A Plotter’s Diary:

Taking On A New Allotment

By Brian Smith

(Brian has been working his plot since 2008. Over the years, he has been a regular winner of awards in the annual Loughton Best Allotment Competition)

So you have taken on a new allotment which is probably covered in long grass and maybe stinging nettles, ragwort, bindweed, etc. This is the usual state of an allotment waiting for a new holder because the previous holder just didn’t have the time or energy to keep up. No doubt, you’ll also find an old cage or two, lengths of wood, an old wheelbarrow, plastic bins and maybe an old door or window. The thought of clearing the allotment and digging it over can, at this point, be daunting. But that’s all part of the challenge and ultimate satisfaction. 

In August 2008, we took over a plot that hadn’t been used for five years and started working it in late December. By mid-February, we concluded that a 25 X 110-foot allotment was too much, so we passed back the bottom half for someone else to use. Now, four years later, we have taken over half a nearby narrower plot and are adding the bottom half of our original plot. 

The major problem with the bottom half is that half of it was cleared and used for a few years but the other half hasn’t been worked for some nine years.  So this is my project for the winter, and I have started clearing the rubbish and green growth and digging it over to clear the annual and perennial weeds. The rubbish so far has included a door, wood and metal window frames, a useless wheelbarrow, bags of soil, lots of wood, some useful netting, broken tools, lengths of metal rods, plastic hoops and various garden chemicals in the compost bin.

Many other allotments are likely in a similar overgrown state, so for all you new and perhaps inexperienced people, follow along with me as I get cracking. It’s important to pace yourself and have realistic expectations for what you can achieve. The key, though, is to get going. 


You’re unlikely to clear and dig over the whole plot in your first year, so lower your expectations. You could work piecemeal, clearing and digging small areas ready for cultivation. I am more methodical, starting at one end and working down the allotment. The clearing and digging of the allotment could take around six months at best but more likely 12 months. By being methodical, you can clear as much as you can for use the following season and contain the grass and weeds elsewhere, which you will need to cut back periodically to stop the seeds from spreading.  

 

Start by taking photos of your plot now and keep taking them periodically to remind yourself of what you have achieved and to impress (or bore) your friends. The second thing is to walk around the allotment with a pair of shears to see what state it is in and what is hidden in the greenery. You’ll be surprised at what previous holders have left behind. Keep what you might need – lengths of wood are especially useful – and put the unwanted rubbish in a pile. To reduce the pile, tell other holders that they can take anything they want – you’ll be amazed at what some folks will scavenge. While walking around, select a suitable place for situating your bonfire, preferably at the other end of the allotment where you will be working. (Remember to check LPG rules and courtesies on bonfires.)

What tools do you need?  Clearance tools are essential, including one or more of the following: a pair of long shears, a slasher or a brush cutter for cutting down the weeds and grass. Ideally, the brush cutter should have at least a four-cutter blade – a strimmer will be useless in this situation. Remember that when using a hand slasher, keep other people well away from you and do not wear gloves, as the slasher could well fly out of your hands.  When using a power brush cutter, gloves, steel-capped boots, and a helmet/visor/ear muffs should be worn. You will also need material to cover the cleared area, such as plastic sheeting or old carpet, plus a good fork, several buckets to put the weed roots in, plus another bucket for non-plant rubbish that you will dig up.

When choosing which end of the plot to start from, go for the higher end, as this will help your back in the digging process. Cut the grass and weeds down across the whole width and around ten feet down the allotment. Rake the cuttings into a pile and move to the bonfire area, which should be at the other end of the plot. If the cuttings are dry, then a fire could be lit while digging. (Remember, LPG rules don’t allow bonfires on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Bank Holidays and that you mustn’t leave the fire unattended.) If the cuttings are damp, let them dry off before burning them.  

Put the sheeting/carpet down over the area you have cleared and weigh down with wood or bricks. This will starve the grass and weeds underneath of light and water, and, hopefully, after a few months, they will die. Also, the ground underneath won’t be sodden and muddy when it’s time to dig it over. Mowing the grass path down each side of your plot and at the ends will allow you to see where the edges of the plot are – you may have to use the shears to cut the grass back.

After a few weeks, you can think about the digging. Pull back the sheeting/carpet for a reasonable work area. Work out where the two corners of your plot are and put a stake in each corner and, if possible, a string line between them to clearly define the boundary of your plot. Make sure footpaths between plots are about a metre wide.

Allow at least a couple of hours for your first digging session to make a noticeable difference. Start with the fork in a corner and about half a foot from the string line, breaking up the sods and removing all the roots and grass. (It may be necessary to dig deeper to get deep roots out.) Work across the allotment.  

After a couple of rows, move around to the end of the plot and dig along the string, putting the soil on top of the soil you have already dug and making sure that the (couch grass) roots are removed as much as possible.  A clearly cut edge will reduce the chance of couch grass roots going back into your plot. Walk around the area you have dug, and you will find pieces of roots that need removing. Raking the surface will reveal more pieces of roots.  At the end of the session, put the sheeting/carpet back, allowing the rain to do its job on the area you have dug. Go home and nurse your back.

After a couple of digging sessions, you’ll get the first sensation of making progress, and your photographs should prove that. Below are photos that I have taken so far:  the first two, taken in July, show the general overgrown state of the plot and the pile of rubbish. Since then, I have found yet more rubbish. 

The second two photos show the progress from digging. There was a compost bin made of pallets sunk into the ground at the far end, which I have removed – more rubbish.  You can see the bindweed roots sticking out of the next part to be dug. I am using heavy blue sheeting from another allotmenteer who wanted to get rid of it. Now, I have just got to an ant hill/nest and a clump of stinging nettles. My next problem will be horseradish, which is very deep-rooted, and you can only use so much of it in the kitchen. 

Yes, it’s all hard work, but the exercise and fresh air are good for you, as is the escape from the outside world.