February 2018 V: mid February Activity…….

Two major activity streams:

1) Build a new horse manure pile; and

2) Sowing early leaves, tomatoes and beetroot.

A new manure pile involve four trips to the stables.

Each trip I return with this:

Put together, it looks like this:

After three months, last year’s pile looked like this:

After six or seven months, last year’s pile looked like this:

And twelve months later, three months after mulching the no dig bed in November 2017, last year’s pile looks like this:

So three hours of driving and hard labour is the price of a fertile bed for potatoes each year, as from now until November, I do precisely nothing to the pile.

I will sow leaves (lettuce, spinach, spring onions, dill, coriander and cabbage) on Sunday 18th February, a leaf day in the Thun calendar; Red Alert tomatoes on 21st February, a fruit day; and Boltardy beetroot on 23rd February, a root day.

The leaves and the beetroot will be sown in modules, the tomatoes in an ice cream tub for picking seedlings rapidly into 8cm pots on 28th February.

February IV: the 2018 season starts today, 15th February….

Today, 15th February, I sowed my first seeds for regular harvest. I sowed Kelsae onions on 19th January for exhibiting, using seeds I made in 2017, but the process of growing food to eat started today.

The home made Kelsae seeds germinated at about 40% efficiency between day 7 and day 14 in modules containing Klassmann-Deilmann  compost as shown below:

Twenty one seedlings were picked into 10cm pots containg Multi Purpose Compost (MPC) on day 21. By day 27, 16 of the 21 have their first true leaf.

These will continue growing indoors until 21st March, when further potting up may be necessary.

Today I sowed five first early Casablanca potato tubers in 10 litre pots containing MPC, a dribble of rock dust, some friendly bacteria and fungi, a scoop of Vitax Q4 organic and half a scoop of Nutrimate.

Prior chitting of tubers created several visible stems (see below):

The pots will now sit by an east facing window until plants emerge (usually around 28 days), when they will be moved outdoors:

In 2017, four pots each yielded around 2lb of small tubers from about 12 weeks after sowing, showing the method to be consistent and worth relying upon. This year, I am doing 5 pots to provide a weekly harvest from mid May to mid June, after which soil-grown early potatoes should start to be ready.

After succeeding in growing carrots in 17 litre bags through both summer and autumn in 2017, ths spring I am testing Amsterdam Forcing carrots in bags also.

I filled two bags  with MPC, bacteria, fungi and rock dust and watered copiously. I riddled my new leaf mould on top, dropped seeds in a spiral form spaced around 4cm apart in the leaf mould, then riddled more leaf mould on top to cover. A brief watering and the bags will live with the potato pots until seedlings emerge (hopefully 14-21 days) before assessing whether the weather is benign enough for them to live outside.

 

As the new season begins, I harvested the second bag of Berlicum carrots from a June 30th 2017 sowing and obtained a yield of 6.2lb, with almost no fly damage at all. This suggests that 1.5lb of carrots can be harvested each week from two 17 litre bags from January 1st to the end of February, providing a supply of roots through the depths of winter.

 

It is good to get underway again, with a few more February sowings still to come in the next 13 days.

February 2018 III: organic, no-dig, biodynamics and Permaculture: similarities and differences….

In the 20th century, industrial farming brought chemical fertilisers, tractors and combine harvesters. Short term yields increased, whilst effects on soil fertility, plant vitality, plant nutrients etc took a back seat. At least in the mainstream….

The 20th century also saw the emergence or re-emergence of other approaches. Four of those are discussed here.

ORGANIC agriculture was based around only using naturally derived inputs to fertilise soil, notably the use of compost, the use of green manure crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, the development of plant and herbal teas to feed to crops, the use of open-pollinated seeds, the provision of sources of nectar for pollinators and plants to divert pests away from crops. Albert Howard, the Henry Doubleday Association and the Soil Association were all prominent in that effort.

NO-DIG agriculture may or may not be organic (although I believe most if not all of its practitioners are organic adherents) but focuses on leaving soil undisturbed throughout the year, letting earthworms, fungi and bacteria develop a rich topsoil, good drainage and healthy pH for the soil. A Guest of Yorkshire, Ruth Stout in the USA  and Charles Dowding in Somerset have all contributed significantly to its development.

BIODYNAMIC Agriculture emerged from the teachings of Rudolf Steiner in Austria in the early 20th century, focussing on running a farm as a single holistic organism. The use of particular sprays and preparations, notably horn manure and horn silica is reputed to improve soil fertility, improve nutrient uptake and assimilation by plants (notably silica) and improve resilience to pests and disease. More recently, Maria Thun has suggested that outcomes may be improved by perform key activities at certain times of the lunar cycle. Furthermore, preparation of compost piles using the biodynamic preparations is said to enhance compost quality, perhaps through optimising heap temperatures (and the bacterial composition within them) during maturation.

PERMACULTURE as a term emerged from the work of Bill Mollison in Tasmania, who coined it as an acronym for PERMAnent agriCULTURE. It focusses on sustainability, particularly within warmer and drier regions, but can be applied in a locally adpted manner anywhere in the world. It focusses on water retention, collection and recycling; polycultural planting; the use of perennial plants to create forest gardens; the use of animals to clear and fertilise areas prior to planting (chicken and pig tractors) etc.

 

What all the four approaches agree on is that CARE OF THE SOIL is paramount. All agree on the recycling of organic waste into soil, be that through composting, mulching and/or application of organic teas.

Differences may be due to different desired outcomes. If you are a vegetarian market gardener, you may not keep chickens to clear ground for no-dig beds, preferring to apply a mulch of manure instead.

Similarly, if you do not have 60 hectares for biodynamic rearing of animals in general and cows in particular, you may not acquire cow horns and healthy manure to use in preparing horn manure, choosing to buy small quantities instead commercially.

Those seeking to convert impermeable clay to deep fertile topsoil may consider initial growth of deep rooting green manures such as alfalfa or crimson clover to break open the soil, the generation of hay for composting etc. Clay may after all be the result of previous forests dominated by fungal soils, rather than those with more bacteria suited to vegetable growing by market gardeners. But those growers are seeking to improve soil fertility for their own aims.

Biodynamic growers believe in composting in autumn, just like organic gardeners and no-dig adherents. They believe the horn manure spray after composting enhances the over wintering maturation ready for sowing in spring. They happen also to believe that the soil is preferentially responsive on certain days during the lunar cycle.

Permaculturists are perhaps the most laissez faire of all, after being master planning apparatchiks at the start. A permaculturist moulds the landscape to their desire, plants an ecosystem to create a sustainable ecology, then sits back and admires their work, occasionally harvesting crops like an old fashioned hunter gatherer.

There is little reason for these four disciplines to be anything other than cooperative. Different folks will feel more at home with each approach, but all seek to care for the soil.

There is indeed an argument that all should join forces under a framework of Innovative Ecology, Soil Science and Agriculture (of which Horticulture is a valued part).  What the banner should be is a secondary consideration, since without cooperation and unity no banner would exist.

 

All four approaches have educated my path toward gardening sustainably, they all have their part to play in restoring health to the world’s land surfaces.

February 2018 II: 5.7lb Berlicum carrots from a 30th June sowing

2017 was a year experimenting with growing carrots in 17 litre polypot bags.

Back in September I harvested Sweet Candle carrots sown for show, with 11 roots weighing 7.5lbs.

The second experiment concerned sowing carrots late (at a time later than normal garlic harvest). The date chosen was 30th June 2017.

Seeds were sown at a higher denisty than the Sweet Candle bags as it was unclear what sort of yield would emerge.

The results of harvesting the first bag on 7th February 2018 were excellent, as shown in the feature image.

32 roots were harvested:

4 large roots weighing a combined 2.2lb;

14 medium roots weighing a combined 2.5lb;

14 small roots weighing a combined 1.0lb.

A total yield of 5.7lb was achieved, suggesting further optimisation of sowing density and date is worthwhile.

Whilst there is minor damage to around eight roots from carrot fly, the quality is more than good enough for home use.

The conclusion to be drawn is that six months worth of autumn/winter carrots can be grown in six bags through two sowings in late March/early April and late June/early July.

This represents no more than 1 square metre of space required on a patio and the issues of slugs eating young seedlings can be largely eradicated.

February 2018 I: review of 2017/18 winter crops…

At the beginning of February 2018, the majority of the winter harvests are out of the ground. Still remaining are two of five Cavalo Nero kale plants, four over-wintered chard plants and two bags of Berlicum carrots.

The crops sown for planting in winter were:

1) Parsnips – a reasonable crop of smaller roots than previous years.

Two possible reasons: proximity to roots of large trees in neighbours’ garden (new neighbours have cut the trees down); and initial crowding by radish sown in the row, rather than between rows, which may have inhibited growth (in future, any radishes sown will be between rows).

2) Autumn King Carrots – seeds on a tape. An impressive harvest which started to show mild root fly damage by the final harvest in early February. The balance is between how well harvested roots store vs fly damage in the ground.  The compromise may be initial harvest of smaller roots, then storage just of large ones.

3) Cavalo Nero Kale: a good first crop allowing harvesting from late October and likely to finish in early to mid March. The crop grows fine in shaded areas and is a prime candidate for those spots where other plants do less well.

4) Over-wintered chard: 4 large plants grew well in semi shaded spot with plenty of harvest in late autumn and some through winter. Likely to crop until early May.

5) Musselburgh leeks: a complete failure due to allium leaf miner attack in October. This has happened two years running so sadly, leeks must be sacrificed as a winter crop from now on.

6) Spanish Round Radish (seeds from Real Seeds Ltd) – this new discovery gave an excellent harvest from late November to the end of January and can in effect be a winter turnip replacement.

7) Perennial Spinach/Tree Cabbage: this crop was established during 2017 but was not harvested this winter to allow the plants to become well established. The image at the top of the article shows the plants.

8) Mulatka Beetroot: the roots remain in the ground and will be utilised in soups in February and early March, along with Berlicum carrots. These were sown early May 2017 and placed in semi shade next to runner beans. The 28 roots are a reasonable size.

9) Berlicum Carrots in bags: these were sown as an experimental late crop on June 30th and have grown superbly. They are ready for harvesting and a detailed article will follow when I harvest the first bag this month.

10) Lamb’s lettuce. For some reason two separate sowings in late August/early September failed to germinate.

Obviously, onions and potatoes have also been eaten during winter….

So overall, attempts to create a reasonable winter harvest are improving, although a replacement for leeks is sought.  Continue reading “February 2018 I: review of 2017/18 winter crops…”

January IV: testing Square Foot Gardening on 1.5 square metres

Square foot gardening is a concept of precision gardening where planting is planned on a square foot basis i.e. 30cm * 30cm.

I have decided to test this approach in a 15 square foot experiment, the aim being to have crops to harvest over a 6 week period from 15th May to 30th June, with five square feet for each two week period. A second crop will then be planted as the time comes.

The five crops in each case will be:

Late May: Spring onion, spinach, radish, turnips for greens and miniature lettuces.

Early June: Spring Onion, Radish, Spinach, Cabbage, and Beetroot.

Late June: Spring Onion, Cabbage, Beetroot, Dwarf Bean and Amsterdam Carrot.

Second Crops will be:

Plant around 1st June: Summer Chard, Summer Beetroot, Autumn Carrot, Spring Onion, Bush tomato.

Plant around 16th June: Autumn Chard, Summer Beetroot, Autumn Carrot, Spring Onion, Young Leeks

Plant around 1st July: Kale, Spring Onion, Young Leeks, Autumn Turnip, Autumn Beetroot.

The Early June crop may be followed by a third crop if time permits (after chard, beetroot and spring onion): candidates would be rocket, pak choi, Sicilian radish.

The aim is to generate small amounts of each crop on a regular basis, thereby eliminating gluts.

Sowing date precision, good germination in modules and immediate planting out of follow on crops will be necessary to succeed.

 

For further details on square foot gardening, from a US perspective, read: ‘Square Foot Gardening’, Mel Bartholemew (1981), Rodale Press, Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-87857-341-0

January 2018 III: adding perennials to the no-dig garden

Much of traditional vegetable gardening is taken up with sowing and transplanting annual plants.

Many natural foods in the wild are either truly perennial or quasi-perennial (each plant lives 5-10 years) and introducing some of these can reduce work in the garden without sacrificing yield.

In addition, other perennial plants may grow well in shade, provide pollen for bees and other pollinators or offer pest resistance traits to neighbouring vegetables.

Perennials include:

1. Fruit trees (apples, pears, cherries, plums are most common around here)

2. Fruit bushes/canes/brambles (raspberry, gooseberry, blackcurrant, elderberry, blackberry and sloe seem most common here)

3. Perennial leaves – I have incorporated tree cabbage and sorrel into the garden in 2017.

4. Perennial stalks – I planted a new set of Timperley Early rhubarb in autumn 2017 to go with the long-established asparagus crowns.

5. Perennial herbs – I have added yarrow, sage, lovage, chives and oregano in the past three years.

6. Perennial mulch – I planted comfrey Bocking 14 four years ago.

7. Perennial pollinators – I have planted wallflowers (in photo below) and borage on borders (hoping the borage will self seed in a perennial manner).

By incorporating 10-20 perennial plants each year, soon the garden will have recurring food, flowers, mulch, pollinators and colour without annual effort.

 

For further information about perennial plants for the garden, see: ‘Perennial Vegetables’ by William Blackburn ISBN 9781539736783.

January 2018 II: late winter application of horn manure

Last winter, I applied the biodynamic spray called Horn Manure to my no dig garden, which certainly seems to have benefitted the pear tree (which was not decimated by pear midge for the first time).

The days suggested to be favourable in early 2018 for such an application are:

3rd-6th February;

3rd -4th March.

These dates are root days in the Maria Thun calendar when the moon is descending in its monthly cycle.

However, others also allude to a damp, cloudy day as being beneficial so, if dry sunny conditions are indicated for the above dates, others may be more appropriate.

In reality, little clear data exists suggesting that a huge difference will arise from treating the soil on a specific day, so one suspects that treating the soil and the trees sometime before spring is better than no treatment.

Please read the February 2017 blog entry on this subject for further details on how to prepare dynamised horn manure.

January 2018 I: ideas for lunar sowing in 2018

In February last year, I wrote a post discussing various cycles of the moon and how lunar gardeners plant using such cycles.

One which has been tested by Charles Dowding is sowing two days before full moon.

The dates for full moons in 2018 of relevance are:

31st January; 2nd March; 31st March; 30th April; 29th May; 28th June; 27th July; 26th August and, for autumn sowings of garlic and broad beans, October 24th and November 23rd.

Some ideas for sowing two days before full moon:

28th February – very early Red Alert and Maskotka tomatoes (fruit day in Thun calendar)

29th March – Main bush tomatoes e.g. Maskotka, Super Marmande (fruit day in Thun calendar)

28th April – competition carrots and potatoes in polypots, summer beetroot, late spring radishes, August carrots in soil, late maincrop potatoes (root day in Thun calendar)

26th June – early endive, late kale (leaf day in Thun calendar) – picture below has kale still harvesting in January

24th August – autumn radish (root day in Thun calendar) – picture below has Sicilian radish still harvesting in January

21st November – Aquadulce Claudia broad beans for 2019 (2018 plants behind green manure below)

Obviously, this in no way covers all the sowing required, but it offers some examples of favourable sowing dates for some crops in 2018.

December II: core inventory for no-dig gardening

After three years of no-dig, I have acquired a core inventory of tools etc for the gardening year. The list is quite small:

1) Polystyrene module trays – these are far more solid than the plastic ones sold in garden centres (which tend to warp and tear after a couple of years) – they have gone out of fashion but I found some on eBay. A dozen 48 module trays is more than sufficient for 50sqm of garden.

2) 1m * 30cm plastic trays to stand module trays, polypot bags etc on. These are essential if you start germinating seeds indoors to prevent damage to carpets etc. I purchased four for £20 at a local garden centre.

3) A small lean-to for keeping young seedlings protected from wind and cold in the spring. I have found that a four level 1m * 30cm lean-to is sufficient. The plastic exterior starts to degrade after about five years, but may be replacable. New lean-tos cost £30-100 depending on make, size etc.

4) Copper tools: I have five core tools which I use regularly (all bought from implementations.co.uk):

i) A Hydra Hoe – ideal for preparing spring tilth, removing spring weeds and smoothing ground after harvesting a crop.

ii) A Perseus rake – used after hoeing to produce a flat surface tilth.

iii) A Trowel – used to dig holes for no-dig potato planting, holes for planting larger modules (beans and brassicas) as well as harvesting smaller crops.

iv) A Nunki weeder – my most valued tool used throughout the summer to aerate surface soil and kill small weeds in between rows of vegetables.

v) Dibber – this is probably a luxury as a wooden one will work perfectly well.

The two additions I might make would be a Pollux hoe and a spade for edging and harvesting parsnips.

The total cost of all, including additions would be £500-600. Quite a cost, but they will last a lifetime.

5) A wormery. This is useful for generating high quality vermicompost and costs £60-70. For those being serious, three wormeries working on a three year cycle may be the ideal.

6) Water butts -useful for collecting rainwater in winter to use on seedling trays in spring and whenever droughts occur. 200 gallons is a useful volume to have available. The water can be harvested from the house roof, from a garden shed’s sloping roof etc.

7) A two tub set up for generating concentrated comfrey extract: the lower tub has no holes, the upper tub slots into the lower tub and has holes in the side of its base to allow extract to drain into the lower tub. The upper tub is filled with harvested comfrey, this is weighed down using e.g. a 20kg sack of rock dust, the set up is enclosed using aluminium foil to prevent evaporation and left to produce the liquid for 4-8 weeks.

8) Rock dust, friendly bacteria and friendly fungi. Rock dust contains essential trace elements and can be added to compost piles when they are made. Friendly bacteria and friendly fungi can be added to seed compost mixes when sowing seeds – these cause better and stronger root systems to develop.

9) Comfrey Plants – a dozen Bocking 14 plants will be worth their weight in gold.

10) Polypot bags – certain crops grow very well in 17 litre black bags ( can be purchased from Medwyns of Anglesey). Carrots, garlic, parsnip all do well.

11) 30 gsm fleece to protect young seedlings in March, April and May. 25m * 2m is sufficient for my 50sqm garden, costing under £30.

12) Compost bins – 4 daleks and two wire cages is sufficient for me, with a builders bag of 1 cubic metre for storing ripe compost until use. Alternatively, a triple wooden bin with lids might suit others.

 

Overall, an investment of around £2000 will supply essential tools etc for your no-dig garden.