Thursday, 6 June 2019

A Transformation - No Dig comes to the farm

The first half of 2019 has seen a huge transformation in my veg garden.
We are now officially NO DIG.

NO DIG I said, Boris!

The Wheel - A little design history

I initially designed the veg plot based around a wheel split into 4 quarters for crop rotation. Each quarter had 20 small beds which could be accessed without being trodden on. There were flowers and herbs grown with the vegetables and self-seeded waifs were selectively kept growing where I found them.

All was good, except that the sheer number of grass edges and paths made things unmanageable and gradually a major slug problem developed. The overhanging edges and small beds were perfect for them to shelter under and make raids into during the hours of darkness. 20 beds x 4 sides each x 4 quarters = 320 edges to maintain!

Gradually I joined beds together till eventually there were just four large beds in each quarter, plus a smaller one for forest garden / perennial growing.
These beds were much easier to work. In a single afternoon at the back end of winter I could comfortably rotavate half the plot. Coming into the spring I could have all the beds worked and all the paths mown and edged. A fresh start for the new growing season.

But somehow I gradually realised that I had moved away from my idea of a productive potager style garden. With beds being completely turned every year, waifs and strays and smaller patches of nature did not really fit in with the system. I noticed too that the soil somehow felt less alive. For a clay soil it was in good shape, but there were no worms, no fibrous roots, no complexity or structure. Yet if I left a bed unattended for a while, the soil surface protected from the elements, I would invariably find a different story, with crumbly soil alive with worms.

I wasn't doing anything terribly wrong. I still managed the plot for nature, chemicals were banned and pests and diseases were largely under control thanks to natural balances, but more and more I felt that the actual soil I was growing in lacked vibrancy. It was just a hunch, a feeling.

I was increasingly hearing about No Dig gardening, but considered it a bit of a gimmick. After all the promise of not needing to dig, greatly reduced weeding and healthier crops seemed too good to be true. It seemed to be an idea which was almost being sold as a panacea to all gardening woes. When I looked further into it, crop comparisons seemed to rely on an abundance of salad leaves, which do seem to do better under this system, but which I could never possibly munch my way through. Fine if you want to market them, but otherwise...   Indeed, figures seemed to show a slight decline in yield for brassicas, which normally require a firm, undisturbed soil, and this seems to be glossed over everywhere I look.
Another problem I perceived was that no dig gardening seemed to place a huge emphasis on an annual mulch of compost (or even worse, black plastic). I don't have a problem with the compost idea, but it doesn't seem right if people are buying in compost left right and centre. The idea of sustainability seems to have gone down the pan. It's ok if you've got a farmer friend who can transport an endless supply of manure to you, but we are not all in that position. Anyhow, I'm not sure how healthy cow manure would be, what with the amount of antibiotics, growth hormones and goodness knows what else are used these days. Horse manure has its problems too, mainly due to the problems caused by aminopyralid weedkillers which persist from being applied to hay crops, through the horse, through the compost heap and on to destroy your vegetable crops. With ineffective regulators this problem seems to be rapidly on the increase. I came across it once when I was collecting horse manure from a friend and it caused no end of problems.

To counterbalance this argument, it is probably fair to say that even a conventional plot should ideally have at least as much compost applied as a no dig one. It's just that you can more easily get away with skipping this to some extent.

One final problem was that this seemed a bit like the latest fad, another excuse to go out and buy things, most especially lots of landscaping material and wood for edges. Facebook groups are full of people's photos of their newly landscaped no dig gardens.
To be fair though, one of the main proponents has moved away from wooden edges, which are not just impractical on a large scale but also harbour slugs and snails galore.

But still something inside me told me that a modified version of no dig was the way forward, so I started making plans to circumvent the problems I perceived.

The first beds being prepared for no dig - note the use of cardboard (top left) and how there are now paths dug to divide the larger beds into smaller ones.

I absolutely won't use black plastic as a mulch. It seems to go against every grain of nature-friendly, sustainable gardening. I am however making great use of cardboard to inhibit weeds. It eventually rots down and contributes to soil structure.
Mulching in temperate climates brings a huge potential risk of harbouring slugs and snails, a gardener's number one enemy. My previous attempts at using straw under strawberries attest to this - fine in a dry year but disastrous in a wet one. Instead I am following Charles Dowding's approach of aiming to use prepared compost. This should avoid problems of a gastropod nature since slugs and snails thrive on decomposing material, not decomposed material.
I will reserve grass clippings and animal bedding for specific crops, such as the soft fruits which don't seem to be affected by slugs. Otherwise these can go straight onto the compost where the nitrogen rich materials greatly speed up the composting process.

The garlic bed and salad leaves has grown rapidly.
There are radishes down the middle of the garlic
and it is flanked by two rows of young parsnip plants.
Once the radishes and garlic are harvested I shall plant tall flowers between the parsnips.

A different patch of parsnips will be allowed to grow into a second year 
(these are last year's sown for this purpose and now flowering) to attract hoverflies, 
to give architectural design to the garden and to produce fresh parsnip seeds for next year's crop

I shall ramp up my compost making. To do this I have specifically planted elephant grass and short rotation coppice willow, both of which will be shredded to bulk up my compost.
With these measures I should come much closer to being able to apply a thin annual covering of compost.
But already I am noticing a huge benefit just by having the soil protected from the elements, compost or no compost. So I intend to selectively use green manures. These are traditionally dug in, which is not ideal in a no-dig system! However, there are some which can be chopped off and removed to the compost bin. The goodness will still eventually end up on the vegetable beds and while the green manures are growing they do a fantastic job of protecting the soil from erosion and from being beaten down by the rains. It is surprising how quickly a freshly rotavated fine tilth can turn into a sticky, solid clay mass or develop a concrete-like crust on it. Already I am noticing a huge improvement in soil structure where I have applied compost mulch. The crops are doing very well too, but it has been pretty much a perfect growing year so far.
Finally I am planning to try something which I've not seen before in this country but I did come across in a YouTube video. Where crops are harvested early and I don't intend to follow with another crop this year, I am going to sow oats. These I get incredibly cheaply in the form of animal feed. I know that they germinate as I do this to provide fodder for the turkeys. The idea is that they grow to protect the soil surface but then die off with the first heavy frosts. The thatch will then protect the soil over winter and will have rotted down enough to rake off and go on the compost the following spring. So I guess I am talking about winter mulches which are removed in spring. Slug problems will be avoided because of....

The Khaki Campbells have, for the moment, been ejected from the veg plot after developing a taste for peas, spinach and coriander. Having said that, they were far less destructive than any other ducks and certainly less destructive than chickens. I expect to be able to let them back in the veg patch as their light nibbling will be a small price to pay for their almost total slug control. I seriously doubt the slugs will bounce back much even if the ducks have to stay out until autumn.

I originally planned to have so many grass paths because of my clay soil. It just would not work to turn all the grass over to earth. Paths would end up a sticky mess and in the wrong conditions most of the ground would be clinging on to my wellies and weighing me down. My compromise is to keep the main paths but to dig out shallow paths in the larger beds, effectively recreating a whole system of smaller beds again but without the endless grass edges. The soil dug out from the paths has just been used to build the beds up a bit so effectively we now have raised beds.

The paths are one rake wide, which means that as soil is gradually displaced into the pathways from the beds (this shouldn't happen so much as things settle down) I can very easily hoe and rake along the paths to keep them clear.

With the beds now being permanent and not being turned every year, I can plan to grow more herbs and perennials and leave self-seeded specimens to grow if I like where they are.

The broad bean bed in its early days.
Under the beans grow poached egg plants to protect from blackfly
and coriander which enjoys the shade.
The whole bed will be used for Purple Sprouting Broccoli once the beans and coriander are harvested.
The flowers will provide ground cover and will self-seed to give transplants for next year.

Growing methods
Only carrots and parsnips are now sown directly into the soil. Everything else is started off in modules and the plants are then moved into their permanent spots when the time is right. This way I can nurture them and prepare them for the big outdoors. I have found it is best not to delay planting out too much as they really take off once in open ground, as long as a liberal dose of patience has been applied and you don't try to push the plants to grow when conditions are not yet right.
I have been trying some multisowing too, where small clumps of several plants are grown together. This won't work for everything and I am very much following Charles Dowding's lead on this one. I shall draw my own conclusions later in the year.

Transformation complete
The transformation is now complete. It has been hard work, greatly helped by the use of volunteers, but it was a one off job which won't need doing again. Mr Rotavator has gone into semi retirement (though I'm sure he will still get the occasional run out, just maybe not in the veg plot) .
My hoes and edging tools are now being put to much more use, as is my transplanting trowel. The spades will still have the occasional use, not that I ever was much good at turning the soil with them. The days of double digging are certainly over

Now in early June most of this year's plants are in the ground and the harvest is already under way. So far results have been impressive with the salad leaves and early growth has been strong with almost everything I have planted out.
I am not yet giving no-dig the credit for this. The almost total absence of slugs has made a massive difference when trying to grow the likes of carrots and sunflowers and the weather has been pretty much perfect so far.

As ever I am open to trying all sorts of new ideas, but I do not approach them with my eyes closed. I retain a healthy cynicism and will constantly be evaluating and adapting the system to suit local conditions and my own needs from the veg plot.

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