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Restoring soil structure and simple farming in a wet climate

 
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As I posted elsewhere it's been a bit wet here - quite a bit of snow this winter too. I took a few pictures illustrating how nicely the snow melted on my south facing slopes on my solar aspect beds.

solar aspect garden bed
snow effect on solar aspect beds

Getting a bit fed up with dog help in my mulched areas I decided to put up a fence around the growing area. So I moved a couple of young trees to enable the bed extension as I mentioned above.

transplanting trees
Transplanting trees

I had a fair amount of fencing materials left over from the temporary sheep exclusion fencing, so gathered it all together, together with a spare gate and pedestrian gate. My growing area has four paths going to and fro from it, so I brought down a few old pallets to act as the other gates. I have finished the fencing now, but still need to attach the gates. It wouldn't win any BBs for fencing, but it should suffice to keep the dogs out. I'll post another picture when the gates are in position.

fencing materials
gathering fencing materials


On other news I have ordered a few more seeds for my starting seed mixes for parsnip, leek and swede. I haven't managed to get much more bed preparation done, due to the wet weather, just a little start. I may just use the 6 beds I have, depending on how the weather goes over the next week or so. I'm thinking the beans and peas could do with going in pretty soon if I'm to get a harvest of dry seed this year. I've started my seed potatoes chitting on a shelf by the window in the workshop. I'm a bit worried as to whether or not it is out of mouse reach. They appear to have eaten all my oca, so I don't think I will be growing them this year! Good news is that the carrots seem to be unscathed in the ground on the not-very-lazy-beds so far. I'm a bit surprised that the mice haven't had a go at them ....yet.
 
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Nancy Reading wrote:

S Rogers wrote:I'm curious how your soil is doing now.  


I'm hoping that this year the area I have prepared will be much more conducive to growing. I'm hoping to do some quantitative soil tests to show how much the soil has improved - pH, organic matter, soil life. But the proof to me will be in achieving a harvest. For that there is also more involved than soil - timing of sowing seeds, predators and pests, what the weather does, and timing of harvest. I'm hopeful that this year I will be able to save some seeds and grow some new crops to maturity. Still an awful lot to learn
I'm not happy I've been able to incorporate enough organic material within the soil. However, having improved the drainage and relieved the compaction, hopefully the plant roots will continue the good work - along with more seaweed and whatever other organic materials I can source locally.



I was going to ask about your soil a year on, too.

Soil building takes time, in my experience. My soil is neutral and sandy loam but like yours: shallow. It was pretty devoid of organic matter, so water and nutrient retention was poor.

I'm not so bothered about growing food anymore, so am resting the soil through rewilding but I continue to mulch (compost, sheep's fleece and cardboard/newspaper currently).

During one of the lockdowns I looked into the soil carbon cycle and I believe that if you encourage carbon into your soil, nature will do the rest. (Ie the microbes which do so much good, feed off the C, so more C means more microbes.)
 
Nancy Reading
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Helen Butt wrote:
During one of the lockdowns I looked into the soil carbon cycle and I believe that if you encourage carbon into your soil, nature will do the rest. (Ie the microbes which do so much good, feed off the C, so more C means more microbes.)



I must revisit both that and the Nitrogen cycle. It seems to me to be a bit like the "chicken and the egg". The microbes need the plants and the plants need the microbes, so until you have one you don't get the other, unless you have a really good supply of finished compost. Did you see my thread about the magic of compost? I still can't get over how dramatic the addition of just a sprinkling of compost made to the seedling growth. I have a little old compost left for last year's shop stock, so will be using this as a top dressing again to give the seeds a head start.
In terms of soil organic matter I know I've hardly started. On the master gardener course Helen Atthowe has 10 principles and two of them are to feed the soil year round with assorted organic mulch materials. I've been thinking of all the different mulch materials I may have access to through the year, what their C:N ratio is and what the NPK is likely to be for each of them. I've then tried to work out which of the crops will benefit most from each of them, so which bed to prioritise adding them to (seaweed being my magic bullet!) I have to admit I'm relying on really activating the soil microbes to overcome the poor nutrition and pH of my soil over time. I'm not expecting much this year, but hopefully in about 3 years I should be seeing a real difference due to the soil improvement, and my landrace seeds starting to adapt too.
 
Helen Butt
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Yes, I believe finished compost works very well because it has nitrogen and carbon - and as it's stopped decomposing, it doesn't take nitrogen from the soil.

Re plants and microbes, I guess permaculture favours perennials for this reason (in part). Obviously, if you want annual crops, though, you need some kind  of inputs, and if compost works for you, that's great.

I imagine over time you will have more homemade compost over time as well?
 
Nancy Reading
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Helen Butt wrote:
I imagine over time you will have more homemade compost over time as well?



I'm actually intending to go away from making compost to mainly composting in situ. My compost at the moment is slow compost - everything gets chucked into a bin made by pallets correction - old roofing sheets and pallets. I try not to put couch or dock in there, but any garden waste and all our kitchen waste goes in, together with a fair amount of cardboard and some paper/board ash and woodash. There is no lid on the bin, so it gets pretty soggy. About once a year I take out the compost that is 'finished' and turn the compost from the side being filled to to the now empty side, and start again.
Although it does seem to rot down without smelling I don't consider it a great system. I'm pretty sure the microbes generated will be ones that prefer anearobic conditions, and there are probably loads of seed seed just rarling to grow! What I'm hoping to do is set up a worm bin for our kitchen waste in a wheelie bin, dump nasty weeds in an area where they can fight it out without bothering my plants, and just chop and drop everything else to feed the soil microbes in situ: put them to work, but protect them at the same time.
The compost from the worm bin I'm hoping will be a much higher quality product, which I can use as a top dressing or potting compost ingredient. I don't know what volume I will create, and whether I will need to use it as I go, or be able to store it a bit for more seasonal use.
DSCN1980.JPG
compost bin made from pallets
Rather old photo of my compost bin made from pallets
 
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With your damp conditions, chop and drop might work. My concern with this system is that during decomposition, the soil beneath might be depleted of nitrogen.

That said, I leave autumn leaves in situ, for example, and the spring flowers still come up every year. However, yes, kitchen waste is best processed and a wormery sounds an excellent idea. You'll also get liquid feed, so can use that on crops whilst waiting for the worms to make the compost.
 
Nancy Reading
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On the Master Gardener course Helen mentioned that the C:N ratio for mulching depended on your temperature. At lower temperatures (which I have even during summer!) a higher Nitrogen amount is required (so lower C:N) for good microbial activity. Higher C materials tend to get assimilated into the soil "food bank" for longer term fertility. At least that's how I understood it to work. So you need a balance. Fresh grass mowings will be higher in N; if you let them dry they become higher in C. Generally then, I want to be adding plenty of fresh cut, green organic matter and any drier, twiggy stuff more lightly, mixed in with the greener stuff, or added when the plants aren't actively growing - over the winter.
I think nitrogen depletion in the soil is less likely if the materials are added to the soil surface - like leaf litter and mulch. My understanding is that if you dig them in it is more likely to be a problem.
I haven't really thought much about the 'worm juice' I have heard it is a miracle ingredient - I'll have to look at designing my worm  wheelie bin so that I can collect it more easily...
 
Nancy Reading
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Finally!!

I would say that it’s now early spring for me here. The winter has been a little colder and maybe a bit wetter than ‘normal’ although not nearly as windy as we sometimes get. I am seeing tiny signs of spring as I walk around the tree field; with the grass starting to grow, early spring flowers and startling green leaves on the larch and hawthorne. Pignut leaves hug the ground in a cloud of ferny promise, and we have finally had more than one day dry in a row…

dog resistant fencing
Dog Resistant fencing

So I’ve managed to actually start planting, but first things first: I have now secured the five gates into the growing area against the dogs. Making the most of a waste resource, I have also been drying the large bones that I use to make jelly for the dogs’ meals and then crushing them with a hammer to add to the soil. It should add fair amounts of Phosphorus and Calcium. I don’t suppose it will change the pH significantly, but won’t do any harm anyhow. Since I have been combining two beds into one, I sprinkled the bones along the crease in between the beds before pulling the soil over. Dyson was managing to be quite creative in pushing his way in to get at the bones, so I think the fence is only resistant, not dog proof! I cut the remaining growing rye grass down with a scythe, slightly tricky on a slope, before combining the beds. As I pulled the soil across I was quite pleased with how crumbly the soil is and how fibrous and long the rye grass roots seem to be. Hopefully that will be doing some good to the soil.

green manure rye grass roots
rye grass roots (shovel for scale)

digging in green manure
combining adjacent solar beds and covering bones

I’ve also managed to collect two loads of seaweed from our local beach. There was not so much seaweed washed up this year – probably because it has not been such a stormy winter, however there was still plenty there, and there is less rubbish mixed in which is nice.

glendale beach isle of Skye
Glendale beach, Isle of Skye

Edit: I should just point out that the seaweed I have been collecting is not the stuff in the foreground, which is still atttached to the rocks and growing, but what has washed up on the high tide mark in the distance.

Having combined and sculpted the bed which I have allocated to the beans and peas, I selected the mixture of starting seeds that I am using for the fava/broad beans and the peas, and put them on to soak overnight. I filled about 10 medium sized pots with 50:50 seed compost and soil from the beds so as to give the seeds a good start, but get them used to the soil a bit as well. I didn’t have room for all the seeds in the pots, so I have planted the remainder (about half the beans and rather less of the peas) in the bed.  Some of the beans I have covered with cut off bottles (recovered from tree planting) so as to try and give them a bit of protection from voles and birds. Maybe, as time goes on, I will be able to do without these, but I’d rather take a few precautions and get some harvest at the end of the year this time! I have enough seeds to do another planting at the end of the month as well.

seaweed mulch organic soil fertiliser
seaweed mulch on end bed

I’ve also buried bones and started to combine the bed for the roots. This will be just normal starting seeds, not saved seeds, although I am hopeful that the carrots I grew last year will give me a good grex of seed for next year.

I have been thinking about how to create habitat, growing roots, and mulch adjacent to the beds. As I think I need more nitrogen rich mulch materials, due to my normally lower temperatures, I’m going to be trying to grow more chop and drop plants. Many of the comfrey roots that I planted to the south of the area last year have taken, although I will plant some more this spring to give a good bank of leaves. Very few of the kale cuttings took, which I am a bit surprised at, but it doesn’t matter. In a couple of years the trees there will be giving a bit of shelter I hope.
It occured to me as I was sculpting the legumes' bed that I can ‘function stack’ and use the north facing slope for living roots and mulch material too. Originally this was going to be cropped area, but it won’t yield so well, and being steeper lends itself more to perennials than annuals anyway, as soil disturbance will lead to erosion of the bank during cultivation.

improved solar aspect bed
legumes bed: final profile before seeding

I have come up with several plants that will be suitable for either the banks or the adjacent paths as “cut and come again” chop and drop plants. These are:
Legumes   - on banks: zigzag clover, alfalfa, blue lupin, various vetches
                      - on paths: white clover, pink clover
Other plants – on banks: chiccory, fennel, sea beet, dandelion, scorzonera hogweed, skirret, sweet cicely (myrrhis odorata) Good King Henry, Turkish rocket, yarrow.
                      - on paths: self heal, daisies, siberian purslane.
Most of these I  can transplant from other areas, although I’ll see if I can seed some in as well. I’ll probably try and sow some annuals in for this year as well.
I didn’t really get many weeds last year. I think it was because I was relatively late in digging the beds, but the weeds will get a bit of a head start this year, so I’d like to try and get in some less competitive weeds to select as ground cover/living root companions. I’m hoping for chickweed, miners lettuce and fat hen. All of these seed around nicely in the polytunnel, so I can try and introduce them from there. I’d really like to not have creeping buttercup and docks, although docks in the north banks would be OK. as long as I cut them for mulch before seeding.
 
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nancy, i am greatly encouraged every time i see what you are doing. i especially like the pics of your hi-teck gardening implements. thanks for keeping us/me(a little shellfish plug there) updated.

with all that work you need fuel for energy.

i would like to know about your purslane. doesn't it want to take over everything? i have purslane here and it wants to completely take over. i covered an area with heavy plastic to suppress weeds on what was an old garden bed when we got here. the purslane just pushed right through it. nature is amazingly awesome and exceedingly frustrating at the same time.

cheers   james
 
Nancy Reading
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james cox wrote:nancy, i am greatly encouraged every time i see what you are doing. i especially like the pics of your hi-teck gardening implements.


Thank you for your kind words (and Pie!) James!
Don't judge me by that shovel! Someone seems to have used it for concrete mixing without cleaning it properly afterwards. It used to be my favourite shovel too - a bit lighter weight so I call it the 'ladies shovel'. I'm hoping that I can wear off the cement a bit with use.

with all that work you need fuel for energy.

.
Luckily the weather is making me pace myself at the moment - we're back to rain again today. The beds I have achieved are a nice size. I can aim to get a certain amount done on one bed and that is enough. Also I'm working in between opening and closing the shop, so my time actually digging is limited.

i would like to know about your purslane. doesn't it want to take over everything? i have purslane here and it wants to completely take over. i covered an area with heavy plastic to suppress weeds on what was an old garden bed when we got here. the purslane just pushed right through it. nature is amazingly awesome and exceedingly frustrating at the same time.


I'm not very experienced with the Siberian purslane (Claytonia sibirica) yet. I know it does tend to naturalise here, but it doesn't grow very large and is edible. I like it because it seems to be green in winter and early spring, when most 'weeds' are dormant, so gives some ground cover then. Hopefully I won't be introducing the next worst pest plant to this part of Skye! I'll bear in mind your warning and keep an eye on it.

 
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The weather is staring to get a little warmer with temperatures in the double figures (Celsius), although with clearer nights we've had a few frosts this week too. Finally the peas and beans are starting to come through, so far with few losses. I'm very relieved about this since I don't really want to individually protect every seed, and this year gives me confidence that it won't be necessary.
pea shoots in seaweed mulch
Pea shoots in seaweed mulch

I've not made much more progress, my time has been taken up with other projects, but I have managed to sow the grain seeds in the Southernmost bed. This is still only half a bed, but it is big enough for the number of seeds I have at present. I don't have a great variety of the grain seeds yet. I want spring sown quick maturing black oats and bere barley. These are traditional crops here, but not widely grown commercially. I was lucky to get some Orkney bere barley landrace seeds from the Far North Seed Savers founder, so that will get me off to a good start there. I made the mistake of sowing my 'perennial' rye seed in the bed as well. This is likely to take more that one year to seed, so I really should have sown it somewhere else, since I'm intending to rotate the crops in my solar beds year to year.
landrace grain seeds UK Scotland
Grains sown in Southern bed

There are quite a few fodder radish coming up and clumps of the green manure rye grass that have survived being dug up. I've been leaving the fodder radish, but pulling the leaves off the grass to try and reduce it's vigour and provide some green mulch. I've been thinking it'll soon be time to try and get some leafy materials for mulch. The grass is growing lushly in parts of the tree field, although the area around the solar beds is very fine hairgrass, so may be not great. There is quite a bit of docken and comfrey coming up strongly elsewhere in the field, so I think I will  cut and import some of that to the growing area, together with some of the softer faster growing grass.
I have also sown some seeds into the North facing slopes; white clover, alsike clover, lupin, alfalfa are all ones that should be Nitrogen rich chop and drop mulch providers. I also sowed selfheal and clover into the paths, and white clover into the surrounding turf. The white clover seed is very old, so I did sow it pretty thickly. I'll either get a clover lawn, or nothing!
I can't remember what else I sowed - it'll be a nice surprise when/if it germinates!
I'll try and get the rest of the pea and bean seeds on to soak tomorrow, and make a further effort to combine the bed that will be the roots, and extend the Northern most bed which will be mainly potatoes this year. It's probably about right timing now to think about sowing the roots seeds.
The carrots from last year are looking pretty good, and starting to show some signs of sending up a flower head which is exciting! One or two got damaged by the winter but most of them look pretty healthy. Again it looks like the protection was not required, which I am surprised and relieved about. I really thought that the voles would eat the lot over the winter.
Carrots overwintering UK Scotland
Carrots with and without protective sleeves

Finally in case anyone missed my new thread, I've separated off the circular Northern growing areas into a polyculture project thread here
 
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