A weeding party and a tour of the plot

We held another weeding party to help us clear the second half of the plot. You can see how we got on here:

We are very grateful to:

The generous contribution of their time has meant that we have accomplished in a few short weeks, something that would have taken the two of us months and months. They were also able to step in when Andrew was tempted to overdo it so that he didn’t end up hurting himself.

A group shot of the Saturday morning weeding crew

The Saturday morning weeding crew

From here, we were planning to let the remaining weeds grow a bit and spray them with a glyphosate based herbicide. But we are now thinking that we will skip this step and simply cover the ground with a geotextile. This is because we don’t want to wait for the weeds to grow, we want to get on with it!

Here is a tour of the plot showing where we’ve got to at this point:

Coping with couch grass

Although couch grass (pronounced coo-ch, Latin name Elymus repens sometimes known as Agropyron repens) is said to have uses in herbal medicine, most gardeners and allotment holders will know it as an invasive weed that is difficult to control.

Our own little plot is riddled with it.

It might seem as though you’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to couch grass, but with perseverance and a little bit of understanding about how it grows and survives, it is possible to keep it at bay. (Although that is likely to take us many years of vigilant work!)

Why is it a problem?

Couch grass grows rapidly through the top layer of soil, creating a thick mat of roots, removing water and nutrients from the soil and making it difficult to plant other things.

Like all plants, it exudes chemicals to help it survive and some of these are poisonous to other plants. These toxic chemicals are known as phytotoxins and are designed to prevent other plants thriving nearby.

A dense mat of couch grass roots

Couch grass creates a thick mat of roots making it difficult for other things to grow

How does it spread?

Couch grass may look like just another grass, but it is what happens under the soil surface that makes it such a problem.

Anatomy drawing of couch grass

The plant grows on a modified underground stem, called a rhizome. At various places along the rhizome, it sends out roots and shoots (the above ground stem, known as the culm, and its leaves).

The points on the rhizome where the plant grows roots and shoots are known as nodes. The areas between the nodes are known as internodes.

The internode sections grow fast, extending the distance between nodes and spreading the plant further. Not only that, nodes can divide, creating new rhizomes – a process known as tillering.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, even the smallest section of  a rhizome with a node can develop and become a new plant. You might pull out a clump of the grass, but leave behind any nodes, and new plants will follow.

So, it is easy to see how a single plant can quickly invade a garden, or move from a neglected allotment plot or overgrown path into well cultivated beds.

And, of course, couch grass produces seed which can also lead to new plants. However, the seeds are a secondary method of propagation because each plant needs another to cross-pollinate with, and the seeds, produced between July and August, are only viable for around 3 years.

The plot next to ours is riddled with couch grass which means that we will be fighting the spread of couch grass coming from there, also.

A neighbouring allotment covered in couch grass, various meadow grasses and other weeds

A neighbouring allotment covered in couch grass, various meadow grasses and other weeds

Controlling couch grass

Weed-killing chemicals or herbicides

Herbicides for couch grass work in two main ways – contact action or translocated action.

Contact action herbicides act by killing the parts of the plant that they come into contact with – usually above  ground. These types of herbicides can be a good way to control annual weeds but they do affect any plants they come into contact with such as your prized flowers or vegetable plants.

Contact action herbicides may be chemical in origin or made from natural fatty acids. However, although natural fatty acids are sometimes regarded as natural or organic, bear in mind that they are still chemicals.

Translocated action herbicides are applied to the above ground part of the plants where they are absorbed and translocated to the root system. They then act on and kill root cells, therefore killing the plant. These may also be known as systemic herbicides.

Cultural methods

Cultural methods are any means not using chemical or biological controls.

Weeding – loosen the soil and remove the rhizomes. It is good practice is to use a fork as you can easily chop through the rhizomes with a spade, inadvertently creating more plants. You might want to choose a fork with more prongs, especially with a sandy soil or you could try using a soil sieve. I think we’ll be doing a lot of weeding!

Dealing with the rhizomes – allow them to dry out and die by laying them out in the sun on a dry path or suspended on metal grid or fine wire mesh. When totally dried, they can be composted. This not always as easy as it sounds.

Incinerate them – stick them on a bonfire or in a garden incinerator.

Bag them and send to garden waste or recycling centre.

Some gardeners suggest that burying couch grass about half a metre below the soils is an effective way of killing the plant and removing the problem. The theory is that because couch grass rhizomes live in the top 150-200mm of the soil, burying them at or below 500mm (perhaps in a bean trench) will prevent them from reappearing. However, there is a danger that this could affect the plants you are trying to grow in that area because of the phytotoxins given off by a high concentration of decomposing couch grass roots and rhizomes.

Mulching

The idea with mulching is to cover the soil, depriving weeds of light so that they become weakened or die altogether.

Natural materials – loose natural materials, such as bark chippings, can sometimes be successful. It should be applied at least 100mm deep to exclude the light.

Manufactured materials can be quite successful excluding the light and controlling weeds. These might include cardboard or plastic sheets. But you need to select your material carefully. Many allotment gardeners use tarpaulins or other plastic sheets that don’t just exclude light, they also exclude water and prevent air movement, having a detrimental effect on the soil as a living biome by killing soil organisms.

You can get specialist weed suppressing membranes, which exclude light while still allowing movement of air and water. This is likely to be the route we will take.

If you have a problem with the idea of covering your allotment with plastic, you might want to consider cardboard, which will eventually rot down providing more nutrient for the soil. But you may need to check on any glue used or whether it is printed with inks containing plastics.

Some people cover their allotments in old carpet. You could try this but only if it is made from natural materials – a wool carpet with a hessian backing, the older the better because newer carpets are likely to have been treated with preservatives.  Modern acrylic carpets with plastic backings may mean you’re digging bits of plastic out of your soil for years to come.  They may also contaminate the soil with chemicals as they degrade.

Grassing down

In a garden situation, you could try turning the affected areas into lawn and keeping it close mown until the weed is gone. But that may take some time, is not always a successful method for couch grass, and isn’t practical for an allotment situation.

Learn more

The RHS website has some excellent information about couch grass including a fact sheet to download on what weedkillers are available to the gardener.

A massive pile of weed roots dug out from about a third of the allotment

The tip of the iceberg: a huge pile of weed roots, hand dug out of about half of the allotment.

Saturday morning weeding party

Our plot is not big – at about 100 square metres; it’s considered a mini plot as it is not quite a half plot size. Nevertheless, it’s quite a lot for us to manage. So, we were very grateful when our good friends from The Secret Garden offered to help.

We decided to hold a weeding party. We started the day with a preparatory picnic of warm bacon rolls and flasks of hot tea and coffee to get us ready for the task ahead.

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra weeding the plot

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra hard at work

Elisa, Rodney and Sandra started at the far end of the plot, while Andrew concentrated on the raised areas where the shed and old compost heaps used to be.

In three hours, we managed to get about half the plot weeded. And we found all sorts of nasties including bramble, dandelion, couch grass, nettle, green alkanet, bindweed, Japanese ground elder and raspberry. We also found a few old potatoes and a rhubarb crown!

A massive pile of weed roots dug out from about a third of the allotment

Our haul of weed roots from between a third and half the plot.

A long string of weeds being held up for examination - couch grass, bindweed and green alkanet

From the raised area, Andrew pulled out this huge string of weed that has a little bit of nettle, couch grass, alkanet and bindweed!

A very long string of couch grass weed and a dandelion which have been dug up

Prisoners of war – a dandelion and a couch grass root that was probably about half a metre long

A rhubarb crown, beginning to sprout

Lucky find! In among the weed roots, we uncovered a rhubarb crown beginning its spring growth

Here we are posing with our morning’s haul.

Andrew, Sandra and Elisa pose in front of a huge pile of weeds that have been dug out of the ground

Posing with our morning’s haul.

We managed between a third and a half of the allotment. We also,

  • smoothed out the bits of the plot we didn’t managed to weed so that it wasn’t quite a treacherous to walk on
  • marked out the boundary of our plot so we know what we’ve got to work on
  • marked out the path between our plot and the untended neighbouring plot and began to make the path more level and even so that it is safer for Andrew to negotiate

Below is a before and after shot. We still need to work on the half closest to the camera. But that’s a job for another day.

A before and after shot of the allotment

Above:the ground is very uneven from being turned over by the digger. Below: the sun is out and the plot is beginning to look good

And here is a shot taken from more or less the same spot as a reminder of where we started:

A shot of our new allotment - overgrown with brambles, other weeds and large shrubs, and with a scattering of rubbish and abandoned garden equipment

A visit to Sutton Community Farm

By chance, I spotted a tweet announcing an open day at Sutton Community Farm.

Sutton Community Farm tweet announcing the open day

We thought this might provide a useful learning opportunity to help with the new allotment, and we wanted to check out what facilities they had. When it started snowing, we were a bit apprehensive but we decided not to let that put us off our visit.

Sutton Community Farm is a 7-acre community-owned farm – there are 140 member share owners. It was set up in 2010 “to increase access to fresh, healthy, sustainable food and provide a shared space for people to cultivate skills, get exercise and make new friends.”

Despite the inclement weather, Joris Gunawardena, Farm Director and Head of Production, took us on a tour of the farm. We started in the polytunnels.

In the first tunnel, Joris showed us their mushroom growing trial. Here he is with a crop of oyster mushrooms, which are grown in spent coffee grounds that come from Caffè Nero in Wallington.

Joris Gunawardena shows off oyster mushrooms in a polytunnel at Sutton Community Farm

Behind him you can see covered shelves where the mushrooms are being grown. This mini mushroom tent has a sonic fogger to keep the atmosphere moist. (Before they get to this stage, they start their life in the dark – in a cupboard.)

Mushroom growing is a new venture for the farm – they are trying to understand the process with a view to scaling it up. It was fascinating to see but a little beyond our Quest for Veg allotment plot capabilities (for now!).

Using polytunnels allows them to extend their season. Joris told us that they can increase the yield of a tomato plant by 100 per cent. He also told us that they are the most productive community farm in London. Last year their yield was 17 tons of produce. Most of it goes to their veg box scheme although 25 per cent went to restaurants, and they are hoping to expand the restaurant side.

Pak choi (below) is a good crop because it grows very fast. allowing them to harvest and replant in quick succession.

Pak choi at various stages of growth in a polytunnel at Sutton Community Farm

Pak choi at various stags of growth because it has been harvested and replanted a bit at a time.

A huge amount of what they grow is produced using Mypex. To stop it fraying, they use a blow torch to cut holes in the fabric where the plants are to grow and where they want to put the automatic watering system.

Mypex is often used in organic systems as a weed control mechanism. It is something we are planning to use on our plot. Andrew is also planning an automatic watering system. So it was great to see both of these in action.

Below  you can see winter perslane on its second flush of leaves, having been harvested once.

Winter perslane grown through Mypex with an automatic watering system

Winter perslane or miners’ lettuce (Claytonia) grown through a weed-suppressing membrane.

Outside it was a bitterly cold day. Kale and the remains of a sprout harvest are kept under wraps to protect.

Kale and sprouts under a protective cover

Kale and sprouts under a protective cover.

Despite the freezing temperatures and occasional snowflakes, a few brave souls worked to clear beds ready for the coming season.

Two hardy souls brave the freezing temperatures to get beds ready for the coming season

The farm relies on volunteer support. Between 50-80 people help out each week with everything from administration and veg box preparation to harvesting and site maintenance.

They have a rigorous crop schedule so that everyone knows what jobs need to be done.

Part of the crop schedule showing the plan for legumes, roots and green manure

Part of the crop schedule showing the plan for legumes, roots and green manure.

The soil at Sutton Community Farm is sand over chalk meaning that it has a tendency to dry out. This can give them problems with crops such as garlic which need a good supply of water. So they grow it under a membrane to help keep moisture in and grow an early purple variety of garlic to increase their chance of success.

An early variety of garlic grown under mypex

An early variety of garlic grown using Mypex.

The tour ended with a quick look at colourful raised herb beds.

Colourful raised herb beds - with a light covering of snow

Colourful raised herb beds – with a light covering of snow

But, sadly, it really was too cold for us to linger too long. We’ll need to visit again in the warmer weather.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Joris and the team for making us feel so welcome.

A snow dusted cold frame

A very cold cold frame.

The quest for a hand cultivator 

Andrew on the allotment with a hand cultivator

So here’s Andrew with the first tool we’ve bought for our new Quest for Veg allotment plot – the hand cultivator.

It took us all day to buy it. We started in a local hardware store where they had a decent selection of tools – including the cultivator we actually ended up buying. But it wasn’t quite what Andrew wanted.

He was hoping for one with longer prongs and ideally five rather than three.

So we went to another local hardware store where they had no cultivators at all and didn’t know what we were talking about.

They did, however, have something we hadn’t seen before. It was fork with a sharp metal edge joining up the ends of its tines. It looked like a fork with braces on its teeth.

Apparently it’s a spork – a cross between a spade and a fork. We were tempted but decided to continue our quest for the cultivator.

We then tried a garden centre. It appeared to have lots of tools but, on closer inspection, the display was made up of about four sections, each for a different supplier showing the same limited range of tools with one or two variations.

They had one long handled cultivator. But Andrew thought the prongs were at the wrong angle and it was over three times the price of the one at first one we’d seen.

We then spent a very long couple of hours in B&Q. We didn’t find any cultivators but may have identified the shed we want.

And finally Homebase where they only had a short handled cultivator.

So, it was back to the first shop we visited! At least we had the satisfaction of supporting a local independent business.

And then there was just time to end the day with an hour or so at the allotment where Andrew explained how to use the cultivator and set me to work.

Why we used a mini digger

Richard using a mini digger to turn the soil on our allotment

Having cut down and burned the shrubs, brambles, small trees, grass and other weeds, our thoughts turned to turning our soil.

We had already decided that our approach to getting our plot ready to grow would be to:

  • spray the existing weeds with a glyphosate-based weedkiller (which we have done)
  • dig or rotavate the soil to aerate it
  • remove some weed roots by hand cultivating
  • let any remaining weeds in the soil grow up so that we can spray them again
  • and finally, once the current crop of weeds have died off, cover the soil with a geo textile, perhaps mypex.

It means that we can’t be organic while we’re clearing the plot, but it is something we want to work towards. We inherited many pernicious weeds, some  of which (such as couch grass and bindweed) can grow from the tiniest fragment of plant material left in the soil. We’re going to be tackling these weeds for some years to come. But if we’re going to stand a chance of getting on top of the problem, we need some chemical help at this stage.

Some people caution against rotavating a weed-infested plot because it chops into weed roots and could spread the problem.  Elisa (The Secret Garden), who has worked so hard with us to get the plot to where we are now, had offered to hand dig it. It was a generous offer but we felt we would be asking too much if we said yes.

We were pondering the problem, when Richard of Anderson Landscapes suggested using a mini digger. It might seem a bit over the top for turning the soil but it would allow us to tackle several other problems at the same time.

We’d be able to move some of the banked up soil at the shed-end of the plot to create raised beds. We could use it to demolish the old shed and dig out the base that the shed was sitting on. And we could use it to remove the massive blocks on concrete that Rodney had been bravely trying to dig out.

So, that is what we did.

In the video below, you’ll see that even the mini digger struggled with some of the concrete!

And here is our first raised bed – made with one tonne bags donated by Richard. The bags were filled with material from the previous tenant’s old compost heaps. Hopefully, it will look more attractive filled with plants – we’re considering using them to grow pumpkins this year.

 

Building a raised bed using one tonne builders' bags

Removing the old shed

The fate of the old shed was the subject of robust discussion here at Quest for Veg HQ.

On the one hand, although it was structurally dodgy, it did provide a place to store the few items we wanted to keep out of the rain.

On the other, it was structurally dodgy. Getting rid of it while we have help would mean that we could start with a blank canvas.

In the end, it was probably as well that we got rid of it when we did because it was far more structurally dodgy than we had realised. It was probably only the well-established ivy cover that was holding it up. And the ivy had to go.

Mini digger expertise was very kindly provided by Richard Anderson of Anderson Landscapes. And we are grateful to Elisa Contreras (The Secret Garden) for her continued hard work in helping to clear the plot.

Our thoughts now turn to the shed versus greenhouse debate!

Our allotment goes up in flames!

Which is an overly dramatic way of saying we’ve had our first ever bonfire!

Our first ever bonfire

Having spent many hours clearing the plot with the help of our good friends Elisa and Rodney (The Secret Garden), we ended up with two large piles that needed to be cleared.

The obvious option was to have a bonfire. Who doesn’t love a bonfire? Well, a local resident, apparently. We had been warned by a fellow plot holder who we met the other day, that there is someone who always complains. And sure enough, despite choosing a still day and trying to keep smoke to a minimum, we heard someone shouting from a nearby garden that we were polluting the whole area (and I thought I was dramatic!). Luckily, it was near the end of the day and most of the rubbish had been cleared by then.

Anyway, here is how we got on:

Are we going to be organic?

Today we sprayed the allotment with a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate.

So does that mean we’re not going to be organic? Well, in the beginning, obviously not. We’re using a chemical to clear the plot. And we may have to use it again to kill pernicious weeds that keep coming back. But we’ll try and use as few chemicals as possible when we’re doing our actual growing.

Could we clear the plot organically? Possibly. We could spend a long, long time digging out every piece of organic matter from the plot. Or we could cover the weeds with something that would exclude the light, which would help to kill the plants. But that would probably take more than a year to do. We want to bring the plot into cultivation sometime this year.

Glyphosate works by being absorbed through the leaves, moving into the roots, and killing the plant from the roots up. When it gets into the soil, it’s broken down by micro-organisms within the soil into less harmful substances until it becomes totally inert. It’s one of the quickest ways of clearing out a whole load of the plants using a herbicide.

We’re using this as an emergency measure to help us clear a plot that has been overgrown for four years or more and get it under cultivation as quickly as possible. Hopefully, we won’t have to use chemicals after this. And we can use other techniques – digging out the weeds and covering the ground – and eventually become as organic as possible.

Green alkanet

I think we have seen the face of our enemy, and know its name to be green alkanet (aka Pentaglottis sempervirens).

The whole site, access path, the alleyways running along two sides of our site are dotted with little green alkanet plantlets.

If left, they would turn into a plant about 60cm tall with startling blue flowers reminiscent of forget-me-not blooms. But they don’t have the charm of forget-me-nots and the hairy leaves cause skin irritation.

The plant has long tap roots and can germinate from any piece of root left in the ground. And of course it can also germinate from seed if allowed to get to that stage.

Could it be usefully composted or made into a liquid feed? Probably not as Alys Fowler explains in the Guardian.