Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Soil Preparation and Cultivation

Soil Preparation and Cultivation

Having come to the conclusion that modern life is all about money and that most advice on seed packets and books is based upon you buying seeds each year and all pest control in popular books is about buying chemicals and how you need to buy good seed compost and that many seeds are now F1 hybrids often coated in something blue or green, I decided to go about learning from a bygone era.

An era before commercial gene manipulation, before the main emphasis was purely about money and more about quality and before science of growing really took over. An era when observation and generations of knowledge were still past down. This era seems to be before the first world war.

Luckily many books from that time are now available for free in the form of ebooks and the language used in them is less complicated. These books can teach you simple techniques about growing and storing your food because back then it was more common for people to grow their own and make pickles and preserves but also they used to use so many more plants.

Two such books which I have been reading are:

The Vegetable Garden, What, When and Where to Plant which forms part of a farmers manual from 1912
Root Development of Vegetable Crops by John E. Weaver and William E. Bruner 1927

I was surprised to read in the first book that a vegetable garden can produce 10 to 15 times the value of vegetables compared to the same space taken up by a large farm. 

This seemed strange until I realised that even back then things were done with crops purely based upon financial return. They had a lot of knowledge about what would grow best and how to grow more and better but were restricted by market value, shipping costs, labour costs and fertilizer costs. Everything was a compromise between making a profit and getting the most vegetables. It shouldn't have been a surprise and it does highlight why we now use so many pesticides and chemicals and fertilizers. It also goes some way as to explain why all modern books tell you to add fertilizer, to spray pesticides to obtain best crops. Most modern knowledge about vegetables is based around the commercial reasons and takes no account that you, the home gardener, has the free labour and free compost and a small enough plot to make it worth while doing a different way.

Even the modern day seed producers, seed catalogue companies, are restricted in the same way. When they test how best seeds will grow in what environments they are limited to systems which are profitable on a larger scale. Knowledge is being past down and written about based upon systems that simply aren't applicable or of much interest to a home gardener. Instructions on seed packets such as sow in spring at this or that spacing and re-buy the seeds the following year don't take into account that the home gardener can setup a far better environment on a small scale which means seeds can be grown closer together, sown when nature intended and seeds can also be collected and re-used.

Looking a bit deeper it becomes obvious why the farmer ploughs and prepares soil to a depth around 6 inches and spaces rows as they do. They have to have a machine capable of going a certain depth, which need to compact the soil in between with a wheel or horse. To plough and prepare soil deeper requires bigger and heavier machines which meant more horses or more expensive more powerful machines.   

Looking at root systems and how much moisture and nutrients a plant takes up also restricts how close they can be planted. It's a compromise between crop yield and expense. Plant them further away and you have less plants, plant them closer and they need more water and more nutrients to be added, often more often.

You often hear and read that you can't sow seeds too close together because they compete for the same scarce water and nutrients, which is true, but this is surely based upon a commercial view since you can mitigate competition between plants by applying more nutrients and more water. The home gardener can also make use of deeper prepared soil because he or she doesn't have to worry about the cost or machine power needed to plough and till deeper he can simply double dig. Yes it takes longer and is more work but if you have the time this isn't an issue as it is with commercial farmers.

A home gardener can feed the plants as required and prepare the soil as per the root requirements of the individual plant thereby changing the the advice given by the seed companies. This also changes the answer to how much do I need to manure my vegetable patch and how often do I water and how much produce can I grow within a given space. The official commercial answer is not necessarily applicable.

What the home gardener needs to do is learn about root systems and feed the plants with what they need. 

To prepare the soil the farmer doesn't have much choice. He has the soil he has and he has a certain amount of money that it is worth spending on that soil for the specified crop. This also limits what the crop is.

We are told this or that crop won't grow in our climate and that may be true, in a commercial world, because the crop may need better protection from wind, it may need protecting from the sun or it may need shade which often the farmer can't give it simply because it isn't financially viable to drive a machine along each row for a second or third time during the growing season but the home gardener can take a plant and protect it, which may mean growing another plant next to it for shelter. It may mean earthing up on the south side to provide shade in the hottest time of the year or earthing up on the north side to shelter it from wind during the winter.

So many people are growing so many different crops and having success by breaking all the rules that suggests the commonly given rules are not correct or not applicable. 

By throwing away the rules and experimenting many people have found better ways of growing food. They can grow plants much closer together and have fewer problems.

To dig or not to dig, what method is best?

There always seems to be a debate about which method is better but after reading about soil and root systems I've decided that there isn't a better method. They are just different methods. To get a good crop, and there is even a question as to what a good crop is because surely a good crop depends on what you want out of the crop, perhaps just enough is good enough or perhaps as much as possible is a good crop, but with a no dig method you need to know if the soil is of good enough quality to hold moisture while at the same time as draining well enough to not bother about about digging and just apply compost or manure on the top. With this method you hope that nature can take nutrients from the top and provide them as deep as the roots need, and if the soil is too dense so that it can't breath or can't be broken up by worms and micro organisms then it can still work provided you put enough depth on top. That often involves using more compost and manure because you may not have as much usable depth, but less hard work which suits some people but will obviously be just as good as digging provided there is enough room for the roots and enough nutrients and moisture. With digging you can give the plants more room by preparing soil deeper and thereby giving the plant access to more nutrients deeper down. Manure or compost is still needed but perhaps less of it is needed. Neither way if done correctly would appear to be better than the other. 

The answer for myself is that I like the physical exercise part of digging but I also think that I will become lazy in time so I will dig first to break up my clay soil, add enough compost, manure and sand as required to provide as good a soil as I can, then probably only lightly dig over the following year or years and no doubt become lazy and won't bother to dig at all in the future.

If I am digging the question becomes how deep, and the answer to that appears to be in understanding the root system of the crops I will be growing and it appears that many crops have roots that go down 6 or 7 feet but most of the useful roots seem to be within 2 feet, so that will be my aimed for depth. I have plenty of time, manure and compost to be able to prepare soil to that depth and hopefully digging that deep will keep the soil in good condition for years. 

Another reason for me to dig is that the clay soil needs to be turned into a more loamy soil and at present it is very compacted and therefore contains very little oxygen. Watering a compacted heavy clay soil means the water just sits on top without draining away very deep. In fact the water only drains to a depth of a few inches. Clay soil is also a cold soil so digging it and adding humus will allow it to warm up which will also be very beneficial, but once it is loamy, draining and warmer the need to dig will diminish.

With either system the soil will become better quality if you keep applying organic material and nature should be able to help you to a large extent simply by having worms and roots growing. As long as water can drain through the soil without water logging around the roots while at the same time holding moisture and as long as you can replenish the lost minerals and nutrients there should be no difference between digging and not digging.

To Mulch or Not

The old farmers have answered this many years ago. Mulching in general with most crops does help because it helps to retain moisture but some conditions means that mulching can also cause problems. A better answer can only be found by reading what their experiments showed. Some plants benefit from it while others don't. Farmers often don't mulch because it is another cost they incur with time and material which the crop price can't justify but other crops benefit so much that it is a no brainer apart from the fact that modern methods, and different strains of plants are developed to give better crops without it, or at least good crops without doing it. 


I was surprised to learn that cultivation of the soil, breaking up the top surface of the soil, is actually a mulch. A dry soil mulch is almost as effective at retaining moisture as applying a straw or hay mulch. In some tests doing either would keep 17 or 18% moisture at a depth of 6 inches. A mulch of either type stops or slows down evaporation of moisture from the soil by providing a barrier between the air and the moist soil. This is beneficial providing there isn't too much moisture for the particular crop. If there is too much then you would want some to evaporated. Some plants do not want or need a top mulch of straw either because it makes no difference in some cases or because a top mulch may keep the moisture too high and effect the leaves or stems. A top mulch may also harbour insects and slugs or bacteria / disease which obviously wouldn't be good but in general a mulch keeps moisture in so is a good thing but in wet seasons may have a negative effect. 

The problem with cultivating the top few inches for a mulch is that it can damage roots. Traditionally the benefit of mulching in this way with some crops out weighs the damage of roots but only from a commercial point of view since any root damage is normally a bad thing and better crops can be obtained by cultivating at the correct depth as to cause no damage. If cultivation isn't deep enough to be an effective mulch it can still be beneficial but breaking the compacted top surface to allow drainage and also kill weeds.

Whether cultivating the top soil to form a mulch or laying straw as a mulch there are many benefits, stopping a top crust from forming, preventing weeds, and keeping in moisture as well as allowing the soil to breath. 

The home gardener should be mulching with either method or both but should also read up as to what crops benefit the most so as to work out whether the effort and expense is worth while. In some circumstances not mulching or removing a mulch may also be beneficial. As with anything there isn't a hard and fast rule that always applies.

A lot can be learnt by going back in time and seeing how things used to be done and why but also learning why something isn't done. Just because something isn't done by commercial organisations doesn't mean that it isn't worth the home gardener doing it, just that it doesn't always make commercial sense which is a totally different aspect.   

Monday, 28 October 2013

Is Permaculture Something New?


While spending a fair few days ploughing through Google searching for information, especially blogs, recently trying to learn a bit more about vegetable growing, especially using this new-ish thing called Permaculture and coming across terms like Bio-Diverse Intensive Growing, Poly-Culture, No Dig, Forest Gardens, perennial vegetables, sustainability and all the other associated terms that seem to crop up, I began to get some Deja-Vu feelings.

Blog after blog, article after article, the people who seem to be interested in this subject, the people who are either wanting to take Permaculture ideas on board and those who practice it all tend to fit into the same few pigeon holes if I was to label those people. 

In general, Permaculturalists, if that is the correct term, seem to be interested in wildlife, conservation, they are frugal, enjoy a simpler life, like to grow organic food, generally not wealthy - indeed often at the poorer end of society, want to work with nature, looking to plant vegetables and other plants together rather than beds of single crops, often owning chickens or other small groups of animals and a few other generalizations I could mention. All of which sounds a bit familiar.

Cottages and Cottage Gardens

Over the years Cottages have come to mean different things. More recently a cottage is a small dwelling without land, normally in the country, or sometimes nothing more than a holiday home but in times gone by, before the Enclosure Acts, Cottages were actually defined as a dwelling with land. Often the land was between 1 and 4 acres. During Elizabethan times a cottage had to have at least 4 acres. Before that in medieval times it wasn't necessarily a small place but more of a small farm.  All in all, traditionally, Cottages and the romantic idea of the cottage garden has been somewhere to grow food and animals for food. The idea you may have about a cottage garden being mainly of flowers, often untidy, is also a more recent thing when people didn't have to grow their own food because as time has gone on more people could afford to buy it rather than work the land.

Through most of British history, middle ages onwards, up until relatively modern times, Cottage owners, Cotters, dare I use the term Cottagers, had to use their land, the Cottage Garden, to produce their food.

Cottage Gardens had to use all available space to grow food with flowers mainly there to bring in insects and pollinators so the crops could grow otherwise they will have been herbs for flavour or for medicinal purposes. Flowers would have been inter-planted with vegetables or visa-versa. Isn't this Poly-Culture? Fruit trees will have had flowers and vegetables under planted which sounds to me a bit like a forest garden. Cottage garden owners would have had to use the land sustainably, mend and make do, often with ailments which made digging difficult or impossible. They must have recycled their own kitchen waste and used the chicken and animal dung as compost and fertilizer, they must have observed nature in their own environment and put it to good use.

In so many ways the original cotters, cottagers, were the permaculturalists of their day.

I've come to the conclusion that there is nothing new about permaculture apart from sound bites and fancy new terms. It's more of a way for people to reject the modern way and return to a simpler more sustainable lifestyle.

I'm not putting it down, far from it, I've found my own perspective on it that is acceptable to me and therefore I've found another route into learning and adopting it which I find easier. I've also come to realise that everyone who adopts a permaculture way of life does it their own way.  Understanding that Permaculture is more a lifestyle rather than a new way of doing something has been a bit of a eureka moment.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

More Seeds Sown and Sea Buckthorn

Today I managed to sow a row of Spring Onions, Pak Choi and Chinese Kale in the main vegetable bed. Another job that needed doing.

Pak Choi (Shanghai)

I'm not too sure whether the Pak Choi will work outside unprotected but like everything it will be an experiment. I've no idea about the flavour but if Tesco's are selling it then it has obviously become more popular and is supposed to be good in salads and stir fries and I think maybe a good addition to the vegetable patch as it'll give us some variety since I have normally stayed away from  growing "foreign" veg but if we are to move into being as self sufficient as possible then we need as many things as possible that can be grown all year round.  I've read different names for Pak Choi and there appears to be various different varieties but often it appears to be called Bok Choy or Chinese Cabbage with some saying it needs to be grown under cloches and others saying it is easy to grow with no other mentions of care.

The seed packet says that it needs to be kept moist otherwise a dry spell will cause it to bolt but it also says that you can and should pick the baby leaves to encourage growth and goes on to mention that it can be cut up to 4 times and will re-grow. I don't know if this means the leaves you pick will re-grow or wether it will re-grow if you pick all the leaves in one go. Time will tell I'm sure.

Spring Onions (White Lisbon)

Spring Onions have always failed when I have tried them. I presume something eats them or maybe I forget they are Spring type and leave them to become big Onions but hopefully by writing what I have planted and where I'll remember this time. It says on the packet that these are quick growing and if you sow them in October they will be ready by March/April - that doesn't sound quick to me. Anyway, another vegetable for a stir fry or salad and sandwiches. I have sown these in between the rows of Durham Early Cabbage simply to cram a bit more out of that bed.

Chinese Kale (Kailaan)

Something else I've never grown before but once again the packet says the flowering stems and buds can be used is salads and stir fries. The larger stems need peeling and cooking. Other thing tried for variety and once again sown within the Durham Early Cabbage and White Sprouting Broccoli to make more use of the bed. Sowing was supposed to be up until early autumn but it is still mild and worth a try.

I think I'll try sowing a few of each in the greenhouse as well later today.

Bedfordshire Champion Onions

I had found an old seed packet, pre opened and 5 years old. It says to sow in Spring but I've sown 3 seed trays worth in the greenhouse just to see what happens. If they grow then I may be able to transplant them outside in the spring. I've bought a new packet of these ready for the Spring so this opened packet wasn't doing any good just sitting in a box so it has to be worth the experiment.

Lambs Lettuce (Corn Salad, Valerianella locusta) 

I have sown 2 medium sized pots of Lamb's Lettuce since when reading loads of other people's blogs I keep coming across it. Apparently it has a nutty flavour and can be grown all year round although it is an annual. It has many nutrients and goes well in a salad.  According to Wikipedia it has been commercially available in the UK since the 1980's but has been eaten, or foraged, for centuries before and is popular with the French. Good enough for me then.

I have read that it can be very invasive and in the Spring when I sow some outside I think it may be a contender for being confined to a small raised bed.


Cauliflower has to be one of my favourite vegetables and I don't remember growing it before so a couple of seed trays were sown in the greenhouse. The packet said it could be sown in the Spring or indoors during October. I'm hoping I can grow enough of these to freeze a load so we can eat them during the year.

Mizuna Lettuce

Another one I've not tried before but it said can be sown in the Autumn and has a peppery taste. It follows the salad and stir fry theme I seem to have today and will hopefully open my eyes to yet another variety. 

Sea Buckthorn

 I was reading Deano's blog post about a Chicken scavenging design  and in there a comment someone made mentioned Sea Buckthorn being something chickens liked to eat and since one of my duties as a Wildlife Trust volunteer is to help manage the Sea Buckthorn I thought I'd pinch a few tiny plants when we had to remove them from an area. Normally the bushes are burnt but I pulled 4 or 5 tiny plants that came off of runners and have stuck them into pots of compost. Hopefully they have enough roots on them to take if they are kept well watered. It must be the wrong time of year to try this but if successful then I was hoping to grow them on a bit before adding them to the chicken run. Hopefully the chickens can supplement their diet, save us money on chicken food and give them a more varied environment. Deano had commented that his soil wasn't right for Sea Buckthorn but I think if they take then I will dig a patch and make the soil right, which is light well drained and sandy.

Sea Buckthorn can be a very invasive bush but if it did grow too well and try and take over then all that is needed is cutting back or digging bits up which isn't the end of the world considering the field would benefit from this pretty bush plus the branches and leaves are very good at fire starting so I could even get a supply of kindling.  The Buckthorn has male and female plants so fingers crossed I have some female plants, if not I'll have to try again in the Spring.

The berries are very popular with birds which will help make the field a wildlife haven plus they can be used for food so they seem like a good plant to me.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Jobs that needed doing

Jobs that needed doing

One of the jobs I've been meaning to do for a while is finish digging the main Autumn vegetable bed and move a Raspberry plant as well as plant an Apple Mint that we picked up in a local community market. One of our biggest problems when buying plants is that they stay in their pots until it is too late. Recently we have taken the decision to be more systematic about planting things out as keeping them in a pot means watering gets forgotten and the plants normally die. At some stage I end up putting the pots outside the greenhouse with the good intention of planting but they get eaten by rabbits or fall over in the wind. Not any more - hopefully. The Apple Mint went into a hole cut in the grass and left to go as rampant and wild as it wants. I did the same with the Raspberry that was in the vegetable bed. 

The bed I wanted to dig also had a tomato plant in that I put outside because the pot it was in was far too small. The plant was about 1ft tall when I moved it in about June and it flourished amazingly well. It was a plum variety and I didn't expect it to do well outdoors but we have been picking ripe tomatoes from it for ages and a fair few but it's vines had gone along the ground, around each other and made a real bushy knot. I knew there were still a few ripe tomatoes on it so I picked them, and ate most of them there and then, but amongst all the foliage there must have been 100 or more green and semi ripe tomatoes. You can see the pile I made with them, plus a load, may be 30 or more that fell off which I left to dig into the bed plus a load more still on the plant which will go into the compost heap. I intend weighing the bag of green tomatoes and will leave them in the greenhouse to ripen. I think there must be around 2KG of ones that seemed good enough and big enough to keep. That's just off of the one plant.

Something I will definitely do next year is try and plant many more tomato plants outside but next time I must make a cordon for them to grow up.  

I eventually double dug the bed over and tried to protect it from the Rabbits - spot the professional fence. Although no dig may be the answer the fact is our soil is such heavy clay that it needs breaking up so I took the decision that I would double dig every bed, adding manure, sand etc the first season and then I'll have the option of trying no dig in the future. The beds are approximately 24" deep with big drainage channels around them. The channels are for 2 reasons, 1 being it is a weed block and the 2nd is that the soil that comes out of the channel goes into the bed which then raises it. Double dug raised beds. It seemed like a good idea. These were exceptionally difficult to dig in the spring and summer, so much so I couldn't get enough dug for the number of vegetables we wanted to plant so I'm hoping to do much more digging during the autumn and winter after rain since it may be messy but so much softer. Broccoli and Cabbage and Spring Onion will go into this last bit of the main bed.


Durham Early Cabbage

This Cabbage is supposed to be about the earliest large cabbage you can get, that's the claim, and although I'd like to say I chose it I didn't. It's all the Garden Centre had left yesterday so I bought a dozen plug plants and have managed to get them in the ground. My own cabbage was decimated by the Small and Large White Butterfly.


White Sprouting Broccoli

Nigel Slater wrote in the Guardian a few years ago about how good the White Sprouting Broccoli was so once again I'd have been happy if I chose to buy these but once again I didn't. Small Whites etc got my Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Out of all the veg as plug plants the garden centre had this and the Durham Early were all they had and so I bought a dozen of both.


Green  Alkanet

Green Alkanet
In the Spring I scattered many packets of Wild Flowers over the banks of the pond. I of course didn't write down what was in the packets but around 30 different flowers is what I seem to remember. Only a few came up, maybe 6 or 7 different ones but I do remember there being Forget-me-nots although I didn't think they came up and also they are supposed to be biennial. I was expecting, if they had worked to perhaps show themselves next spring but today I think I found a few, shown in the picture. I thought that they flower in April / June time but hey-ho.
Update 25th October
These turned out to be Green Alkanet and not Forget-Me-Nots as previously thought. Another Wild Flower learned :) 


Unidentified Flower

I am trying to learn how to identify Wild Flowers but today I found one that I can't find a reference to on the Internet and it doesn't appear to be in my Wild Flower books. I have no idea what it is although it's very hairy and has 4 petals with it's sepals well extended. Purple blue in colour with a white centre. The flower is where I shook all the Wild Flower seed so it is unlikely to have come from anywhere else. Before the pond was there it was simply a field which was well trampled by a horse for 14 years. It must have come from a packet of seed.

Any ideas? Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.
Update 25th October as per the comment below these have been confirmed as Borage for 2 reasons, firstly, a second person said it was Borage but secondly Borage does do this as is shown by the fact another flower opened on the same plant but with 5 petals :) It's hard enough for me to identify Wild Flowers as it is let alone when they don't know themselves what form to take!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

More Wild Flowers Planted and Sown


After reading about how rare in the wild Fritillaries are I decided to buy another dozen bulbs and planted them in front of my compost heap. These ones were mixed purple and white, as opposed to just white that I planted the other day. In the wild there are only about 30 sites where these can be found in any quantity and if they are that rare then I thought I needed some more. 

I've never seen these before, apart from in pictures, but they seem an essential ingredient to our part of the field we want to turn into a wild flower meadow. In the wild it likes to grow in meadows that flood and stay damp and my field certainly floods, or has done in the past, and because it is mainly a heavy clay soil should stay at least moist in the dry months 4 plus inches deep.

Pheasant's Eye

While browsing 3 different garden centres I noticed that Unwins have a wild flower seed group and I managed to spot a packet of Pheasant's Eye seed. I've started to learn and identify wild flowers this year but my memory isn't as good as it ought to be but seeing the name rung some bells and on getting home I'm pleased to find that Pheasant's Eye ( Adonis annua) is another endangered flower and is on the Bio-Diversity Action Plan. I mean pleased that I spotted the seeds rather than pleased this flower is endangered :) I sprinkled these about and to be honest I can't remember exactly where, not even which side of the field I sprinkled them, so I'm looking forward to some of these popping up in the summer. It says on the packet that they can be sown outdoors in October but they may need a little protection. I'm just going to let nature take it's course.


I have Gold Finches in the garden, sometimes a small flock, and I find them one of the prettiest birds there are and have been meaning to get some Teasel seeds for a while. I keep meaning to just pull a head off of a wild one next time I go for a walk but it never happens so again I was very pleased to see these seeds for sale. I scattered some of the seed along the hedge, sunny side, and a few elsewhere, plus I decided to sow some in the greenhouse just in case. To many people these are pure weeds but I don't mind the look of them and they can be quite pretty and should give the field some more height, which it is lacking. The big benefit of course is that the Gold Finches love them.

Anemone Bordeaux

I also picked up some Anemone bulbs, I don't know why, and I think I may have spotted a bulb next to this one and picked up the packet by mistake. Anyway, I now have some of these which are described as "ground cover" and I planted them but once again I can't remember where. Probably in the pile of earth which I keep putting upturned turfs on when I want to get rid of some. They look a bit like Poppies, although they are bulbs. Any flower is a nice flower but I doubt that these are native.

Field Scabious

There was a packet of Field Scabious seed which I picked up, read the back and saw the price. £4.99 for a few seeds of a wild flower! No chance. I'll have to find another source of this flower.

If half of these flowers come up the meadow area will look stunning next year, even more than this year.

It's only October and I'm already inpatient for spring to arrive! I guess that happens the more you get into your garden and vegetables :)

Monday, 21 October 2013

Trees in Autumn

One of the principles of Permaculture is to observe and interact. 

When viewing a simple photo of the start of Autumn I thought about what makes the leaves change colour and this lead to wondering why the same tree species planted together changes leaf colour at different rates. How trees grow is a lot more complex than I am about to portray but for the reason of trying to answer the question of why 3 same trees planted together change colour differently it is sufficient to start the ball rolling.

Marston Vale Forest School 2013
Chlorophyll is responsible for the colour and it is this that enables the tree to take water and Carbon Dioxide from the environment and convert it into sugars needed to grow. As the Chlorophyll diminishes other colour pigments can be seen which give browns, yellows and reds.

I began to think that the amount of Chlorophyll in the leaves may well be directly linked to how healthy the tree is. Those changing colour first may have less Chlorophyll and therefore were perhaps growing slower. If this is the case then perhaps it is an indication of which trees in the garden need more nutrients and minerals or are suffering from competition and need attention or removing.

Some more reading is required. The picture was taken from Marston Vale Forest School

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Seeds - Germinated


A quick check in the greenhouse today has shown that the Corn Cockles that were sown from our own seed the other day have all started rooting. A check outside in the Onion bed showed that the second batch of Onions is growing as is the Broad Beans.

Updated 23 Oct 2013
Every single Corncockle seed taken from seed heads of this years flowers have germinated in the greenhouse. Also many many seeds have germinated outside on bare soil. All seedlings have a good strong 2 leaves.


The Beans that have started growing were our own seed that was simply taken from pods we had missed and that had dried either on the ground or on the plant.

Updated 23 Oct 2013
Interestingly the seed from my own plants that I sowed has germinated and has leaves. The same type sown on the next bed taken from the original seed hasn't yet germinated. 

Wildflower Focus - Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus Minor)

Yellow Rattle

One of the first questions I asked when we got our little field is what should I plant to try to increase diversity. At the time I didn't know what was in our field apart from grass and weeds. The answer from a few people working in the Wildlife Trust was try Yellow Rattle.

Looking a bit deeper into what Yellow Rattle was I soon saw why it had been recommended.

It is a native Wild Flower that gains some of it's nutrients from the roots of other plants. The common name comes from the fact it is yellow and the seeds rattle when ripe and dry. By robbing other plants of some nutrients it has the effect of reducing the size or the amount of it's neighbouring plants, especially grass. This allows other plants to grow. Since Yellow Rattle is an Annual it can die back leaving bare soil in it's place where other seeds can germinate.

Yellow Rattle seed needs to be sown in the Autumn using the same year's seed and it needs a cold spell to allow it to germinate around March. It will flower in June / July and seeds will ripen around the end of July. It will typically grow to a height of 20 to 50cm.

We have sown several packets directly over the grass although this has been an experiment since the soil should be scared or bare ideally. We also put a couple of packets in the freezer for about a month as was suggested in several places and when we sow these packets in November we will rake or scratch the grass / soil and sow into the bare soil. It'll be noted as to where the second sowing, which have been in the freezer, are sown so that it can be seen how successful both methods of sowing were.

Species Diversity

One of the aims of our grassed area within the little field is to have as much diversity, as many different plants, as possible for various reasons:

Diversity reasons


To increase the number of pollinators for our fruit and vegetables. After reading about pollination I learned that, for example, Strawberries are an aggregate fruit and that each little part, each little seed, needs to be fertilized and if this doesn't happen fully then the fruit can be mis-shapen and smaller. When you see a deformed Strawberry it is because not all parts of the fruit were pollinated. Since Strawberries need insects to pollinate them the more insects you have the better chance of a more full fertilization. Hopefully on days when Bees aren't around other insects will be. Better fertilization means better crops and often bigger crops. On top of this the blossom can appear during times when bees and hoverflies aren't about, such as cold periods or perhaps windy periods which can stop the pollination.  More diversity within plants and flowers will attract a wider range of insects and a better chance to pollinate. Since the field's main objective is food production we need as many insects as possible.

More overall insects will obviously mean more insects that we don't want because many are harmful to our crops  but we are hoping that nature will balance itself and provide enough insects so that some pray on others which may keep the ones we don't really want in check.

Without plant diversity, just a patch of Sprouts for example, we attract just a few species of insect, namely the Large and small white butterfly, which in turn devours the entire crop but by increasing diversity, perhaps by adding Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), we give the insects we don't ideally want a second food source. This may not stop the Small white from destroying our Sprouts but it will give them a chance to lay their eggs on both the Sprouts and the Nasturtium which does, in theory, reduce the number of caterpillars on the Sprouts to reduce their effect.

It may not work but one idea is to use the knowledge we learnt this summer, namely, we saw the Small and Large White Butterfly come in at one end of the field and fly all the way down it to the Sprouts. We intend to plant Nasturtium within the wild grassy / wild flower end of the field to hopefully stop the White Butterflies before they get to the other end of the field. Also planting Nasturtium in between the Sprouts. Obviously netting the Sprouts will help but the less work we have to do, and the less netting we have to buy the better as we simply can't net everything.

The more diversity and more grasses and flowers we can plant, the more we can tap into this beneficial effect.

Flowers are Pretty

Another reason for diversity is that the more flowers the more interesting and pretty the field will be. Although the field is primarily for food production there is nothing to say it has to look like a boring farmers field or a drab allotment. The more diverse Flowers and Grasses the longer the flowering period will be within the field which in turn will keep the field looking better for longer. Since we have an interest in learning and understanding Wild Flowers the more different species the easier it will be to learn how to identify them. Not only this, the more flowers the less weeds and therefore less work maintaining the field. Half an acre may not sound a lot but when you have to weed it manually it becomes a massive space. Flowers planted between the vegetables will cover the bare soil and prevent weeds and since we won't mind a bit of colour in the vegetable beds we don't need to worry so much about their seeds getting into the soil. We'd much prefer Corn Flowers appearing amongst the carrots than nettles.


Another reason for having as much diversity in our plants as possible is for Wildlife reasons. We'd like to help wildlife since many species are endangered. The more birds the better as they are not only nice to see but eat insects (some of which are bad for our crops) and they make for a much better local environment. We spend an awful lot of time digging, harvesting, planting and maintaining the field for food that it is important to have an interest in our own local environment as it will help make working the field a pleasure. Helping Frogs and Toads is not only required but helping them helps us since they will eat a lot of slugs. The pond located in the field isn't there to help make a garden it is there because all animals and insects require water to drink, plus it is also it's own habitat for Dragonflies and many other insects and only increases our diversity which in turn helps our environment. 

Another purpose of the pond is that it becomes our drainage sink since the field floods and we need somewhere to send the water. If nature wants a lot of water in our field then it is better to work with nature rather than try and prevent the water from puddling. We could dig the entire field and allow the water to drain but that is too much work and we would like to keep and use the water. 

Protection and Security

Having a large diversity of flowers and plants gives us a chance of having a lot of plants suffer in extreme weathers and still allow us to attract pollinator since other flowers won't mind the adverse conditions. The diversity will also allow us to view more plants and see for ourselves the insects that are attracted which will therefore help us position flowers to protect our crops.


Different flowers and plants will have different root depths and more roots will hopefully break up the clay more and allow drainage.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Bulb planting and a very small Bay Tree

Today approximately 20 Daffodil bulbs were planted along with a dozen Bluebells (English type not Spanish) and about 5 or 6 Fritillary bulbs planted in semi shade which is also regularly moist and 10 or so Snow drops.

The Daffodil bulbs, although not sold as wild Daffodil did have the name Narcissus pseudonarcissus in brackets so I presume that they are cultivated from the wild version. I think that this version of the Daffodil is a native.

The Fritillary  was named as "Snakes Head Fritillary" and is a white version which I believe was given the "Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit". Apparently there are arguments as to whether this is a cultivated native but this matters little to me as I think it's as good as, based upon a native.

The Bluebells came from cultivation and not from the wild which is good and I'm fairly sure it is the British version and not a hybrid although time will tell.

The Snow drops came from the wild, at least the packet suggested it was raised in the wild. Quite what that means I'm unsure and I can't remember the exact cultivar, but it has a single flower.

I deliberately didn't make a note of where they are so hopefully they'll provide not only some colour but also a nice surprise when they appear.

I think the biggest problem will be the fact that they are in heavy clay soil and although I think they will grow I am guessing that the bulbs will have not enough room to spread so the general idea is that they will be dug up next year or the following year and replanted when I have more enthusiasm for digging. They were put in with a bulb planter so the hole was approximately 5cm wide but the sides seemed very hard. Time will tell.

The Bay tree came in a 3 Inch pot so will need re-potting and I must remember that it will need to be brought into the greenhouse as soon as the weather turns cold. I'm guessing a large patio pot will be not only big enough but also small enough to bring in from the cold although I would like to know if they can survive outside during a cold winter so may well get another with an aim of planting directly into the ground when it is bigger in a sunny but wind sheltered spot as an experiment because I'm not keen on too much being in the greenhouse as the space will soon run out plus everything needs watering and keeping an eye on so much more inside. 

Whilst planting the bulbs I found yet another frog. The garden it literally teaming with them as I have now seen 3 or 4 in the front garden, all young, and upto 50 in the field, 4 or 5 of which are mature adults. 

More Wild Flowers Sown

Yesterday I pulled the seed from many of this years wild flowers from around the pond and sprinkled the seed over the wild grass area. Some Corncockles had already germinated on their seed heads. I'm rather hoping that enough will take to have made it worth while as the cut grass is about 5 to8cm in height but it rained immediately after so presumably many will have been washed down to the soil level.

Cornflowers were the hardest to sow as their little seed heads don't separate easily so in the main I just split the heads into 3 or 4 bits and dropped them onto the ground. The Marigolds were the same as they were all damp.

Most of the Poppy seed has already been blown out of their seed heads so only a few of these were used.

I think that I will sow a few trays of Corncockles and Cornflowers into trays and leave them in the greenhouse so they can be added in the spring and no doubt I will broadcast sow more seed then as well.

Sweet pea seed was sown all along the fence line so they have something to grow up as well as Sunflower seed, although I did spread a fair few all over the place.

Everlasting flowers, Helichrysums, may not be wild flowers but since they last so long I thought I'd sprinkle a few around the place for added colour. Last year we started a few off in the greenhouse and transplanted them but they took so easily that I think the seed will take readily.

Compost heap
Muck heap 12th October 2013
I also turned over the compost heap/manure heap a little yesterday and it was just a little. I forked the bottom edges to the top and hope to do this at least once per week. Just 10 minutes a time.

The Tomatoes are still going strong and there were about 100 tomatoes, green and red yesterday but the foliage had stopped much of the light getting to them and since there is so much less sun now I stripped the foliage back considerably, as I have done 3 or 4 times this year although I haven't been stopping any new trusses from forming which has allowed many many more tomatoes to form. The Chilli Peppers are still doing OK and I hope to keep these going all year to see how they perform next year as I understand they are perennials.  I will also try to keep several tomato plants going also, partly because a local permaculture chap said he had picked a ripe tomato on Christmas day last year and partly because they are perennial. Could be an interesting experiment.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

First Year Review

It is nearly a year since we first saw our new house and the little field. In November 2012 the field was a bare paddock for a horse although was classified as agricultural land. 

November 2012
After a very wet summer one of the questions we asked was does the field flood - no was the answer. Not that it would have mattered much. The question was only asked as it seemed like one of those questions to ask.

Shortly after moving in, within days, it rained and became apparent that the field did indeed flood. Speaking to other people we found out that it always floods.
December 2012
We quickly realized that the flooding was caused by the fact that the soil was clay and years of a horse trampling over it had compacted the surface to the extent that water could not soak into the ground.

With the main priority settling in and getting ready for Christmas little work was done outside although one outdoor priority was to secure the property from the road, stopping the kids from straying. We didn't move in for 10 days or so allowing some decorating to be done. Mid January saw the first fencing go in and the start of old fencing coming down.

The main reasons for wanting a field was so that the kids would have room to play but also so that we could grow our own fruit and vegetables and start to have a more self sufficient life style, not total self sufficiency but more a case of a simpler lifestyle whereby we grow as much food as possible.   The idea of permaculture and wildlife has been in the back of our minds for quite a long time and a field gives us the opportunity of fulfilling these ideas.

The first plant went in on January 10th, a Gooseberry Bush, although this soon became rabbit fodder.

With flooding and now rabbits it became apparent that we had a few hurdles to over come, but of course the weather started to get in the way with heavy snow on the 15th of January. 

January 15th 2013
January 27th 2013

February 2013
The thawing of snow means more water and even bigger flooding. In places the depth was around 8cm so what was needed was a drainage strategy. We saw no point in fighting nature but instead working with it seemed a better idea and if there was going to be water then it needed to be managed and used as a feature. We decided to dig drainage channels which lead into a pond. The idea being that the water can sit in the channels and feed the pond but before this could happen our green house arrived. A 12ft x 6ft wooden greenhouse had been chosen with plastic poly-carbonate windows which seemed a safer choice with kids.

February 2013
The drainage channels just seemed to happen with very little overall design but in general the channels were dug from around the deepest flood areas away to the drier ground. Along the way they bent this way and that with curves and one part even formed a circle with the idea that it could form the basis of a kids den, perhaps with a living Willow fence growing up around it. 
March 2013
March 24th 2013
Potato Patch
Fruit Garden
This is at the back corner of the field with the muck heap at the top of the picture. The channel is a spade depth which gives some idea of the amount of water that we have to deal with. Other areas of flooding were dealt with by simple digging the ground to allow water to drain downwards with one of these areas turning into a potato patch. At the same time as digging we were also beginning to clear rubbish and build bonfires to clear an awful lot of wooden fences and old dog runs. Late in March more snow arrived but as it thawed the drainage outline can be seen along with the pond although the pond wasn't finished. By now we had planted a few fruit trees, Apple, Crab, Bullace and a couple of Pear. The middle of March saw the first lot of seeds sown in the greenhouse, Broad Beans, Tomatoes and Leeks and a few Herbs. The beginning of April saw the pond finished, some Hawthorn planted and a couple of Hazel bushes along with Willow to start a hedge on the left hand side of the field, as well as the fruit garden started by transferring Gooseberry, Red Current, Black Current and Strawberries from the old allotment and by 9th April the seeds in the greenhouse had germinated and our vegetable season had started. By mid April the boundary fence had been rabbit proofed with chicken wire and 1100 small plastic tie wraps to hold it onto the main stock fencing. Potatoes also go in around now as well as the Broad Beans planted out. The latter half of April sees an Onion bed go in near the greenhouse and the Chickens moved to the back corner of the field. April is mainly taken up with digging constantly which is back breaking work trying to break down clay clods. A Runner Bean bed as well as a thin bed field side of the fruit garden.

The beginning of May is still seeing frosts but despite this we have planted out Runner Bean seed as a test to see if they germinate but at the same time sow a load in the greenhouse. The main vegetable patch near the greenhouse is expanding. Around the 5th of May a few pond plants are added, Marsh Marigolds, Purple Loosestriffe, White Water Lilly, Yellow Iris and some Canadian Pond Weed (not that we particularly wanted the Canadian stuff but we'll have to see how it goes). A couple of solar fountains, one quite expensive one and also a tiny cheap thing.
Add caption
The pond had loads of packets of wild flower seeds sprinkled all over the 2 banks. Corn Cockles, Corn Flowers, Corn Marigolds, Common Fleabane, Ox Eyed Daisies, Forget Me Nots and probably 10 others. The idea is that it will not only form a sink for the drainage water but also a wildlife pond with the edges kept as wild as possible. A bit of a focal point to the garden and somewhere that sounds and looks nice to sit with a coffee. From now on we spend a lot of time sitting here as the hedge along the roadside provides fantastic cover for birds as they use it not only for nesting but also as a corridor. We are surrounded by fields and wooded scrub areas which attract no end of different species of birds, many of which use the pond for a drink. Hopefully the pond will create a lot of insects for the birds as well as a lot of pollinators. Hopefully there will be a lot of good insects that can help fight off the bad pests that will no doubt eat the vegetables. We are giving nature a chance at balancing itself so that we can attract Frogs, Toads and Newts to eat slugs as well as bees, hover flies and butterflies to pollinate. 

Back in March I started to volunteer for the Lincs Wildlife Trust and not only have I been learning about birds, plants and habitats but also the wider ecology. The ideas of Permaculture, Vegetable growing and wildlife all seem to compliment each other along with the idea of making everything relatively wild and therefore easy maintenance although to start with nothing seems easy as ponds need digging and the soil, or clay, needs improving but subsequent years should be much easier. 

7th June 2013 main Veg area
By the beginning of May Onions, Garlic, Dwarf Broad Beans are all growing and a few small raised beds have been put in since I simply can't dig enough beds for everything and the small raised beds are a quick fix.

The half acre field is split into two main areas, Veg and grass playing area nearest the house and the other half is left to grow wild, with the pond and fruit tress, muck heap and chickens. We expect the  vegetable and fruit areas to keep on growing in size each year which will slowly diminish the grass playing area. Grass paths are cut through the wild area but the whole of the main grass play area is cut each week.

End of fruit garden June 2013
The next area that is worked on is at the end of the fruit garden behind the summer house which is boxed in with 4ft old fencing. We decided to use this old herb garden for Sprouts and Broccoli since there is nowhere else for them to go right now and this'll save a lot of digging. A big fire later, many bags of compost and a lot of weeding has made a nice area.  Runner Beans were planted at the back of the summer house along with a few leaks and a Tomato plant added just to test how well it would do outside. A lot of things we do are experiment brought about by necessity. Tomatoes outside because the greenhouse is full with the others, Sprouts and Broccoli planted closely just because I have a lot of them and not much space.

11th June 2013
Fencing was replaced with chicken wire to stop rabbits but removing the old fencing brought so much more light to this area. By the 17h June the wild grass area is beginning to show a carpet of White Clover with large patches of Buttercups. Everything is now growing very rapidly with the runner bean experiment of sowing even though frosts were about has showed good results although I doubled up on all the Runner Bean stations with beans started in the greenhouse just to be on the safe side. The potatoes, broad beans and onions are obviously very happy. The wild flowers around the pond don't seem to be doing much and seem patchy at best, luckily I also started some off in the greenhouse and have planted them out. 

17th June 2013
Old Duck pond area 24th June 2013
took the decision from day 1 to take a photo from the same upstairs, dirty, window which has turned out a fantastic way to see progress but will also form a video at some stage, a bit like a time lapse video. Enlarging the photo shows the clover and at the top right the patch of buttercups. Without the time lapse things just grow without you noticing them. The old duck pond area behind the old chicken coop, the caravan, was taken down and a few beds created by putting down cardboard and then a load of manure. Instant beds which is a bit of an experiment because they are only a few inches deep and underneath is clay but once again we have not enough time or energy to dig and there are more onions needed to go in as well as the Sweetcorn which is a bit pot bound after having been started in the greenhouse. I had previously weeded most of it and dug half of it but it still needed much more work so these beds came in handy. 

1st July 2013
By the beginning of July the clover was an amazing sight and  together with the longer grass provided some height to the otherwise flat field. Most of July flew by without a great deal being done since paid work got in the way so the only time left was Sundays and that was left for mowing the grass and paths.

4th July 2013
19th July 2013
Around the 7th July the Corn Flowers around the pond started to show. Just a few but a welcome sight non the less. By mid July flowers were appearing everywhere and I remembered that I'd sown some Poppy seed as they springing up in unexpected places. I do remember now that I sprinkled wild flower seeds in some odd places, such as in the fruit garden as I thought that it would be better to have flowers rather than weeds between the Current bushes and Raspberries. The Raspberries came from the old allotment but they had their roots exposed for a few months over the winter as we had dug them up but not got around to planting them in their new home for ages. Some grew but most didn't.

Around the 19th July the carpet of clover had gone although some remained the overall effect had been diminished. Unexpectedly a couple of different Toadflaxes and Pansys appeared within the fruit garden, in the front garden and at the edge of the potato bed. We think these are left overs from a previous flower garden although possible they may have simply self seeded by other means. Very pretty though.

30th July 2013
By the end of July the pond was in full bloom and the field was probably at it's best but from now on things slowly start to look tatty. It'll be interesting to see next year when everything is more established if things last longer or perhaps we'll need to plant a few more different flowers to keep the overall look at it's best for longer.

13th October 2013
In early October the wild grass area was cut, not as short as the paths but cut enough to tidy up and hopefully allow us to seed these areas with wild flowers. Whilst cutting dozens of frogs and some toads were seen along with caterpillars which was good to see and really brought home why wildlife trusts tell you to leave areas of gardens to grow wild. The wild flower seeds were broadcast sown. The muck heap has about 4 trailer loads rapidly composting down ready for the spring, autumn vegetable patches have already been sown with Onions, Broad bean and Garlic and we are now preparing for winter, and will be digging more beds and building upon this last year.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Wild Flowers Sown

Today I have sown various Wild Flowers. Agrimony, Greater Knapweed, Bird's Foot Trefoil, Yellow Rattle and some Meadow Sweet in the areas I think are wettest. Also a packet of Carnations was scattered around - just because I found a packet.

I have held back some Yellow Rattle in the freezer for a month and will sow them when I remember in November sometime.

It'll be very interesting as to what and how much comes up in the spring because they were all scattered over the grass which is a bit tufty in places rather than scraping back some of the grass to reveal soil, how ever I note that nature doesn't bother too much with scraping back grass when sowing so I'm sure some will work. If it fails then there is always next year.

The drainage channel near the shed was deepened this morning and while I was digging deeper to make a soak away pit I came across a land drain - which was handy to say the least - and within the hour all water had drained away. Later this afternoon or perhaps on Tuesday I will lay a drainage pipe and cover with sand and gravel, but for now the flood prevention near the shed has achieved the main goal. The water butt overflowing problem is no longer a priority since it will overflow next to the drainage channel so I can put off this issue for another week or so.

This time last year we were house hunting and didn't get a chance to do anything garden wise until January or February so it feels like we are 5 months ahead of ourselves and well on track. The first 2 months last year were simply flood fighting and we didn't get a chance to dig beds until April were as this year we already have all the winter vegetable beds done, a huge manure pile composting, pond established and greenhouse built. Everything from now on is adding to last years efforts.

The one failure this year was the Willow that I planted, 50 little sticks, and only 8 or so took and grew leaves but no height. I must remember to water them more and mulch all around them as we think that they were out competed by the grass and weeds. Mulching around them and replanting some more should produce better results. 

The chickens have a far better home this year but already their hen house is too small and they will need somewhere dry for rainy days as yesterday they got soaked and looked a little water logged, so the next building project will be a new hen house with a covered area for them to shelter outside.

Mice have also taken shelter somewhere in the house with all the rain so they'll need addressing next week as well.

Water Management

The water butt by the side of the stables has now filled to 80% and will overflow later today. Yesterday's 24hr rainfall of 13.5mm has over the evening and night now has risen to 25.5mm by 9am.

Drainage channel
An inch of rain in 24hrs and the drainage channel dug yesterday evening to take water away from the shed has only partly worked and now needs extending and a deeper hole digging.

The plan is now to not only dig a hole but also make the channel deep enough to take a pipe so it can be covered over at some point.

A day of digging in the rain seems called for but also more thought on the water butt storage idea.

Update 2016
Forgot to update to say that I continued the trench another couple of feet and found a land drain pipe. It all drained off immediately and had not flooded since,