December 2012

December 2012

Updates from December 2012.

Things are moving along at Homeacres and a brief spell of drier weather helped, although we have has 23mm of rain this weekend. A week ago we planted fruit trees and bushes, including six dwarf apples on M9 and M27 against a wooden fence, five dwarf plums and gages by the same fence and also around a shed – all to grow as fans or espaliers – and then two larger plums and pears in open ground. On Monday 17th I plan to plant some more apple trees on the western boundary, after George and his family have just cut down the conifers which were blocking light on the south west boundary. Many neighbours have come to express their happiness at having more light!

Also last weekend I organised a tree planting in Bruton of forty or so fruit trees for a community orchard. But nobody yet knows how it will be run!

Steph and I planted soft fruit too: raspberries, blackcurrants and red gooseberries, into soil and manure which I had simply placed on top of grass, with a one metre mulch of black planting fabric on top and some cardboard to make a weed-free path between. I plan to remove the raspberry fabric after a year or so, once there are no more dandelions and buttercups, but I am watching for couch grass which may mean keeping it on longer. Unlike mypex, the fabric is not woven and you can cut holes rather than having to burn them through. However I am a little unsure of its weed controlling ability and where I am planning to use it around the apple trees on a strip full of ivy, I shall place cardboard first on the manure, to have two mulching layers.

I have created two experimental beds, one of a mix of old and new compost, all black stuff (see above), and one of soil only, which I found on top of an unexpected sheet of concrete near the shed. The idea is to compare and contrast the growth of vegetables between compost and soil, and while I imagine the plants growing in compost will be larger and healthier, I suspect there may be other aspects of growth which pose questions or make points about how best to grow our food.

Alongside these beds I have been laying out oak boards as sides for the new dig/no dig experiment, which has taken longer than I thought because I have taken care to make the beds level, on  flat but uneven ground, and also because the ‘home made’ boards are of variable size and thickness. They are from an oak tree which had died and I had it planked up at a local sawmill in 2003; some of the edges are full of worm and there are many hard knots and some holes. The overall effect is lovely! Then this weekend I have been intensively digging – what a job, so much extra work, a good reminder of what one saves with no dig. The dug bed took ten hours work and the undug bed took three.

I had considered running the experiment without wooden sides, because of their slug-encouraging tendencies, perhaps could have marked the beds with string, to be sure always of planting exactly the same area on each one. Then I decided to use the sides because this field is so flat and is underlain with dense, pale clay, so that in recent rain some areas have lain with water for a while, and having wooden sides gives more chance of making higher beds above the wet clay – about eight inches in this case. Also it is easier and clearer to have the experiment so clearly demarcated.

Finally back at Lower Farm I am about to make a last salad harvest, mostly lambs lettuce, chicory and rocket, all outdoor grown. There are also some fine leeks and parsnip to harvest, lovely perennial kale, a few brussels and still some beds to clear. For those of you with existing beds, I hope you have cleared all the ones with harvests finished, then spread some compost on top, or composted manure, anything dark and interesting. The earlier it goes on, the easier it is to knock out lumps in the spring and make a soft tilth.

A net over 4mm hoops (see forum!) to protect salads against deer, rabbit, pigeon
A net over 4mm hoops (see forum!) to protect salads against deer, rabbit, pigeon

Last harvests at Lower and new beds at Homeacres

After some soaking wet weather in late November, we seem headed for colder and somewhat drier now, offering the chance to prepare for next year. Seize the moment in any dry days now to make harvests, clear ground and spread compost, even if it is imperfectly lumpy, because frosts and air can then penetrate to open up the lumps and turn it into something nice for seeds, plants and worms too. You can even spread compost around winter brassicas which are spaced wide enough to place forkfuls between them, and this ensures that soil is ready for new plants in the spring, for instance after kale, Brussels and broccoli will have finished.

First a quick look at Lower Farm where outdoor winter salads have yielded well in November, with all the ones pictured here being frost hardy. although hearts of Castelfranco chicory can suffer some damage if they are well formed when frozen. The biggest problem I am having with them, and many other vegetables at Lower, is deer damage, since they discovered my lovely gardens in September. A few of them come every night and I sometimes see them at first light; recently they have been chomping lambs lettuce and land cress after eating all the chard, chicories, endives and strawberry leaves. As well as eating, they kick soil on low growing salads.

I wonder what wild life will appear at Homeacres…. I have been deliberating where to site my new dig/no dig experiment and the spot I like has quite a few rabbit droppings, so it may not happen there!

There is a nice series of photos here to show how I cleared an old chicken run, which fortunately is in a sheltered corner open to the south west, protected from the north east by the wooden fence panels. There are no perennial weeds except some nettles which I levered out easily; the soil is dark, on top of the wet clay, and all the gardening in these photos was done in the wet weather, when soil was absolutely saturated, so it is another advantage of no dig that you can prepare ground in pretty well any weather.

These beds all have about half a ton of cow manure on top, which sounds a lot but is not really, when you consider that one cow produces four tons annually, and because this is a one off dressing to start out. I am spreading it to cover weeds sufficiently to prevent re-growth, and to lift fertility to a point where vegetables can grow abundantly. However I am also experimenting with some woody and grassy bottom layers in the two left hand heaps, and am not too sure how that will work for new sowings and plantings: at first I was not intending to plant the left hand bed until spring, then remembered, after creating it, that I had lots of salad plants in the greenhouse at Lower. I brought them straight out of the greenhouse and planted them in the newly spread manure at dusk, then they had one day of 6C followed by a freezing night – we shall see, and learn something for sure!