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

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:

More on the mystery posts

A picture of the excavation of the wooden post embedded in concrete

While assessing the shed, we were able to take a few more shots of the mystery post that we’re trying to remove from the allotment.

As previously noted, the three wooden posts are held together with a coach bolt at the top and embedded in concrete at the bottom. There are no other screw holes or marks of anything being fixed to the posts.

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There is also a smaller post slightly nearer to the fence, and the two of them are at about a 45 degree angle to the fence. Although at this stage of excavation, it doesn’t look like the two posts are connected, it’s hard to believe they don’t have anything to do with each other.

Here’s a view of the smaller post:

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We’d like to thank Rodney from The Secret Garden, for the fantastic job he’s done so far on digging the larger post out. Despite going down a couple of feet, there is no sign of being able to move the post. So, the next plan is likely to involve hitting it hard with a very large hammer!

A closer look at the shed

While we’re clearing the plot, it makes sense to assess the shed and decide whether it can be saved.

It is a quirky little structure with a steeply pitched roof. Covered in ivy, it looked charmingly rustic.

The quirky, ivy-covered shed we inherited

It didn’t take long to notice that the floor was rotten in parts.

The shed floor is rotten in parts

But it was not until Elisa from The Secret Garden managed to clear the ivy from one side that we were able to see the state of it. The first surprise is that it has windows all the way round – far more than a normal shed.Unfortunately, it has a few other less welcome features.

The roof has both wet rot and dry rot:

Dry rot on the roof

The walls are very wet and marked, and they move if you apply any pressure.

The roof and walls of the shed are showing serious signs of damp

One thing we did notice is that a roof panel seems to have the fittings usually used to hold a window open.

Ivy growing inside the shed

It was then that Andrew had a flash of inspiration. The reason the shed is the shape it is, with its steeply pitched roof, and has so many windows all round, is that it probably started life as a greenhouse.

Having had a chance to have a good look round, we are coming to the conclusion that it has been neglected for too long for us to be able to save it. It seems a shame not to be able to continue to give it a further lease of life. But we think it has gone beyond saving. By the time we replace the floor, the roof and the walls, we’ll have a new shed! As we had both began to warm to this quirky little structure we were somewhat reluctant to agree to say goodbye to it, although it will probably make a good bonfire.

A sad day.

Immovable objects and a rotten shed

At this stage, we’ve got all the roots out and have made two piles of material which we are hoping to burn – the ash will be good for the soil.

Elisa and Rodney, from The Secret Garden,  arrived with a good collection of tools. Here’s a selection of their forks!

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Rodney attacked the larger of the mystery concrete posts. You can see in the film that he’s dug a couple of feet down all the way around it, and still it refuses to move!

From what we have uncovered so far, there are three layers of concrete (there may be more underneath that). So, it looks like someone has put concrete down, let it dry, put another layer of concrete down, let that dry, then put a final layer of concrete down and sunk the posts into it. The posts themselves are very solid looking pieces of wood held together with a substantial bolt.

There are no obvious signs of something being attached to the posts – no other bolt holes, etc. There is also another a smaller concrete post about a metre nearer to the fence.

What on earth the posts were or why someone put them there, we have no idea.

We have also started pulling the ivy off the shed. It looks homemade rather than being a bought shed and there are windows all the way round. So, someone has obviously been growing something in it, or at least planned to.

But, having uncovered more of it, it looks like bad news. We knew that some of the floor was rotten, and it looks like the eaves have both wet and dry rot. We’ll show more on the shed another day but I think it’s safe to say, we’ll probably need a new one.

One of the difficulties about clearing round the shed, is the bank at that end of the site. The shed is surrounded by what may have been compost heaps. It certainly contains a fair amount of rubbish as Elisa discovered:

Elisa pulls a broken piece of corrugated plastic from the bank surrounding the shed