I like digging but there is also a lot to be said for no-dig. You can’t successfully have one without the other. Digging is all about preparation; you get to know the soil while rootling around to pull out weed roots, you can add in or top up organic matter as you go. The bottom line is the plot needs to be dug over at least once and probably twice. Charles Dowding has a good article on taming an overgrown allotment.
Like lifting, there is a right way to dig, i.e., the way that won’t cause you injury. Digging is hard work, know your physical limits and have frequent tea breaks to admire your progress. I prefer to use a spade, otherwise the evil weed roots have a chance to slide out between the fork tines. I’ve only ever single dug but here’s a guide for a number of digging techniques.
At plot 1 my nemesis was horsetail and I suspect that at plot 2 it will be bindweed. On the first plot, I simply dug the areas I wanted to plant in and covered the paths with cardboard and weed membrane. I discovered a couple of problems with the approach:
- The un-dug paths became a reservoir for perennial roots that then found their way into the freshly cleared beds.
- Covering paths with woodchip is great for the first few years but then as it breaks down, the weeds move in. I’ve spend as much time weeding the paths as I have the beds!
At plot 2, it seemed sensible to apply that learning, so every inch of the plot has been dug. For some reason, I thought I’d start at the top corner and work my way across – it soon became apparent that was a bad idea.
The ground was incredibly uneven; ankle-breaking trenches as well as small hills. Lurking underground was all manner of debris, including room size pieces of carpet. Luckily the allotment association had a skip on hire for Easter.
I still had the bramble roots to deal with but another plot holder had the solution – a mini-digger! The association was doing some work and a couple of neighbours volunteered to help turn over the soil to get the roots out. It worked really well, and I’m definitely never going to clear out bramble roots again!
All I had to do was pull/pick up the loosened roots and level the soil. It took a full weekend to achieve and resulted in a root pile about 4 feet square and a very exhausted plot34!
That left two thirds of the plot to be dug and the clock was ticking if I was to transplant my trees and shrubs from plot 1. I know that I’m not tall enough, heavy enough or strong enough to work a rotovator but that’s what I needed to get the soil broken and turned over. After several phone calls, John agreed to come out and take a look. He says he’ll do it but it’ll need digging first and it’ll take three days. Imagine my surprise when I arrive on site the next day to see him on another mini-digger. But what a fantastic job and worth every penny!
Now at this point, all my plot neighbours want to know what I’ll be planting. They were bemused when I told them I’d be growing weeds for 2016. I’m not a fan of weed membrane as a means to kill weeds – think about it for a moment: Seeds remain dormant until conditions are right for germination and pernicious weed roots can simply take cover until better conditions are offered. Much better I think to offer the conditions they like and hoick ’em out, or in the case of bindweed squirt with glyphosate.
The football pitch sized proportions were a bit daunting and I’d found a big pile of lovely red clay bricks – just right for a path down the middle of the plot.
The width of the path and a bit more was dug and levelled (that’ll be allotment levels) with the brick edging and top soil added a bit at a time to maintain my interest and motivation – it was a long way to the shed!
Once the path was in place (the grass seed will be sown next Spring, probably) I decided to concentrate on the right-hand side of the plot. I started digging from the shed end, pulling out roots, bits of carpet, plastic pots, bottles and labels and a million teeny tiny pieces of plastic bags. I filled up 3 dustbin liners of rubbish!
It took 3 months of mostly weekends and evenings to dig this half of the plot.
I’ve mulched up to the pear tree with a tonne of top soil/manure and then laid paths – no more woodchip paths for me. I’ve arranged the beds so they are no more than 4ft wide, which means I won’t need to tread on the soil and if all goes to plan, I won’t need to dig. Actually, I really need that to go to plan as this side will have the permanent plantings of roses, peonies, rhubarb and asparagus – none are that keen on regular interruptions.