Thursday, 17 January 2019

Growing Plans - The Wheel Goes No-Dig

I am more excited about the coming growing season than I have been for a long while.

I am going back to a system of smaller veg beds. I originally had the veg plot divided into 68 beds separated by grass paths. But those paths were a complete pain to mow, offering miles of edges for slugs to hide underneath.
So gradually I joined the smaller beds together until I was down to 28. The advantage of this was a lot less grass edge, simpler mowing and bigger beds which were easier to rotavate. The disadvantage was having to walk on beds to get to plants and it being more difficult to organise crops within the beds.

So this winter I am biting the bullet and going back to many small veg beds, but I am doing it differently. There won't be grass paths between the smaller beds. Instead each of the larger beds will be divided up into free-standing beds with permanent sunken pathways in between.

This means that using the rotavator will be difficult. Manoeuvring it in such small beds is difficult and it will kick the soil all over the paths.
Instead I am going for no dig.

The plan taking shape on the ground

I have been highly sceptical about no-dig in the past, seeing it as a fad which generally requires more mulch than a garden can possibly produce which in turn encourages slugs and usually seems to demand raised beds using forests of wood as edging (given that we don't have access to natural materials like rocks).
There are alternatives to raised beds, such as lasagna beds, but even the name puts me off! These rely on layers of mulch and compost which can go straight down even onto turf. As long as the layers are thick enough this will create an instant fertile bed.
There are also systems which rely on black plastic to cover the ground, but this just feels completely wrong to me.

Then I came across Charles Dowding's method of no dig where he uses compost as a mulch. The advantage of this is that it is not so attractive to slugs as all the rotting material is not sitting on the veg beds. In theory the compost mulch keeps weeding to a minimum too, though I suspect that a fair bit of weeding will still be required.
Of course, we are back to the original problem of how on earth to produce enough compost. Charles Dowding appears to bring in large quantities of soil improver made from green waste. This often comes with plenty of plastic fragments in, as well as needing to be purchased and brought in. He also seems to have a close relative with plenty of cows and benefits from bulk deliveries of manure.

So I set to thinking how I could realistically and sustainably mulch my beds.
The solution I have come to combines a host of methods.

Firstly I will collect from all over the smallholding for the compost heaps. I am hoping to grow Miscanthus elephant grass and to chip short rotation coppice willow to give bulky material to add. I already grow plenty of comfrey but again will make sure that I harvest this on a regular basis.

My compost heaps, the key to my new system.

But this still won't be enough, even with the addition of plenty of bedding from the poultry.

I am using cardboard to exclude light and protect the soil surface too. Everybody who visits has to bring all their boxes with them!

Beds protected for the winter, light excluded so that emerging weeds expend all their energy then die off.
Here I have put nitrogen rich poultry bedding under the cardboard. 
I will let the ducks (aka slug hoovers) in before planting.

I am also planning on using green manures. However, most of these need digging in which goes against the whole philosophy of no dig. So I am being selective. Field beans seem like a good option as they are hardy so will give protection to the soil over winter, but in the spring the tops can be chopped off and moved to the compost bins while the roots will be left in the soil to add structure and nutrients. Unfortunately I made all these decisions a little too late to sow field beans so I am growing them in modules in the polytunnel so they can hopefully be planted out soon.
I also have a plan to trial sowing oats in early autumn next year where crops have been harvested. I don't see a reason why I can't use the whole oats which I buy as part of my fermented poultry mix. I know it germinates.
Oats are not frost hardy, so should die down with the first heavy frosts. They will then protect the soil over winter before being raked off and moved to the compost bin in spring if they've not already rotted down.

The first bed to go into active service. 
Two rows of garlic cloves and I will sow parsnips down the middle when the time is right.

I do anticipate a potential increase in the slug population, which is one of the major problems of no dig in our climate. But I am hoping to make good use of the ducks to control this, letting them into areas at critical times to clear the ground before tender crops go in.

It is going to be a time of trying out new ideas and it will be more work to begin with getting it set up, but I have high hopes for my new growing system.
The disadvantage, if you see it that way, is that it looks more 'rustic'. Usually at this point in the year I would have beautifully rotavated beds and the overall design of the veg plot, which I call The Wheel, would be clear for all to see.

So why go no dig at this point?
Firstly it is about going back to smaller beds again, where Mr Rotavator becomes a little clumsy. The appeal of a lot less weeding is a draw too, though I think this may be overstated as part of the sell.
The main reason is gut instinct. After eight years of cultivation my soil is lovely to work and grow in now, but it doesn't feel like it has much life in it. When I leave a bed uncultivated for a while it becomes full of worms and it is beautifully crumbly, even at the end of winter when the bare soil has been beaten down by the elements.
The theory of no dig is to protect the surface of the soil and to keep the life within it undisturbed. Not just worms but less tangible elements, particularly mycorrhizal fungi which form a linked network through huge areas of soil and interact symbiotically with plant roots.
I will have to take peoples' word for this, but I am prepared to give it a go and see what happens.
Of course, mulching is not exclusively for no-dig systems, but it will go right up the list of priorities. The idea is that the time working and shifting compost is made up for by spending less time weeding and digging. I am hoping too that mulching more effectively will help crops get through dry periods and make for better conditions for vegetables which don't like the soil to dry out.

As I say, gut feeling says this is right for my plot right now.

I will keep you updated through the year.

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