Every now and again I feel like I am winning, that I am finally getting the skills and I can move on to the next stage. Then I find out some calamity has taken place, throwing my confidence. Take composting, for instance. Composting is not rocket science, leave any organic matter around long enough and it will rot, eventually becoming topsoil. After a couple of years of successful composting, often intensified (but never really hot), I find this spring that my compost is not composting properly. With the heat and rain and all the turning I am doing, it should be a lovely brown material that is full of nutrients and holds moisture. Instead I find a slimy mess that has lots of uncomposted lumps. It was not like this last spring, or the spring before. What did I do different this time? Read More
My back garden is a productive, organic, kitchen garden with substantial amounts of perennial vegetables, some annual vegetables and five dwarfing fruit trees. The fruit trees are kept pruned and spaced widely to allow the maximum amount of light to reach the vegetables below and have a decent fruit crop. It is not really a shaded garden, though the allotment is much sunnier as evidenced by the bigger onions and leeks I can grow there, and no plants form anything like a canopy. Read More
I enjoy visiting ordinary people’s vegetable gardens – very, very much so – but between you, me and the wall – there are an awful lot of really bad ones that don’t actually produce very much food, let alone starchy, high carb food that will keep us strong and busy. They are however oasiseseseeses of calm and primitive beauty and are always valuable. Two of my favourite gardens produce virtually no food at all even though one is a vegetable garden and the other is an allotment that is very heavily shaded by trees. To spare my own blushes when they read this and kick my arse, I will keep their locations secret, but they are somewhere in Bristol, England. Read More
My African Blue Basil cuttings which I took in October are romping away now in their tiny modules on my kitchen window sill. They were taken as an insurance policy against my basil bush dying. The African Blue is a perennial basil and a plant you can overwinter here indoors in the UK but I always find the lovely big bushes I buy always die in the autumn. I know it is easier to keep cuttings alive and this seems to be true in this case, they are doing well so far. 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
I’ve spent some time thinking about what style of gardening I do. This has been precipitated by doubt spread by an allotment neighbour as to the actual sustainability of my gardening. It comes down to this: recycling stalks, peelings, weeds and grass cuttings is only partially recycling the nutrients on my plot because I am taking the edible parts away with me and not returning those nutrients.
That is true. It is worth mentioning though that plants gain quite a lot from the air, passing urinating animals, and sunlight as well as the nutrients in the soil. Also, microbes in the soil are fixing nitrogen from the air as well, regardless of whether or not my plants are nitrogen fixing. But the point was well made, I believe there is a shortfall and I’m damned if I’m going to go to B&Q to buy products to make up for it. 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.