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Designed by David Frary

Logo photographed by and copyright Rogan Macdonald

Life on a London allotment.

The primary cultivation.

Dig for victory.


Bramble & nettle removal.

Brambles and nettles can present a big obstacle to cultivation on a neglected allotment as the strong roots resist all attempts to dig or fork them out. Luckily we have a tool specially designed for the job, called a mattock. While at first glance this tool looks like a worn out pickaxe, there is absolutely no comparison and they do completely different tasks.

The mattock is a chopping tool designed for working under the soil surface and has a chisel end for chopping strong horozontal roots, and a spade end for undercutting downward roots. Never use the mattock as a lever or the handle will break. The photo shows my mattock passed down to me from my father, and it has had lots of new handles. It requires a new handle every time I give it to someone else to use.

Four-stroke bramble removal.

For bramble removal, strike a glancing blow with the spade end, undercutting the crown but missing the centre. Move round a bit and repeat the chop. Do this 3 or 4 times and most brambles will give up. Any residual roots left in the ground will be dealt with later when the plot is cultivated.

Nettles can be a bit more problematic but the same undercutting action will win the day. As nettle roots can grow into a wide mat, some nifty footwork can help prop up the carpet of root while chopping underneath with the mattock. Getting started is the most difficult, but once under way, it is usually fairly easy to chop free any parts offering resistance.

The mattock is also usefull for leveling large anthills that often occupy unkempt allotments. Chop down at the walls of the mound to remove chunks of anthill then finish with horozontal chops at ground level to clear the spot.

Why dig?

Digging commences.

Trench digging with a spade is the fastest and most energy efficient method of cultivating small plots of land by hand. The area is far too small for tractors to plough, the ground too heavy and full of obstructions for a powered cultivator to do a decent job. I will use a small cultivator to break up the dug land into a rakable condition though.

first strip done.

Most vegetables require deeply cultivated fertile ground to produce good results and there really is no easy short-cut to achieving this. Digging has aquired the cult status of medieval torture, largely due to memories of blistered hands and aching backs.

Blisters, particularly on the hands are common whenever anyone moves from an office or domestic environment into a manual labour situation. Soft skin rubs against tool handles, and before long, blisters appear. If this is your first experience of digging, do not attempt to much at one session.


Fork and spade.

Aching back is another story.
The main causes of back ache after digging are:

  • You are grossly out of condition.
  • You are doing it all wrong.
  • You have attempted too much in one session.

I'm not going to dwell on fitness, or lack of. Getting some exersice is one of the more common reasons cited these days for taking on an allotment. If this applies to you, the third list item should be heeded. Do not be an injured hero. Change the tasks during each session. Dig a bit. Clear a bit then tidy up a bit. Aim to go home tired but not exhausted.

The real biggie though is the middle one: You are doing it all wrong!

Trench warfare.

Digging is a skilful task using many of the fundamental principles of engineering. It is also an artform and requires a fair degree of stamina. The secret is the trench. This provides clearance for the loaded spade to work unimpeded, free from friction, stiction, suction and other ions. The design of the spade too has been honed over centuries to near perfection for the task.

Starting a trench.

After wandering around my new allotment site to meet the other occupants, I was surprised how many, both young and old were reluctant to make trenches, usually out of fear of the extra work involved creating them.

The purist method of creating a trench is to dig the soil out into a wheelbarrow and push it away to a corner somewhere and store it until the digging is finished, then barrow it all back again. That's a lot of hard work with no return on the labour.

By far the best way is to re-use the trench left over from last time, digging in the opposite direction. But what if there was no last time? If this is the case then cheat. Start a little bit back from the edge of the plot and push the spade in at an angle to about half depth then just flip the sod up to the edge. The second row should be easier and should be deeper with the third and subsequent rows the full width and depth of the spade. Trench made, some digging done.

Before I explain how to dig a field without straining your back, let me give you a tip. While it amounts to the same amount of work no matter how long the trench is, there is a psychological advantage to making it fairly short. This gives the appearance of getting things done faster and it will make you happy. Typically, 3 or 4 yards is long enough, and will produce a cultivated patch of suitable area for a number of crops. On my plot, I roughly halved the distance between the path and the grapevines to produce two patches approx 3½ yards in width each.

View of trench.

Left or right handedness.

I am left-handed and prefer to dig from the left of the trench and proceed to the right. Ultimately it makes no difference to the job and if it suits you better, the following instructions can be reversed as you work from right to left. Do what seems natural to you.

The first thing that confronts the newcomer to allotment gardening is the sheer scale of the enterprise. What is worse, you always seem to get the vacant plot next to old 'Best in Show, ten years in a row', and no matter how hard you try, he always digs more than you. This has a depressing effect particularly as the only thing on the site older than Best in Show is his spade.
It was his Grandfather's you know. Passed down through the generations. Two new heads and five new handles but still as good as the day it was made.

Digging without backstrain.

Backstrain is mostly caused by bad lifting or by being off-balance with a load. When digging properly with a spade there is surprisingly little lifting involved. Engineering priciples along with well-crafted tools do the majority of the grunt work.

With the trench created to allow complete freedom of movement, lets commence digging in ernest. The first stage is to cut the side-wall. Push the spade into the ground about half to threequarters deep to make a slice then before trying to remove the spade, push the handle gently towards the open trench. (In my case this would be left and forwards). This first step copies the action of the large knife on a horse-drawn plough or the big silver disks on a modern plough, freeing the payload from obstruction.

Four-stroke digging.

The second stage is where it all goes wrong for so many people as they casually thrust the spade into the ground before attempting to pull and lift the sod out from below their feet.

Take a quick look at a good spade and you will see that the digging end is set at an angle to the shaft. If the handle is kept more or less up straight while the blade is pushed into the soil, the blade will slightly undercut the sod making it easier to keep on the spade.

Now for the magic. Push the handle down low as you get ready to grip the shaft for the lift, and just look; The sod has come up out of the ground all by itself. 90% of the lifting done before you even get a grip on the spade.

Stage three consists of a combined lift, swing and rotate action as the sod is thrown forward. The rotate is not for added arodynamics, but to ensure that the payload does not land on top of the spade. If digging early in the winter, this large sod can be left entire while the successive frosts and desicating winds pulverise it for you. On the other hand, if like me you are a bit late with the cultivations, then the final stage is to slice and dice the sod to reduce its mass. Remove any weeds and roots at this time before taking a breath and starting the next block.

There we have it. Trench digging reduced to 4 simple stages that with practice will become one smooth operation.

Digging complete.

Lighter lifts.

If you are very young or old or of frail build, then serious consideration must be given to the amount of weight you attempt to lift and shift. To accomplish this dig back half the width of the spade instead of the full spade. This will produce a fat tile instead of an unliftable cube, but you will have to dig twice as many rows.

The trench will still need to be the same size to give the required clearance, and the spade should still be inserted the full depth to keep the severe stresses that occur focused on the strongest part of the tool.

Number crunching.

For interest to those that like numbers, the area shown dug over is approx 2 poles in area, took 5 visits to dig and amounted to a weight in excess of 20 tons that was shifted. I did attempt to time the proceedure but after one visit of 5 hrs, the timing broke down as appprox 3 hrs. talking to other plot holders and 20 min for 2 tea breaks, before deciding it takes as long as it takes.


Breaking the ground to a tilth.

Breaking all those lumps to a fine flat surface is the next and final stage of this first cultivation. As mentioned earlier, if the digging is done at the beginning of the winter, successive frosts and strong winds will frazzle most of the clods such that a quick once over with a fork and rake will restore order to the plot.

True to form, I'm running late as usual so I have invoked the help of Mr. Motivator the rotovator. This small rotovator of late 60's-early 70's vintage does not have the power to plunge into hard soil but makes short work of smashing the loose lumps to a rakable condition. Although old, the machine still has the original engine (4 new spark plugs, 6 pull cords, 3 sets of points, 1 coil, 1 carb and 2 silencers).

Enough waffle. Tic-tac up and down the plot with the rotovator until the area is covered, then repeat the operation at 90°s. This may or may not be sufficient and will depend on the soil and prevailing conditions.


With the clods nicely broken up the soil will be very uneven and requires raking to a level surface. This is very much an acquired skill and will need practice but the rake not only levels the surface, it grades the soil and exposes roots, weeds, stones and other debris. Roots and weeds should be gathered up and composted or burnt while the bricks, plastic bags and coke cans should be removed from the site. (Sensibly).

All the large clods should be moved to one side for further treatment with the rotovator. Hard clods of soil are the result of low fertility caused by neglect or bad management. The humus content of the soil slowly reduces to low levels allowing the clay particles to bind together into lumps.

These lumps will soften when exposed to the elements permitting further working until the site is finished. Any residual lumps should be simply raked out of the way for continued weathering. Never remove these clods from the plot no matter how tempting. It is your soil. Poor as it may be, removing any soil will just make the situation worse.


Soil condition can be improved immensely by the addition of manure. This was once a fairly expensive commodity but nowadays most stables are happy to let you take it away free of charge. Delivery though, can be a problem but where there is a will, there is a way. One chap, well known on this allotment site works near a riding school and brings two bags of manure back most evenings, on the bus. He has excelent vegetables, but no friends.

Manure can be deployed on the site in two main ways. The first and normal method is to dig or fork it into the soil, but this can cause problems with some crops. The other method, and the one I am using is to top dress selected areas for digging in later. There are several advantages to this method which I will explain later, but primarily it allows me to stay in control.

Preparation finished.

Cultivation complete

Finally, after a lot of hard work in a short space of time, there is a result. Ground that is ready for planting with the crops of choice. Having got this far, the primary task is to stop it from reverting to its former mess. Walk away now for less than 18 months and return with a basket to pick the blackberries. Left unattended for two years and the plot will simply merge with the background in the photo, so regular visits are the order of the day.

With the soil nicely cultivated, it is now time to enforce a strict rule.
"Do not walk on the tilled soil".
Walking on the soil now will simply compact it back into big clods and all that effort will be for nothing.

To get access to the plot for sowing, planting or tending the crops, use wooden boards to spread the weight. Any old boards will do but make sure all nails are removed.

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