britannia House, Hall Ings, Bradford BD1 1HX


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