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Restoring soil structure and simple farming in a wet climate

 
Nancy Reading
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I`ve been trying to come up with a simple natural farming method that would work here on Skye. We have a long, damp cool growing season. Anything that needs temperatures above 18 degrees Celsius to do well is unlikely to crop here without protection. I`ve come up with the following four area rotation, which I`m inviting comments on. None of this is baked in stone yet and if anyone has good thread to point me to (there's no point in reinventing the wheel here!) please do.

Randomly starting in autumn, barley and oats are scattered into fairly bare soil. Our hard frosts don`t start till late November, even then we rarely go below -5 degrees Celsius, and usually are between 5 and 10 Celsius even in January. It is generally wet and windy though. I therefore hope to get a good coverage of the soil over winter, to reduce nutrient leaching and protect soil biota. The grain will be ready to harvest in September.
Into the straw, after harvesting the grain, will be scattered pea, broad beans (fava beans) and broccoli seeds (probably both calabrese and sprouting broccoli). It could be other leafy brassica too, but this is what we like to eat best, and keeps it relatively simple to save seed. Also planted into the stubble over autumn and winter are selected roots from particularly good plants; swede (rutabaga), parsnip, carrots, winter/Japanese radish. Hopefully the peas and broad beans will germinate, start growing, and stand the wind and wet over winter. I`m hoping to plant out runner beans in early summer, possibly with some sticks for support. Peas and beans and calabrese can be harvested green through the summer, as the roots flower and go to seed in situ. In the autumn the remaining peas and beans are picked for drying.
The sprouting broccoli crops in spring as the root crops start to grow. The roots can be harvested over summer and cleared in autumn, the best roots selected to replant into the new legume/brassica area. The cleared area is to be mulched with locally gathered seaweed and comfrey.
In the spring into this area are planted replant perennials: I can grow potatoes, Yacon, Oca, Mashua Skirret and Silverweed. I can try Jerusalem artichoke, but his may need two seasons to do well. Some of these will need mulching or earthing up during the growing season. The potatoes can be dug from late summer, but the Yacon, Oca and Mashua need as long as possible after the autumn equinox to grow tubers. This might make it tricky sowing the grain into this bed over winter, but I gather harrowing the grain after sprouting makes them develop more seedheads, so hopefully this will not be a problem.

fukuoka-natural-farming-scotland-proposal

Issues I foresee;
  • The peas and beans may rot off in winter. If this proves too much to be the case I will have to revert to spring sowing.
  • Balancing the planted areas; I'm assuming roughly equal areas will be about right for the different crops?
  • With different brassica in two beds will I get much crossing (turnip, swede, broccoli, radish)?
  • As I mentioned above, some of the replant perennials will need to be harvested after the grain is sown around them.
  • Could the peas and runner beans grow without support, will they swamp the roots and brassica?
  • The runner beans may be planted as a replant perennial instead.


  • I hope I have designed this to avoid bare soil as much as possible, but there are a few options for leguminous ground cover. One is white clover. I think I would try and transplant local plants, rather than buying in seed. I bought in seed for the polytunnel, but the white clover was too competitive there. We also have several native vetches that make nice ground covers. Vicia sepium (Bush vetch) is one that is also perennial and not too tall; this has quite nice pea tasting shoots. Lathyrus linifolius is another which has interesting root tubers, although I don`t find it easy to harvest in turf, they may dig up as part of the replant perennial rotation.
    Thanks.
     
    Skandi Rogers
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    The peas and beans may rot off in winter. If this proves too much to be the case I will have to revert to spring sowing.
    Balancing the planted areas; I'm assuming roughly equal areas will be about right for the different crops?
    With different brassica in two beds will I get much crossing (turnip, swede, broccoli, radish)?
    As I mentioned above, some of the replant perennials will need to be harvested after the grain is sown around them.
    Could the peas and runner beans grow without support, will they swamp the roots and brassica?
    The runner beans may be planted as a replant perennial instead.



    I suspect you will lose most of the peas and beans to pest pressure if you only throw them on the surface, They also don't have very good germination if planted to shallowly, variations in moisture I think (this is my experience of course)
    Brassicas will cross with everything you'll end up with something looking like a wild cabbage in the end.
    Grow short peas they don't need any support at all, although they like to be planted densely,  runners no I tried last year to grow them without support, all of the beans were eaten by slugs and other bugs and the plants ran for miles and climbed up anything they could swamping it, they even killed off the pumpkins.

    A few other things, you're talking about sowing sprouting broccoli, in September? It needs to be in in late June to get enough size before winter.
    I grew Yacon it did ok in the weather here, but I found it virtually tasteless and I didn't manage to overwinter any of the tubers (they were in with my dahlias which all survived) I'm surprised you can grow Oca I though it had much higher heat requirements, I have read plenty of people right down south complaining it is hit and miss as it doesn't even start to produce tubers until the equinox.
    Right now here winter barley is already sprouted, if it is left any longer it will not be established enough to do anything over winter.


    The biggest problem I think you might have is nothing surviving the winter, I have tried many things here that should survive, broad beans, sprouting broccoli, rosemary, sage.. and none of them do. I think it's because we are constantly wet, very windy and then have repeated freeze thaw cycles which rots everything, even kale, over 50% of the plants do not survive past december.

    As to dividing it in 4, potatoes/grains/peas beans cabbage / roots?
    to make maths easy lets say you have 100m2 in each section, that's 300kg potatoes/50kg grains/12kg of fresh peas and 30kg cabbage plants /90kg roots These are my yields in a different system but I would expect the ratios to be about the same.
     
    Anne Miller
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    Seeds need to make good soil contact so if you going to "scattered into fairly bare soil" there needs to be something done to make soil contact.

    We use our mule or golf cart to drive over the seeded area. I have heard that some walk over the area.  I have not read a lot about Korean Farming Methods so I don't know what they recommend.

    A trick that I like to use when planting in our raised beds is to use a seed starter mix and a strainer to sift the soil over the seeds to the recommended depth.
     
    Nancy Reading
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    Skandi Rogers wrote:
    I suspect you will lose most of the peas and beans to pest pressure if you only throw them on the surface,


    I'm also sure this will be the case. I sowed some field beans (which are basically small broad beans) in early September a couple of years ago. They started germinating reallly quickly, but almost all of them were eaten by crows!  These were pushed into bare soil, whereas I'm hoping that the straw covering will give the peas and beans some camouflage, but I also have a healthy vole population in the field.....  Too little moisture is not normally a problem at this time of year here!

    Brassicas will cross with everything you'll end up with something looking like a wild cabbage in the end.


    I'll have to see how this goes. I let my kale go to seed as well as fodder radish (and anything else I miss harvesting!) and it seems to stay pretty true to type. If the genes get too mixed I will just have to alternate which plants I let go to seed in different years. All the brassica have ended up going to seed in the same plot/time in this design, which isn't ideal.

    Good idea on the short peas, I actually struggle to grow runner beans but really want to.  I think they dislike my acid soil.  I think I will just have to make adding support structures as one of the inputs I need to make. I rather prefer tall peas too and do have plenty of pea sticks from my coppice trimmings.  They can either be taken up for kindling afterwards, or just broken down in situ for extra mulch I suppose.

    sowing sprouting broccoli, in September? It needs to be in in late June to get enough size before winter.

     
    Good point - I will need to sow this before harvesting the grain then.  I don't think that will be a problem.
    edit to add: Actually, looking at my plan above, the sprouting broccoli is in for 18 months, the calabrese should crop the first summer, the sprouting broccoli the second spring, so this ought to be OK if the seed survives the winter. I do get a lot of volunteer brassica so I am hopeful of this.

    I  quite like Yacon as it can be used as a fruit.  I'm still short of top fruit (although am hoping to get more from the borrowed garden in time). It will need bringing in for winter I think, although I can experment with replanting and mulching in situ. Sometimes I would be able to get away with that and sometimes not. They overwintered in my polytunnel here in pots this year and we did get some hard frosts in early spring.
    Oca does better for me outside than Yacon. It seem to not mind our cooler summers. I don't get frosts till quite late, so it usually has till late November to grow tubers.  They aren't my favourite, but I'm hoping to learn to like them better as I get more to use.  Last year I didn't harvest them in time and lost almost the entire crop to frost!  

    Right now here winter barley is already sprouted, if it is left any longer it will not be established enough to do anything over winter.


    The timings are something I will have to experiment with. The grain will definately be sown before all the replant tubers are harvested, and this may be a problem.

    The biggest problem I think you might have is nothing surviving the winter, I have tried many things here that should survive, broad beans, sprouting broccoli, rosemary, sage.. and none of them do. I think it's because we are constantly wet, very windy and then have repeated freeze thaw cycles which rots everything, even kale, over 50% of the plants do not survive past december.

     
    I will have to have enough seeds that I can resow in spring I guess. I have succeeded in overwintering sage and rosemary by giving them a well drained stony bank - two years through anyhow.  Whether I'll have much success in the middle of a windy field is another matter!

     to make maths easy lets say you have 100m2 in each section, that's 300kg potatoes/50kg grains/12kg of fresh peas and 30kg cabbage plants /90kg roots These are my yields in a different system but I would expect the ratios to be about the same.


    Thanks for working that out for me Skandi! I'm not too bothered about proportions at this point.  if I harvest too much I can always try selling it in the shop! I'll be happy to have any surplus at all I think in the first few years!
     
    Nancy Reading
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    Anne Miller wrote:Seeds need to make good soil contact so if you going to "scattered into fairly bare soil" there needs to be something done to make soil contact.

    We use our mule or golf cart to drive over the seeded area. I have heard that some walk over the area.  I have not read a lot about Korean Farming Methods so I don't know what they recommend.

    A trick that I like to use when planting in our raised beds is to use a seed starter mix and a strainer to sift the soil over the seeds to the recommended depth.



    In the main I'm going to sow seeds before harvesting the previous crop, so I think I'm hoping that the act of harvesting will trample the seeds in and mulch them, without destoying the developing plant! This might not work out quite as planned however!
     
    Skandi Rogers
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    I just had a thought, you said artichokes (jeruselum I assume) don't do well for you. Do you think that's a climate thing? Because mine hate me as well, even though people further inland can grow them fine.
     
    Nancy Reading
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    I think that Jerusalem artichokes like it a little drier and warmer than we generally get in summer. They also can suffer from wind rock.  I'm trying some dwarf varieties this year, and the weather has been better, so I'm optimistic I may get a reasonable crop this year.
     
    Mathew Trotter
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    Oca should do great for you. They actually don't like heat, originating in the Andes where the average temperature is adding 70 F year round. As temperatures get much over 80 F, they struggle. The real issue is that they're daylength sensitive and won't set tubers until days after shorter than 12 hours, which is September-ish in the northern hemisphere. There are some newer varieties that will start producing at 13 or 14 hours, and I know there's been some breeding work in Europe, but I'm only familiar with the American varieties. First frost is usually the determining factor for those of us outside of Peru. Good yields depend on making it through the end of November without a killing frost, which it seems like you should be able to pull off there. We generally have fairly mild summers, but this one was a doozy, getting into the 110s F a couple different weeks. In the end, only 2 of the oca tubers survived out of the 15 I started with. They didn't produce anything, but had enough energy left to resprout. I'm babying then inside over winter so I can give them another shot in a shadier location.

    I've found that peas do well as Fukuoka-style seed balls. The clay coating kind of melts into the ground, creating good seed-to-soil contact. Soaking legumes also helps get things rolling. Cats are magnificently useful in keeping seed-eating critters out of the growing space; my cat passed last summer and it's been more of a challenge without her. We're supposed to be getting a couple of new barn cats soon, and that should help. Ultimately I plan to breed all of my crops to tolerate broadcasting, because that's the level of work I want to put in, but I'm expecting heavy losses in the meantime. Most greens and root crops tolerate it well, especially when sown into existing vegetation or mulch that shades the soil and hides the seeds from hungry eyes. Legumes are tougher because they're easier for animals to find. I'd still say that it's worth it, especially from a landrace breeding perspective, I just wouldn't broadcast more seeds than I'm willing to lose. Reserve some for planting the conventional way ESPECIALLY if you don't have cats. Case in point, I planted all of my favas a couple inches deep because I couldn't justify losing any of my seed stock. And remember that the reason most plants produce thousands of seeds is because most of those seeds aren't going to make it. As seed savers, we can throw seeds around pretty indiscriminately because we're producing more than we can ever use if we're growing with more conventional methods. With purchased seed, it pays to be a little more judicious.

    All of your brassicas are different species. Wide crosses between different brassica species aren't uncommon, though I don't worry about crosses between species add much as I do crosses between the same species. I actually avoid the biennial sprouting broccolis because the flowering time is more likely to coincide with the flowering time of my other brassicas. All-in-all, I don't worry about it too much. I save seeds from the best plants and weed out anything I don't like.

    As far as timing goes, I can't say. Our climate has gotten so unpredictable that traditional planting times are practically useless. I mix up all of my seeds and broadcast them, and I try to get a number of sowings of each species just to ensure that I get something in the right window no matter what the weather decides to do in a given year. Otherwise it just takes experimentation. I planted turnips at the optimal time this past spring and an early heat wave caused them all to bolt. Volunteers that came up a little later were fine. 🤷🏻‍♂️ Generally, as I grow without irrigation, I expect everything to take longer than anticipated. I wouldn't have a plan that depends on an existing crop to be done by a specific date. Plan to plant around the existing crop, or have a backup plan if things run later than anticipated.

     
    Nancy Reading
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    I have started to  prepare an area to start my Farming scheme. There is an area in my treefield where the trees have failed - they were mainly ash, which struggled in the salt wind, and with suspected ash dieback. I have cut them right back and intend to replace them with some other trees in future. I think the slope of the hillside, which tends to be slightly terraced due to ancient lava flows, makes this area a little drier than other parts. The grass that makes up the turf is very fine but thick, so competes strongly for the (plentiful) moisture, also stunting the tree growth. I have two areas that will stay mainly clear of trees for a few years, so I can plant these up with my simple farming system and see how I get on. Both areas are uneven in shape.

    Southern growing area


    I have started to do some soil analysis of the sites to come up with a plan for making it as productive as possible. I've looked at the pH before in the tree field and lets just say it is very acidic.

    Previous pH testing


    I expect it to be pretty similar here, although I have not tested it again yet.

    I dug a couple of pits, one in each area, down to the bedrock. The soil in the Southern patch (the smaller of the areas) is shallower than the Northern area. In the Northern test pit there was also quite a large rock making it tricky to clear the soil out. Neither area have deep soil

    Southern test pit (spade for scale)


    Northern test pit (same spade)


    I took a sample of soil from each site and did a simple settlement test as described in my Food Forest in your Garden book. As I expected, this showed that I have a predominately silty soil. I didn't clear the larger stones out properly (you can see the gaps in the lowest part of the tube which is supposed to be 'sand') so although the proportions look almost 50:50 I think the silt is a much higher proportion than this. There was a very little clay which made the water cloudy, but this didn't show up as a significant proportion.

    Soil settlement test


    There doesn't seem to be any residue of organic matter at all, although there were roots visible through much of the depth. I believe the soil to be rather compacted (which also wont have helped the trees), and there is little earthworm activity in either spot. I do often find grubs when digging: click beetle larvae and some sort of weevil larvae mainly.

    Bags of seaweed gathered locally


    As regards resources I have been collecting some bladderwrack (nowhere on Skye is more than 5 miles from the sea). This will add a fair amount of nitrogen as well as some nice trace elements.  I also have a lot of ashes from the fire. This is mostly from my Husband burning newspapers and cardboard (the woodash doesn't leave much residue) But I'm thinking this ash'll mainly be Calcium oxides and should raise the pH a bit. I have twiggy bits of branches that have been pruned off last winter and are pretty brittle, and will have more prunings from this upcoming winter too I'm trying to think of bulky 'greens' that I can gather, but there isn't so much until things start growing again. I do know of a source of cows manure which I could probably take, if I could get a trailer over there. There is more woody materials in the form of dead bracken stalks, but this will be quite labour intensive to move. I also have a good supply of cardboard sheets from deliveries to my shop.  




     
    Nancy Reading
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    So I'm wondering how much digging to do to prepare this area. I'm pretty sure the soil is very compacted. I think I'll fork and make a smallish area into a 'lazy bed' (turning the adjacent turves upside down and covering with whatever organic feeding material I can gather) and make this into a propagation area mainly to increase my seed stocks over this next year to 18 months.
    The rest of the area I have started to try and clear of grass. I would like to have this in much better condition in a year's time to enable more of the area to be productive. I'm hoping not to have to dig the whole lot, so I'm hoping that I can buik up the Daikon radish over next summer to really sow a lot next summer. I elected to get a gardeners' packet of seed rather than a farmer sack, since due to my location I would have probably been charged too much for delivery.
    I've optimistically sowed some areas that I hadn't mown in the summer with annual rye and vetch. First I mowed the areas as close as I could, then raked off the loose grass and sowed the seed really thickly. There were three separate patches. One of them I managed to rake back over again, the others I didn't get a chance to get back down to. I could see the crows having a great time there, so wasn't expecting anything much to survive. This was the case for the two areas not raked; there is some seedling growth, but I'm having to look hard for it. In the area that was raked however, there does seem to be quite a bit of vetch and rye grass coming up. It looks rather patchy - one area will be thick with vetch, another thick with grass.

    Thick leaves of annual grazing rye


    The idea is that the annual rye will outcompete the meadowgrass in the spring, but we'll see if there is any success with this.
    The rest of the area is going to be a bit of a patchwork. There is the area that will be my lazy bed seed propagation area. I have started using up some of my stock of cardboard to mulch as much of the rest of the area as I can. Weighed down with alder prunings from last year it will at least start knocking back some of the growth over the winter. Really it would be best done in spring, and I'll probably redo it then as well. A smallish area is mulched thickly with the grass cuttings from the recently mowed areas. I've got more old alder prunings that will be useful for holding more cardboard in  place, and will no doubt cut more this winter. Piled up thickly this will mulch an area shading out the grass underneath, and sheltering the grass adjacent to it. The smaller twiggy bits break off as the branches dry out and form a nice mulch adding to the soil structure in time.

    View of proposed growing areas from North with helpers


    I'm still wondering whether the Daikon will be sufficient to break up the compacted soil, or whether I'll need to double dig the whole area. Whether mulching on the surface will be enough to improve the soil over the year, and how to generate lots of biochar to improve nutrient retention!

     
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    Nancy Reading wrote:So I'm wondering how much digging to do to prepare this area. I'm pretty sure the soil is very compacted. I think I'll fork and make a smallish area into a 'lazy bed' (turning the adjacent turves upside down and covering with whatever organic feeding material I can gather) and make this into a propagation area mainly to increase my seed stocks over this next year to 18 months.
    The rest of the area I have started to try and clear of grass. I would like to have this in much better condition in a year's time to enable more of the area to be productive. I'm hoping not to have to dig the whole lot, so I'm hoping that I can buik up the Daikon radish over next summer to really sow a lot next summer. I elected to get a gardeners' packet of seed rather than a farmer sack, since due to my location I would have probably been charged too much for delivery.
    I've optimistically sowed some areas that I hadn't mown in the summer with annual rye and vetch. First I mowed the areas as close as I could, then raked off the loose grass and sowed the seed really thickly. There were three separate patches. One of them I managed to rake back over again, the others I didn't get a chance to get back down to. I could see the crows having a great time there, so wasn't expecting anything much to survive. This was the case for the two areas not raked; there is some seedling growth, but I'm having to look hard for it. In the area that was raked however, there does seem to be quite a bit of vetch and rye grass coming up. It looks rather patchy - one area will be thick with vetch, another thick with grass.

    The idea is that the annual rye will out-compete the meadow-grass in the spring, but we'll see if there is any success with this.
    The rest of the area is going to be a bit of a patchwork. There is the area that will be my lazy bed seed propagation area. I have started using up some of my stock of cardboard to mulch as much of the rest of the area as I can. Weighed down with alder prunings from last year it will at least start knocking back some of the growth over the winter. Really it would be best done in spring, and I'll probably redo it then as well. A smallish area is mulched thickly with the grass cuttings from the recently mowed areas. I've got more old alder prunings that will be useful for holding more cardboard in  place, and will no doubt cut more this winter. Piled up thickly this will mulch an area shading out the grass underneath, and sheltering the grass adjacent to it. The smaller twiggy bits break off as the branches dry out and form a nice mulch adding to the soil structure in time.

    I'm still wondering whether the Daikon will be sufficient to break up the compacted soil, or whether I'll need to double dig the whole area. Whether mulching on the surface will be enough to improve the soil over the year, and how to generate lots of biochar to improve nutrient retention!



    Short answer: I would not dig.    Our soil is compacted clay over a plough pan so nothing is going to get through that sucker.  Parts have zero organic matter in it.  We have had a lot of success with using worms to do our spade work.  Mow low as you have done and then cover with cardboard and meadow hay, grass clippings and any other compostible material.  Make sure each layer is wet (probably no issue for where you are?) seed with what you want, and give the worms time to do their work.  There is some good studies showing that some worms will take nutrients down a meter or two  and more (3 - 6 feet).  They increase water penetration 10 fold.  We are very successful with planting fruit trees with comfrey and then mulching with 150 - 300 mm (6-12") wood chips. Worm information https: //www.trees.com/gardening-and-landscaping/types-of-earthworms
    We then plant potatoes between the wood chips and the dirt.  Within a couple of weeks there is the most amazing little animal and mycellium activity.  The worms are also well at work.
     
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