So, it’s the middle of winter and I am champing at the bit to get growing, but really it is way too early. So time to write another manifesto, a list of promises for the coming year that like all manifestos will be completely ignored by its author (me). I have one allotment and one back garden. The allotment is a bit more like a farm in the sense it is a bit like a food making factory where there is not a lot of prissy fiddling, unlike the back garden which will have pot plants to be fed (chillis, basil, blueberries, etc), cuttings to be tended to and seedlings to be potted up. In the allotment I bung the seed in the ground, water it and weed it.
1. Closed Loop Gardening
But regardless of which garden I am growing in I aim them both to become closed loop gardens. This means that, as far as fertility (compost, manure) goes, all its resources are provided by itself. But not at the beginning, when starting a new garden you need to get it into a fit and healthy state to grow annual veg so that means lots of organic matter (manure, compost) and for the first time around I would add chicken manure pellets or ‘blood fish and bone’.
You then need to set aside about half your land to growing either annual green manures or vigorous biomass producing hedging plants to produce compost and mulch to keep the land fertile in subsequent years.
That last sentence probably lost most of you but it is not as bad as you might think. A row of sweet peas is very pretty and fragrant, and will produce loads of nitrogen rich matter for your compost heap. A row of sea buckthorn plants also fix nitrogen from the air and can be trimmed each year and its trimming added to the compost heap. It will also provide habitat and act as a wind break. Dicky birds sitting in it will add phosphates to your garden. Phacelia is pretty, attracts *masses* of bees to pollinate your squashes and provides bulk for your compost heap.Lupins are also pretty but also fix nitrogen like sweet peas and add bulk to the compost heap.
The real power house as far as green manure/mulching plants are concerned, is comfrey which has a really long root that gleans deep into the earth for nutrients.Now you might think that this is a game that simply cycles a constantly depleting stock of nutrients as you take away veggies to be eaten, but it is not. The comfrey digs so deeply where much of a soil’s nutrients have been washed away to, that it can be cut over and over again, stealing all its stock of nutrients and still come bouncing back. I have only seen a comfrey suffer once when it was a bit flaccid and yellow and I simply fed it with urine. If you don’t like urine try a little of your compost. And even if you do use your own compost it needs much less than it provides.
So, mining deeply for nutrients is one way closed loop gardening works, another is the use of nitrogen fixing plants. Legumes such as peas, sweet peas, beans, lupins and other non legumes like autumn olive bushes, with the help of soil bacteria grab nitrogen from the air for their own use. Some people say that they give it to other plants, but I’m sceptical. What I’m not sceptical about is that when cut the plants provide nitrogen for my compost heap and because they make their own nitrogen fertiliser they don’t need you, the gardener, to provide it for them.
All plants grab carbon from the air, giving it to the soil organisms when they are cut or die, and free roaming soil bacteria, even without nitrogen fixing plants, fix their own nitrogen into the soil.
So the soil is not just a store of nutrients that get used up when you grow and eat your veggies, it is more like a bank that pays interest, as long as you provide the right situation with fertility building plants being composted or being used as mulch.
It’s not quite a closed loop in my back garden because there are some inputs that can’t be returned to whence they came. Egg shells (eggs are our meat as we are vegetarians), egg boxes, veggie trimmings sourced from shops when we have run out of veggies in the garden, and urine. Urine is added to the compost heap which speeds the composting process and adds nutrients to the compost. I have closed the loop on these wastes by composting them. I also use bought potting compost for my seedlings and cuttings.
2. Sustainable propagation
Sowing bought annual vegetable seeds requires me giving someone else my money, which I object to. It also uses up fossil fuels sending them around the country to be sold in shops. Now I’m obviously not going to live up to this fully, but I am going to save my own seed and propagate plants using cuttings or dividing. Cuttings and dividing are the easiest ways to propagate plants but not all plants can be propagated this way. Those that I find can be are:
Those that can’t or are alleged to be possible to propagate in this way but in my experience doing so is disastrously poor:
Plants that are easy to save seed from (in my humble opinion):
3. Grow perennials except when they are disgusting or take up too much room for too long.
Annuals are delicious because they have been selected to be delicious over thousands of years by humans. Some of the permaculture perennial alternatives just don’t come close in edibility. For example, scorzonera leaves don’t come close to lettuce leaves in taste or texture. Some perennial veggies are just vile, like salad burnet which has been described as ‘like eating cardboard’, but others like sorrel are really nice and rightly a mainstream herb.
I find I can’t do without oriental salad mix, you know the type of seed mix that has mizuna, mustard and rocket. I find it easy to overwinter and get many cuts before it goes to seed in spring. I’ve managed to collect seed from mizuna but none of the others which means my gardening with these varieties is not self-sufficient. Which brings me on to:
4. Grow the vegetables I want to eat even though they aren’t trendy and ecological.
This is where I throw principles to the wind and go after the garden I want to spend my summer in…sorry.
5. Deal with problems as they occur and using techniques that are appropriate even if they break the rules.
Last year I reached June and had run out of compost. My beans stopped producing and I grew giant squash plants without any fruit. I simply did not nurture my plants for the sake of a set of rules nobody but myself actually cares about. My response was comfrey juice but it just didn’t do the deed no matter how much I brewed up. This time if I run out of compost I shall import it and try harder next year.
6. Use digging as a solution to problems not a rule to be obeyed.
I make compost and then I mulch beds with it, I don’t dig it in. This makes me sort of no dig, but after suffering greatly at the hands of couch grass and bindweed I have learnt that digging is a vital weapon in the armoury. Now I know digging interferes with soil life ecology and ruins its structure but I find – in my experience – that it is necessary. Your garden may vary.
Why am I doing this to myself?
Fossil fuels will run out. Oil and gas are a finite resource and when they are gone they are gone for millions of years. By using it all up we are denying our descendents the opportunity to lead lives as developed as we ourselves live, which is a really selfish thing to do. Nitrogen fertiliser is manufactured using huge amounts of fossil fuels so we are splurging out on something we don’t need to splurge out on. We can produce nitrogen organically without doing this and we should.
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