How To Have An Allotment When You Don’t Have A Lot Of Time

I often see people giving up their beloved allotment because they don’t have the time for it. There are times in our lives when this is the case but it is possible to manage your allotment on a minimal time allowance. I will admit to being a lazy gardener … I don’t mind doing work, but I don’t want to do it if I don’t have to!

Every year I see people painstakingly spending hours digging over their plots in October or November, then the spring comes and they dig them again. What if you could keep your allotment and minimize the amount of work you have to do?

Before we go any further, I will tell you that this is going to cost you some money to do, but you can keep this down to a minimum easily enough.

Weed Membrane
Firstly, you are going to need weed membrane, and lots of it. Don’t buy the cheap stuff from the pound shops as it will barely last a season and make even more work for you! Buy the good, woven weed fabric, available on Amazon UK here and US here. I use the Yuzet brand because it is very high quality, will not let weeds through and will last for a number of years. Get the pegs that you use with it as they are a lot less unsightly than using bricks to hold it down (plus you won’t trip over the pegs like I do on bricks).

Although you can cut this weed membrane one direction, when you are going across the weave it is very difficult to cut and will fray. Use a blow torch to seal the edges and for making holes in the membrane to place.

You will want some 2m wide weed membrane and some 1m wide weed membrane. You can also buy some heavy duty tarps too. ANY area of your allotment that isn’t in use is immediately covered with weed membrane and left. This will stop the weeds coming through and reduce the amount of work you have to do. If your allotment is covered in weeds then cover it over and this will help keep the weeds down.

Using Weed Membrane  picture

Raised Beds
To keep your work load down you will need to build raised beds. These can be built out of scaffolding boards, other wood, pallet collars or whatever you have to hand. I recommend the beds are 4×2 feet, 4×4 feet or 6×4 feet in size and between 8 and 12 inches deep. The reason being these are manageable, of a good size to produce a good crop and, most importantly, you can reach the entire bed without having to stand on the soil (this is important … more later).

Before you start sawing, plan how you are going to lay out your beds, leaving between 50cm and 1m between beds. I use square paper for this as it is easier to work out what goes where. You can use longer beds if necessary, e.g. 12×2 feet or 12×4 feet (if you have access to both sides of the bed). You can find out a lot more about raised beds in my book on the subject available from Amazon in the UKhere and in the US herehere.

Once you have planned your layout, including entrances and exits to the allotment you can buy the wood. Unless you are a huge fan of the saw or you have electricity at your allotment I would strongly (I mean it!) recommend sawing the wood to size at home using electric tools. Then take it to your allotment where you can build the beds and put them in place. Trust me, it will save a lot of time and aching muscles.

raised bed picture

In between each bed you need to run a path using the weed membrane. I tend to have this just under the raised bed and usually make the paths 50cm wide which is large enough for my wheelbarrow. Fix the weed membrane down using the provided pegs.

Some people will put bark on the weed membrane for the paths which looks fantastic. However, every 2 to 4 years you will have to replace the bark because it will have rotted down. It is a lot of work to remove and replace the bark and a nightmare getting rid of part rotted park. Trust me, I’ve done this on a small section of path and it was very hard and dirty work. I would recommend just leaving the weed membrane in place because it is easy to clean and very easy to replace if needed.

filling a raised bed picture

Once they are built you need to fill them with manure, top soil, compost and anything you can get your hands on. Remember that manure will rot down and you are looking for the soil level to be within an inch or two of the top of the boards.

When you are not using the raised beds you can cover them with weed membrane or black bin bags. This can be stapled to the wood of the raised bed, pegged down or weighted down.

covered raised bed image

To further minimize your work you can burn holes in the weed membrane on the raised beds and plant through those into the soil so you don’t have to do any weeding!

The Hoe Is Your Friend
On any exposed soil use your hoe regularly. I’d suggest two or three times a week. it won’t take you long and all you do is knock the heads of the weeds. This will keep the weeds down and mean minimal work!

Before I built the raised beds I would visit my allotment three times a week before work in the morning. I would spend 20 to 30 minutes hoeing the soil. My plot neighbours were forever asking me why the weeds didn’t grow on my plot but theirs was covered with them. I kept telling them it was because of the hoe but they never believed me … it really does work!

No Dig Gardening
With raised beds it is easy to practice no dig gardening which further reduces the amount of work you have to do! Every autumn you refresh the soil by adding fertilizer and the soil stays nice and loose because you do not stand on it or compact it. I’ll write more about this in another article but it can really help reduce your workload allowing you to smile smugly when you see everyone else hard at work turning their soil!

It is possible to own an allotment and minimize your work! I have no objection to hard work but I do object to doing it unnecessarily, so I also work to minimize the amount of work I need to do. Raised beds are wonderful and I’ve never looked back since I’ve started to use them. They reduce your workload and when combined with weed membrane and no dig gardening means you need to spend minimal time managing your allotment and more time doing the fun stuff like planting, harvesting and enjoying the fresh air!

Building A Raised Bed Planter

Raised bed planters are really useful if you want to put a plant in the ground but do not want it directly in the soil. For example, I have an area of my plot which is quite waterlogged and full of weeds. I simply do not have the time to clear it and amend the soil as I have plants literally begging me to plant them out. So instead I build one of these small, raised bed planters and use that to lift the plant above the ground and grow in a highly nutritious soil (they are pumpkin plants and so need the extra boost).

double height planter - finished

You can make the planters as big or as small as you want but I built these large enough to hold a single big plant. I build two planters, which I will share with you here. One was 4″ high and the other 8″.

Tools you will need are a saw (electric is far easier), tape measure, square, screwdriver and screws or hammer and nails.

I used featheredge boards (used for fence panels) because they were cheap easy to get hold of. These were 5 foot long (60″) and were cut into four pieces of 15 inches in length. Therefore each board made one single height (4″) planter or two boards were required for a double height (8″) planter. For one of my planters I cut the boards at 20″ because I was putting a giant pumpkin in it and wanted to ensure there was enough room.

feather edge board cut to size

The stakes to go into the ground were a piece of 2″ x 4″ wood cut at an angle. I figured each one would be the length of the edges (4 or 8 inches depending on whether it was single or double height) plus four inches to go into the ground as a stake. So each stake was either 8″ or 12″ long. I cut the ends at an angle to form a stake purely because it was easier than trying to do it afterwards.

stake for raised bed

One or two of the edging boards were then attached to a stake at one end and then at the other to form an edge. I made two of these and then joined them together. I did use screws but to be honest nails are much easier though you will need to support the planter as the hammering makes it hard to keep it together and square. The second one I built I used nails and found it so much quicker to do!

raised bed edge

So I built two of the above and then used the other edging boards to join them together to form a box. It can require some balancing if you are doing it on your own so you may find it easier to get a friend to hold the wood for you.

3 sides of a raised bed planter

Then the final side was attached and the planter was complete!

finished planter

I’ll admit, it’s no oil painting and certainly won’t win any design competitions but I’m not particularly good at woodwork and it is functional. It will last a few years and do what I want plus it is small enough that I can move it when I want to put larger raised beds in that end of my allotment. It was cheap to make, the featheredge boards were 99p (around $1.50) and you only needed one for a 15″ square planter as it was 60″ long. The stakes were more expensive as that piece of wood cost me £2.99 (around $4) but made 10 to 12 stakes depending on the length.

So all in all these were very quick to make, taking about half an hour to make one. It would have been quicker to make the first one but I hadn’t realised my saw was blunt and didn’t have an electric saw. Making the second was far quicker as I used nails and an electric saw and it took less than 15 minutes, including stopping to take pictures!

planter on site, partly filled

Once the planters were made they were put in place and the stakes pushed into the ground. Because the soil was so hard I had to dig out holes for the stakes and one I couldn’t get flush to the ground due to the number of stones in the soil. They were filled with a mixture of compost, manure and top soil and then planted. The blue pellets are slug pellets to try to protect the plants.

The project was good fun and I will certainly build some more. I may even build full sized raised beds out of the featheredge boards if I am unable to obtain scaffolding boards at a reasonable price as it was remarkably easy to work with.