Thursday, August 2, 2012

My new planting system - all grown up!

So I've given up crop rotating and even digging my veg plots now. After ten years, I was more than ready to see the back of it. I didn't mind the digging (until I realised how much damage it was doing to the soil structure) but never kept up with the weeding, didn't really enjoy the experience as a whole and the output wasn't worth the input.

This year, in early Spring, I covered the weeds in a thick layer of green and brown mulch and planted through that instead, the seedlings higgledy piggledy and close together, to mimic a typical weed plot. It was the end of May by the time the weather was consistently warm enough (night temps of 10°c and above) for me to plant out, so they were all quite big by then. But they still looked a little spartan planted out in the field beds, given that I was aiming to try to create leaf canopies to keep weeds down and moisture in, etc.

Here's the same bed at the end of May, again at the end of June, and finally at the beginning of August:

And another bed, on the same three dates:

And we've got two more like that. So the system worked: the plants grew really well in such competition with each other, and the weeds didn't get much of a look-in.

I've really enjoyed the veg beds throughout this season, for the first time in years - I'm even inspired to build more veg beds now! Cropping has been little, varied and often instead of bigger harvests of a more limited range, which I never did quite manage to get properly on top of in the past. I've let things flower and seed, knowing I won't be digging up and fully replanting the beds in the next few years, so the seeds that fall will stand a chance of propagation next year, and will keep the gaps filled with extra seeds and plants as I go along.

I'm not quite sure how the beds will fare in Winter. I need to think urgently now about plants for that time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's Spring again.. technically..

.. although we've had some near freezing temperatures here, and snow, and days and days of relentless rain. Even this May Day, it's still raining, although at least the temperature has risen a bit.

And Spring time is really when I focus the most energy on my four little raised, terraced, deep-soiled food growing beds. I am very good at planting. Less good at weeding and hopeless at harvesting - in fact purple sprouting broccoli is my favourite crop because I'm harvesting it when I'm out there planting everything else, so at least it gets done.

I'm not quite sure what happens in Summer and Autumn - except life, children, friends, house and so on. I certainly don't manage to keep on top of weeding and harvesting the veg beds. I always intend to, but never quite manage it.

It's lucky I've got some determined and intelligent friends, who have the solution to the problem and know how to persuade me to implement it! (Mainly just by talking about it and being inspirational.) I've been making some gradual changes over the past few years, and undergoing some stark realisations. Firstly, that un-dug soil is very, very different to soil that is dug.

I first noticed this in some of the five-gallon plastic pots I've had on the driveway for the past few years. They're too big and heavy to empty and refill with soil every year, so they have actually (eventually) just been weeded and replanted with a complete mixture of things:

And when I plunged my hand into the soil to plant something, it felt like another substance to the regularly dug-over variety in the field. It felt alive, and had integrity, for want of a better explanation. (These pots also rarely need watering.) It was this that made me finally realise, after years of reading no-dig theories (and thinking: "Yes that's OK for other people, who have the time to pull weeds out..") that I have to stop digging the soil in my field beds.

Instead I've laid compost on top of grass clippings:

And my plan - when the weather is warm and dry enough and my seedlings are big enough - is to completely fill the ground with plants - one hundred plants for every square metre. And I plant in 20 sq m, so that's 2000 seedlings going in this season (or next, at this rate!) - the aim being to keep the soil covered to keep the weeds out. Every time I remove a plant, I'll replace it with a plug of compost from the bins, and probably with another plant. The idea is that I never have to dig again, or weed much, or do another huge planting or glut harvesting session. Instead, the beds are kept constantly full, the soil constantly covered and replenished, and not unduly disturbed so it can be allowed to develop that natural, integral structure it needs to be really healthy. I think it might be a gardening system that actually fits with the way we live our lives, as well as being better for the soil and the plants.

Here are some of the seedlings, taking over our garden room. (I will try to remember to post an update and let you know whether they all get planted and if the system works!) :

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Before.... and after! (Spring planting)

I nearly didn't do any planting this year. Every time I went out to the field, I was focusing on the house build and the veg beds were running wild, apart from some very tasty broccoli that I planted last summer:

And of course the ubiquitous rhubarb which grows all by itself so magically:

But then a beloved gardening friend said she'd like to come and see how we were doing, which spurred me on to start doing something! And here's the result.

Bed four was full of red cabbages that had gone to seed. I wish we'd harvested them and used them/ given them away, but when that needed doing we were definitely otherwise engaged.

So I got the fork in and pulled everything out, then fed it with wood ash/ compost and planted some peas and beans.

I built these deep beds into the hillside when I was pregnant with my fourth child nine years ago, and have never regretted it. I had visions when I was doing that work, of her running around the pathways in future years, playing while I worked. This does happen, especially now she's got a younger sister to run with, but it took a while!

Mostly the beds are good because I hardly ever have to stand on them, so the soil doesn't get compressed, and because of the hill they're at table-top height for working when you stand on the lower path. I also find them to be a manageable space - any bigger and I'd feel overwhelmed by the size of the weeding/planting/digging jobs involved. I get overwhelmed anyway, but at least with beds this size (roughly 10ft x 2½ft) no job is going to take longer than an hour or two, however intense the work. In theory, it means I can keep up with jobs like weeding. In practice it means I sometimes do! The main drawback to these beds is the slugs that hide/breed in the walls. I'm thinking of mortaring the stonework to both stabilise the walls and to give the dreaded slimy things fewer hiding places. Last year they ate all of my peas and beans! It's just too far from the house for me to be constantly monitoring them and picking them off, and I won't put poison down.

Bed three on the left in this picture contained onions last year:

It's dug out now, fertilised with composted manure and planted with potatoes.

Not seed potatoes though. In previous years I've bought those and carefully chitted them in egg boxes on windowsills. Then one year I planted some extra that I had in a veg basket from the supermarket, which were starting to sprout and they grew just as well as the seed potatoes I'd bought. So this year I've just used the kitchen surplus and haven't bothered with seeds at all. This year is all about efficiency for me, about which more later.

I think this one is my favourite. This year's leaf bed (number two):


And after:

Those are some Brussels sprout seedlings in front and I've seeded more broccoli behind, because we've enjoyed that so much this year and it was so easy to grow. It's fertilised with the contents of one of the kitchen compost bins - the one that was filled last year and has been left alone to break down since then while we filled the other one this year. After a year of being left alone, the contents are black, crumbly and odourless. Also because of where they are and the crop rotation system I use, the bin I'm emptying is usually right next to the bed it's scheduled to feed - which certainly makes things easier!

Something else I did this year was make creative use of our council wheely bin. They delivered it in all its glory and at first I didn't know what to do with it. I certainly don't want to be worrying about what day to put my rubbish out and so on, or dragging the big ugly thing around the driveway all the time. In days gone by when we used the rubbish collection service bags would get torn and rubbish strewn, so we haven't used it for years, preferring to take it to the recycling centre ourselves when we're driving past. (Did you know that you have to have a car to do this and that according to the rules, you're not allowed to use the recycling centre as a pedestrian? Monstrous!)

But then I realised I was short of a big container in which to make my nettle plant food. Stinging nettles contain a lot of nitrogen as well as sulphur, magnesium, iron and other minerals. And our field has lots of them. I use them fresh myself as a tea to help keep anaemia at bay, but in the course of land clearing I pull far more than I can use that way and hate leaving them to 'waste' on the dry midden. So last year they all went in the council bin, and I left the lid open so that rain water would collect in there too. (Beware: this concoction gets very smelly! It was useful to be able to shut the lid sometimes!)

Anyway, after about nine months of mashing, here it is:

No way did it need nine months - about three weeks usually does the job - but I was only ready to use it this week and I don't think the extra mashing time did any harm. I fished out the solid stuff and put it in a wheelbarrow.

And used it to top off the second kitchen compost bin (the one we've been filling this year):

Then that bin was put to bed for a year. (We need stones up here - the wind blows plastic bin lids away. And the bins themselves, if they're not weighed down with stone.)

I used the remaining 'tea':

to water in the peas and beans I'd planted in bed four. I don't think any other seeds would take such a strong feed, but for peas and beans it's probably exactly what they needed. There's some left: I'll dilute it down and use it on bigger plants. I loved the efficiency and relative ease of this: we have no water supply in the field, so in previous years I've had to carry buckets of water from the house with which to irrigate seeds. This was so much easier. I've got plans for collecting the run-off from the new house drainage and channeling it to the crops, or at least keeping it stored in the field for filling buckets, but meanwhile the council bin will do the job well enough.

Finally, the other half of bed one - the one with the broccoli - needed digging and planting. Here it is - I've just put some beetroot seedlings in there for now. Might transplant some carrots and onions across later, which I'll probably start off in peat pots on the driveway near the house. They need more fussing over than they'll get in the field.

Beds one and two look like this now:

and I just need to mow all the paths today. And the play area over there...

And the sitting area here...

And the little garden here...

And, and, and.....

Friday, October 8, 2010

To keep us warm this winter

A chilli plant from my dad's allotment. :)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Midsummer growth

Well, the broad beans are doing well (despite the slugs' best efforts):

As are the potatoes, which I think I've now finished earthing up:

And the cabbages:

but the peas and the carrots didn't appear this year at all. I don't know why this is, but I know other local gardeners have had the same problem with theirs. Slugs have eaten all of the cauliflowers, but gardening organically without living right on-site is bound to result in some of those kinds of casualties, I think. Two fields away is just too far where slugs are concerned, but perhaps we could have done more with beer traps etc.

In the field I didn't have space to plant pumpkins, garlic, asparagus or artichoke, which I plan to remedy in time for next year by making some new terraced raised beds.

In the garden room, we've got cucumbers:

And tomatoes, setting nicely:

- both of which are getting a lot of liquid feed at the moment.

And some squash/pumpkins (not sure which) waiting to go outside:

I'd have liked to have got some aubergines in there as well this year, but space and time didn't allow for it. Hopefully next year they will.

On the drive there are more pumpkin/squash kind-of-things:

I'm not quite sure how big these are going to grow, or where we'll put them if they grow beyond a certain size but I don't think they will, in pots.

Also strawberries, which are now struggling to find enough sunshine to get ripe:

And the usual old dustbin full of potatoes:

- which I've actually planted up properly this year, layer by layer, so hopefully we'll get a better crop than we got last year. Actually, all of the crops should be better this year because we've put so much more effort in.

We've worked out a good watering system for the field, with the help of a kind neighbour's hose pipe and water supply and everything on the drive and in the garden room is having good care taken of it too. The only problem for the crops on the drive is the wind, which gets channeled through there in a kind of tunnel effect, between the house and the garage.

The key thing is to plant lots, I've found, so there are always more to take the place of the slug-eaten and the wind-blown.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Planting out

- is mostly what I've been concentrating on in the field for the past few weeks.

The beans sprouted, but so did the weeds around them and I realised that plot needed thoroughly digging over, so had to pot up the beans and do that! This is the end result, with marigolds as good companions:

There are peas planted in there too, and hopefully enough support and protection for them and the beans. I only grow broad beans, because I find them the easiest to grow and the tastiest! I'm not a runner- or French-bean fan at all, and I don't think the children are either.

The other beds are looking too boring to post photos of, but two are dug and planted (potatoes in one and carrots, onions, leeks and beetroot in the other) and bed no.3, the cabbage patch, is still to dig over and plant. The brassicas are doing well in the garden room, meanwhile:

- as are the pumpkin/squash seedlings, of which I have planted far too many - before reading that they need up to four feet of space each!

So I'm creating another terraced, raised bed - at least one more. I've got to somehow turn this bit of hillside:

- into something that more resembles this bit:

And this bit:

- though I'm not sure how quickly that will happen! I'll hopefully have something ready for at least some of the seedlings before they die, anyway.

Back in the garden room, we've got chilli peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers growing:

Those little frog things are supposed to supply a steady feed of water for the ever-thirsty cucumbers, but they don't work very well.

We've got potatoes growing the the old dustbin as usual, and strawberries in the old bathtub:

- which are probably just about ready to have their straw laid under them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A good salad

I made a good salad the other day - all wild field produce again, just from some sorrel ("Culpepper tells us: 'Sorrel is prevalent in all hot diseases, to cool any inflammation and heat of blood in agues pestilential or choleric, or sickness or fainting, arising from heat, and to refresh the overspent spirits with the violence of furious or fiery fits of agues: to quench thirst, and procure an appetite in fainting or decaying stomachs: For it resists the putrefaction of the blood, kills worms, and is a cordial to the heart, which the seed doth more effectually, being more drying and binding..."):

plus some young shoots of rose bay willow-herb ("The roots and leaves have demulcent, tonic and astringent properties and are used in domestic medicine in decoction, infusion and cataplasm, as astringents"):

And some young dandelion leaves which are a little too bitter for my taste, even this early in the season, but ok when mixed with the sweetness of the sorrel. Anyway, the whole thing was very good, dressed with some extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and black pepper.

I was starting to clear our carrot patch:

when I got sidetracked by the herb-gathering, so of course we had to have some roots for dandelion coffee:

- which tasted much better this time. I roasted the roots longer and slower, and used more of them.

Well, the carrot patch still isn't dug, because of a certain tiny (but very healthy-looking) willow sapling:

- that seems to have decided to make its home in there. I wanted to move it, not kill it (willow being so useful and all) so I looked around for a better position for the new tree, and found one right in the middle of a huge bramble patch. So I decided that the brambles also needed moving and the sapling transplanting before I could dig the carrot patch (still with me?!) and you can see some photos of that over there.

Next job: carrot patch. Really.