Allotments

Starting with a weedy mess is normal and if so, my video has tips for clearing ground no dig.

Advice which may be applicable to your situation – take the bits which work for you. Every site is different, every gardener has different needs, abilities and resources.

Clearing

Allotments are big, too big for most people to dig over and clear in a weekend. However you can mulch any size area quickly, with cardboard or polythene – see my video about clearing weeds without digging.

The key point is to starve weeds of light.

Making beds – compost

With clean soil you could make some beds of any size by simply putting compost or well rotted manure on top. What compost or manure? I can’t advise for every situation, sometimes municipalities sell ‘green waste compost’, sometimes not. There may be a local stables but you need to find a car (or tractor) and trailer to bring in enough manure, preferably dark and well rotted.

Organic farmers don’t usually sell manure – they need it all and value it too highly – and there have been problems with contaminated manure from horse manure. It has been realised, too late, that some animal dung contains herbicide from their diet of treated grass or hay. so try asking questions of your source like “was the feed grass sprayed with aminopyralid herbicide?” Yes we live in a rotten world!

It is mostly horse manure that has this problem, because horse owners like clean hay.

Making beds – sides

Beds with compost on are often bordered with wood of 6” (15cm) width, but this is not obligatory. Enclosed beds are clearly defined and look neater, but their edges can dry out more in summer than un-bordered beds where compost is allowed to spill slightly into pathways. The compost is not wasted because roots feed into paths and also use them as a moisture resource.

A further issue with wooden sides is how they harbour slugs and woodlice, especially as they begin to age and decay. You can save money and trouble by not using them but paths then need to be more weed-free, so that weeds don’t spread into beds.

Paths

These need to be weed free, as much as beds. I use cardboard to mulch paths for 6-9 months, enough time to kill most weeds. You need to put more cardboard on top every three months, before weeds can grow through the older, decaying cardboard.

So you will be using polythene or cardboard in year one, to clear perennial weeds. This is easier if you remove old wooden sides before starting.

Path characteristics:

  1. They are permanent, in the same place every year
  2. Mulched soil in paths maintains structure, fertility and moisture, available to plant roots from the bed edges
  3. They are not just ‘ground to walk on’ but part of your growing space.

Path mulches

Think of mulches as feed for the soil, as well as to suppress weed growth. When soil is undisturbed and it’s inhabitants are well fed, fewer weeds grow, so the two go together.

  • This is one reason I don not recommend path mulches of membrane or polythene, which add nothing to soil fertility unless you lift them annually to spread an organic mulch.
  • The other reason is soil pollution, read on.

Beware the tendency for mulches of any kind of plastic to disappear below surface level. It seems impossible at first sight for this to happen, but I hear stories frequently of  people taking on new allotments in the UK, then discovering synthetic carpet, plastic and membranes buried and out of sight. Once some soil or compost and weeds land on them, nature quickly colonises the surface. Such buried materials are impermeable both to the roots of our plants and to larger organisms in the soil, and are therefore a general hindrance to growth. Plus they are a pollutant in the case of non-wool carpets, i.e.99%+ of carpets available.

  • Cardboard is not pollutant-free, but I have not observed problems to worms and plantings from using it just occasionally. In the case of path mulches, one to three layers of cardboard serve to kill most weeds, and this is necessary only in year one if there are lots of weeds to clear.

I like to use woody mulches on paths, where practical. When beds have no sides, don’t overdo the depth of woody mulch, to prevent a lot of it ending up on your beds. A little is fine, more is fine too if the wood is half or more decomposed.

Timings

If your compost is soft and even, you can sow or plant straightaway. Otherwise it works well to make beds a month before starting to sow or plant, so that a little weathering can happen and perhaps a first flush of weeds can be hoed off or hand weeded.

Is it your first time growing vegetables? If so, take a good look around at how neighbours are doing, and what crops are growing well. Be prepared for some failures until you have enough experience to appreciate what works for you.

Mulching

The uncultivated remainder of your space could be mown or scythed and then covered with black polythene or old, wool carpet. Cardboard can be used but will decompose before perennial weeds such as couch grass, docks, dandelions and buttercup are dead, so it will need renewing every 2 months or so, depending how thick it is. When used for clearing ground, cardboard is best weighed down with a few stones or poles around its edges.

Perennial weeds that are mulched take different lengths of time to die off, according to how much food and energy they have stored in their roots. The following lengths of time in complete darkness are to give you an idea: buttercup 2-3 months, dandelions and stinging nettles 4 months, ground elder 12 months, couch grass 9-15 months, bindweed and mares tail 18 months plus. These are approximate numbers, times can be less in summer and more in winter.

If you are faced with only annual weeds (bliss!), cardboard is still useful as the first layer of a weed free mulch, with 7-10cm/3-4in compost on top which can be sown or planted into.

Maintenance

From two to six inches of compost is the one-off, initial application. Once a no dig system is up and running, with perennial weeds gone and only vegetables growing, the annual application of organic matter is no greater than on any other well run garden, about 3-5cm/1-2in per annum.

  • Compost is to keep soil alive and healthy, as well as for the nutrients it brings in. All the soil fauna and fungi that are not damaged by digging can become more abundant and help plants to grow more healthily.

Putting compost and composted manure on top serves to create, over time, a soil that is well structured but firm, free draining but also moisture retentive, and darker on top, with a superficial tilth that can be sown or planted into. This approach works well even for carrots and parsnips, crops that are supposed to fork when compost or manure has been added. Potatoes need loose compost or soil, but only near the surface for their tubers to swell, and “earthing-up” with compost replicates this.

It is a fair job to mulch and set up a clean, no dig plot, but by the end of a year you should find gardening becomes more enjoyable and creative, with less of the routine weeding above all. Just do not allow any of the (smaller) number of weeds to go to seed!

Allan Cavill, Regional Director and South West Mentor of the National Allotment Association, says that no dig allotments stand out for their fewer weeds and healthy plants; he is surprised there is not more take up of no dig on allotments. He is worth contacting for advice, having practised no dig on his plot since the 1960s.

Claire Lassman, a biologist from Frome in Somerset, wrote in June 2016 that “On the allotment site where I have a plot, it is easy to tell those who use no dig because the veg they grow is so vibrant”.

Below is a tale of two allotments…

Nottingham Allotment, reclaimed and run without digging

Here are some pictures of Robin Baxter’s no dig allotment in Ilkeston, Derbyshire which he took over in a dire state, just after visiting Lower Farm in 2008. The images are testament to his commitment and to the fact that he is no stranger to hard graft where it is needed, mostly at the beginning stages. The plot is now clean, fertile, needs much less input of time and he grows a lot of delicious food there now.

Robin now is master gardener for Garden Organic in Rye Prison nr Coventry, running a hugely successful programme, helping prisoners through their involvement in creating a beautiful garden, on Ministry of Defence lack-of-soil! Robin’s work is receiving much acclaim from university researchers.

 

Bruton, Somerset: Steph Hafferty

Here are some photos of Steph’s allotment in Bruton where, instead of digging in 2008/9, Steph spread green waste compost and some cow manure on beds that were already in place, just slightly raised soil with no wooden edges or borders of any kinds. Before that she had done a thorough weed although many annual weeds would have been smothered by the three inch covering.

The soil is heavy clay and perennial weeds are endemic to the site – creepng tourmentil, couch grass and bindweed, but no marestail. Steph had got on top of the perennials during the two preceding seasons but was not harvesting a huge amount of vegetables, especially in autumn and winter.

By this stage we had fourteen slightly raised beds with narrow pathways between them. The green waste compost contained quite a few small bits of wood and is not hugely rich in nutrients, but was free of weed seeds and served as an initial weed suppressing and life enhancing mulch. Worms could now get busy while fungi, bacteria and all the vital organisms needed for a healthy, fertile could multiply.

Then in 2012, Alan did a sponsored bike ride and was absent a lot so he suggested that Steph help out with his allotment. Her idea was to spread cow manure about two inches thick and weed any plants pushing through, with winter squash planted in June. However… the weather messed this up rather as a combination of residual weeds and slugs and a lack of good weeding weather meant that harvests were small on Alan’s plot, although good as usual on her own allotment, with few weeds.

In 2013 and 2014, she mulched Alan’s plot with polythene and composted manure, before planting squash, beans, potatoes and brassicas, with good results.
On her plot she grew great gar;ic and onions, followed by some stunning autumn and winter brassicas including calabrese, Brussels sprouts and savoy cabbage.

Steph's plantings and mulch before squash
Spring 2014, a tale of two allotments – now they are both left undug! still mulching some couch grass on the left.

 

33 thoughts on “Allotments

  1. Hello, Charles. The link to your pdf seems to be broken. Thank you for putting your work out there. It’s been enlightening! Best regards from Spain.

  2. Hi I have had a 10 rod allotment for a year now, I have now decided to have a no dig allotment as there were so many weeds.Istarted with putting cardboard down and rotted down manure on top. Its going to take a while but I think its worth it. cheers for now.

      1. Hi Charles I’m starting a no dig allotment. Do I just cover my allotment with cardboard, then a good thick cover of compost? Do I put more cardboard on top of the compost next year if weeds come through? Really want to get this going asap.

  3. Me and my wife have recently took on a allotment we’re doin raised beds with no dig we want to grass round the boxes what’s the best grass seed for the job

  4. I’m just starting a ‘no dig’ on my allotment which is full of weeds and very uneven. Do I need to level out the plot first before I cover with cardboard?

    1. Hello Margaret and I would make it level, which sadly means some soil disturbance, but worth it in the end.
      It will make every operation more pleasant, and it’s then easier to spread all mulches evenly.

  5. I started last year trying no dig and was very pleased with my red king pots and followed through with leeks and then onions. I laid down poly and old carpets for 11 months I have seen a farmer for beef manure 2 year old seeing him this week for a load or two I have 3 allotment as well as a big patch between my plots

  6. Many thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’ve enjoyed watching some of your YouTube videos too. As I’m just getting started I don’t have my own compost yet and doubt I’ll ever be able to produce enough. Some of my neighbours bury green waste, to make bean trenches etc. Could I spread garden waste on the soil instead of putting it in compost bin? Was thinking I could then cover with cardboard and black plastic. At moment cardboard is easier for me to get hold of than purchasing manure.

    1. Nice to hear Patricia, except about crazy people who bury waste in trenches 🥵
      You can mulch with waste matter, unless you live in a damp area where it would harbour slugs.
      It would be difficult to sow seeds.
      The cardboard is not needed unless you have a lot of weeds to smother. I would lay it first, the organic matter on top.

  7. Really enjoying your videos and blogs, Charles. I’m fully converted to no dig on my allotment. One question. We have quite a big patch of brambles. Last autumn we dug out a lot of the big roots – and disturbed 30 or 40 slow worms which we relocated to the compost heap. There’s some brambles we didn’t get out plus some regrowth. Can we mulch with compost and plastic and then plant through that? Thanks!

    1. Wow that is a lot of slow worms!
      Problem with brambles is how they push up through mulches.
      Can be done but you would need to use gloves to keep snapping off new growth, for more than a year probably.

  8. We have lots of thin rubber backed carpet available. Can this be used for a base layer instead of cardboard for a new no dig bed? Thank you

    1. Lorraine I think not, would be surprised if there are no synthetic products in there, even flame retardants, unless it’s say 50-60 years old.

  9. I am about to start a no dig approach on my 80ft grass covered allotment. Also have goose grass and horse tail to contend with. Was planning on starting with a few raised beds at one end and covering the rest for the autumn/ winter. Will lay cardboard but you’ll you recommend mulching with compost or with rotten manure? Easier for me to get the compost I think. And then cover with plastic?
    Can’t wait to get going

  10. Hi Charles….just extended my plot and cleared a very overgrown plot next to me to create one bigger area. I want to start “no dig”….have selected a couple of areas which I have cleared. I intend to lay cardboard and then organic compost on top…can I then sow directly into the compost?
    Many Thanks,
    Michael

    1. Yes Michael for sure. Make sure tha card is damp, and have enough compost for roots to explore for two months or so, until the card softens Compost depth min 10cm/4in

  11. Hi Charles I am very new to this….but have been offered a patch of ground that is fairly clear of weeds. I read above that you say you don’t really need cardboard if there are ne weeds, just compost…is this right? I’m also a little concerned about the area around the patch of ground….can I put wood chip or similar down around the plot to mark where the plot starts and ends? Excited but a bit daunted…….
    Many thanks for all your wonderful advice
    Mo

    1. Sounds promising Mo. No card and no weeds means an initial compost depth of say 5cm/2in, so you need less.
      But any large weeds would grow through so lever them out first – or lay cardboard, and wet it as it’s summer, then compost over.
      Yes make an edge – card overlapped, then chips say 3-5cm.
      Good luck.
      You have a lot to learn!

  12. Good morning Mr D!

    I have an allotment that we started in Feb, and then the current situation started – so our little patch hasn’t had the best care. I’m starting your no dig method now. I’m slowly converting my previously dug patch with no-dig beds, using a mixture of pallet collars and compost for some raised beds and now starting some un-edged beds further into the plot.

    I’ve bought your books (which are WONDERFUL by the way!) but I’m still a little confused on paths. Do I simply treat the paths as I do the beds (cardboard ->compost) but a little less compost compared to the beds?

    Thank you so much! I’ll see you soon – I’m treating myself to one of your weekend courses for my 40th next year!

    Oberon

    1. Thanks nice to hear, and simple answer, yes. Paths are party of the rooting space, want to be weed free and soil fed. A little compost initially, then a little woody mulch among many options.
      See you soon!

  13. Hi Charles! I’ve just found your page after doing some research on a new allotment (a little late as I’ve already dug perennial weeds out of the poly tunnel) I have another 6 meters sq or so on the allotment covered in brambles, nettles and marestail- I would ideally like to be planting this spring, if I cover with cardboard, compost/manure and then mypex do you think it’ll be ready to sow for this spring? It’s my first allotment- thank you for your help!!

    1. Hi Chanelle, I would lever out the main bramble stems then yes cover now. I suggest not mypex, either nothing or just black polythene works well, and yes plant in spring after rolling back the plastic

  14. On my allotment I’ve gradually reduced my digging over last 10 years using both carpets and plant-through weed membrane This year I was given permission to take some very old stable waste (6 yrs+) from a disused riding school close by This has been hard work but I’m about a third of the way through covering my beds in cardboard and 3″ of the stuff but the sheer size of my brassicas and sweetcorn has been a big surprise! Mine is hungry free draining sandy soil so I’m a bit worried about leaching over winter Do you cover with anything I’m in Leamington Spa Many thanks for your inspirational work😁

  15. Due to my ailing back, I have adapted the no dig method. Thank you for all the inspiration! I see that your paths are very narrow with a thin layer of woodchips. I have ca. 100m2 veg garden with all sorts. I need mores space to get around than the 50 cm concrete tiles I now have between the beds. What would you recommend for covering for the 1 m paths between 1 m beds that I am planning?

    1. Those are wide paths and wood chip can help you. First lay cardboard in case of perennial weeds, then spread them thicker than I do say 5cm/2in

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