Q&A: coping with an overgrown vegetable patch

Val Bourne / 10 March 2014

I have just moved to a new garden and the vegetable patch is completely overgrown. I don’t know where to start first. Can you help? Read Val Bourne's expert advice.

Use a rotavator

Moving house is very daunting, especially if the garden is overgrown and full of weeds, some of them inevitably perennial and pernicious.

Start off by rotavating the vegetable area mechanically: these machines can be hired. Although this sounds counter-productive, a rotavator goes deeply into the soil and cuts the roots up into sections about three-to-six inches in length. These pieces can then be dug up easily and binned. This is far simpler than working with a dense tangle of roots that snags a fork.

Plant maincrop potatoes

Once the worst of the weeds are removed, put the whole area down to maincrop potatoes for the first year. I recommend ‘Cara’ for its blight-tolerance. Planted in late-April or early May this will give you a September crop and as you harvest you will dig up more weeds. The potato tops will help smother annual weeds too. After harvesting, turn the whole area over with a fork leaving the large clods of soil intact. Winter will break down the lumps and bumps and then you can section off your plot into beds in the second year and begin to grow more vegetables.

How to manage your vegetable plot

Step one - divide your plot

Dividing a vegetable plot makes it easier to manage because in order to harvest you have to continual access the produce and treading on the soil compresses it. If you divide a plot into smaller portions it’s possible to access the crops far more easily, from the sides or edges.

It’s also possible to enrich specific areas areas each year, either by adding compost or well-rotted manure.

Separate plots also make it easier to rotate your crops, move them around on a four-year system. This will help prevent diseases and pests from building up in the same patch. If you grew carrots, for instance, in the same space every year. Carrot root fly numbers would probably increase year on year.

Rotating also important when it comes to plant nutrition. If the same patch of land was used for carrots, for example, the carrots would remove the same trace elements etc from that patch and carrots would eventually fail.

A four-year plan for your vegetable patch

Rotation plans, even simple ones, are never straightforward because certain crops, eg courgettes, do not fit into the usual categories. Other plants (such as strawberries, asparagus and raspberries) are permanent.

Vegetable plot order

When planning divide your crops into the following categories and keep them in this order in the plot:

  1. potatoes
  2. legumes (i.e. peas and beans)
  3. brassicas
  4. roots

Why rotate vegetables?

This theory behind this regime is that potatoes exhaust the soil. The root nodules of the legumes replace the nitrogen used by potatoes and that in turn feeds the brassicas that follow on. Onions and roots are last and then every fourth year the plot is manured over winter, with extra manure or feed applied six months before planting onions. These hungry bulbs have short roots.  

Confusingly some root-forming crops are brassicas including turnips, swedes and kohl rabi. These are subject to the same brassica pests and diseases so include them in the brassica section and not the roots.  

Easy fertilisers

A good compost heap
A good compost heap, a lift off front, is a necessity. Then you can take a wheelbarrow of compost easily. Don’t overfill the barrow when moving manure or compost.

Blood, fish and bone

An all purpose well-balanced plant food for building fertility. Can be used when planting or sprinkled on later. Good for brassicas and easy to handle.

A slow-acting source of phosphorous with nitrogen, best for developing good root systems.

Chicken manure pellets
Nitrogen-rich and  easy to apply. but the smell can put gardeners off. Dogs will also consume them. Like all fertilisers the smell tends to attract the interest of foxes.

Using compost and manure
These can both be layered onto the soil in autumn or spring. The worms will pull the compost and manure down. However manure must be well-rotted and from a reliable source as some manure may contain herbicides that will damage the crop.

Read more about soil improvers and organic fertilisers.

Double digging

Compost made from surplus material may well contain weed seeds and for this reason many vegetable gardeners submerge it underground by a technique called 'double digging', usually done early in the year. This system (not as onerous as it sounds) works well on smaller areas and creates a fertile mound.

How to double dig

You will need:
  • a sharp spade
  • a fork
  • a wheelbarrow
  • a line
  • a ground sheet  
  • a stout plank to stand on, so that you don’t compress the soil

  1. Section off an 8 ft by 4 ft area of garden
  2. Lay the sheet down on the left hand side if you’re right handed.
  3. Remove a spit of soil with your spade from the entire area and heap it up neatly on the sheet. You will end up with a neat, flat-bottomed trough in the ground and a pile of soil by the side.
  4. Take your fork and break up the ground at the base of the trench and then incorporate your garden compost, well-rotted manure, or a mixture of both into the ground. 
  5. Replace all the soil to form a mound.
  6. As the decomposition process carries on it warms the soil and helps your crops to grow

Ways of dividing your plot

8 x 4 Beds

Simple 8ft x 4ft beds (2.4m x 1.2m) subdivided by wooden planks are ideal because you can pick or dig whilst standing on the planks.

Raised beds

These are subdivided by wooden sides and these can be bought or made. They can dry out in summer as the soil is above ground level. They also hold moisture in winter, more than the ordinary ground. The sides often trap slugs, happy to hide between the soil and the damp wooden sides. The upside is that they look good and they do delineate the vegetable beds.

Ten good varieties of vegetable

  1. Leek ‘Oarsman’ F1 AGM (British-bred Tozer modern hybrid)
  2. Parsnip ‘Gladiator’ F1 AGM (a British-bred Tozer modern hybrid)
  3. Pea ‘Hurst Greenshaft’ AGM (traditional open pollinated variety)
  4. Broad Bean ‘Jubilee Hysor’ AGM (Traditional open pollinated variety)
  5. Bean Moonlight F1 (a Britsh-bred Tozer modern hybrid)
  6. Carrot Early Nantes 2 (traditional open pollinated variety)
  7. Sweetcorn Lark F1 (a British-bred Tozer modern hybrid)
  8. Lettuce Little Gem (traditional open pollinated variety)
  9. Tomato Shirley F1 (from 1980s)
  10. Runner Bean White Lady (Tozer modern hybrid)

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.