Stopping Those Pesky Weeds Taking Over Your Allotment or Vegetable Garden

You’ve just half killed yourself digging your allotment in the autumn. You’ve spent several days hobbling around, suffering from the exertion and congratulating yourself on all your hard work.

But then it rains and you can’t get down to your allotment for a few days.

Your jaw drops, your heart sinks and you wonder if it is worth it. Your nicely dug bed is covered with weeds. Quite how they grow that fast is a mystery to us all and if only your vegetables would grow as fast.

a weedy allotment

It is soul destroying but why does it happen and how do we stop those weeds from taking over?

Why Digging Makes Weeds Grow
Why is it that when you dig over your plot the weeds sprout up and go crazy?

There’s a very simple reason behind this.

Seeds from the weeds sit dormant in the soil. They are buried underground and wait until the conditions are right before they germinate. One of the main things they need for this to happen is light.

You come along, turn the soil and expose all these tiny seeds to the light. They instantly start to germinate and before you know it, your plot is covered in weeds.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about this as seeds are going to gather in your soil. You can minimise this by preventing weeds from germinating. If you haven’t got time to weed properly, wait until flowers have finished blooming (so the bees benefit) and then remove the flower heads before they go to seed.

There is a saying amongst gardeners that says that if you keep your plot free for seven years, then the majority of the weeds will be gone and won’t return. However, be aware that seeds can still be blown in on the wind and brought to your plot by birds. This does require that your neighbouring plots are also weed free.

Stopping the Weeds from Taking Over
This is the most important thing because there is nothing worse than digging your plot, then returning a week or more later to find it looks like you have never touched it.

To prevent the weeds from returning you need to cover the ground. This keeps out the light and prevents the seeds from germinating. Plants such as mares tale, comfrey, bindweed and blackberries will continue to grow under the covers, but these are much easier to deal with when the ground is bare and covered.

Firstly, do not use carpet to cover your plot. It is often recommended and after having done it myself I can, hand on heart, say it is the worst idea ever. A lot of allotment sites ban carpet because it contains chemicals that leach into the soil.

However, that’s the least of your problems. Carpet becomes wet, heavy and rots horribly. Seeds will germinate on top of the carpet and grow through it, making it a nightmare to move. Then, at the end of the growing season, you have to dispose of it when you uncover your plot. It is bulky, will be filthy dirty and you will have to put it in your car to move it. It will be riddled with bugs and make a mess of your car. I used carpet once many years ago and have never used it since. Once I removed it I had to get the car valeted as it made such a mess.

There are much better things you can use, which have less of an environmental impact and are easier for you to manage.

One of my favourites is to use horse manure. I will cover beds with anything from two to six inches of manure. Ideally, you need to use well-rotted manure, but if you are covering your beds in the autumn, then you can use less well-rotted manure as it has several months to break down. I will also cover the beds with tarps or weed membrane which helps keep the heat in and speed up the composting process. You can further speed it up by removing the covers every three or four weeks and giving the manure a quick fork over to stop it getting compacted. This will restart the composting process if it has stopped.

manured vegetable bed image

As well as, or instead of, manure, you can use tarps or weed membrane on your plot. Many of allotment owners I know cover the beds they aren’t using in the autumn and then uncover them come springtime.

This has a lot of advantages. It keeps the weeds down, which obviously is very important, but it also helps to heat the soil. When spring finally arrives, the beds are typically warmer than they would have otherwise been, meaning you can plant earlier. Combine this with raised beds and you can often plant two or three weeks before the rest of the soil has warmed up sufficiently.

Cover Your Beds, Keep The Weeds Down
So, as you dig your beds, then cover them afterward. This is going to save you a lot of work and disappointment. Tarps can be found in the pound shops and other discount shops where they are not expensive.

manured raised beds

If you are buying weed membrane then you must avoid the ones you find in the cheaper shops. These are a thin, flimsy fabric that will do nothing for your bed. Buy good quality weed membrane such as the Yuzet brand on Amazon (located here. It isn’t cheap, but it is extremely good at keeping weeds down and can be used for several years. With this particular weed membrane, use a flame to seal the edges after cutting to stop it fraying.

Alternatively, the cheapest option is to buy good quality black plastic rubbish bags. Split these and then weigh them down with bricks or pieces of wood. These are great for raised beds as you can staple the bags onto the wood of the beds. Be aware though that the thinner bags may not survive high winds (that’s experience talking for you). Decent quality bags will keep the weeds down and survive the winter.

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When you cover your beds, you are suppressing the annual weeds. Some of the persistent perennial weeds will continue to grow, but these are much easier to remove when the soil is bare. Every autumn, when you dig your beds, or anytime you are not using an area of your vegetable garden, cover it. This is going to save you a lot of work in the long term and give you more time to concentrate on the fun aspects of vegetable gardening.

How To Manure Your Plot For Winter

One essential job over winter is to prepare your vegetable garden for the following year. A part of this is to add compost, often in the form of manure, to the ground so that it will be full of nutrition the following year. Another advantage of adding manure is it helps to break up the soil, which is vital if you have a heavy clay soil.

picture of manureYou can get hold of manure for free from most farmers or horse owners, let’s face it … most of them have so much that they don’t know what to do with it all and are usually overjoyed when someone asks to take it away. You may need to bring your own bags or trailer, but you can often get lots of manure for free. We are fortunate in that our allotment committee has made an arrangement with a local farmer to deliver manure regularly to the plot. The picture here shows you a fresh delivery … in fact it is so fresh it is steaming!

You should not add fresh manure to any plot that has seedlings, bulbs or plants in as it can burn your plants. As it rots so it heats up and this heat can damage delicate plants. If you want to add manure to a bed that already contains plants then you need to rot the manure for 6 to 12 months. You can either do this in a compost heap or you can leave the manure in plastic bags and it will rot down. Once it has stopped generating heat then you can add it to your plot.

How much you add will depend upon the condition of the soil. For me I wanted to lift the soil level in the raised beds so I added enough to get it above the required level … why above? Because the manure will rot down and the soil level will sink a bit.

manured raised beds You can just put the manure on the top of the soil and leave it, which will work. I prefer to dig it in to the soil because I find it breaks down quicker and the benefit of the manure is spread throughout the soil. It also stops lumps forming. If you are not going to cover the area you have manured then you need to dig it in otherwise the manure will clump together and take longer to break down.

Once you have dug the manure in then, if you aren’t using your beds until spring, you can cover them over. This is going to help keep the bed warm plus it will stop weeds from growing. It will save you a lot of time in the spring and you will be very pleased you did. It is a huge time saver and you have more than enough to do in the spring without having to dig over all your beds.

DSC_0014You can buy tarps to cover your beds, which a lot of people do or you can use bin (garbage) bags, which is what I used on my raised beds. I simply split them along the seams and then weighed them down with stones. I will staple them to the raised beds later in the year but I want to remove them in a couple of weeks to dig over the beds and ensure the manure is well incorporated into the soil.

Adding manure is something you can be doing right now to your vegetable garden to prepare it for the spring. Cover the bed and then when spring comes you have less work to do and can enjoy getting your vegetable garden ready without back breaking digging!