Thursday, 27 March 2014

Allotment Week, Part Two: Goodbye Digging!

Think about allotments or growing-your-own, and digging is probably one of the first activities that comes to mind. But digging, it seems, is not the best choice for the soil, and more and more gardeners are giving it up. I've been following the work of gardening author and teacher Charles Dowding, who promotes no-dig gardening, and the efforts of Roy and Tanya from Pushing up Dandelions, who created a wonderful and productive no-dig plot from scratch last year by bringing in mulch, manure and compost from offsite, and the advantages are clear:
  • It preserves and protects beneficial soil life: the six legged kind, the wriggling kind and the oft-forgotten complex fungal organisms that weave their mycelia through the dirt.
  • The soil develops a more stable and open structure, which admits air and water, drains well and can be walked on (carefully) without compacting.
  • The soil surface stays loose and is less likely to harden into a crust.
  • Leaving roots and other organic matter in the soil to decompose naturally adds structure and nutrients.
  • Regular digging means old weed seeds in the soil are constantly brought to the surface where they can germinate and grow.
  • Most crops actually establish better and grow faster in undug soil, thanks to its improved structure and microlife.
  • Digging takes a lot of time and can be jolly hard work!

(For more about no-dig gardening, check out this handy leaflet from Garden Organic.)

When we started out with our plot, I don't think we could possibly have avoided digging: the couchgrass problem was severe, and we couldn't have afforded to ship in enough compost to just cover it up - and anyway we wanted to grow in the fertile allotment soil, not shipped-in compost from goodness-knows-where! But now, having dug annually for a few years and finally gotten rid of most of the grass across the main growing area of the plot, we're making the big switch to no-dig gardening...

The two beds in the foreground of the pic above have only needed hand-weeding for the last year or so. We helped the third one along last year by basically digging all the soil out of it to about a foot deep, lining it with a couple of layers of thick cardboard to smother the grass, and putting the soil back minus the grass roots! Our squashes grew well here last year and again, it only needed hand-weeding. The cardboard will decompose eventually, but hopefully it will take long enough to smother and kill off any remaining perennial roots below.

Our card-lined no-dig squash bed!
The fourth bed, way over near the compost bin, is still chock-full of grass. We're planning to grow potatoes there this year and Eddie has started to dig it, but those plans may yet change to no-dig plans...

You will have noticed we've put in some (hopefully) permanent paths now, too, lined with weedproof fabric, edged with bricks and filled in with woodchip. This added structure will really help us keep control of things better, I think, and provides something of a barrier to any remaining weeds and those creeping in from the sides.

Taken last summer
So anyway, now we've got a big weed-free area, we're giving up on our thoroughly weed-ridden strawberry and asparagus beds, and planting a new perennials bed was our other main task for 'allotment week'. Below you can see how our old strawberry bed looks right now, and the asparagus bed is in the same state. Hand-weeding them every year when the couchgrass is obviously still so established is just soul-destroying. We were obviously very naive about how long it would take and how hard it would be to get rid of the perennial weeds!

Our old strawberry bed - yuk!
Our new perennial bed has 24 strawberry plants in two raised beds (Florence, Mae, Lucy and Albion runners transplanted from the old bed and from home) and two new rows of asparagus (10 x Gjinlim and 10 x Backlim). Eventually we'll also plant some globe artichokes, a perennial kale or two, and some herbs!

Asparagus crowns going in the ground
So here it is: our new perennials bed (with fox protection on the far raised bed, as we keep finding decomposing animals and bones in it!). There are still a few swedes and leeks here too, but we're getting through them fast now. It won't be long before the asparagus is popping through the soil and the strawberries start leafing up again!

In the meantime, I've taken some cuttings from our perennial Daubenton kale to go here...

...and I'm raising Green Globe artichokes from seed at home. They say you get a lot of duds growing artichokes from seed, so I started by sowing 20 seeds, and culled the weaker ones from the 16 that germinated, so now I have ten. I'll be sure to get rid of any others that don't keep up, and if there are still more than I can handle, I'll take the surplus to swaps! I have bought artichoke plants before but they struggled and died (they were in the troubled bottom end of the plot, where the compost bin now is) and they were expensive! Seed is much cheaper!

Of course, there's still some digging to do: we need to start from square one on the remaining grassy areas now, including the old strawberry and asparagus beds. But it's great to know we can now start to say goodbye to that back-breaking chore we had to get through each season before we could start the fun stuff, and I know the plot's going to be much more productive for it!


Sarah Raven said...

How exciting! The allotment is looking great - well done.

mark abbott-compton said...

Looking good home grown asparagus well worth waiting for

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