New allotment advice & raised beds

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Reaching the top of the local allotment waiting list is an exciting time. After months, or even years, you’re suddenly invited to review and take on a new plot. In many cases what greets you is an overgrown jungle-like plot which can be quite overwhelming. Typically an allotment is overgrown because it takes such a long time to evict allotment holders from their plots once they’ve given up... The good news is that you may inherit hidden raised beds, rhubarb plants or raspberry canes. I wasn’t quite that fortunate when I got my allotment; below you can see what it looked like AFTER I had taken a strimmer to it. I was bequeathed with lots of blue plastic material which had long since deteriorated and weeds had grown through it making digging an interesting challenge. Oh and red ants, lots of red ants and rotten wood:

New allotment

My new allotment after strimming

Where NOT to begin:

Weed killer – yes it’s an option that I’ve seen applied to an entire plot. However I think it’s probably the most lazy and thoughtless idea available because it simply contaminates the soil for up to a year with a possible carcinogen (yes really). If you value your health (and most allotment holders grow their own food for a reason) then forget about weed killer. Read my article ‘Glyphosate (Roundup) weed killer – should you use it?‘ for a much more detailed explanation of why I don’t touch the stuff.

Rotavating is in most cases a bad idea if the plot is overgrown, that’s because all you’ll really be doing is turning weeds into more weeds and burying them with last year’s seeds to grow again. In the case of the very invasive Couch grass you really don’t want to chop the long white roots into several smaller pieces to come up again in multiple locations, digging them out is much easier when they are longer and easier to spot.

Two GOOD places to start:

Covering the plot in thick black plastic for six months is one popular labour-saving approach to killing off the weeds. Note that it has to be thick and black to block out the light (and rain). Carpet is not such a good idea because it breaks up and leaves goodness knows what chemicals in your soil. The covering option is most suitable to those approaching a new plot in the Autumn or Winter months; you won’t be growing much until the Spring anyway and a combination of dark nights and poor wet weather make anything else a challenge. Covering your allotment will certainly make turning over the soil a little easier come the Spring but don’t be surprised if there are some prehistoric weeds living deep down that continue to reappear until you get digging – horse tail being the most persistent nuisance on my plot.

Digging, digging and digging from the outset. The only real option if you’re beginning in the Spring or Summer months. Yes it’s back breaking, yes it’s tiring, yes you may bend a garden fork but boy will you know your soil and weeds well AND feel a massive sense of achievement. The key to success and motivation with a new allotment is to be realistic – you’re not going to be able to dig the entire plot in a week, a month or possibly even in a year. Pick the best third of the plot, with the most direct sunlight, and get digging. Lift the soil, give it a few good hard whacks with a fork and cast the weeds into a wheelbarrow or overgrown corner. This was my approach to the whole allotment, I lift, I smash, I throw, I sort and repeat:

Be realistic with a new allotment, start with 1/3 of it and ignore the rest

As well as discarding the weeds into a pile (and NEVER the compost heap – dry and burn them) I also like to make mountains of soil (that’s the sorting aspect). I do this because my allotment is on heavy clay soil, it’s thick and you could literally make bricks out of it. By throwing the weed free soil into a pile the heavy lumps roll down for me to smash again. It’s also easier to find weeds that I missed, small roots etc. the pile gets bigger and bigger, the soil is thrown higher and higher. When I am finished I generally have two piles – a pile of nice loamy soil (for planting) and a pile of clay lumps that won’t break (for paths):

Separating my clay (bottom right) from the loam (top left)

One of the best things to do on a heavy clay soil is build raised beds. My raised beds aren’t particularly high, only 15cms tall, but it helps with drainage (my plot can get quite ‘swampy’). I use the clay lumps I sort out to line my paths (flattening them with a scaffold board), then I place the loamy soil into the centre where I want to build my bed(s). I add any soil that I can find beneath stinging nettles – nettles are an amazing soil cleanser and they only grow on good soil – if you find nettles on your allotment learn to love them, take their soil and turn the nettles into liquid fertiliser.  As you can see below I prepared the beds without the wood, my paths are so thick with clay that NOTHING grows through them (and later they can be wood chipped):

Raised beds at my allotment awaiting their frames

I use a tape measure and broken canes to mark out my raised beds but please do be careful if using longer canes for that – you don’t want to take an eye out! My raised beds are typically 2.4m long by 1.2m wide (based upon the size of the Wickes feathered gravel boards that I purchased for the lengths and half for widths). Once I’m confident on the measurements I simply lay the longer boards in place and support with additional outer stakes of one foot long wooden stakes hammered deep into the ground (I just saw up some 2″ by 2″ wood for those). I accept that these frames may not live forever, they are degradeable wood after all, but for now they do the job perfectly. Once the beds are constructed I simply rake out the middle pile of loamy soil to the edges of the raised bed frames as below. You can add a bag of multipurpose compost per frame too unless growing root crops like carrots or parsnips:

raised beds

Raised beds made from Wickes feathered gravel boards and sawn off wooden stakes.

Next you can get planting and then move on to the next area of your overgrown allotment, erect a shed etc. it’s all about prioritisation.

Keep going and eventually it’ll look like an allotment!

To summarise my new allotment starting recommendations:

  1. Survey the plot, see what you’ve inherited.
  2. Be realistic about what you can achieve.
  3. Cover in Autumn / Winter and/or dig in Spring and Summer.
  4. Get to know your plot by digging a set area.
  5. Sort the soil into loamy and clay piles.
  6. Build paths with the clay.
  7. Construct raised beds and fill with the loamy soil.
  8. Add multi-purpose for non root crops (I use Jack’s Magic or for peat-free try Dalefoot double strength wool compost).
  9. Cover and burn discarded weeds, do not compost them.
  10.  Take photos before and after – nothing is as satisfying as a before and after reminder!

When your plot is big enough you may want to have a more coherent plan, there are online tools to help with that which I have written about here: Allotment Planning and Companion Planting. Do also check out the ‘Her Outdoors‘ blog specifically this article ‘so you’ve got your first plot‘ – has more useful tips for you.

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About Author

Matt Peskett is GrowLikeGrandad (if you want to know why read 'About the Editor). He has a few 'heavy clay' allotments and is Chairman of the Dorking Allotment Holders Association (DAHA). Matt also has a medium sized 'sandy soil' hillside garden (Italian terrace designed) and enjoys photography - especially nature. Matt takes inspiration from gardens like Hidcote and Great Dixter and enjoys watching anything on TV presented by Monty Don or Louis Theroux.

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