Saturday, 24 May 2014

Soil Testing and modern products

Soil testing and modern products

Every now and then you need a little reminder as to why you are doing what you are doing. In this case I am reminded of why I want a simpler life, why I am happy to earn less money and change my lifestyle.

I bought a soil tester like this:

It was cheap and simple and measured the moisture content and PH of the soil as well as light levels. I didn't need accurate readings just a rough reading would have been OK. It read the PH levels of everything as 1 or 2, the moisture content reading always read dry or slightly damp and the light level was either no light or full light. Totally useless and unfit for purpose. It was cheap and I threw it away and thought I need to spend more.

I then bought a better one:

This one read the PH level of every soil (compost, manure, clay) I have as level 5. This was wrong. I know that commercial compost is 7 and I know a company that makes compost and they have theirs tester and it is always between 7 and 7.2. The tester read theirs as 5 as well. Too inaccurate to be usable and had I taken the word of this tester I would have ended up adding things to my soil unnecessarily. The temperature readings were OK as was the light levels. The moisture reading was also OK. I could live with the PH bit not working but on about the 10th soil test I pulled out the probe only to find the tip had broken off and stuck in the ground. Cheap rubbish. It broke on the day I bought it because the tip of the probe was glued on very poorly. This one will be sent back.

I also bought a chemical soil testing kit to test PH, Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus:

I followed the instructions to the letter. The PH read high but not way out. This reading I could live with. The other tests for PNK all read either zero or very very low. I even tested it on tomato fertilizer and got the same results. I did various things to get a better reading such as mix the soil sample better, leave it longer than the instructions said and still got no answer. This kit was useless. It certainly doesn't do what it says it does under the conditions it says.

Then yesterday I bought a circular saw to help me lift floor boards and that was broken when I took it out of the box, not only was it broken the worst thing about it, and it came from B & Q in Skegness, was that clearly it was a customer returned unit as the saw had already been fitted and had been restocked on the shelf by someone who had obviously looked at it and decided it was OK. Clearly the staff there can't be bothered or aren't capable of visually inspecting something like this to see if it is OK to resell or more importantly safe enough to resell. A fixing on the saw was loose which will cause the saw blade to wobble about.

The last 4 things I have bought in the last week all either faulty, utter rubbish or simply not fit for purpose.

Modern products and companies are clearly there not to provide a service but purely to extract money from us. Not only is society using too much energy, but we are also using the energy to produce things that are not usable, not helpful and not fit for purpose.

Makes me wonder why I buy them. So much of life is like this which is why I have realised that I don't need to work so many hours to buy this stuff. If I earn less, and remember not to buy this stuff, I lose nothing financially but I end up with more time to enjoy life.  

Monday, 19 May 2014

Nature in the garden

Nature in the garden

One of the things I notice about Permaculturists (if that's the correct term) is that many seem to concentrate on one particular area, whether it is energy, growing food or community, and I think they are often missing out on one of the most important areas which is nature and wildlife. Often quoted is "observing nature to create better systems" but nature tends not to create zone 0 to zone 5.

Most areas of nature connect to one another, blending from one to another.

Something I have been trying to do is to link food growing areas to wild zone 5 areas by creating corridors for wildlife as well as corridors for people to go into the wildlife areas.

Corridors of wilderness allow wildlife to travel throughout the garden under cover. 

The more rough and wild patches and the more long grass I have connecting one area to another the more wildlife I am seeing in the centre of the field and closer to the house. Birds are making small hops from the hedge to the pond using the wild area I made joining the hedge to the pond.  The Brimstone butterfly now makes a short detour away from the hedge line toward the pond. The wren which would never venture far from the hedge used a corridor and got to the pond. Frogs can be seen all over the field as they appear to be getting into the drainage channels, which have over hanging grass covering them, and travelling via them to all areas. The Goldfinches are slowly feeding in the middle of the field where as they wouldn't move far from the hedge before but leaving the Dandelions to go to seed has meant they have food everywhere now.

Not only have the frogs found the pond but we also have newts now and another "first" was a Leech found in the pond.

Bit by bit more and more wildlife in various forms are arriving in the field. Last year I had one Yellow wagtail sighting, this year I am now seeing it, or them, most days immediately after cutting grass.

Another first has just arrived over the last couple of weeks and that is the Tree Bee. We now have a nest in a bird box near the house. Tree Bees weren't heard of in this country until 2001 or 2002 and gradually they are moving up the country having arrived from Europe. Having Bees close to the house may be seen by many as a worrying thing but for me it is more evidence that wildlife is spreading all over our plot.

Tree Bees
It's fascinating watching these little creatures as they build their nest and forage for nectar. Some bees appear to be building up the entrance to the nest while others circle the hole and fan the others to keep them cool, at least that is what it looks like. One by one a bee will leave and go looking for food and what is nice is that they appear to be making a "Bee" line straight to my strawberry patch which is nice because strawberries need a lot of pollination. Since the strawberries are composite fruits (many seeds clustered to make up the fruit) each bit of the fruit needs pollinating and if they don't get pollinated enough you can end up with small odd shaped fruits so I have a fair few flowers around the strawberry area to attract bees. Whether it is luck or by design that the bees have nested right next to my fruit garden area doesn't matter, having bees right there must surely help all the fruit bushes. 

Another nesting box within a few feet of the bees has Blue Tits in. The birds a delivering insects and caterpillars every minute or 2 to the young and both the pond and hedge are providing most of their food. The Blue Tits head off to the hedge constantly to get the food but will often visit the pond where there are loads of Gnats and flies hovering above the pond.

With the amount of frogs I am seeing across the garden I estimate that there must easily be 100 of them scattered through out and with all the insects and slugs that I have in the wild areas throughout the field I am beginning to see that the field is not only home to many different species but these different species also have their food source right on their doorstep.

It appears, and is logical, that the more species that set up home in the field, and the more food there is for them so that they stay, the more other species are attracted. 

While all the frogs and newts that are around do not seem to be denting my slug population one possible thing that I have observed is that the young wild flowers, specifically the Corn Cockles, haven't been eaten next to the pond and there are less slugs in that immediate area. The Corn Cockles in most other areas of the garden have been totally eaten by slugs but next to the pond they haven't been touched. I have also allowed grass to grow tall around my veg patches in a deliberate attempt to allow frogs to have a cool dark place to hide next to the vegetables in the hope that they will eat and control slugs there. So far no joy but fingers are crossed.

I also have what appears to be a Bank Vole next to the pond although as yet I haven't managed to get a good photo to identify it / them because they won't leave the cover for more than a few inches.

A species that I have targeted is the Hedgehog. Along the bottom of my hedge I have laid a load of sticks on the ground as well as rocks. The stick pile is about 30ft long and 2 feet high and 2 feet wide which looks like a perfect place for them. Hopefully at some stage in the future I may get lucky and attract one of these little creatures.

What started as a blank field with nothing in 16 months ago is slowly becoming a very interesting place to be and bit by bit I am finding that nature is coming to my back door. My kids won't need to go on school visits to do pond dipping and bug hunting and visit nature reserves as they will have everything in their own garden to learn about nature and many aspects of wildlife.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Observing how nature waters the garden and the difference it makes

Observing how nature waters the garden 

Having observed how well all the plants grew last week when we had the first proper amount of rain for a fair while I was wondering why the plants didn't grow as well the week before when I watered them myself.

5 possible reasons came to mind for the difference in growth between the 2 weeks.
1) I didn't water enough
2) Last week's temperatures weren't as good
3) The amount of sunlight was less
4) The rain water was evenly spread over 7 days rather than 1 big watering session as I do 
5) A mixture of water,light and temperature.

Looking at each one in turn and comparing the 2 weeks:-

One veg patch is 3m x 3m in size and over the last 7 days we have had 12mm of rain in the last week so I can calculate the amount of rain that fell on that patch. 

(3m x 3m x (12mm/1000)m) x 1000 = 108 cubic litres or 23.75 Cubic Gallons

I work in gallons so I'll use that.

23.75 Gallons of water fell on that one small veg patch during the week.  That's a lot. A big watering can is 2 gallons and a mid size one is 1 gallon. So between 12 and 24 watering cans of water went onto a 3 x 3 metre bed. For a start there is no way I would have put that much water onto such a small bed as it seems a ridiculous amount of water to use plus I don't have time to or the energy to put at least 12 big watering cans of water onto 9 square metres of veg...but clearly that is the right amount of water to give the plants, at least it is once at this time of year since that is what nature has done and that is when the plants grew well.

Next I need to know how much water I did actually water them to make a comparison, but I did it with a hose pipe and I can't remember how long a sprayed water for. The next step is to time how long it takes to fill a watering can using the hose pipe with the same spray (which is not the same as raw water coming out of a hose pipe because the end lets less water out so that the pressure builds up to spray it further).

Time taken to fill a 1 gallon watering can was 45 seconds using the same hosepipe spray attachment. I just stood and watered the same patch with the hose and timed that to see how long I take to water that bed. 2.5 minutes. 2.5 minutes / 45 seconds = 3.3 gallons of water.

2.5 minutes of standing there watering seems like an age, it also seemed and looked like I was giving the plants a dammed good soaking but you can see in reality when nature waters the garden it uses a huge amount of water compared to you. If I was to water that same bed by the same amount that nature did I would have had to spend 18 minutes watering with the hose pipe!

The next thing to do, which I won't, is to measure the moisture content and see how deep the 24 gallons over a week penetrates compared to 3.3 gallons. In reality my watering is probably only penetrating the top 2 or 3 inches if that of soil where nature probably watered the top 8 to 12 inches.

If you look at the root system of plants there are very few roots in the top 3 inches compared to 6 to 12 inches. My watering is probably doing little more than keeping the plants alive compared to nature's watering which is really feeding the plants and hence the difference in growth.

As for the other points, the temperature was similar and the amount of light was less on the week of rain because of the clouds.

Clearly, observing nature can help grow vegetables and I conclude that at this time of the year, even if it is only one week then what the plants need is the same amount of watering I give them but EVERY DAY for 1 week. I need to spend 18 minutes spread over 7 days on that one patch just watering. Scale that up by a factor of 10 to cover the rest of the veg patches and I need to water 240 gallons of water spread over 1 week taking a minimum of 3 hours!!!

I need to find a better and more efficient watering system if I am to reproduce nature's watering system during dry spells at this time of the year. That is 5 full water butts for just 1 weeks watering. I'm presuming my butts are 50 gallon but they could be half since I haven't measured them.

Harvesting rain water that falls on our roof so that I can use it when needed (dry spell) becomes a priority but to save time I need an irrigation system because I don't have 3 hours a week (even if it is just for a few weeks of the year).

It may seem like a huge amount of effort to calculate and work out what nature does but I think it is necessary to fulfil the "observe" part of permaculture, at least for some of us, others can just learn from my effort, but someone has to look deeply into things to gain a better understanding.

We all observed how well and how fast the plants have grown over the last week but with climate change happening and our weather being more extreme are we ready for dry spells, and the corresponding extreme wet spells? Dry spells hold back and kill plants, wet spells can drown plants so we need to know what works best, drain better during very wet spells or protect the plants from over watering and water the plants to mimic nature's good work during the extreme dry spells. You can't do this without harvesting water and then using it during the dry spells. (Unless you are happy to use processed water from a tap needlessly).

Question is, what's the best watering system that I can put into place? To water the whole veg patch in one week, it is unreasonable to think that I can fill 240 watering cans (5 hrs + just to fill cans plus the walking and pouring time) or spend 3 hours with a hose pipe. Some people use a water sprinkler on the end of the hose pipe but why pay for that amount of water or waste processed water when you can use rain water?

Comparing the past - May

Comparing the past - May

The field is growing very quickly at the moment and I think it is time to start comparing how things are with how they were a year ago. It's easy to forget what the field was like and I have just realised that the 30 ft by 12 ft bed of manure which is about 1 ft thick is where the old chicken shed caravan and duck pond was.

May 6th 2013

The chicken shed caravan with a lean to shed beside is on the left with the duck pond behind it.

Click on images to see larger version

May 11th 2014
There is a weeks difference between the 2 photos but one of the surprising things is how far on the fruit bushes are this year compared with last year. The fruit garden is enclosed by fencing to stop rabbits and on the left of the fruit area are raspberries which are almost non existent in last years photo. So much more foliage! 

The grass is about 1 ft tall now where as this time last year it hadn't really started to grow. Last year the field was flooded over the winter which may have hampered growth but also last year was the first year in many that a horse wasn't eating and trampling the grass so it may have taken a while to get over that shock. In the Autumn of last year the long grass (seen as deeper green) was cut to about 3 to 5 inches (I forget exactly) so it had a head start for this year.

If you enlarge the photos by clicking on them you can also see a big difference in the foliage of the surrounding trees. Most of the Hawthorn blossom was out last year at this time and some of the hedge on the right, and big tree far back left  also seems quite bare. The comparison between the 2 years is really quite stark.

I had noticed and commented on the last comparison of the months, March, that the Hawthorn was about a month ahead this year and it is clear that things haven't caught up yet.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Possible Onion Disaster

Possible Onion Disaster

I had a load of Onion bulbs left over last year so I planted them in the Autumn. They were growing fine until the last few weeks when most have bolted.

I don't think Stuttgart Onions are over wintering types but I took a gamble on a mild winter and got lucky with the weather but the spring was a dry one and when I realised it was a bit dry I started watering them and it seems this watering has triggered the bolting.

None of the Onions have started to bulb, the onion bases are little more than slightly larger then the base of the stem.

My watering was probably classed as irregular because I was only watering (a lot) at weekends and they were drying out during the week. Perhaps I over watered as well.

This has prompted me to think more about a drip watering system for next year. I'm thinking of trying to lay a hose pipe, fed from a water butt, into the ground under the soil with lots of holes in. The pressure of the water should be very low and literally just a drip should come out just to keep the ground a few inches deep moist.

I think we'll pull the onions this weekend, chop up all the small bulbs and freeze them and see if we can turn them into a usable crop.

In every previous year my onions have been perfect but this is the first year that I have done Autumn planting. I have also planted 100 sets of Bedfordshire Champions in April so I'll still have a crop this year but had I known this would happen I would have planted another 100 as well.

Although it is the second week of May perhaps still worth planting another set.

At least by lifting the onions now I can get a load of other plants out out the green house into the Autumn bed earlier than I expecting which will give the other manure beds longer to break down.   

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Last Frost

The Last Frost

Last year the last Air Frost (Zero Deg C) we had was on the first of May and, although technically you can have a ground or grass frost even when the air temperature is above freezing this is uncommon and our field is relatively sheltered. This year our last frost was on the second of May and with the forecast being for rain for the next week ahead I feel it's worth taking the gamble and planting a few things out that are sensitive to frost. It is simply getting too late on in the year now to have much of a frost. The 10th of May is often considered the start of planting traditionally as well.

The green house is totally full with seed trays and I have already been putting pots outside but I started sowing seeds for runner beans and French beans a bit earlier this year in the hope of a warm end to spring, and because of this some plants are getting a bit pot bound and are suffering because the compost dries out too quick.

Even last year I sowed some runner bean seeds in the ground about now and they received a couple of days frost in the end of April / beginning of May and didn't suffer. With the forecast being what it is and the fact that it has been a very mild winter and spring I feel confident that now will be a good time to plant out. The young plants will get plenty of water from the rain and this will also save me hours of watering. 

The rain this week and next is very welcome since the last few weeks I have been watering the garden and greenhouse for about 2 hours at a time. Last year during the summer it was taking me an hour and a half in the summer watering new trees, fruit bushes and the onions and potatoes etc and the experimenting with mulch has shown how much less watering I will have this year, along with the longer hose pipe which means not having to walk up the garden 20 times! Half of the trees are now in their second year here and their third year of life so they will now have a good root system and will require less watering anyway. The new trees are closer to the house which will make it easier as well.

The water butts also make it far quicker to fill a watering can compared to a hose pipe since I can just dip them into the butt and lift out, 5 seconds compared to 30. May not be a lot but waiting for 30 seconds each time starts to feel like a lifetime when you do it over and over again.

One of the next jobs will be to fit guttering to the greenhouse and chicken shed, plus 2 new water butts for these. Once I have these in place a little piping and the chicken water can be automatically replenished and I'm hoping to drip feed the plants in the green house.   

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Re Evaluating Mulching

Re Evaluating Mulching

I have got into the habit of mulching all bare soil on my beds but I have noticed my Jerusalem Artichokes, Raspberries and Edible Loopins are not growing.

After digging down into the soil looking for new shoots on the Artichokes and Raspberries I can see that the shoots did grow but were eaten by slugs. In fact, under the mulch there are many many slugs.

I'm afraid that the raspberries and artichokes have put all their energy into producing new shoots, which get eaten, and are now probably going to fail.

I think in future I may have to leave off the much until the shoots are big and strong and then mulch.

20 raspberry canes have failed to produce new shoots which will massively reduce our fruit production.

This weekends job will have to be removing all the mulch and hoping that there is still time for the plants to try and throw up some new shoots. Also adding little cups of beer for the slugs to drink, and fall into will be employed!