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Best Way to Clear Weeds from an Allotment

Thursday, 5 March 2020  |  Matt

allotment with lovely flowers

There are several options for removing weeds from an allotment, and the one you choose is likely based on two considerations:

  1. A few weeds, or overrun with weeds?
  2. Chemical, or organic?

First of all, if there are only a few weeds, the best way to get rid of them is by hoeing on a dry day, or pulling them out by hand. This is practical for a small weed problem and has the added benefit of being organic. There won’t be any nasty chemicals getting into your crops or killing off pollinating insects.

If your allotment is overrun with weeds, your decision becomes a bit more complicated. You can spray chemicals on the allotment, but this has some cons as well as the pro of being easy and very effective against weeds. The cons are that it generally kills everything – insects (pests and beneficial ones), weeds, and some plants that you probably want – and that it leaves toxic chemicals in the soil. Your crops will absorb some of these and you’ll wind up eating them. Wildlife in the area will too. Neighbouring allotment-keepers might also be upset that their organic plots are being contaminated by chemicals from yours.

Don’t despair though, if you have a big weed problem, but don’t want to go the chemical route, there is another effective way to take care of them – without having to spend hours and hours pulling them by hand (although that is an option).

Covering the ground with an opaque sheet – or with mulch – will choke the weeds of sunlight and, over one season, kill them off. It is then much easier to clear away the dead material and end up with a clean, chemical-free plot to begin growing the plants you do want there.

Here are some more detailed steps and things to consider when dealing with weeds.

Step 1: Clearly Identify Where The Weeds Are

Weeds will be either annual (they die each year), or perennial (they keep growing from year to year, and do not die off in the winter). Each of these types are divided into broad-leaf types and grassy types.

Knowing this information will tell you a lot about the soil of your allotment too. Acidic soils is good for broad-leaf weeds like nettle, creeping buttercup, and daisies. If you have these, you likely have acidic soil. Stinging nettle on your allotment indicates that you have very fertile soil.

Perennial weeds are harder to get rid of than annuals. Weeds such as brambles are difficult to eliminate because they can regrow new plants from the tips of the rooting stems.

Step 2: Clear Away All Above Ground Weeds

Removing tall weeds may require a strimmer, but medium ones can be mowed down with a regular lawnmower. This doesn’t kill the roots, but it gets rid of the higher foliage and lets you see what you’re dealing with at ground level.

Step 3: Clear The Weeds From the Root

For most weeds, pulling them out manually works best. A Fiskars weed puller makes this a relatively easy task. The best time to do this is in the early spring, and again in mid-autumn, after a week or two without rain. This means the ground is not so dry as to be rock-hard, and not so wet as to get muddy when removing weeds.

Annual weeds grow and reproduce quickly, and there tends to be a lot of them, but by pulling them out early in the season, before they can drop their thousands of seeds, you can drastically reduce their presence with only a little, well-timed effort.

Perennial weeds are more difficult to remove. These tend to regrow from any little portion of the roots left in place – and these can be hard to find and dig out.

How to clear annual weeds

Mulching is a great way to clear annual weeds. Apply the mulch in early spring, spreading this organic layer of wood chips, manure, bark and compost, in a layer a few inches thick over the area you want to clear of weeds. Any annual weeds that do make it up through this layer will be weak, easily spotted, and easy to pull out.

The organic material will break down, using the moisture of April rains, over the course of the growing season, and by the end of the summer the mulch will have transformed into fertile soil. At that point you will need to mulch again before the next growing season, but the benefits of suppressing weeds and adding more organic material to your allotment will wind up producing many beneficial results over time.

Should you use mulch?

You can put together your own homemade mulch using a mix of manure, wood bark, small wood chips, and compost, but if you don’t have the right ingredients, or this sounds like too much work when you’re just starting out, or if you simply want to focus on the new allotment and take a few harmless shortcuts in the first year or two, purchasing mulch is easy and not that expensive.

One great choice is Westland 100L Landscape Bark. One of its ingredients is screened large bark chips. It works well for covering areas with annual weeds, improving the overall look of gardens and flower beds, helps to retain moisture, and even keeps your crops protected from drastic temperatures, both hot and cold. Most people are very happy with the results.

How to clear perennial weeds

If you choose to clear perennial weeds using the sheet method, the best thing to use is allotment black sheeting. It is made up of polythene, blocks sun and rain, and does not easily break down in the elements and under UV rays. It is also known as ‘weed membrane’ or ‘weed control fabric/cardboard’.

This material should be laid directly onto the soil surface (you may need to cut taller plants down before laying it out), and it should cover the whole of your allotment if possible, to prevent weeds from coming out around the edges and simply infecting a different part of your allotment.

It may be tempting to use homemade materials or scrap, such as old carpets, but this is not recommended. These indoor materials contain a lot of chemicals that leech into the soil when exposed to the elements, and the UV rays break them down quickly, leaving particles, fibres, dyes and other contaminants in your beautiful growing soil. It’s best to avoid them.

The membrane will be effective in as little as one season, but is usually left in place for 1-2 years to be certain of killing off even the more tenacious weeds. This doesn’t mean that you can’t grow anything during this time though; you can cut holes in the fabric and plant wanted plants in them. This won’t be practical for some plants, but may help you get your own perennials established early.

When you’re ready to remove the membrane, the underlying weeds should be easy to remove. Remember to dig our any rhizomes that remain though, as these may regrow even after a year or two of dormancy.

Weed Killers

There are some instances in which a chemical weed killer is still the only practical means of getting rid of certain plants. Horsetail, for example, is difficult or impossible to get rid of by other means.

The main ingredient of these weed killers is often Glyphosate. Glyphosate is made specifically for getting rid of weeds that are particularly resistant to other means. It should be used carefully, and sparingly – and make sure you don’t let wind blow it into your neighbour’s allotment! Some herbicides are selective to certain types of weeds. If you want to retain certain plants or grass, for example, these can be an effective choice.

Whichever one you choose, it is normally best to apply it in early spring, when the weeds are first sprouting. Plants are most vulnerable at this time, when the stems are still soft and green.

Step 4: Compost dead weeds

Smaller weeds can be composted after removal, but larger ones (such as those with roots longer than about 2.5cm) should be disposed of in the garden rubbish. The main concern is to prevent any dormant seeds from being reintroduced to your allotment.

Final Words

It may be difficult to take the time to properly condition and prepare your new allotment for future years of crop-growing – but do take the time. The hours, days, or even first year or two, that you spend making sure your soil is fertile, weeds are removed, rubbish is cleared away, and your new crops are protected, will pay you dividends for many years to come.

Where possible, keep things natural and organic. This will not only add to your peace of mind, but it will keep pollinating insects healthier and more plentiful, keep the food you grow healthy and wholesome, and will keep relationships with neighbouring allotment-holders in good condition too!

And that leads us onto the final thought. Keeping an allotment is about more than saving money on the grocery bill, or giving yourself a beneficial hobby – it is also a great way to connect with a community of people who, like you, enjoy the outdoors and the joy of growing things. Engage with them, make some new friends, and you’ll find the allotment becomes far more than just a field of crops; it can become the heart of your community.

Browse a new allotment greenhouse here.

Now you can read our beginners guide to starting an allotment here.