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Can you dig it? The easy alternative to clearing an overgrown allotment

I am a black-plastic convert. It's been a slow process. When I first took over my allotment last autumn I had very different ideas: walking around for the first time with Jane, my new allotment chief, I was proudly shown how she had covered her entire plot in black polypropylene sheeting. "You can buy it from the garden centre up on the A40," she enthused.

I smiled politely and made a mental note not to follow her advice. My plot was a grassy meadow with real biodiversity: grasshoppers, beetles, even a slowworm. There was no way I was just going to cover it in non-biodegradable plastic for months to clear it. I was going to dig it.

Six months later and she was picking her first strawberries while I was still struggling to keep a quarter of the plot under control. Couch grass requires individual roots to be picked out to prevent regrowth, a process that works but is depressingly slow. Jane's couch grass, on the other hand, had just rotted down during a winter beneath her luxurious, lazy, increasingly enviable sheeting. On my allotment, only the section I'd covered in old carpet and cardboard looked neat. And inspections loomed. It was time for a rethink.

By May, I'd managed to find enough large cardboard boxes (by driving up and down Chiswick High Road at night) to cover the rest of the undug plot. And then I came back to the allotment one afternoon to find that Jane had, unasked, covered my eco-layer of cardboard with a swathe of black plastic she'd finished with, weighing it down with stones. It looked so, well, under control. The neighbouring plot on the other side remained a grassy meadow. "Let the grasshoppers live there," I thought. Yep, when push comes to shove I'm a regular Marie Antoinette.

Now, just a few months later, when I pull back a section of plastic and cardboard the digging is as easy as slicing through cheese. The cardboard has kept the dying grass soggy and it has started to rot away, leaving me with significantly less backbreaking work. And, by next spring, the job should almost be done for me, as worms busy themselves digesting the dead matter.

I have also been digging a bit and then putting the plastic back until I have time to think about what I want to plant and where. Before, I might have immediately planted whatever section I'd dug – now the plastic gives me time to ponder.

Remarkably, the slowworm seems perfectly happy under my hideously unnatural combination. And when I'm eventually finished with my weed-suppressing membrane, we can peg it over the next allotment; so when some fool finally takes it on, they will never know how much labour we've saved them.

Take cover: How to keep weeds out

Silage sheeting

It's hard to beat this, the toughened polyethylene stuff that farmers wrap their silage clamps in. £96 for 14x30m, incl delivery, www.polaris-sales.co.uk

Woven weed-control fabric

This method allows rainwater and air to get through to your soil, keeping its friendly bacteria alive. £53.46 for a 50m roll, www.allplaz.com


The cheapest option is WeedGard, available at many garden centres, a simple membrane to block light. £8.99 for an 8x1.5m roll, www.gardensite.co.uk

'Garden Your Way To Health and Fitness'

Most important of all, don't forget to look after your back – Bunny Guinness's new book (Timber Press, £14.99) has pages and pages of advice on how to avoid the almost inevitable newbie allotment-holder's back pain.