Firstly, to quote David Bowie, we are "absolute beginners" when it comes to this kind of thing. Spring is almost here and we plan to work on our allotment for the first time in the coming weeks. Vegetables and assorted crops used to be grown here in the past but it has laid dormant for at least 6 years now and usually if it's not cut by late summer the weeds are 10 foot high. We know realistically in terms of man power we will not be able to work all of it this year (it includes raised beds at the bottom and also a greenhouse) but we would like to it least make a start on it. I'm presuming the soil quality will be rather good from all the mulch that has been lying on it over that period but we'd really like to go down the permaculture route and avoid ploughing/pesticides if necessary. The weeds seems very aggressive and I'm worried about spending all summer tending them. Does anyone have any ideas how we could as efficiently and eco-friendly as possible prepare the soil for planting garden crops/herbs/hedges etc - within the next month. I know sheet mulching is popular but I've heard you have to leave it for up to half a year and also it may be impractical doing this for the whole site with the man power we have available. Any ideas/advice met with warm smiles and appreciation Thank you!
You could mow with a machine or with a goat/sheep(paddock system) to keep the weeds down and stop them from making new seeds.
You are still going to have to deal with the seed bank, which last for 4+ years.
You could plant fast growing sheet mulch trees hybrid willow/poplar/empress. some grow 12ft/year and at the right density will out shade everything else.
One possible way to help bring a weedy garden under control is to knock down the tall growth and smother it under heavy plastic or cardboard for several months. Or just lay down the cardboard and cover it with spoiled hay, stable bedding, leaves, or other source of organic matter--maybe wood chips from a tree trimming company, or sawdust from a mill, or any other kind of OM you can get.
In 'How to Make a Forest Garden,' Patrick Whitefield talks about 3 kinds of mulching: a clearance mulch, used to clear the ground of weeds prior to planting; a grow-through mulch, similar to a clearance mulch but with holes cut through it for crop plants to grow; and a maintenance mulch, used in an already established garden.
Depending on how much space and time you have available, and how much materials you can get, you could use a clearance mulch over some parts of the plot, while getting a few beds started in another section, or just cover big sections with black plastic, old carpet, or cardboard, and let it sit for a summer to kill off the weeds.
If there are some raised beds in place, it might be possible just to clear those out by hand and plant some crops there, while doing the clearance mulch on the rest, especially if you can get large sheets of cardboard or some old carpet or something cheap.
Martin Crawford mentioned that he planted out the trees he wanted, and then used a piece of heavy black plastic to kill out one section at a time of the grasses, etc to put in understory shrubs and herbs. You might have to mow occasionally just to keep the grasses down, or borrow a few sheep or grazer geese to eat the grass.
I would look into a goat rental service like this one to start.
Then, if you can get out to your allotment often enough, try running chickens in a chicken tractor system. Let them have the run of a certain area until it is nice and clean, then move them on to another spot.
Progressively, you can start adding any amendments, as needed. Go with sheet mulch if the animals haven't cleared out enough to reassure you, but most likely you will just be able to start planting. Make sure that you cover any open soil with cover crops that will continue to improve the soil. Then mulch over any remaining gaps.
Just to add my two cents, I'd go with animals myself. In the argument of sheep over goats, I think it depends on what exactly is growing there; goats are browsers and prefer woody stems, whereas sheep are grazers, and so if your weeds are largely grasses, sheep might be more appropriate. I would give some serious thought to pigs if you have the option, as they would disturb the soil more than other livestock, in preparation for chickens, who would pick through any seeds exposed by the pigs' rooting, tackling the problem of the seed bank.
Of paramount concern to you (unless you are in a position to buy any or all of these, in which case I'd say "go for it," because if all you did was get meat on the hoof, it would be healthier than anything you'd buy at the store, and much cheaper even compared to the lowest-grade, and your land would be cleared and fertilized) would be which animals you could rent for the purpose from your neighbours.
Of course, to paraphrase sepp holzer, if you are unable to get animals for the purpose, than you must do their work yourself.
If this is the case, I think that if you were to sow a polyculture pasture seed mix as you mow (I don't know if it would be better just before you mow, so the blades further disperse the seed and cover them in clippings, or just after, I've never done it that way before), using plants that can take regular mowing, or even thrive under those conditions, you should be able to change the weeds polyculture to a pasture one. With just a little attention, you should be able to introduce a soil-building community that you could mow regularly OR use to pasture animals, and either way you'd be making more soil.
If you had only chickens, say, I'd mow an area and fence it in, and then let the chickens at it. I would suspect that of all the animal jobs to be done, theirs of cleaning the soil of excess seed would be the one you can't do with machines or by hand.
Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
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