How to Recover a Plot That’s Gone Wild – Diary of a Rocket Gardener

Hopefully, this post will serve as both inspiration and encouragement for someone else who has been feeling overwhelmed by the task of recovering an overgrown veg plot. As you can see from the photos, my veg patch got a little out of hand recently. I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to looking after it, and as the land around me is quite the weed haven, it didn’t take long for seeds to blow in and settle in the compost AND in the almost-compost-like wood chip pathways.

It took a couple of weekends, but I have managed to get it back to a reasonably good, growable state. The work wasn’t done single-handedly as I had a help from three others for 2-3 hours on both weekends, but it does show that the turnaround can be quite quick. Of course, it depends a little on what you’re starting with, too.

What I started with

In my case, I was starting with several raised beds that have previously been no-dig beds, meaning that I have mulched them heavily each year rather than digging them over. The pathways have weed membrane covering the soil, and a thick layer of woodchip that was 2 or 3 years old and had started to decompose and turn to compost. I actually laid the weed membrane down about 8 years ago, so it has had plenty of time to suppress any weeds/growth in the soil.

The approach I took

I decided to do the thing that would make the biggest difference first, and that was clearing the pathways to cover them with fresh woodchip (delivered a few months ago in preparation, for free, from a local tree surgeon).

I’m actually not a huge fan of weed membrane, and if I had the choice of starting all over again I would choose something biodegradable. The stuff I used is very effective, but it does fray, holes do appear, and strands of plastic come off. I am forever finding them and pulling them out of beds and pathways, and it’s a real regret of mine. I thought that, since I need to replace the woodchip pathways, it would be a good opportunity to get rid of the membrane. So, I rolled it up, together with the weed-ridden compost into sausage rolls, pleased to note that there were very few roots/shoots in the soil underneath, and piled it all up in a corner. My plan is that the woodchip inside will continue to compost down and I can, later in the year, empty each ‘sausage roll’ of compost into a compost bin and get rid of the weed membrane. I don’t know that this will work but it is worth a try and it was a quick way of clearing the paths ready for the new woodchip to be laid.

With the paths cleared, we rolled in wheelbarrows of woodchip. I’ve gone for as thick a layer as I can get out of the delivery I had, and my intention now is to keep on top of the pathways better, pulling up any new weeds as they appear and topping up the woodchip before it starts to decompose to try and prevent the paths from getting overgrown again.

With pathways sorted, the whole plot immediately felt less overwhelming and I could then see that the beds themselves didn’t actually need as much work as I thought.

Since I had been growing no-dig, most of the weed roots were only surface deep, in the fairly loose compost mulch, and have been easy to pull up. It has actually been very quick, and for some of the beds where I haven’t got any winter veg growing, I have simply scraped up the top layer of mulch – weeds and all – and chucked it straight into a compost pile. It’s been like speed-weeding!

The only bed I have had to really dig over is the lower bed, where bindweed, brambles and nettles have grown in through the fencing. This bed used to be for strawberries (I panic planted them during the pandemic) but I found very few strawberry plants have survived this very wet winter anyway, so it was good timing to have a bit of a clear out and pull up as much of the spaghetti-like bindweed roots etc as I could.

Next steps

I will now be covering that lower ex-strawberry bed with cardboard and laying a thick compost mulch over the top to suppress any weeds from below and to make the bed instantly usable this year. This is how I began with no-dig, and I find it a really useful and low-fuss way of growing veggies. I will probably plant squash in that bed and once I’ve planted will use my all-time favourite thing – Strulch  (google it) – as a further mulch/weed suppressant.

The other beds are easier and more manageable, as the weeds had embedded into the mulch rather than sneaking up from beneath it. So, a fresh covering of compost should do the trick and I’ll be able to plant up and then simply hoe regularly to keep on top of weeds again this summer (or maybe cheat with more Strulch)

I’ll see how the experiment with the weed-membrane sausage rolls goes as well. I hope it will produce some usable compost if nothing else. With regards to the membrane, if you’re really struggling with things I’d recommend looking into biodegradable alternatives as a first port of call. A combination of plain brown cardboard and biodegradable starch membrane make for good light blockers, and you may find you are happier using that rather than making the mistake that I have made with plastic-based stuff that frays so easily…