Thursday, 27 March 2014

Comparing the past - March

Comparing the past

One of the things I've done since moving into our home is to take a photo from the same position every few days so I can compare our little field as time goes by. In the beginning this was very ad-hoc but as each month goes by it becomes more and more of a habit. So much so that it's almost a daily routine, get up and take photo from window.  

Something I've observed recently is that this year the leaves on the hawthorn trees in the field next to us started to show during the first week of March. Looking back over last year's photos the leaves didn't show until during the end of the first and beginning of the second week of April. Can't be any more specific as I was only taking a photo each week this time last year. Approximately 4 weeks ahead this year.

There is a stark difference between 24th March last year and the same day this year. Last year saw a covering of snow and this year saw a very mild frost. 

24th March 2013
The main reason for taking pictures is to see and compare the progress of what we are doing.  
24th March 2014

Click to enlarge photos to see more detail.

The main difference is the 2 large veg beds bottom middle and on the right. The caravan (out of shot) which was the chicken shed and lean to shed have gone and chickens moved to top left. There is also young hedge trees on the left boundary that we planted. Fruit garden made and fenced in. The pond wasn't finished this time last year where as this year the wild flowers are already growing. 8 more trees and a few fruit bushes have gone in in front of chickens and a herb patch top right next to manure heap.

Veg patches to the left and the greenhouse are out of shot.

Onions, some potatoes, broad beans, Broccoli that were Autumn sown are well on their way.

Raspberry canes planted along main path to chickens and willow planted around circular kids den area top middle to form a dome as well as a Willow screen in front of chickens and in front of pond have also been planted. Along with a horseshoe line of more Raspberries - it'll be interesting to see these grow as they'll break up the field and give some height to what is currently a rather flat area.

I'm really looking forward to comparing the prettiest month of July because last year was wonderful and with all the extra flowers, trees, veg and fruit planted this year should be far better. 

Hopefully I'll manage to compare each month and by the end of the year I will produce a time lapse video of the field from the start.

Saturday, 22 March 2014


Healthy Soil

Giving plants all they need relies on good soil, something I haven't got as our little field is clay and compacted. Water can't soak away very quick and when it does the soil stays wet and cold for ages. The soil needs modifying.

The argument as to dig or not has been sorted out in my mind after a couple of experiments. Placing cardboard over the grass and weeds and placing compost and manure on top worked but none of the roots went into the underlying clay. If the roots don't go into the clay then holes aren't created to allow air and water in and also little creepy crawlies can't delve deeper.

I've done a lot of reading since then and can now see how a no dig, less effort soil can work but if the soil isn't right in the first place then it either takes time for a totally no dig approach to work or you need to speed things up and once started you can then never dig again.

I can see how not digging at all, even on a heavy clay soil, will work. You need to grow plants with strong deep roots which will plough their way down, like dandelion, and I think kill some of them off so the root dies leaving a hole that can be populated by water, air and micro organisms. Organic matter from above can fall in and or be taken down by worms. Having lots of organic material above the clay will get worms going and some will dig deeper achieving the same. Bit by bit the clay will get holes in, organic matter enters and life will start. For me that is too slow and I want to speed things up and grow a good crop now.

The farmers way

Looking out of my window I can see fields. At this time of year the farmer is preparing the fields for his crops. He's grown field beans and has ploughed them in to provide nitrogen. He had previously placed a huge pile of manure by the side of the field. It's been steaming away for a while but hasn't broken down totally. That has now been spread and ploughed in.

What's happening is that he is adding organic material and nitrogen and is then allowing the bacteria to continue to break down the organic material before he sows the crop. I think he will till the soil (I think that's the correct term) before he sows. Tilling once more is like stirring the soil to mix the organic material more with the soil but also which gives the bacteria access to organic material that it hasn't worked upon yet. It also makes a finer bed for the seeds. It's the bacteria that turn the organic material into nutrients and help to break it down into something useful.

Just doing this isn't enough often and so he will apply fertilizer, weed killer, pesticides and what ever else. He doesn't have the time with his method to allow the soil to live and be healthy and his pesticides and weed killers, slug pellets etc. will kill most of the micro organisms which would normally (in nature) take his prepared soil and continue the process. He still manages to produce a good crop and repeat (sustain) the process year after year. Of course sustainability is in the context of commercial short termism.


Putting manure in piles is just a way of speeding up the bacteria that break it down by generating more heat and they have more food to keep the process going rather than just one patch on the field. Manure is good organic material which has already had a bit of processing done on it while in the animals stomach. Using manure is just the same as placing grass and other cuttings directly onto a vegetable patch only the initial process has already taken place. It may not contain as many minerals as green material as the animal will have taken some out but it comes in larger more compact amounts. It's simply a quicker way of getting minerals and organic matter into the soil. Manure can also act as a mulch fertilizer to feed plants or just a mulch to protect the soil.

Soil Structure

To get good soil structure humus is needed. Humus is simple organic material that has been processed by micro organisms, and other organisms, to a point where no more processing can be done. It becomes stable when fully processed and serves as a permanent part of the soil giving the soil the ability to hold moisture and minerals.

I think compost is basically the same as humus, organic material that has been processed.

In addition to humus soil needs particles,  ranging from sand, through silt to clay. Clay is just fine particles. A good soil needs a mixture of different sized particles made from different rocks bound up with plenty of humus.

I'm using large amounts of manure simply because I can get it trailered in, free, and from a local source which makes good sense. Obviously using compost will add humus to the soil and give good structure but I don't have enough of it and if I wanted more then I'd have to buy it. I'm hoping that using manure will not only make my humus but also wash down minerals and nutrients into the clay both fertilizing and creating humus at the same time.

Adding sand is something that I have also done but I think the amount is a bit small and I don't have any more. As time goes by I'll add more.

A Living Soil

Once you have a soil structure, sand, silt, clay and humus you want it alive with large and small organisms. Micro organisms are the small ones that you can't see and everything else you can see with your eyes are the large ones. Living organisms need food, dead roots, any organic material and moisture. I think the dead bacteria left over from processing organic material is also food. Another reason for me using manure is that when it has been left in a pile on the ground the worms underneath come up to eat it and multiply rapidly. I first make a pile of manure, wait, then move it to a bed taking worms with it to the bed. Various other organisms will also come along.

To turn my compacted clay field into a new bed I have started to dig up the turf and put it back upside down. Loosening the clay beneath the turf as I go. In the past I would have removed the turf and dug deeply breaking up the clay as I went but this is taking far too long. The hope of doing things this new way is that the grass turf will die, leaving root holes and provides food for the organisms. Piling manure thickly on top will smother the seeds and weeds that wouldn't die, add more worms, and the sheer depth of the manure will hopefully be enough to stop the really strong weeds, like dock and nettle, from finding the surface. I'm hoping that as the grass and weeds die they will leave holes and a softer clay behind for the worms to break up even more. Nutrients will wash down from the manure into this turf layer and below as well as some organic matter being washed down. Worms can take down even more which will slowly achieve the farmers "stirring" or ploughing and mixing.

I'm hoping using fresh manure directly onto the bed will be faster than waiting months for it to break down and then placing it onto the bed because it should break down and be mixed with the clay at the same time. Placing it on a bed rather than in a pile should also provide more air for the bacteria and at the same time keep it cooler so that the other micro organisms can live there at the same time.

Normally you have to use well rotted manure because fresh manure has too much ammonia and nitrogen in that will burn plants but I'm hoping these will be converted quite quickly and washed and diluted deeper into the ground before I plant. The manure will be 2 to 3 months old by the time I plant which should be enough time for ammonia and nitrogen to no longer be an issue.

Another problem with using fresh manure is because it normally contains many weed seeds that will germinate, how ever I find that no matter how hot my manure heap gets while it is rotting down I never mix it well enough to kill all the seeds and weeds always appear anyway even with well rotted manure. I'm ignoring the weed issue plus I intend on covering the soil surface with plants and mulch which will help prevent weeds.

There is supposed to be a health risk with using fresh manure. E. Coli, round worms and tape worms among other things and you are told that if your manure heap reaches 140 degrees F these should be killed. From what I have seen of other peoples manure heaps they are often too small, lack oxygen and never get hot enough to achieve this anyway and problems like this seem to be rare. Many people are so risk averse that this is probably over worried about plus I have read in several places that a good healthy soil will contain things that will eat E coli. The main defence against these things is to not eat until you have washed your hands and cook things properly, Vegetables should be properly washed before eating. These things are present all over the place anyway where animals are. General hygiene is the best practice. Also the place where the manure comes from regularly treat their horses for worms which will prevent much of the problem.

This is where we depart from farmers

So far much of what I am doing is the same as the farmer, minus pesticides and minus proper digging that is. Bacteria and organic matter and at least some of breaking up the soil is the same.

Once the soil is living, nutrients and minerals that the plants need to feed on get converted in various ways. Nitrogen is in abundance in the air but plants can't use it in that form. Bacteria can take Nitrogen and Hydrogen and produce Ammonia, then bacteria change the Ammonia into an organic compound which means it contains Carbon. This is Nitrogen fixing. Ammonia gets converted to Nitrite and then to Nitrate via Bacteria. If the soil is dead or is not healthy enough to support these Bacteria then Nitrogen will need to be added in a different form. Nitrogen is the most important nutrient to plants.

Phosphorus is the 2nd most important nutrient to a plant (and the micro organisms in soil) and perhaps the most important reason for growing food in a sustainable way. Farmers add Phosphorus or phosphates to the soil because their soils don't have enough "usable" phosphorus for their crops. There is plenty of phosphorus in soil but it isn't usable in it's natural form. Like most nutrients it needs to be soluble for the roots to take it up. Farming practices, cropping, takes out phosphorus within the plant which depletes what is available. The only ways to put it back are via organic material (manure),although this isn't always enough when plants are cropped intensively, adding it as an artificial fertilizer, although the world has a finite amount that can be mined and the price will rise, or by using micro organisms such as bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes, algae and mycorrhiza to turn the non-usable phosphorus into soluble usable phosphorus.

Permaculture techniques such as no dig and organic mulching win over modern farming practices in this area since not disturbing the soil allows these bacteria and fungi to grow and perform the vital role of providing phosphorus in a plant usable form. Agriculture in due course will have to find another way of adding phosphorus to the soil as the current method is not sustainable. The fertilizer industry is currently looking for a way to isolate which micro organisms are responsible, and best, for producing usable phosphorus and then they need to bottle it and sell it.

I don't know how intensive my crops need to be before the adding of manure isn't sufficient but adding phosphorus is another reason for me using manure but in due course I hope that my soil will build up enough living organisms to provide for itself.

Developing fungi in the soil to provide usable phosphorus has the advantage that the mycelium strands can stretch far and wide to obtain phosphorus and bring it to the plant roots rather than let the roots find it. This may well be the biggest benefit that mycorrhiza gives a plant.

Other nutrients and minerals are also oxidized and made soluble for plant use by micro organisms.

We're back to dig or no dig issues.

 Clearly disturbing the soil will destroy beneficial micro organisms, especially mycorrhiza fungi, but I feel most organisms will be not badly effected. The larger ones like worms can survive a good dig, as can a lot of bacteria. In fact I've read digging or "stirring the soil" can expose bacteria to more organic material which can be beneficial but I can see how damage to mycelium, especially mycorrhiza. would be detrimental since if you break it's strands you have limited the far reaching ability for it to take moisture and nutrients from a wide area directly to the roots. I haven't yet read how long it takes to establish a good mycorrhiza but obviously once established it is something you want to keep.

Some crops like root vegetables will make it impossible not to disturb the living soil so I can see a case for separating root crops from those above the ground.

Clearly organic gardeners produce good crops and regularly dig and are able to sustain these good crops but when you add in the no dig lack of effort and much evidence that you can obtain better crops when mycorrhiza fungi work I feel that I can use a polyculture of plants that help each other, such as deep tap roots to bring nutrients up from down below and combine what I see in nature which is returning organic material back to the surface as a mulch, such as leaves dropping, grass dying and falling, annuals dying and being returned to the soil, with perennials which do not need to be pulled up and combining a manure mulch to help fertility and making sure the ground is constantly covered to keep down weeds and retain moisture.

At the same time I can keep a good soil for my root vegetables by separating these and continuing to dig these beds and adding organic material in the form of manure.

Different plants to choose and different methods to use

If most of my beds are to be a no dig bed I can see that I need to find perennial versions of some crops. I use a lot of onions and garlic. Sometimes onions are used vegetables, sometimes more for flavouring and as additions to a dinner. Welsh Onions and Garlic chives and perhaps wild garlic would seem to be good plants to use when the flavour is needed and perhaps I can reduce my onion patch. Although I do roast Garlic gloves as a vegetable more often than not I chop up finely and use as a flavouring so a non digging up leaf version will suffice.

Rather than pulling up a crop including it's roots, I can see that often it will be better to cut the plant and leave the roots to die in situ.

Because the ground will need to be covered at all times I can see the need to choose different plants and perhaps have some growing in pots ready to replace the ones I crop, or when I crop a plant in a polyculture I can see that would be the time to add a manure mulch just to the area which has become bare.

Bit by bit, learning about soil, I am also slowly becoming aware of changes I need to make and the benefits of doing things differently.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Citrus Bergamot de Versailles ' Orange'

Once in a while I like to go to the Garden Centre to see what else I must have. I go there to buy this and come out with that, that and that, and several of those.

The other day was no exception.

I went for seeds, I got those, and then I found some Fritillary flowers growing in a pot. Since I planted some bulbs in the Autumn which didn't come up (probably got a bit water logged) I grabbed them as they were easy to justify but then I saw an Orange bush.

Since I've decided that last year the Tomatoes grew very well outdoors and there is no need to have so many in the green house I will have some space spare in the greenhouse. The Orange Bush label showed the size after 10 years as being 1.2m by 1.2m. This should fit nicely, at least for a year or 3 plus the label said "Although not fully hardy, can be grown outside in the mildest areas!". I wouldn't have thought East Coast Lincolnshire was a "mildest area" but I'd like to think the garden centre would stock things that are appropriate, so perhaps we are classed as mildest compared with north Scotland. Anyway, I'm not totally daft and realise that a greenhouse will almost certainly be needed to get the fruit ripe.

The main line on the label which sold it to me was "Delightfully scented cream flowers on compact growth appear with delicious oranges at the same time".

What can be better than adding another fruit tree to the collection of food plants.

Wanting to know more I Google'd the Bergamot de Versailles Orange and found very little information on this specific name. I found a few places that sold the same Orange but little real information. There was plenty of information on Bergamot Oranges and a few different strains but a couple of words kept cropping up time and time again.

The fruit of the Bergamot is Sour and Unpalatable and used for Marmalades and flavouring.

I'm not totally sure the Garden Centre's description of Delicious Oranges matches with the Bergamot description of Sour and Unpalatable so I've fired off an email to the growers, asking them to clarify whether what I have bought produces Delicious Oranges that I can eat or whether it produces sour and unpalatable Oranges that need turning into Marmalade or used as flavouring or scents.

I await their response.

I guess the question I should ask myself is whether Garden Centres fill their shop with what they think they can sell or whether they sell what is appropriate for the area. Perhaps I should stick with buying from specialists. 

Update: 9th May 2014
Heard nothing back about the Orange. Why they bother to give out an email address for "enquiries" I do not know! A month and a half wait is plenty long enough.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Self Sufficiency

Self Sufficiency

I'm well aware that this isn't going to happen but during a part of last year our weekly shopping bill reduced from approx. £100 per week down to approx. £20 per week for a couple of months which is a huge saving. 

Not all the savings came from us producing our own food but because we needed to go shopping less we also ended up not buying those "things on a whim" simply because we weren't in a shop.

The price of food, especially the things that aren't necessary, is becoming a huge issue. Obviously we can't make those kind of savings every week all year but if you could then that equates to around £4,000. Before tax it would be £5,000. For someone like me who only works 3 days a week this would represent 4 months of work.

Being a bit more realistic, those kind of savings for half the year would seem a sensible goal.

Spending many, many hours in the garden can seem a bit frivolous at times and hard to justify. Thoughts of, I should be earning money often arise, but by looking at it in a different way it can be seen that I am earning money while tending the garden.

Permaculture is a lot about design, the course I am on is a Permaculture Design Course, not that I knew that when I enrolled, and the formal design bit is something that I'm really not interested in. I just want to grow food, flowers, help wildlife, enjoy nature and enjoy my surroundings but I'm beginning to see a way into the design side for my own needs.

If I look at my time spent in the garden as also having a financial benefit I can see that one area to concentrate on would be to replace some of the time spent sowing annuals and instead sow perennials once and thereby free up time.

One of the permaculture principles is observing rather than doing and I have just realised that this can also save time and effort. Specifically, one of the problems is with the amount of time harvesting takes. A crop becomes ready and all of a sudden you have to drop everything, harvest, clean, process it and store it. This year I have observed 2 things that go together very nicely and which you wouldn't necessarily have thought about. In recent years weather forecasters have been telling us about the effect of the jet stream on our weather. If the jet stream is in one position we get stuck with wet stormy weather and stuck in another position we get fine weather but colder weather (in winter). They can also say that the weather type (wet / fine) will not change for a few weeks. Because of the position of the jet stream now we can see that there will not be intense cold and snow for the next week or 3 and because of the time of year the longer this goes on the less chance of a cold snap. If you can get an indication of the general weather a few weeks in advance you can also make a good guestimation as to whether less hardy crops can be left in the ground. The other thing I observed this year is that if you leave your beetroot in the ground way past the normal cropping time and the weather isn't too cold then they happily sit there with no damage. Normally if we have a lot of beetroot we end up picking them all then wasting a lot as we don't have time (at that particular time) to deal with them properly but this year we haven't wasted any as they have sat in the ground and we pick them as and when we need them. Had there been a cold spell like last year we would have wasted them all either to snow and cold damage or because we picked them and then did nothing. Predicting the general weather (listening to the forecasters) meant there was no rush to pull them all and still isn't. Observing and linking things in nature like this can make a big difference. Also because we left the beetroot in they regenerated and grew new leaves, which is another crop. 

October 2013
Sprouts and Broccoli
The small and large white butterfly devastated Sprouts and Broccoli last year but I decided to wait and observe what happened if I left them. Normally instinct would have said pull them and plant and autumn crop but I'm very pleased I didn't. What we have now is rather unexpected.  

March 2014
You can see how well they recovered. After the devastation last year I had decided that I would need to protect them next time but in the case of the broccoli it would appear that it isn't necessary.

The sprouts produced nice tops which with hindsight should have been eaten but now they have started to flower and the leaves are looking a bit tatty.
March 2014

A close up shows just how well the Broccoli recovered and is now producing a worth while crop.

I think this demonstrates the value of observation rather than acting immediately.  Had I acted immediately and pulled them all up I would have had to deal with the same problem next year and I wouldn't have had a crop to eat now.

The simple act of waiting and observing saved money time and effort and produced food. The sprouts will be left as a decoy / sacrificial crop but I still need to find a way of protecting the sprouts so I can produce some to eat but Broccoli in the late summer can now be safely left for the caterpillars to eat. Even if I fail to protect the sprouts then I know that the chances are I will still have the sprout tops to eat next spring.

I've never grown purple sprouting broccoli before so for all I know stripping all the leaves in late summer may have forced the plant to produce more flowers this spring so the caterpillars may even be beneficial ! 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Busy, Busy, Busy....

Busy, Busy, Busy...

Having taken a week off of work, every day so far has been a garden day.


Two weeks ago I had 3 tonne of manure delivered, on top of the two trailer loads I gathered myself from the side of the road, then the other day another 3 tonne turned up. I must have the best part of 7 tonnes of fresh manure steaming away. The first 2 trailer loads I gathered was spread directly onto 2 vegetable beds which I hope will have rotted enough by mid may to plant in.

Normally I'd pile manure up and leave it until well rotted by a few weeks ago I found a discarded potato from last year sprouting and growing well deep within my old manure heap. The potato will have been thrown there when the heap was fresh and although the heap steamed away for weeks and shrunk in size by half the lack of horse wee and the fact the temperature didn't climb too high means I needn't wait for the manure to totally break down before planting in. This'll make life far easier and I'll only use the old heap for mulching and immediate planting. All the new manure can go onto beds which will be planted later in the year.

Spreading fresh manure and allowing it to break down in the bed for a few months allows me to prepare the new vegetable beds in a different way, I hope. Rather than taking the top grass layer off then digging the clay soil, breaking it up and mixing with manure I'm hoping that I can simply churn up the grass and churn the next foot deep and place 2 foot deep manure on the top to suppress the weeds but also a couple of months for the manure to wash down into the gaps left by churning. The worms can do the rest.


Having read about how to make a wormery I was rather put off by the idea of buying worms and building up a large enough population but having dug my old manure heap I was rather stunned by how many worms there were in the heap. The manure heap was 4 trailer loads of road side manure I collected last October with kitchen scraps thrown on top and although I intended to turn the heap once a week this, perhaps predictably, turned out to be once per month. As I dug the heap so as to place manure as a mulch around the fruit trees the number of worms per spadeful was between 20 and 50. There was a huge number of worms. Apart from not being able to collect worm pee for a liquid fertilizer I already have a fully functioning wormery which with every mulching spreads huge amounts of worms around the field.

Fruit trees

Last year we planted 8 fruit trees including Pears, Apple, Crab, Plump and Damson. I have just added another 8 trees including different Apples, Quince, Medlar and Cherry. The idea of having an orchard had changed now into a forest garden.

In amongst the trees I am slowly planting fruit bushes in the form of Black and Red Currant as well as 20 Raspberry canes.


After reading in various places about Polycultures and more specifically at Anni's perennial veggies blog, I'm now totally into the idea of perennial polycultures, and even more precisely, perennial polycultures within a forest garden to not only utilize space better (mainly vertically) but to reduce the need to constantly replant each year but also to use different perennials as ground cover to prevent weeds.

The need to cover the ground has been evident in our main fruit garden, which was looking very organised and tidy, until now, where all the bare soil has been filled by weeds. I had realised this would happen and so sprinkled wild flower seed throughout the fruit bushes but as these flowers died weeds replaced them. Wild flowers have their place which I have now decided is within a grassy area. Perennial flowers, especially edible ones will now be planted amongst the fruit bushes.


Having seen how well our strawberries grew and throw out runners and colonise all available space but also how well they have suppressed weeds I think the strawberry will be one of my main ground cover plants. I think I'll pull off dozens of runners and place them where ever I can.

When we started Dec 2012

July 2013

March 2014

Wet Winter

The wet winter the country had turned out to be averagely wet where we are but average rainfall is enough to flood our field but last year we dug drainage channels through the field and led them into a pond. This worked very successfully apart from in our chicken area where they ended up being between 1 and 3 inches under water. A new chicken shed was built, 8ft by 6ft, and a foot off of the ground to replace the 2.5 foot one sold to us as good enough for 6 chickens (it wasn't). A new drainage channel was dug in their area. The drainage channels have now given us an opportunity to break up the field into segments as they provide a boundary to grow up to. Not only that, since they contain water, they can be used to plant willow in.

Our last attempt to grow willow failed for various reasons. Partly because I planted them directly into grass (competition), partly because I only planted very thin "twigs" and also because we had a dry spring and summer and I failed to water them enough. The drainage channels resolve all the problems and if we do have a prolonged dry spell watering will be as easy as pouring water from a water butt into the drainage channels.


We are using the Willow to not only provide screens and wind breaks but also for kindling wood and the ability to make baskets with the added bonus that they drink water like it's going out of fashion which will aid our drainage.  

Soil Types

We are currently on a Permaculture course and have just done soil types and how to analyse your own soil. Since we have a clay soil it confirmed to us that we need to add a lot of organic material and this has re-invigorated the effort of piling on manure to vegetable beds. We don't have a healthy soil and digging it isn't going to destroy anything but I am running out of well rotted manure which means that I am running out of time for creating more beds since the fresh manure needs time to rot in the new beds. I'm finishing this post early so I can go outside and dig.