Some suggestions on how to turn a rough allotment plot into a working plot. The aim is to prepare a plot or part of a plot for a growing season. The principle stages are clearing and digging including weed removal.
Note: Unless you are very sure that there are no weeds in the plot do not attempt to use a rotovator to clear a rough plot, it will only make the situation worse. Even a weed killer will not kill all the weeds.
The best time to start is as soon as possible after taking on a plot. With the main growing season between March and October the optimum time to start clearing an overgrown plot is sometime during the autumn when it has not rained for about a week but has rained sometime during the previous three to four weeks. The reason for this is that we don’t want the ground to be rock hard nor do we want it to be heavy with water. An autumn start means that autumn and winter varieties, such as Aquadulce Broad Beans and Onion sets, can be planted. That said, provided the conditions are reasonable, a plot can be dug at any time.
- Go around the edge with a spade pushing the spade in to the full length of its blade. This will mark out the perimeter of the plot and cut off any roots to/from grass and other plants in the paths.
- With a spade slice off the top layer of grass, etc to expose the soil underneath. Try not to take soil with the grass. This grass, etc. can be dried out and burnt. Do not attempt to burn wet or damp grass, it smokes too much. Take great care when burning grass by keeping the fire small and controllable. Buckets of water must be kept close at hand.
- The next step is to start the digging but first a few comments.
- For the main digging use a fork because it won’t break weed roots into many pieces making them difficult to remove. Also it won’t cut worms in two.
- Get a pair of gloves with a cloth or breathable back and robust palm that has grip. (a pair of the yellow builders gloves)
- Since your fork will become like a close friend it’s worth getting one with a comfortable handle.
- A bucket or wheelbarrow for the weeds is essential too.
- Decide where on your plot you will heap weeds. It is a good idea to keep weeds separate from other compostable material because weed seeds do not compost they lay domant until you spread the compost when they burst into life covering your plot in Dandelions, Thistles, Buttercups, etc. Somewhere along the north side is usual.
- If you are not used to physical exercise take frequent rests. If you have had “heart trouble” of any kind consult your doctor. There is little point to digging if the outcome is an aching body. Digging can lead to you getting up a head of steam so take refreshment, e.g. water.
- Experiment with the way you grip your fork. Change hands from time to time. Using different sets of muscles means the ache gets shared.
- Essentially there are two ways to approach the digging. The single spit and the double spit dig. A spit is the depth of the fork tines/prongs. There are many books that describe the technique of digging. For a quick result, giving ground that can be sown or planted, single spit digging is sufficient. The obvious advantage of double spit digging is that deep-rooted weeds can be removed but can be very hard work. However, since the lower spit over most, if not all, the Redford Avenue site is clay, is not recommended.
- Assuming single spit digging, first dig a trench along one side of the plot, moving the soil to the opposite edge of the plot. Be careful not to take too large an amount of earth each time. Starting out one could take 2 to 3 ins (5 to 8 cms) by a fork width.
- When the trench is finished. Push the fork in 2 to 3 ins (up to half a fork width) from the edge of the trench and parallel to it. Lift out the earth from the side of the trench, turn it over into the what was the trench. Shake out any weeds discarding them into bucket or barrow. Continue in rows each time turning the earth into where the previous row was lifted. (Grass doesn’t grow upside down) Continue moving from side to side until the whole plot has been “turned over”. Adopting an approach where one digs in one direction only means that you can straighten up on the return to begin the next row.
- When turning over the earth remove all weeds, in particular, dandelions, thistles, couch grass and bind weed. Take great care with removal of couch grass, which has a root system that spreads laterally like a mat, because the pointed white shoots on the root system break off very easily. Also with bindweed which has a very white curly root. If digging is done in the late autumn then manure or compost can be dug in at the same time. Ideally manure is forked into a trench prior to the next row being turned over onto it. Alternatively, manure can be spread on top of an already dug patch and be left for the worms to integrate it into the soil. Some people leave a heap of manure to rot down then integrate it with a rotovator during soil preparation prior to sowing and planting out. It is important to note that manure should NOT be added to ground that is to be used for root crops in the following season because it causes the roots to fork and become difficult to use in the kitchen.
- Although best started in the autumn a rough plot can be started in the spring. The main difference is that the plot is cultivated in strips with early spring varieties being planted as you go.
- It is unlikely that you will remove all weeds but diligence pays off.
- Having dug and substantially cleaned a plot, if the weather hasn’t done it, the soil will need to be broken down further into a tilthe just prior to planting out seedlings. If seeds are to be sown directly into the ground a seedbed will be required. A rake-like tool with usually three long curved prongs can be used to break done lumps of soil further, alternatively a rotovator may be used.