Clearing an overgrown allotment plot, without using a spade!

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Clearing an over grown plot is achievable without digging.

The two pictures above were taken just eleven weeks apart.

Tackling a newly acquired but overgrown plot is a daunting task, just where do you start? Clearing an area and digging a patch by hand with a spade or rotovator in order to make the plot productive as quickly as possible may seem the obvious way forward. But stop for a few moments and assess what you have taken on, next don't be in a hurry to clear a patch to start planting, you'll be forever hoping your newly sown seeds will give you a wonderful crop. In reality weeds will soon return and overtake any seedlings that are coming through, undoing all the hard work you have put in. At this point if doing so many, unfortunately, give up and walk away in disappointment after just a few weeks. This booklet describes a plot that was overgrown and had been in decline for about two years, it measures about 50 x 12ft. As seen in the photos opposite, on 5th June it was overgrown with bindweed, grass, nettle and some bramble, some small areas had been covered in black plastic sheet. But by the 24th August it was starting to become productive with pumpkins without using a spade!

Our first task was to strim the whole plot to ground level, the grass and weeds which had been cut were removed to compost elsewhere but could of been left within the area to form the basis of a compost heap. With now a virtual blank canvas only some heavy roots of nettles and large tufts of grass remained and needed to be removed, other than that no other preparation or digging was done. Two days later we spread quite a thin layer of hops over the whole area, just about covering the surface. On top of this we laid thick cardboard. Bike boxes from cycle shops are excellent for this and retailers are usually only too pleased to give them away. The boxes were cut down on one corner and when opened out they cover an area of 10ft x 4ft, just perfect for what is needed.

Following this we started to spread a liberal layer of hops, up to about 3 inches over the whole area and a few days later courgette, giant pumpkins and squash were planted as cover crops, the picture taken on the 8th August shows how the plants have started to establish. And as can be seen in the photo of the 24th August the plot is now almost entirely covered.

Since clearing the plot some eleven weeks earlier it has become quite productive. Courgettes have been abundant; squash are developing and the pumpkins whilst perhaps not competition winners are proving nevertheless to be very heavy to lift.

By 25th September some of the pumpkin foliage had started to show signs of losing strength necessitating in some of it being removed and consigned to a designated area for composting at the top of the plot.

The picture above on the left is the beginning of our compost pile on the plot, we have added some grass cuttings and over the coming weeks the pile will take all leaves from the plants which the area has produced. The right hand photo shows further additions to the heap of coffee grounds, light cardboard and spent hops.

6th October. The first plants have been removed; the courgettes are now exhausted and have been lifted whilst the pumpkins, mostly those in the background of the photo below have been harvested for Hallowe’en. From the first examination of the area there is no weed growth of any concern and the cardboard membrane is no longer visible, only fragments remain. The compost pile is growing and now includes the courgette plants and its first layer of heavy duty cardboard which as a trial is acting as a replacement for plastic sheeting. Whilst this too will decompose it is for now working as an insulator and to a certain extent will help keep the pile from becoming too wet. As the heap progresses we’ll add further layers of cardboard at intervals.

13th October.

Near the top of the plot, just below the compost pile (seen left in the photo) a section of hops were raked back to reveal the soil below. The 4ft timber batten at the top of the picture is used as a guide to create our first no-dig bed. A close inspection shows that some bindweed roots have remained and were removed, though a watch will still need to be maintained at a later date for any re-growth. Though no other weeds were apparent the opportunity was taken for area to be further cleaned using an oscillating hoe.

Our first bed was marked out using two string lines, 4ft apart.

This was followed by adding 4in wide timbers supported on their sides with pegs to create temporary edges for our bed and their only purpose is to retain the compost until the next stage.

The bed has now been filled with a 1 to 2in layer of homemade compost from an open heap seen in the inset picture from a nearby plot which was started nine months earlier. The total volume of the compost was six wheelbarrow loads.

When the compost fill was complete, spare hops on the outside of the bed were raked up to the timber to retain the compost until the next stage.

The next picture shows the timber removed and the bed is almost ready for planting.

The intention is to sow Broad Beans seeds directly into the bed to over winter, but firstly the compost needs a few days to settle and a thermal net tunnel has been added to offer the seedlings some protection throughout the winter.

The first picture, below left, is of the tunnel skeleton and on the right after it was covered. The ends are left open for now but after sowing the net will be drawn across to meet in the middle and be secured on the upright post. The structure was simply built using five lengths of 25mm water pipe, each 2m long. Metal rods were first inserted into the ground which the pipe slid over. To help support the net canes have been secured centrally on the underside of the pipe. An upright batten at each end helps make the tunnel rigid and is secured against the last pipe and the central cane. The net is 2m wide to match the length of our pipework and meets the ground neatly and can be held in place using wire pegs or as in our case spring clips as seen on the next page.

The clips used in our trial have proved extremely robust as is the thermal net which gives protection from wind, birds, frost and heavy rain whilst being porous it does allow some rain through. Manufacturers claim it allows light passage of up to 86%, it also serves as a shade barrier and will last for at least five years which has proven to be true and can even be washed!

Our best achievement from the plot was put to good use‌

We were delighted that our largest pumpkin was snapped up by Landrace Bakery, Bath for a Halloween sale to the highest bidder with proceeds to Dorothy House Hospice.

1st December.

The photo above is a glimpse inside the tunnel, it was taken four weeks after sowing broad bean seeds direct into our previously spread compost. There was no evidence of any mice damage and at least 95% germination success. The weather had been relatively mild but with some heavy persistent rain, the seedlings though appear to have benefited from the thermal net protection. Some light weeding was necessary in the bed but with the compost being friable this was an easy task and completed in minutes. Meanwhile the plot continues its self-renovation. The layer of spent hops has not been added to since the initial application, but most importantly there has been no evidence of any significant perennial weed growth. Continued on the next page.

Whilst the weather has been exceptionally wet the hops have not been able to dry out and to compensate the area receives a rake over every ten days or so. But underlying worm activity is obvious as the hops are frequently disturbed presumably by visiting foxes and badgers who we know live nearby. Our picture below shows an update of the plot with our broad bean tunnel in the background. Looking closely, the slightly upturned surface of hops can be seen after a recent worm search.

This diary is to be continued, please make a note to check back for further updates. Please read our notes on the next page.

Please Note. Essentially it is the heavy duty cardboard which acting as a light obliterating membrane initially stems any growth underneath it and it is appreciated that not everyone may have access to a supply of spent hops such as that used in this trial. As a substitute to hops other composted material could be used to cover the cardboard, alternatively a thin layer of wood chips could be placed over the cardboard; these will help extend the life of the cardboard and help keep it in place.

I will be pleased to receive any comments or queries of using spent hops on allotments, please email me at Web site: Twitter: @CompostBin22 Facebook: allotmentshed22 Štheallotmentshed. Photographs and content may not be copied or reproduced without permission.

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