How to get rid of weeds on an overgrown allotment (or vegetable patch)

How to get rid of weeds from an overgrown allotment or vegetable patch 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered BlogWant to grow your own vegetables? Got a plot full of weeds? Don't be put off - there's a few ways of tackling it, even if you're doing it 80 minutes at a time.










Weeding the 80 Minute Allotment

Anyone taking over an allotment is likely to be faced with a view like the one below. This is my allotment in the first few weeks I had it. Most allotments are highly sought after and only relinquished reluctantly. It usually takes a long period of neglect before the occupant is finally forced to accept that for whatever reason they are unable to keep on top of it and has to relinquish it to someone else.
Overgrown 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
The 80 Minute Allotment when I took it on
Maybe you don't have an allotment but you're starting a new vegetable garden. If so, the likelihood is that you're converting an overgrown section of your garden, or digging up an area of grass. Maybe you've just been busy and let the weeds take over recently.

Whether you have an overgrown allotment or a grass filled vegetable patch, you need to get rid of the weeds. If you don't, they'll smother your crops, steal the nutrients your edibles need and leave you with a poor harvest.

And if, like me, you only have a couple of hours a week to look after your allotment or veg plot, don't be discouraged. You don't have to clear it all at once. Even 80 minutes at a time, or a couple of hours here and there, is enough to gradually take back control of your plot, and start growing your own food. That's exactly what I did. I cleared a bit at a time, and after the first year, the 80 Minute Allotment looked like this:
A much less weedy plot aftre one year 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
The 80 Minute Allotment after one year

At that stage I had brought an area 4 metres wide and about 7 metres long into cultivation. I've cleared a little more each year so the 80 Minute Allotment is now about 11 metres long, after 2 more years.

So what's the best way of getting rid of the weeds?

There are two main options. One involves little hard work but takes much longer. The other takes more physical effort, but means you can start growing much sooner. The choice is yours...

Getting rid of weeds by digging them up

The quickest way to remove weeds is to simply dig them up. This can involve some serious physical effort, depending on the nature of the plot and which weeds are growing there.

This is one reason why the "no-dig" gardening method is growing in popularity. Apart from saving your back, it's thought that digging disturbs the natural structure of the soil and consequently adversely affects plant growth. The no-dig method involves adding organic matter on top of the soil and leaves the worms and other soil life to work it in. 

Weeds are suppressed by mulching no-dig beds, so does this mean you can get away without weeding an overgrown plot? Probably not. Once you're up and running, regular mulching and hoeing is a nice easy way of preventing and/or removing weeds growing around your veggies. But that won't stop heavy duty perennial weeds like bamboo and giant hogweed returning, and they will manage to grow through your mulch too. They need to be removed completely before you'll be able to fully embrace no dig gardening.

Bamboo removed 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Bamboo spreads a long way and is tough to dig out

Anyway there are benefits to digging, excellently explained by Matt Peskett at the Grow Like Grandad blog. So if you are up for getting physical and just digging them up, here's how:

Push your fork in behind them, and push down with your foot.

Using a garden fork to get under weeds 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Use a garden fork to get under weeds

Lift the fork, with the weeds on top, and shake it so as much soil as possible falls away.

Shake off the soil  to reveal the weeds roots 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Shake off the soil to expose the roots

Pull away the weeds by hand, with as much of the roots as you can. Plants like bindweed will regrow from even the smallest section of root left in the ground. The more you can remove, the less repeat weeding you'll need to do later.

Remove weeds 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Remove as much of the roots as you can

Weeds like couch grass, nettles and bindweed spread rapidly underground via rhizomes and spreading roots. If they're growing near your plot, you may never get rid of them completely as they may spread again from a neighbour's garden or allotment. But always take out as much of the root system as you can, so it'll take them longer to come back.

Any weeds you remove can be put on the compost heap. Clearing an overgrown plot can be a great way of getting your compost heap started. Composting is a key part of making your plot as sustainable as possible, and avoiding having to buy in any more materials than necessary, which keeps the cost down too. More on composting in a future post.

It's a good idea to leave weeds to the side for a while to dry out before composting them. This reduces their chances of continuing to grow on the heap rather than breaking down.

Personally, gardening is part of keeping active in my middle age anyway, so I'm more than happy to dig weeds up from the overgrown patches of my allotment. Later in the year it's mostly a case of hoeing between crops to keep them weed free, much less hard work.
I know that not everyone is able or willing to do the hard digging though, so here's an alternative.

Getting rid of weeds by smothering them

This is a lot easier, but does take some time. If for whatever reason digging is not for you, then cover the area in cardboard, and/or plastic sheeting. Keep them in place with a few stones/bricks/logs so nothing blows away, and simply leave them for several months.

Plastic sheeting and cardboard to suppress weeds 80 MInute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Plastic or cupboard smothers weeds (mostly)
If you do this in autumn and leave it for the winter, you will have few weeds to deal with in the spring. But many annual weed seeds will no doubt be lying dormant in the soil and still reappear. Covering the area during the growing season will kill any that have sprouted and prevent them reproducing for the following year, but this can mean being unable to grow anything in the covered area until the next year. Again, it's up to you.

When you pull back the plastic sheeting you'll find nothing growing apart from a few very persistent weeds, and these will be pale and weak and easy to dig out, needing much less effort than of you were digging the whole patch up.
Plastic sheeting to prevent weeds 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Pull back the plastic and there won't be much left

Plastic sheeting is the most effective option, but clearly the less sustainable one. You'll probably need to buy it specially and it won't be biodegradable. I only used plastic sheets on part of my plot, and they were already lying around the allotment site. Cardboard is a more sustainable material to use. Boxes from supermarkets or postal deliveries can be recycled, and they will break down in the soil, or can be added to the compost heap.

Whether you decide to go hard and fast or slow and easy, you should end up with a weed free vegetable patch, and over time you can convert the whole of your plot from weeds to food!

In the 80 minutes I had on the allotment this week, I extended the cultivated part of my plot by another metre or so:

Weed free vegetebale patch 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Virgin veg patch freshly weeded

Build raised beds 

There is one more option. You could build raised beds on top of the weeds. If they are raised high enough and filled with fresh compost, the weeds are unlikely to make it to the surface and you'll have virgin beds to start growing in. You'll need some solid timber, some tools, and some basic woodworking skills to put them together.  

Other 80 Minute Allotment Jobs this week

As well as weeding, in my 80 minutes this week, I staked the broccoli plants. Storms left them lop-sided. They are still a bit of a strange shape but keeping the leaves off the ground will reduce rot, disease and pest damage. I pushed a stick into the ground alongside each main stem, tied in with twine. They'll be ready to harvest in a few weeks.

Staked broccoli plant 80 Minute Allotment Green Fingered Blog
Stake broccoli plants to keep them upright

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