[] [] [index]

Example of how to start a new allotment plot.

1.  General

The  plot runs approximately North to South, the preferred orientation for cultivation.  On the West Side it is bounded by a well clipped conifer hedge, on the North by a robust row of gooseberry bushes backed by another unused plot. The bushes will be useful in due course as a barrier to the spread of perennial weeds from the unused plot.  The other two sides are bounded by clipped grass footpaths and cultivated plots.

The proliferation of tall grasses suggests that the soil has a good fertility, and there are a few perennial type weeds that have fortunately not proliferated.  There are also some  canes (probably raspberry) that could be retained, but they will need control as they spread rapidly through the soil on rhizomes and can be invasive.

The evidence from adjacent plots indicates a good friable loam with balanced nutrients, although of course at this stage we don't know what fertilisers or soil conditioners have been used.  In due course other gardeners can be consulted on this.  Once the plot has been cleared there is no reason why gardening should not be organic.

It is probable that small salad type plants would be best grown on the Eastern side, as the hedge on the West will extract water from the soil and this will be the driest area (see also 2. Water below). The hedge might also cause some shading late in the day. In the longer term, crop rotation should be used.

2.  Water

Thames Water has said that it would cost many thousands of pounds to install mains water, so at present that seems unlikely.  There is no doubt that some water will be needed for small plants and seedlings.  In the long term a shed with water collecting and storage would be ideal.  In the short term  one option could be a water butt with a collection sheet or funnel.  Another possibility is to bring water form the house using a large plastic bin on either a wheelbarrow or small sack truck (check paths).  There might even be a suitable custom designed water carrier available.  Alternatively a large bin on site could be filled slowly one can at a time by making sure that every trip, every visitor, always carries one can of water to the site.

3.  Clearing the site   

The preferred method seems to be as follows:

a) Do not remove foliage. Spray the area with a  product such as glyphosate (e.g. Roundup, Tumbleweed, or other systemic herbicide).  Care to avoid adjacent plots will be needed, so it is essential to apply on a windless day.  It will be a good idea to clear a strip about 1m wide on the other side of the gooseberry bushes, and possibly to clear under the bushes with a less severe weed killer such as diquat/paraquat (e.g. Weedol). There is no doubt that the couch grass roots will have spread through the bush roots, and will continue to do so unless destroyed.    Adequate time should be allowed for the weed killer to translocate into the roots and kill them.  Do not risk assuming that the roots are dead if the top looks dead, as this will be a disaster. Check by digging some up and examining them.  If you want to use an organic herbicide find something based on natural fatty acids, such as B&Q organic weedkiller.  It is probably less effective than the others. Incidentally, a lot of pesticides have been taken off the market recently, not because they have been proved dangerous, but because the manufacturers can not/will not afford the cost of testing for a product with a relatively small turnover. (Apparently pesticides and herbicides now have to be tested on a whole range of edible products under E.U. regs.)

It is of course possible to work entirely without chemicals, but this would require painstaking manual removal of all weed roots by digging after initial strimming or scything, and could take several years. (note: you would need to hire a petrol motor as there is no electricity available).   I get the impression that organic gardeners would find initial chemical clearance acceptable.  More important  is to avoid the use of pesticides in the future. Permitted organic pesticides include Derris and Pyrethrins ( plant extracts).

Proceed as follows:

1) Clear dead foliage by burning if dry enough, or by using a hired flame gun (be very careful with this!). Digging-in is not a good idea as there could be a lot of weed seeds surviving (depending on the time of year that the weed killer is applied-ideally at or just before flowering.   This is difficult to judge as the weeds will flower at different times).

2) Rotovate with a hired tool to break up the soil and turn up the weed roots, or manually dig out the roots. The waste can be composted (see weed killer instructions).  If rotovation is chosen, be aware that it chops up the weed roots, so if they are not completely dead they will spring into life and cause terrible trouble!  It is clearly preferable to manually dig and remove, but much harder work and time consuming.

Alternatively rake up the dead foliage and use it later to have a bonfire (subject to local regulations).

3) The first year after clearing should be used for root crops such as potato, beetroot or perhaps carrot if possible. They help to break up the soil, and it will give time for remaining perennial weed roots that have survived to be removed (especially things like bindweed, stinging nettle and dock).  Leave plenty of space between rows if other things are planted, to permit hoeing of annual weeds (because, like me, you will be too impatient to wait!).

4. Soil Analysis

The soil looks like good loam (equally distributed parts of sand, soil and organics) with a good tilth. There are some local variations due to bonfires or other disposal that seem to have produced some clay like areas (clays-very fine particles that stick together when wet). It was difficult to obtain a consistent result with a pH meter,  but the trend seems to be for a pH of around 6.5, i.e. very slightly acidic.  This is  good for most produce, but brassicas might benefit from liming (or the modern equivalent) after a few years of cultivation.

5. Compost Heap

If possible construct two adjacent compost heaps using a wooden open frame construction.  This permits aeration and good drainage, and in due course one heap can be built whilst the other is being used .  All green waste can be composted, but avoid including large twigs, perennial weed roots and potato waste.