Keeping a tidy allotment

Believe me, in almost seven years of tending my allotment I've tried every method of using it most efficiently and keeping things tidy. Unfortunately I've also spent a lot of time cutting back weeds and not nearly enough time digging and planting.

So, in the hope of saving you some time and effort, here's a summary of what I've tried, why it failed, and what works for me as the best overall solution.

Raised beds

The first plot I acquired was in a desperate state, with all the appearance of an abandoned bit of rough pasture. But a few days work by my carpenter son in law putting in raised beds on half the plot gave it some structure. Well remember the January afternoon I stuck the spade in one corner of the first raised bed to turn over a turf. And plugging away bit by bit, the progress was almost magical.

But over the next few years the problems associated with raised beds gradually wore me down. There were loads of paths in between the beds to keep tidy... in fact as much as 40% of the available space was used up by access paths. Laying carpet on the paths gave slugs the perfect home to breed from, and when a bit muddy and wet they were treacherous under foot. Growing grass meant there was so much of it to cut and lots of awkward angles to manoeuvre the lawn mower around. Weeds grew up from along the wooden border and invaded the beds.

It's nice theory that raised beds don't need digging, are easy to access and enable a greater concentration of vegetables to be planted... but much of that depends on actually raising the level of soil in the bed. And unless you're going to import tons and tons of soil, it's going to take years to increase the level by adding the compost you produce yourself. I was composting several cubic metres a year and had still only lifted the level in the beds by an inch or so. Raised beds no doubt work if you've got one or two and can expend the care and attention needed. They don't seem practical for something the size of an allotment.

Grass cutting

In an effort to retain green credentials whilst at the same time keeping the grass under control, I bought a battery powered strimmer. Got a great deal, the spare battery included meaning I could merrily strim away for almost an hour. Works fine for small areas, but not practical for something the size of an allotment, where it also has to tackle some tougher opponents.

Next tried a push along mower. After a good session with that I hardly had enough energy to make it back home! Next was the purchase of a magnificent petrol powered strimmer, complete with 30cc motor. No fun to use... fiddly, noisy, and the final straw was when the spring flew off never to be found. So much vibration using the bush cutter blade I'm sure it loosened all my teeth. Back that went for a refund.

Soil turning

Hired a rotavator for a day at not inconsiderable expense, the aim being to break up that part of the plot not turned to raise beds. Spent the day attempting to steer the damned thing whilst it merrily skipped over the surface. At the end of a few hours the area looked much improved, purely because any available vegetation had been scratched away. There was very little penetration into the earth...maybe not such a good idea to use a rotavator in summer on clayey soil! And maybe just as well, since a rotavator doesn't do the worms much good.

And the best solution?

I've ended up with the plot turned over to two large beds with a broad grass path down the middle and narrower grass paths around the sides. This gives the maximum area of cultivation and flexibility for planting. I can plant in any configuration and use planks for walking across the beds to keep the soil uncompressed.

The grass is cut with a petrol mower. The uncomplicated layout of the paths means I can whizz up and down in a fairly short time, and the grass cuttings get bunged into the compost bin where they create some warmth.

You can't beat digging the old fashioned way with a spade. And on our allotment site it always pays to follow what the Italians do... they've been present well over twenty years and are masters at getting the best from their plots. They dig over in September while things are still dry, turning the soil in clods as big as they can. This enables the winter frost to penetrate well into the earth, giving them a deep fine tilth in spring.

To see the progress of my allotment in pictures, just click the 'What's it all about' tab at the top.

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