How To Clear An Overgrown Allotment From Weeds & Grass In 7 Steps

Learn how to clear an overgrown allotment from weeds and grass without the need for digging, weedkillers or heavy machinery such as rotavators. The method works equally well in overgrown gardens.

A photo showing before & after shots for how to clear an overgrown allotment from grass and weeds. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

It’s really exciting when you get an allotment. I waited years for mine & suddenly, seasonal veg, flowers & working with nature were at all my fingertips.

But if it’s heavily overgrown, getting your plot ready for planting, without resorting to rotavators or chemicals, can seem daunting. In fact, when I got my plot I got very overwhelmed by the ‘right’ way to clear the plot. But, of course, there isn’t one.

However, there is an efficient way.

So if you want to know how to clear an overgrown allotment (or garden) from weeds & grass…quickly, sustainably and without weed killers or back breaking digging, read on.

How To Clear An Overgrown Allotment: Overview

An overgrown allotment. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

Above you can see my allotment plot when I first took it on in November 2022. It was an overgrown mess, packed with overgrown plants, rubbish & perennial weeds. Oh and two overturned sheds!

I had 3 main criteria for clearing it:

  • minimal digging – to preserve the delicate soil structure of beneficial microbes & funghi
  • no rotavator use – to avoid churning perennial weed roots into tiny bits, only for them to regrow with renewed vigour!
  • no chemical weed killers – I wanted to garden organically.

To fulfil these criteria, I used a combination of cardboard and weed suppressant sheeting to clear my plot (it will work just as will on an overgrown garden). You can use ‘just’ cardboard, ‘just’ sheeting or a combination of the two. Both work effectively, but in slightly different ways, which we’ll explore below. However, both greatly reduce (or even prevent) the need for digging.

What You’ll Need:

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Sheets of cardboard/weed suppressant sheeting (enough to cover the area(s) you wish to clear)
  • Garden tools for clearing – e.g. shears, rake, trowel, spade, garden fork
  • Garden gloves
  • Some old bricks/heavy stones

Next, follow these 7 steps to clear your overgrown allotment from weeds & grass in the most efficient way I’ve found.

Step 1: Clear Any Rubbish

Start by clearing away obvious rubbish. Whether it’s used compost bags, broken gardening equipment, old furniture or rotten wood, move it to one side of your plot, out of the way. 

You’ll immediately feel better about your gardening space, plus it’ll make clearing vegetation easier.

If you have a well run allotment, you may find they hire a skip, annually, (mine does). You can use this to get rid of any inherited rubbish, without having to haul it to a tip. 

Keep in mind, some things may also recyclable or even re-usable. Abandoned wood (that isn’t rotten), for example, can be useful in marking out beds or for DIY projects such as this leaf mould bin.

Step 2 – Invest In (or make) A Compost Bin

An allotment compost bin made from old pallets. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

If you’re lucky, you may have inherited a compost bin. If not, some local councils run schemes where you can get one discounted, or even free. Otherwise, try online, your local garden centre, or places like Gumtree (UK)/Facebook Marketplace or freecycle schemes.

Alternatively, you can make a compost bin from old pallets (make sure they’re not treated with chemicals) – or chicken wire. 

At the least, pile your green waste tidily in a dedicated ‘compost’ area so it can start decomposing for use later on.

Step 3 – Survey Your Site

Next, take a good look at your plot and decide what needs to go. You may have inherited established fruit bushes or perennial plants, such as asparagus or artichokes. Whilst these might need cutting back, you may not want to get rid of them completely. 

Make a mental note of any plants you want to keep, so you know which areas to clear and which areas simply require a bit of maintenance. I found making a rough sketch really helped. You may also want to roughly mark out where you want beds & paths to go.

Step 4 – Clear Surface Vegetation

Now it’s time for a bit of elbow grease. First clear long grass & bulky vegetation. Cut grass as close to ground level as you can. I used a pair of shears, but you could use a sickle or scythe. If you have one, you could try a strimmer, but many cordless ones struggle to get through long, tough grass.

If you’ve got any enormous sods of woody grass stalks, I found it was better to just dig these out now.

Also pull out any obvious big weeds, with the roots and before they set seed.

Step 5 – Loosen The Soil

This step is optional. I didn’t do it and with hindsight, I really wish I had.

An allotment that’s been neglected is often excessively weedy, with low fertility & soil that’s hard to work. So it can really help to loosen the soil a little. This helps air & water to penetrate, as well as encourage earth worm activity.

To loosen the soil, simply insert a garden fork into the ground & wiggle it back & forth gently to loosen the ground. Repeat as required over a given area.

Step 6 – Lay Cardboard Or Weed Suppressant Sheets

Your next step involves laying down cardboard or weed suppressant sheeting to starve weeds/grass of light. Without light, weeds can’t grow, so they’ll gradually die off (roots & all) without any need for digging.

There are two options you can use to do this:

1 – Cardboard (plain, brown corrugated is best, with any tape, staples or labels removed)
2 – Weed suppressant sheeting/black plastic (available online or in garden centres).

Using cardboard tends to work better on an area where there’s no perennial weed problem. Cardboard is a great option because it’s free, biodegradable and as it decomposes, it nourishes the soil with carbon (essential to plant growth).

However, it’s likely to decompose before tough perennial weed roots (such as bindweed or couch grass) die off. 

So if you’ve got stubborn perennial weeds on your hands, or a patch of nettle roots you want to clear, weed suppressant sheeting will do a more thorough job. 

It’s not always easy to identify perennial weeds. So if you’re unsure ask other allotment holders if there are common perennial weeds in your area. Or check out this RHS guide to common weeds.

Option 1 – Laying Cardboard

A photo showing how to clear an overgrown allotment from grass and weeds by layering down cardboard. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

To source free cardboard, ask around in shops and supermarkets, save packaging from deliveries or ask friends & neighbours. Use cardboard that’s free of tape, coloured ink or labels. I mostly used the brown corrugated card used in packing boxes.

Next, pick an overgrown area you wish to clear and start laying down the cardboard. Make sure you overlap where one piece of card ends and another starts. Or light will get in (see photo above).

Weigh edges down with rocks/ bricks/bits of wood. Cover an area completely, so no light can seep in (otherwise weeds will regrow).

Next, wet the cardboard with a watering can hose (don’t saturate it). This helps the card conform to the soil and stops it blowing away.

If you have the budget, it also pays to lay a generous layer of compost on top of the cardboard. This adds organic matter, helps feed the soil & further suppresses weeds. Depending on the time of year, you can also use this layer to plant directly into. Simply make a hole through the compost & card with a trowel or dibber & insert a plant/seedling into the hole.

A photo of cardboard with compost on top in an allotment. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

How long it takes to smother all the weeds & grass depends on a range of factors – from time of year to severity (& type) of weeds etc. My plot took around 3-4 months to clear, as I was detemined to have it ready for spring.

Option 2 – Laying Weed Suppressant Sheeting

Cardboard usually breaks down within a few months. So if you have tough perennial weeds or woody grass, plastic weed suppressant is more effective (you can also use black plastic), as perennial weeds take a long time to die off, as they have long taproots.

Weed suppressant sheeting placed on top of ground overgrown with grass and weeds. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

With weed suppressant sheeting, the process is the same. Simply lay it over an area you wish to clear and weigh the edges down, so light can’t get in (see photo above). 

If you don’t like using plastic, honestly, neither do I. It doesn’t improve the soil (cardboard does) and it’s hardly eco friendly. But I inherited a load of black sheeting on my allotment, so I chose to use it. And if you’re faced with stubborn perennial weeds and don’t want to dig, I’m not sure there’s an alternative that works as well.

Black plastic will generally take 1 to 4 months to kill off grass and annual weeds, depending on time of year and severity of the growth.

Perennial weeds can take up to 12 months to fully die off.  If you don’t want to wait this long (I didn’t), wait a few months, pull back the sheeting and you’ll often find taproot weeds are now much easier to see & pull out.

Alternatively, depending on the condition of the soil underneath, you can also cut small crosses into the sheeting, pull the edges back & plant directly through them

Step 7 – Watch & Wait

Unless you plan to plant directly through your cardboard mulch or weed suppressant, you’ll need to allow a few months them to do their magic. If perennial weeds are severe, with the black sheeting, this could take up to a year.

Saying that, I had perennial weeds & pulled back the black plastic after around three months (it was over winter when things were quite dormant) & manually pulled a lot of tap roots out myself, where growth had begun to die off. I then added a layer of compost ready to plant into for spring. This also helped flush out any new weed growth.

Planting Your Allotment

An allotment plot filled with vegetables & flowers. Photo credit: Sarah Baker, minimalgardener.com.

Once your allotment is clear of weeds and grass, it’s time to plant your desired crops. My soil fertility wasn’t great initially. It was also very compacted & I made the mistake of planting every type of crop I could think off. Some of these, such as parsnips, struggled to penetrate the ground.

So in your first year you might want to opt for vigorous, easy to grow plants like potatoes. These cover the ground well & are also good for breaking up neglected soil.

Other choices might include broad beans, turnips, Swiss chard or courgettes. ‘Cut & come again’ crops such as spinach, lettuce, salad rocket/mustard or chicory are also good options, as they’ll grow in shallow soil.

Lastly, remember to keep mulching your plants to help keep weeds away & build up soil fertility. You may find you get flushes of new weeds as seeds, which lay dormant under the cardboard/weed suppressant, pop up. I invested in a hoe to keep on top of these.

After that, keep adding generous layers of mulch, such as compost, well rotted manure or leaf mould, each autumn. This will continue to build up soil fertility each year, without the need for annual digging.

How To Clear An Overgrown Allotment: Conclusion

Thankfully, learning how to clear an overgrown allotment from weeds and grass (and anything else lurking in the undergrowth) doesn’t have to be exhausting. By using cardboard (or plastic sheeting for those stubborn perennial weeds) you can efficiently clear a plot without the need for endless digging. 

As well as requiring minimal work, this also prevents disturbance of delicate soil networks.

Remember though it’s your plot. The approach above works & involves much less physical effort than digging out weeds and grass manually. However, there’s no ‘law’ against digging.

Loosening soil with a fork can be very beneficial on hard, neglected soils. You may even find digging over the top layer of soil, once weeds have cleared, also helps get very compacted soil into a workable condition, initially. That’s completely up to you.

Once your overgrown plot is cleared though, you can simply add organic matter each year to feed & build up the soil. I’m thinking Monty Don type soil on Gardener’s World.

No. I’m not quite there yet either…!

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