You can never get enough compost and, as usual, I have been looking at my usual slumping compost heap with dismay. No matter how huge a pile I make it rapidly depletes, but what depletion when you get that lovely brown compost that has a magical effect on your plants. As usual my dismay turns to happiness as I finally empty the pile, generally mulching already growing plants as well as digging in to the soil where it is bare. I’ve emptied buckets and buckets, some of it rough – which went under the fruit trees – and some of it almost black and almost topsoil which I dug into areas reserved for peas. Read More
So, what have I learnt from the past year? Well, as usual my gardening year hasn’t provided the sort of yield I wanted, or if gardening magazines are to be believed I should expect. I don’t know why I should expect my gardening abilities to be as great as Monty Don or Geoff Lawton, especially only being 5 years in, I am a beginner. I do of course hamper myself with ridiculous rules like not importing fertility, especially as I am practically guaranteed to have awesome crops if I dump half a ton of horse manure on the allotment. Read More
I just thought I would share with you some of the things I have learnt recently about some of the plants I grow. Because I grow in a perennial fashion (either the plants are perennial or I extend their lifespan in ways such as taking cuttings or preventing them from flowering) I get to see the plants full behaviour over a longer period. Many conventional vegetable gardeners grow annuals from seed and then eat them, freeing the land up often very quickly for a new crop. This succession of plants is intensive and grows a lot of food, but my style of vegetable gardening is less intensive, less hard work, slower and more forgiving to the environment. The slowness allows me to see such things as the full lifespan of such things as the biennial leek. Read More
Today was a day spent pottering about the back garden dealing with the chores I have been putting off. Much exposed soil looks as though it has been walked on (which it hasn’t) which I assume is the effect of the weather, compacting my soil. So I’ve been busy with my mature compost pile, rooting the good stuff out, sieving it (loosely, mind) and using it around my overwintering vegetables. The rough stuff (woody or just uncomposted matter) I am mulching the soil with to protect the soil from compaction. I am also putting it around those vegetables that aren’t closely spaced. The bulky, sticklike stuff is hard to space around my Japanese Bunching Onions but easy to do around the perennial brassicas. I also had a bit of straw left in a bag from last year which I bunged on top of the mulch. This is now, hand on heart, the last organic matter input for the back garden. My garden should now be self fertilising.
Should be. Read More
My quest to reduce – or stop entirely – inputs into my vegetable plots continues. As usual I look down at my compost heaps with dissapointment as the huge piles of organic matter I had accumalated vanish into thin air. Or leave thin layers of “black gold” topped with woody matter. I’m tugged both ways in the compost / sheet mulching debate. What I have learnt over the last year is that slugs and snails dissapear if they have nowhere to hide. So you would think that would mean mulches would be out then in my gardens. Indeed, on the allotment, nary a mollusc could be found – and that was down to a religious determination to tidy the place up. Grass paths trimmed, weeds weeded and rubbish put on the compost heap. I’m not one to follow advice (stubborn I’m told) but I wish I had, because the same story is always told – if you want to keep the gastropods away tidy up!. Read More
I had a chat with one of my allotment neighbours two days ago, a guy who with his partner has a very pretty allotment, packed with really good looking veg, lots of it and in wooden sided raised beds. He seems quite a progressive kind of guy so I started talking about sustainability and how his quinoa stalks and corn stalks, when composted, would add fertility to his plot. Of course, he replied, both those plants don’t add anything to the soil.
And he may be right.
Because I am an argumentative, political, kind of bloke I rely on my gob to keep flapping to win arguments. But I was a bit stumped. I came up with some guff about all organic matter feeding microbes that multiply, die off and add more plant food than you had before, but the way I trailed off suggested even I didn’t believe it, and I was the one talking. Plus his family farm acres in America and they have compost heaps the size of my allotment plot. They know that external inputs create fertility (manure and fertiliser) and the proof was in front of me, in front of my own eyes, in this guy’s allotment.
Have I been sold a pup? I need to audit what I’m doing.
I don’t necessarily believe (from the doubt that has crept in) that recycled organic matter does the business. Therefore, my 100 sq feet of broad beans (fava) will not add any further fertility to the soil than was already there. The plant is nitrogen fixing but all of that nitrogen, apparently, goes into making the beans and not into the compost heap. John Jeavons says that it is the carbon we are after to fill up our compost heap, thus allowing us to enjoy our beans, but I think it is the nitrogen, because the plant uses clever biology to add it from the air – a new resource that wasn’t in the soil in the first place. This means, if I am right, that I have to cut down the broad beans before they make beans. I can’t have my cake (fertiliser) and eat it (food).
1) I have two young hedges of nitrogen fixing trees that I will trim to provide nitrogen for the compost heap and, because they are trees, draw up nutrients from deep in the soil. There are other benefits, hedges control soil erosion, provide habitats for wildlife and provide hiding places for cats to ambush pigeons when they try to scoff my brassicas.
2) Interplanting my crops with nitrogen fixing clovers and vetches during the growing season
3) Growing nitrogen fixing green manures (again clovers and vetches) during the autumn and winter on my growing beds.
4) Several large clumps of comfrey. Yes, I know it doesn’t add anything to the soil that wasn’t already there, but myself and others have had good results from it, and it doesn’t seem to run out of nutrients.
5) Growing perennial nitrogen fixing clumps of sweet peas (the everlasting kind) and composting the greenery in the autumn.
Not too bad, though I don’t think I am going to be able to stop using inputs next year, I should be able to halve them. That being said, the compost heaps are starting to look good and big, and may provide a substantial part of the 48 buckets of compost I need according to the biointensive system. Sadly, though, I’m not sure I believe in the value of my own compost anymore. Anyway only one way to find out and that is by experimenting, growing veg and eating it. If I get any at all that is.
Perennial vegetable growing is a bit of a buzzword for permaculture types and very often the question is asked – why are annual veggies grown when perennial ones are just so much easier and sustainable?. Take rhubarb and asparagus, frinstance, very traditional perennial veg that everyone knows about – big yields and very popular on allotments everywhere. Why have we not replaced all our annuals with such fine perennial equivalents? Read More
Yes I know, we waited an eternity for winter to end and now the summer has rushed by and we are preparing for next year. I am now sowing hardy salad leaves – spinach, chervil, parsley and oriental mustards. I sow them in little pots of compost, wait for them to germinate, grow past the seedling stage and them plant them up in either big pots or the ground. It is now the second half of august – so now is the last chance to get ready for autumn. Read More