Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Crop Rotation Confessions...

I have a confession to make. Crop rotation on a small plot has always rather baffled me. On a big plot it makes sense - on a big plot you can afford to leave a patch of ground empty in preparation for a later crop, or to sow a green manure in the middle of summer just for the heck of it - but on a small allotment where you want to make the most of every space all year round, it can be a real juggling act trying to get your potatoes out early enough for your purple-sprouting broccoli to go in, or clearing your onion patch in time to sow beans and corn, or figuring out what on earth to grow after you've harvested your squashes as late as October - and who uses exactly the same amount of space for every crop group anyway??

Traditionally, the main groups in a crop rotation are potatoes and roots, brassicas, beans, and 'other veg'. The potatoes are manured to enrich and slightly acidify the soil (preventing scab), heavy-feeding beans follow in the nicely broken-up ground after the potatoes are dug, then (often after an application of lime,) leafy brassicas to make good use of the nitrogen the bean roots accumulate. Then, presumably, you throw sweetcorn, cucurbits, tomatoes, leafy greens and everything else in together after that. Sounds simple enough, but questions abound. Do you grow swedes with the root crops or the brassicas? Aren't tomatoes in the same family as potatoes? Cucurbits take up way more space than anything else! And aren't you supposed to avoid manuring carrots?

I don't know, maybe I overthink these things - maybe I'm just too keen to abide by all the rules and to do it "right". But I think, after eight years on our allotment, I've finally cracked it!

This is partly thanks to slimming down the number of crops we grow on the allotment anyway - we don't grow onions and garlic due to white rot spores in our soil, and we prefer to keep salad leaves and quick-ripening summer crops like French beans, courgettes and tomatoes at home so we can pick them more regularly. On the allotment we grow the lower-maintenance stuff: potatoes, squashes, root veg, broad beans, leeks, and a limited amount of winter brassicas and spinach-type leaves (plus some perennials in a permanent area). We've grouped broad beans, leeks and root veg roughly together: together they take up about the same amount of space we use for more space-hungry crops (potatoes and squashes), and it means we can follow our broad beans (which finish around midsummer) with winter brassicas, thus keeping our earlier-sown swedes in the same area as our other brassicas.

Ladies and gents, I give you our brand new crop rotation plan! (Click pic to enlarge.)

This rotation also allows for two squares to be sown with green manures over winter to add high-nitrogen organic matter to the compost heap, shelter wildlife and protect the soil. Phacelia and field beans are my two favoured green manures since field beans add vital nitrogen to the soil and can be sown as late as November, and phacelia attracts lots of insects and can be sown as late as September. Following squashes with winter-hardy beans means the timing for sowing is perfect; likewise with the winter leaves following the potatoes, and the winter brassicas following the broad beans. And even though we grow most of our beans at home, our allotment soil still gets a nitrogen injection thanks to the broad and field beans. Of course, this rotation doesn't include everything and I should do my best to efficiently rotate our crops at home too, but those on the allotment are the most important ones to rotate: beans for nitrogen, potatoes which are prone to damage from buildups of slugs and eelworms, and brassicas which are susceptible to clubroot, a very nasty fungal disease.

So far it's all going swimmingly. The potatoes are out (an awesome 28kg of Kestrel and 19kg Pentland Crown!) and the winter leaves are in; two rows of chard, two rows of winter spinach and a row of fennel (there's room for more, actually - I must do that). The squashes have finished a little earlier than usual, which means we have plenty of time to clear the soil for winter beans. The leeks, root veg, celery, spring cabbages, kohlrabi and pak choi are coming along nicely and we will slowly harvest them all winter long, making the most of all our space. Brilliant!

There is one complicating factor looming, in that we are planning to clear our old strawberry and asparagus beds (not shown in the plan above) over winter and put them to new use next spring. These two areas don't really fit into the plan so I'm a bit puzzled about what to do with them (and I rather wish we could move our pond and our apple tree into one, which would help us make better use of the other!). Should we grow runner beans or courgettes on the plot again after all? Shall I expand my collection of perennials? Is it time to give in and plant some fruit bushes? Good job I've got all winter to think about it...

Friday, 27 June 2014

Score One for Permaculture

When you think of organic growing, there are a lot of things that might come to mind. You might think of nasty organic pesticides such as pyrethrum or diatomaceous earth; you might think of arduous slug-patrols and endless couchgrass; you might think of sterile white insect-proof mesh covering up beautiful rows of crops. But the best method for growing organically, in my opinion (though slug patrols and insect-proof mesh certainly have their places!), is to work in harmony with nature as much as possible - the permaculture way; sustainable and low-maintenance - and we've seen a great example of this on our plot over the last month.

One important factor when it comes to growing in harmony with nature is simply to give plants the right conditions to promote great health, and that means sowing at the optimum time so that plants don't have to struggle. As much as I like the idea of sowing broad beans in autumn so I can pick them super-early the next season, experience has shown this never turns out well on my plot and the plants get absolutely ravaged by pests come April. Broad beans sown from March onwards, however, seem to grow up stronger and have almost no pest problems.

Nevertheless, sometimes the unexpected happens, and a few weeks ago we noticed the stems of just a couple of our broad bean plants were absolutely covered in blackfly. I groaned, but then I looked closer...

There were ladybirds everywhere - at least 15 on the most affected plant - and many of them were busy mating or laying eggs. Knowing that adult ladybirds eat up to 1000 aphids per day, I didn't see much point rushing to squish all the offending aphids or pinch off the tops of the plants! I just left them to it...

A week or two later there were plenty of ladybirds still around, and lots of their larvae too...

And a week or two after that - no more blackfly! Just a few corpses remain on the stems, ants picking over them rather sadly, and the bean pods are well on their way. That's 100% pest control, with no spraying, squishing or other interference from us. Hurrah!

These broad beans are close to where we'd grown some phacelia as a green manure over winter - the phacelia was flowering by this point and covered with busy bees - and since ladybirds tend to like feathery-foliaged plants I presume this is what brought so many to the area. When I finally pulled the phacelia up I certainly found plenty more ladybirds sheltering there! A pesticide-free plot, no-dig beds, and plenty of sheltered places for insects to overwinter are helping make our plot even more hospitable to predatory insects such as these, and there are plenty of other plants we can grow to encourage them too; cosmos, dill, parsley, fennel, angelica, caraway, coriander and yarrow are all good choices which should be left to flower for best effect (slugs ate all my dill - boooo!) as well as flowering herbs such as mint, lemon balm and thyme. They're trickier to photograph, but there are definitely more little parasitic wasps on the plot this year too.

I love it when a plan comes together. Score one for permaculture!

Parasitic wasp laying an egg

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


Well, I haven't really been blogging as much as I intended this spring, but there's a very good reason. I've been unexpectedly busy with an exciting new community food project...

I joined the steering group for FoodSmiles back in September when it formed - the outcome of a public meeting run by Transition members as part of the St Albans Food and Drink Festival. The idea was to start a CSA - Community Supported Agriculture - project in St Albans. CSAs across the world take many forms, from meat-shares and food co-ops or 'hubs' to community-run farms, but our aim was to rent a smallish piece of spare land from a local farmer or grower, grow our own produce there, and share it among our members, with the aims of reducing food miles and making food-growing and locally-grown food more accessible to the community.

In April we secured a piece of land at the organic-certified Hammonds End Farm, just outside St Albans. It's small, but it's a lovely spot, with polytunnels already onsite, and we couldn't ask for a more supportive landlord!

Starting late in the spring has meant it's a bit of a race-against-time to get all our seeds in the ground, which is hard clay and very stony (the farmer generously ploughed and harrowed it for us before we arrived, but it still needs lengthy prep before sowing!) and a bad flea beetle problem has meant resowing the first of our brassicas. The polytunnels had some big holes and needed repairs before use (one still does), and the organic certification of the farm, while a really positive thing, means we have to be very careful to use only organic seeds and plants, soil amendments and treatments, and keep strict records of everything we do onsite. So as 'site co-ordinator', I have been quite busy...


But we've got some dedicated and enthusiastic members, we've had some great support from local garden centre Aylett Nurseries, who donated organic compost and equipment to get us started, and it's all go on the site! Our potatoes, carrots, lettuces, parsnips, swedes and broad beans are all growing well, we're raising courgettes and squashes ready to plant out soon, and we're about to fill the polytunnels with cucumbers (from seed), peppers, chillies and tomatoes (from Rocket Gardens).

As you'll know if you read this blog often, bringing food production back home and back to communities is something I'm really passionate about, so I'm enormously honoured and proud to be so heavily involved in a project like this, and very grateful to those with the vision to kickstart it! We can only support 25 to 30 members this year, but we hope to grow and grow, possibly producing eggs, meat, and who-knows-what-else in the future, and truly bringing a new source of local food to St Albans. Its hard work at the moment but the plot's already a wonderful place and I know in a few months it will be bursting with lovely fresh veg for us all - and it's great to see lots of new friendships between like-minded people blossoming too!

FoodSmiles is on facebook and twitter if you want to know more or follow our latest updates. We still have a few membership places available so if you're local and you'd like to join us, get in touch!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Perennial Kale Cuttings

Perennial vegetables have loads of advantages to both the gardener and the planet. Where perennial crops are grown the soil can relax and get on with being great soil with abundant microlife, while ploughed soils for annual crops lose their vitality and are more prone to leaching and erosion. An area filled with perennial plants, which mimics nature, supports much more wildlife than an area that's replanted each year or each season. For the gardener, perennials save on labour and often need less care thanks to their extensive established root systems, and plants tend to suffer less from insect damage. Perennial food plants also get a head start on the new season and can help fill the 'hungry gap' around this time of year, after the winter crops have finished but before the summer ones are ready.

The perennial Daubenton's kale I bought from Backyard Larder last year did really well and was tasty and productive, putting out new shoots at every leaf node, but I neglected to give it the support it needed and it ended up a bit unruly and bent-over - and I had to move it to a pot early this spring to make way for a new raised bed.

Towards the end of the winter it put out loads of new shoots all up and down the main stem, and I saw the opportunity to propagate some new plants from it, to add to my new perennial patch on the allotment and perhaps to replace this original one if it didn't make a good recovery.

I'd never taken cuttings before and I couldn't really find any information on how to take brassica cuttings online, but in January I carefully cut a few shoots from the plant, poked holes in some soil in a deep tray, popped the cuttings in and firmed them down. I left them outside in the cold and made sure to keep them moist. They wilted a bit and some of the outer leaves died off, but then they perked up again and seemed sort of healthy.

When I lifted them after a few weeks, however, they still hadn't formed any roots. So I tucked them back into the soil and tried a second batch, using bigger shoots this time as I thought perhaps they'd have more energy. They looked even worse than the first lot had!

I stuck with both batches though, and after another month or so I noticed some looked different to the others; some looked blueish and dark, while others were a brighter green. I lifted them again and sure enough, the greener ones had lovely white healthy roots.

Another month on, all seven plants have now rooted and are potted up and doing well, albeit at different stages of development! Some of them took as little as four weeks and others took nearly four months, but it just goes to show that a little patience and care pays off. The most important thing is to keep the soil moist and the slugs away! The original plant is now propped up and doing well again but still stuck in a pot, waiting for a new home, and I'm looking forward to planting my new perennial kale plants out on the plot and giving the rest away at our allotment association plant swap this weekend!  :-)

Friday, 11 April 2014

Complete Organic Fertiliser

My last post, Grow Your Own Nutrition, was all about how I'm intending to remineralise my soil for the best results in my garden and allotment, and how it's really all about feeding the soil, not the plants - if you missed it please do take a look. The best way to remineralise a soil is to send off a soil sample to a lab, find out exactly what it's got and calculate exactly what it needs, and my new favourite book The Intelligent Gardener can help to do that. But The Intelligent Gardener offers a simpler one-size-fits-all solution too, and because I've got a lot else going on this spring and I could really do with another read-through of the book before I jump in too deep, I've decided to use this recommended 'Complete Organic Fertiliser' (COF) for my plot this year. Steve Solomon, the author, stresses that COF has its limitations and can cause its own imbalances if used year on year, but promises much better results - better growth, better plant health, better flavour and far more nutritious food - than with the conventional organic way of feeding soil just with compost and manure.

There's a version of the COF recipe online here in Solomon's own words, so it can't hurt to share the recipe I've settled on with you here. In the book, Solomon recommends a few other optional additions, but I'm keeping it simple this year and sticking to the main ingredients below:

4 parts seedmeal
Seedmeal is what's left over when oils are pressed, and added to soil it provides a natural, highly-effective, slow-release source of nitrogen as the soil organisms feed on it.

1/3 part lime, 1/3 part dolomite lime, 1/3 part gypsum
The lime provides calcium - probably the most important soil mineral - while the dolomite and gypsum provide more calcium plus doses of magnesium and sulphur, respectively.

1 part bonemeal
This provides phosphorus. There are other things you could use, such as hard or soft rock phosphate - arguably better as it doesn't contain the sodium that bonemeal does - but bonemeal is more sustainable and more easily available, and soil needs a little sodium anyway.

1 part seaweed meal
Seaweed meal is rich in trace elements and also provides plant hormones which boost plants' natural defences.

This mix is to be applied once a year, at a rate of 4-6 litres per 100 square feet, along with a modest amount of compost or manure. If the thought of adding lime to soil every year challenges you, or you're wondering why there's no potassium in the mix (actually, there's just a little in the seedmeal), do go back and read my previous post!

Bonemeal and lime were easy to find in a garden centre, and I ordered the seaweed meal, dolomite and gypsum from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. The seedmeal presented a bit more of a challenge: it's apparently sold as animal feed in the US and Tasmania, where Solomon lives, but here in the UK I struggled to find it anywhere - but I eventually found a friendly local farmer growing rapeseed for oil who was happy to sell me a couple of big bagfuls. It came as quite large pellets, which wouldn't mix well with the powdered ingredients, so I've been stomping on it in a washing up bowl to smash the pellets up.


They don't break down completely - it'd take ages! - but it's a big improvement. I found using a stick blender worked really well too - until the thing overheated. Now I have to buy a new stick blender... Doh!

I've been making COF in small 7 litre batches using 1 litre as 1 part - partly because I have only ordinary-sized buckets to mix it in, partly because I'm using it bit-by-bit anyway as each bed gets prepared for planting, and partly to reduce any effects of the stuff not mixing together evenly: if I find a pile of seedmeal pellets at the bottom of the bucket it's easy enough to remedy on a small area.

It's dusty stuff, and I've had to be careful to mix it (and spread it) when winds are low to stop all the gypsum and dolomite blowing away!

Solomon recommends digging it into the soil, but it can also just be raked into the surface for no dig plots like (most of) mine.

I've spread it over much of the plot already and I intend to use it everywhere. It's too early to see the results, but you can be sure I'll keep you posted!
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