Tuesday 29 August 2017

Clearing a New Allotment

The question of how to clear a new allotment comes up on forums all the time and I normally chip in on the threads, but I thought it’s about time I produced a comprehensive answer and some personal guidance based on my experience that I can just put a link to it in the future so here it is!

Hurray I have an Allotment, now what do I do?

Normally if you have acquired a new plot the likelihood is that it’s going to be covered in crap and weeds up to four feet tall or if you are really unlucky eight feet of brambles that are hiding a six by eight foot shed at the back of the plot that you didn’t know was there! Yes true story that happened to a plot neighbour who took a plot on I had rejected because it looked like too much work.

The condition of the plot really depends how long it has not been used and if there has been an active waiting list or not. Go back five years 2012 and there were long waiting lists for most allotments due to all the grow it and cook it programs that were on the television. Recently 2017 however in some areas there are less people enthusiastic about taking on an overgrown monstrosity, however if it’s that bad ask you can always ask if you can have it rent free for the first year, I didn’t get my first allotment plot rent free for the first year, but I did the second plot. 
In 2020 due to the pandemic the waiting list have sored on my site we had a waiting list of 6 in March 2020 and by October it was 24. there are only 14 full plots most have been divided into half plots and there are five of us that still have full plots so there are only 23 plots, 2 are not in use because they have Japanese Knotweed. So the people on the waiting list have some time to wait because we only tend to loose 1 or 2 people per year.  

So where do you begin? First thing to remember is that Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your allotment be formed within in a few hours or a couple of days, it takes a lot of work and work takes time and effort.

Working on the plot little and often is the key and make sure that you enjoy the process and experience, don’t let it ever become a chore otherwise you will be one of those that give up within the first 3 months of ownership

First Day
Before you touch the plot, I suggest that you get the camera out and photograph the plot all around from locations you can go back to so that you can take regular photos of your progress and look back and see what progress you have made, because I guarantee you will get to a point where you “hit the wall” as runners say and you will feel like you aren’t making the progress you should be and may feel a little down and despondent, that’s the time to look at the photographs to remind yourself just how much you have actually done.

Plot 1A on Plan

Here was my first plot when I took it over in October 2012 

This was the view from the West Looking East

Take a walk around the plot and look in and see what you’re going to have to deal with if you can, you may be very surprised at what is actually lurking under all the weeds somethings may be useful others will just need to be bagged up and taken to the dump.

Health & Safety

It’s about now you should really be thinking about if your tetanus jabs are up to date, especially with bramble covered plots, as you will get scratched, pricked and cut doing this work no matter how careful you are.

Wearing gloves also keeps the grime out of your fingers because if you get an infection then fingers like to have a bit of a puss party and the solution is lancing and washing out, wrapping up and a couple of courses of anti-biotics. I managed to do this the same week I got my second allotment.

Getting Started

Put on a pair of sturdy gloves and clear an area in one corner of the plot and lay a plastic sheet or tarp down, then start retrieving the debris and sort it into two piles one of stuff that may be useful to keep and the other stuff to go to the dump.

You may be able to do this straight away if the plot is not too weedy or covered in brambles, but if the plot is really overgrown then you may have to start eating your way into the plot and build the piles as you expose the ground and discover what lies beneath.

I kept the terracotta pots in the photo above but all the glass and there was a lot of it some sheets buried under carpet was boxed up and taken to the dump.

If you’ve a lot of tall weeds, then it may be worth borrowing or hiring a petrol strimmer with a brush-cutter blade and taking them down to about 15cm above the ground, leave brambles a little longer – anything up to 60cm.

To clear the plot below I used a combination of normal shears and long handle shears, Secateurs, long handles Secateurs, and a hand scythe

Clearance Progress from October 2012 – January 2013

Clearing & Covering

Some books suggest composting weeds, but not all weeds are suitable for cold composting.

A lot of council run allotments will not allow fires between April and September, but if you are going to stack weeds to let them dry then stack them on pallets to keep them off the ground and allow air flow under the pile, and cover them to keep them dry, but take the covers off when you are working on the plot to allow the heap to breath and dry out more.

I burnt all the weeds using a couple if metal incinerators but if dry enough you could just have a bonfire, making sure there are no hedgehogs or slow worms in residence.

View from the South East corner looking North West Before & After

The carpet in the photo above was there already but has been covered with bindweed; most allotments will no longer allow the use of carpet to be used on allotments due to the risk of chemicals/glues leaching into the soil.

Now that you have been on the allotment for a while you will have looked at other plots and seen how they are managed, these loosely fall into two groups
  • Dig the whole thing over including paths every year
  • Formal structure with an infrastructure of beds and paths
I fall into the formal structure with beds and paths group, and my reasons are, I could not do with clearing the whole plot of weeds every year, battling nature on taking over a plot is quite enough for me thank you very much.

Mentally I can deal with the management of a 1.2m x 2.4m area of land and once cleared I can manure it. Breaking the plot up into areas helps me with crop rotation, I just move everything on four beds each year. I can grow green manure or just cover the beds over with a sheet of weed membrane to deny the weed seed light so they don't grow once they have finished for their year.  

By putting in paths in you effectively reduce the area that will need weeding if your paths are weed membrane, cardboard, covered with gravel, paving slabs or woodchips.

Make beds just wide enough 1.0 to 1.2m so they can be worked on from both sides without the need to stand on and compress and consolidate the soil so that digging in the future becomes easier. I adopt a no dig approach as much as possible, you still need to dig spuds but that means that the hard pan is dug in four beds each year as I rotate the crops.

Make the paths wide enough between the beds so that you can get the bottoms of your legs (knee to foot) in comfort for planting and hand weeding, I originally planned for 450mm wide but rethought and made them 600mm wide which for me is just enough. 

Once the weeds are cleared it’s a good idea to cover the ground so that the weeds die off. You can do this with cardboard and tarps, just tarps, or damp proof membrane, or weed membrane. The objective is to cut off light to the weeds so they die and you are not fighting on all fronts to keep the weeds at bay.

You will soon learn that if there is a drop of rain in the summer and you come back after two weeks you will have a lot of weeding to do in your growing beds.

Damp-Proof Membrane 1200ga Black 4m x 25m (47163) from Screwfix is around £60
Recently I managed to purchase 2m x 50m of Heavy Duty weed membrane off ebay for £24.99 a roll and 5% if you bought a second roll.

The key to making headway on a plot is to not to try and get it all done at once, give yourself a small goal and then you feel a sense of achievement when you've reached it, then set the next goal etc.  Also when you are digging start from a corner and work your way back and get in your infrastructure and beds, it may sound silly but work so that when you look up you see what you have done not what’s still to be done.

Before you know it (six to seven months in from getting the plot) the first six beds and the paths around them are in and you have planted your first crops. In my case I went for potatoes in the first four beds, one bed of earlies. One of seconds and two of main crop potatoes, as the timing was right and they are great at helping in breaking up the soil, and you have to dig those beds again in the same year to harvest them. The other two beds were cabbages and sprouts.

You may recall that the North East end of the plot had been covered in carpet and had been overgrown with weeds.  When the carpet was removed the clay was shiny and looked polished and was set like concrete. It could not be dug with a fork; in fact I broke a fork and had to buy a better and stronger one. I had to take a pickaxe to it in the first instance just to break it up so that I could dig it.

Do Not Rotavate

Whatever you do Do Not Rotavate, yes you can hire a machine and cut all the roots of the existing couch grass into two to three inch lengths, but each one of those cut roots is going to want to continue to live and grow and within a month the whole plot is coved with more weeds than you started with.

With a bramble patch, it’s tough work digging out the roots. Leaving some cane above ground level enough to give you something to pull at!

I don’t recommend digging the plot over in the first instance with a spade or mattock, especially if you have couch grass and brambles. Its best to dig using a fork if possible and easing the couch grass up through the ground like an alien beast being exposed and easing the tentacles that extend in all directions, lifting and vibrating the earth on the fork so that the roots loosen their grip and what’s on top of the fork gets easier to handle, and starts coming to the surface faster, until the mat of weeds that resembles an alien is there for you to lift and you can hold it high in the air like a conquered alien.

OK it all sounds a bit dramatic but that the feeling you experience, when you finally ease a large network of couch grass, or bramble roots out of the ground.

Remember the objective is to remove all the couch grass and brambles that you find whilst digging, there is going to be some you have missed and it will come back but when it does dig around it expose the root system and extract as much as you can.

Digging The Paths

There are books that suggest that you don’t have to dig the paths and that it’s a waste of effort. I can’t agree with that as how can you expect to keep beds weed free when there are weeds in the paths that surround them?  Paths deserve to be cleared the same as the beds to help give you a fighting chance at keeping the weeds under control.

What Kind Of Paths To Use?

The options are down to personal taste and may also depend on what you can lay your hands on and are Soil, Cardboard Grass, Weed Membrane, Timber, Woodchip, Paving Slabs, Pea Shingle.

Bed Edging

The material and form of bed edging is down to personal choice and dependent upon how much you want to spend and what materials you have on hand. You may decide that you want grass paths with an edge and dug bed with no difference in level or you may want to define and maintain an edge, all well and good if you have a way of cutting the grass.

I knew that I wanted to use woodchip for the paths but I needed an edging, so initially I bought some plastic lawn edging and the path and beds were level. I used a portable hoop frame that I had made to use as a jig when using a spade to form the slot to push the edging into. Surrounded the bed with weed membrane and covered in wood chip

I recall a great sense of achievement when the first bed was completed, which spurred me on to get the following ones installed. The plastic lawn edging lasted about two years before it became brittle and I found other materials to take its place.

The industrial estate behind the allotment was being sold off and a window replacement company had loads of plastic trim they were going to skip so I saved it and used it to replace the green corrugated lawn edging.

Next I acquired some timber joist from a demolition job and started replacing the plastic with timber which helps keep the soil in the bed and you can add compost and raise the level slightly.

In the photo above I also acquired some paving slabs which I used on the central main path down the plot. Freecycle is a great resource for all manner of materials and items that are useful on an allotment i.e. Sheds, Greenhouses, You normally have to dismantle and take away,. Compost Bins (Daleks), Water Butts, Blow Away Growhouses, Seed Trays, Module liners, pots and containers, Fruit bushes etc.

On my second plot I went straight in for decking to define the beds and it also allows for me to gradually improve the soil and add compost to the beds. The path in the bottom right corner is for disabled access to my neighbours plot. The slabs for the area next to the shed and the path down the middle were all obtained off freecycle. Weed membrane is cut with a soldering iron to stop it fraying (See Here) and used under the slabs and to keep the weeds down.

I have seen roof tiles come up on Freecycle in the past but had never thought of them for creating bed edging.

The photo on the left is from a thread called Scrapheap Challenge written by Snadger which is a diary or journal about his scrapheap plot that he took over and is developing which I enjoy following on the Grow Your Own forum Grapevine.

I  trust that this article give you enough to get going with your new plot, I will try to expand upon it and flesh it out a little more but for the mean time you can read my dairy from 2012 and work your way through my changing plans and development of my allotment and hopefully learn from some of my mistakes.


  1. Excellent advice for new plot holders. I will add a link to it on our Facebook page.

    1. Hi Betty thank you for your kindness, I'm very happy you have found it useful and worthy of a link