“No dig” experiment- first results

Yes I know you should try to reduce the number of variables in an experiment to draw any safe conclusions from the data but …. This experiment started in early autumn  when we sowed the carrots in the packet above in two adjoining cold frames and in two different sowing mediums. There were three questions I wanted to investigate:

  1. Would the carrots germinate and grow from an autumn start?
  2. Did one growing medium work better than the other?
  3. Would the tap roots penetrate the soil pan which had been deliberately left undug.

Question one is easily aswered – we had a good germination, and the plants continued to develop until the present moment. Question two is a bit more complicated because the composted horse manure got the seeds off quicker and the plants put on much more growth than the ones sown in SylvaGrow, the greener but more expensive option. However when we pulled some thinnings today it was clear that although the SylvaGrow plants had not put on so much top growth, the roots had easily penetrated into the soil pan and, given a couple more months, looked set to give us a useful and very early crop of properly shaped Early Nantes style carrots. On the composted manure side we had better top growth and fatter carrots but they were shaped more like Chantenay carrots and seemed to be sitting on top of the soil pan growing outwards rather than downwards as they should. Obviously I can’t rule out the possibility that one frame was bedded on tougher soil, but they were both on a piece of ground that had never been dug but had spent one season mulched with wood-chip to kill the weeds.  So I think the takeaway point is that these seeds seem to meet their claim and the experiment also supports Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach, but the question of growing medium needs more experimenting.  We’ve had a fabulus crop (still harvesting) of Early Nantes and Chantenay in an open bed of improved soil, so perhaps the answer is to forget about expensive growing medium and improve the soil. The other plants in the photo were some winter lettuce sown in modules which have all been eaten, and very good they were.

Elsewhere on the allotment things are going pretty well.  With a week at least of mild weather predicted, we took the fleece cloches off the broad beans today to let them enjoy the warmth and sun.  There were one or two frost casualties but on the whole the plants are looking good. One of the advantages of autumn sowing is that the plants tend to tiller into a number of stalks, giving a higher potential crop, and it’s interesting that this seems to be what’s happening to the plants that were damaged by the cold weather in spite of the protection. I’ve been reading James Wong’s book “Grow for Flavour” and one of the points he makes is that a bit of stress is often good for plants.  In fact I’m wondering if the lack of heat in last season’s chillies might have been due to the way I mollycoddled them. This season I’ll change the watering regime and see if that drives them on – mind you that might well give me some desperately hot chillies that I won’t be able to eat. Garlic, shallots and onion sets are all doing well and so things look pretty optimistic.

But my main focus today was to start work on the new compost bins.  As ever planning is a dynamic exercise and when I saw the sheer size of the proposed 4′ X 4′ layout I revised downwards and decided to go for a 4’X3′ footprint which will give a row of four. The rationale is that you need to get bays filled fairly quickly in order to keep the turning frequent. So there we are, a great day’s work and I can’t wait to get going tomorrow. The hotbed continues to slowly heat up and we’re going to give it some extra “human activator” to drive the heating.  The bacterial action is strongly underway now with the temperature at 20C, but it should go to 50C fairly quickly.  I don’t want to sow there before the temperature peaks in case it damages the seedlings.

Oh and the birthday parties went well yesterday as well – great family day, but (this is an addendum if you like) all the while we were working on the allotment a couple of homeless women were setting up a tent on the site.  As we left I saw one of them injecting herself in the leg -no way of knowing what she was injecting, but what a sorry state to be in. Is this the dream? To have reduced the whole country to something like “The Wire”? Is there no shame?

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Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

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There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

“Industrial”? – a bit of planning that’s all.

 

 

One of our neighbours told us, back in the summer, that a friend of his had described our allotment as “a bit industrial” . I’m quite happy with that, although I would have preferred “purposeful”. I think some plots look like squatter camps but thank goodness the allotment is one of the few places left where we are free to express our individual preferences without too much interference. I recall Jim Callaghan’s brilliant put-down of Shirley Williams – “Just because she’s  scruffy she thinks she’s an intellectual”. Organic gardening is either purposefully planned or it’s a pile of old pallets and a carpet heavy with good intentions.  Once you’re serious about getting as close to self-sufficiency as you can with only 250 square metres to play with, you have to plan carefully and then hope that the weather plays along with you. We made the decision to go “no dig” last season, and we’re busy organising the whole plot into manageable beds according to the plan in the photo, so that we have access to beds 365 days of the year, never having to walk on them. However this has left us with the need to raise the level of the soil quite a bit to bring the plants above the waterlogged clay substratum that channels three or four streams down through the site – one of them almost certainly passing underground alongside the greenhouse. The design of the beds is to allow some of that water to drain towards the paths  and divert it away from us.

Last night in one of my regular periods dream gardening I eschewed counting sheep in favour of working out the cubic meterage of compost we’d need to make if we were to cover the whole plot with 5cm each year. I reckon it’s coming out at around 10m³ and that’s ten of our current 1m³ cylinders – a deeply sobering thought. The alternative would be to spend about £350 on buying it in. So how on earth could we possibly make so much compost, given that there’s no way of affording a commercial product.  As I wrote last week, there’s something that feels ethically wrong with throwing money at a problem, but even more important, soil is a living entity with its own ecosystem.  It’s not a neutral medium for supporting plants and feeding chemicals.  And so our ambition to fill our raised beds with good soil has to be achieved the slow way.

Here’s what we’ve got going for us:

  • One small household’s worth of green waste
  • A plentiful supply of dead leaves and woodchip
  • A plentiful supply of cardboard
  • A park opposite the flat that’s mown every couple of weeks in the summer leaving the mowings on the ground and easily raked up
  • All the green waste, trimmings, clippings and weeds from the allotment.
  • Occasional sacks of seaweed stowed in the car when we go up to North Wales. It smells so bad it must be good!
  • A small army of brandling who just love the cylinder.

I’m not at all confident that we can fill ten cylinders and reduce them to compost  in a year without giving them lots of stimulus to increase the heat.  Regular turning would help a lot, but the cylinders make turning very difficult indeed, and so I think we’re going to have to build a row of 4 bins –  4′ square and 5’6 tall and turn the load to the right maybe four times a season, adding wood ash, seaweed and “human activator” and trying as best we can to get the balance of green and brown waste exactly right. It would take up one whole bed, but the impact on the rest of the plot could be enormous.

Lots of fairly heavy work in prospect, then, but we both love a project.  The beds are nearing completion but the weather has been coming from the south west for ages, and that’s a wet quarter for us. Never mind.  We plan to celebrate the solstice on Friday with a slap up meal of all our own veg.  The only other job is to complete the seed order before then so we can truly look forward to next season.

 

Does “Forest Path” describe them?

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Great excitement at the Potwell Inn last night as I got the plot drawings out and prepared an order for the next batch of edging boards.  The timber is quite expensive and so we can only buy it in batches as funds permit.  I can get ten 6′ boards into the car, but it can be extremely hazardous driving down the steep hill into Bath, with a hundredweight of timber seesawing next to my left ear. The sawmill sales staff occasionally cheer me up with tales of poked out windscreens and totally destroyed dashboards.

So then I was wide awake at 2.00am pondering whether I’d got the measurements right, and whether the plots should be orientated North/South or East/West.  I’m sure I went through this when I drew the plans but you know how it is in the middle of the night., insomnia gardening is the pits! Then I started worrying about the expense, do we really need all that new timber? Well there are two or three good reasons for moving to beds.

IMG_3747We have a real drainage problem on our plots, and last winter we couldn’t get on it for months for fear of compacting the soil and making it worse.  That was the major reason for dividing the wettest of the plots into beds as soon as possible in the spring. I hesitate to call them “raised” beds because as we were digging them we were also levelling the soil which slopes downhill, and we wanted to introduce a degree of terracing. So what with about a ton of topsoil bought in, and more bags of composted manure than I dare put a price to, we’ve landed up with level terraced beds bordered with 22mm X 200mm gravel boards secured with long wooden pegs.

 

In order to assist drainage, the paths were dug out to about 18″ deep and a layer of gravel was poured in and covered with wood-chip, barrow loads of it, which is free on our site. The soil from the paths was used to raise the beds. I don’t much like plastic sheets or weed control mat because in my experience weeds very quickly overcome them and I wanted the maximum possible speed of drainage from the beds, besides which they never decompose and present a problem for the future.  It’s worked very well so far, and apart from regularly hand weeding out the occasional Olympic athletes of the weed world like couch grass and bindweed, the paths have been maintenance free – except for the fact that bacteria, fungi and worms just love the material and it quickly decomposes into friable compost causing them to shrink.  I love the thought that even the paths are adding to the organic material on the plots.  That’s why I think they should be described as ‘forest paths’.

So to defend the expense – reason one is drainage.  Reason two is to move towards ‘no-dig’ gardening and let the worms do the work.  I’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s wormageddon if you lift spuds with a fork, but there’s a vast difference between gently lifting a potato haulm or a parsnip with a fork, and double digging the plot from end to end. Reason three is ease of maintenance of the beds.  With a 4′ bed you can do everything you need from the path and never compact the soil. Of course you can leave gaps between rows on bare soil, but come February and they’ll be poached and compacted.

IMG_4505Anyway, the order went in this morning and it will be delivered on Friday.  I love a bit of civil engineering, and if you look under the net to the right of the path in the photo above, you’ll see that next season’s garlic is already enjoying being tucked up in bed for the winter. My job today was to top up the paths and level them again. It’ll probably amount to fifty barrow loads before we’re completely finished, but the beds look lovely and they’re dead easy to manage.

The other job was to start filling our collection of builders’ delivery bags with leaves to make leaf mould.  It’s amazing how quickly it breaks down.  Last autumn we spread 4-6″ of leaves on to two beds and there was virtually nothing left by this spring – the worms had done all the work for us and we grew some lovely spuds on one of the beds.

Who knew all that about worms?

2016-04-14 12.08.39Tuesday 18th September 2018 – Dr Frank AshwoodEarthworms

Earthworms are recognised ecosystem engineers, proving invaluable services to humanity and transforming and improving the soil habitat for other organisms. Most naturalists are aware of their fundamental ecological importance, but few have detailed knowledge of any of our 30 or so native British species. Frank’s PhD was entitled ‘Woodland Restoration on Landfill Sites: Earthworm Activity and Ecosystem Service Provision’. He is a soil ecologist working within Forest Research’s soil sustainability research group. Here Frank will describe earthworms’ behind-the-scenes work, which underlies the productivity and diversity of the natural systems we see every day.

Brilliant  talk last night at the first Bath Nats indoor meeting of the season. Who knew, for instance, how many different species there are, or how to tell the head from the tail and even how mature they might be? Continue reading “Who knew all that about worms?”