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.

Clearing An Allotment – How To Get Rid Of Weeds And Prepare Your Soil

Clearing An AllotmentWhen you take over a new allotment it is more than likely going to be at least knee deep in weeds or worse. Only the very, very lucky find a nicely presented plot that is ready for planting. Please expect quite a lot of work in clearing the allotment but it will be worthwhile in the long run. Many allotment societies will also give you a discount on your first year if you are taking over a heavily weeded allotment.

When our allotments opened the plots were covered with weeds and many of us ended up hiring a local farmer to plough over the plots. The real problem came from the very stony soil; there were bricks, building rubble and large stones in the soil, all of which needed removing before planting began.

Tackling the weeds can be a daunting challenge and it can be very off-putting for you. Depending on your personality type you may want to tackle the whole lot of just work on a section at a time.

You may be tempted to hire a Rotavator, which can be a big time saver. The real problem with one of these is that they chop the pernicious weeds up into little pieces and spread them over your allotment. So instead of having one dandelion you end up with the roots scattered all over and lots of dandelions will grow from them. However, they are worthwhile using if you are then going to clear the allotment properly. Some people will remove weeds like dandelions and thistles by hand before using the Rotavator in order to avoid this problem.

A good technique is to cover your plot with thick black plastic, cardboard or old carpet. This will suppress the weeds and make it easier to manage, though remember to weigh it down with bricks so that it does not blow away. Plastic is the best material to use as it does not degrade and is re-usable, but it will have to spend money to buy it!

Cardboard is a good material and you are likely able to get this free from a shop near you. This will break down after a year in to the soil and will cause no damage or problems. Carpet you can get free from a carpet fitters as they will be happy to give you old carpets they have lifted from houses. However, carpet will last for about a year before it starts being absorbed into the soil and weeds growing though it, which is problematical. Carpet is not very good for your soil and does not break down very well so if you are using it then you need to clear the area before the carpet starts going funny.

My personal approach has been to clear an area, plant it and then move on to the next area. It appeals to my mindset and the time I have available, plus it means I am getting results. Once an area is clear it gets tackled with a hoe two or three times a week to keep the weeds down. This is really important as otherwise the weeds will take over and you will be right back at the beginning.

When you are clearing an area you need to dig a good spade’s depth down and turn the soil. Break up the lump of soil, carefully avoiding damaging any dandelion/thistle/dock roots, and remove all the weeds and stones. The weeds can be composted and the stones disposed of. With large tap roots you will want to dispose of them rather than compost them as in most compost heaps they will not break down enough to stop them from rooting when the compost is used.

With grass, clover and groundsel you can remove the roots from the soil and then dig the weed in. It will break down and provide some nutrients for your soil.

If your allotment has brambles or nettles then you will need to dig out the roots and dispose of them. The nettles can be used to make nettle tea but the brambles are worth disposing of rather than composting.

You may be tempted to use a weed killer on your allotment though you are best not to. A weed killer will effect the plants you are growing, though if you are not planning on planting for some time you can probably get away with it as the chemicals will have gone by the time you plant (but the weeds may come back). Check your allotment society rules though as many do not permit the use of chemicals so you may have to go organic. You can make your own weed killer and use that if you prefer.

Once the ground is broken up and the weeds removed then you can dig in some fertilizer. A well rotted manure (horse or chicken is great) or other compost will be perfect and will ensure the soil is full of nutrients. In all likelihood the soil is going to be good because it hasn’t been grown in, but it is worth ensuring it has plenty of food for your plants.

When your allotment is dug over you are then ready to plant. Just make sure you take the time two or three times a week to hoe your allotment to keep the weeds down. It ensures the whole plot stays manageable and that the weeds do not crowd out your plants.