Tuesday, 24 February 2009

To dig or not to dig?

Perceived wisdom amongst gardeners is that you dig the soil over every winter/spring in preparation for spring crops. Likewise, farmers plough fields and do secondary cultivations such as rotavating or harrowing. It's almost taken as read - that's how it's always been done, so why question it?

There are many good reasons for digging or cultivating. But there are equally as many bad ones, largely relating to soil health. See, the problem is, we just don't understand enough that soil is an incredible ecosystem - complex, rich, diverse and supports life when treated well. The standard to which many farmers treat their soil is truly abysmal, seeing it as nothing more than a medium in which to grow plants and pour on agro-chemicals.rivers), is quite incredible - and yet most people disregard its vital importance. A single teaspoonfull of healthy soil contains billions of organisms!!

I decided to start an experiment last year to see just how good no-dig growing is. I've been inspired by the wonderful Charles Dowding, who is a real pioneer of the no-dig approach, having an excellent 1.5 acre growing site and has written an excellent book, Organic Gardening. To think that just a 6 inch deep layer of soil, across the world, supports almost the entire human population (bar products from seas and rivers) is incredible.

In the picture is a field of lettuce, taken last June. The three beds on the right have lettuce grown through white plastic, to minimise water loss and weed invasion. On the left are two beds that have just a layer of mature compost (about an inch or two's depth when laid), and then not cultivated.

There was no difference in the growth rates between the two and it was noticeable that whilst (of course) more weeds came up on the left, they got fewer through the season, because the soil wasn't being turned over. It also looks a lot better and doesn't involve any plastic.

For this reason I will be expanding the area I use zero tillage, looking carefully at the effects it has on soil quality, water holding capacity and weed burden over time. I'll come back to this subject in the summer.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Planting and sowing by the moon

Biodynamic farmers work by a philosophy quite unlike any other farmers and growers. It's like organic growing, but goes much further by viewing the farm itself as a living organism that can be improved and strengthened by working with cosmic and lunar forces. It is a very powerful movement that originated in Germany in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner, and now proponents exist worldwide.

On Scilly we see the effect of the moon on the tides twice a day, every day. Trillions of gallons of sea water being pulled around the planet, what an amazing force that must be - here a difference of over 18 feet between high and low water at spring tides.

So surely that lunar influence also strongly affects the land? Of course, because it's not obvious means most of us don't notice it. Indeed most people don't see the moon. But outside here tonight, as I write, just a day after full moon, it is so bright outside it's like daylight - an enormous difference to nights at new moon, where it can be really pitch black.

The biodynamic movement has long known about the strong lunar effects on plants and animals. Huge amounts of research have taken place to correlate lunar and planetary influences, and the effects these have on plant growth.

The culmination of this research is the wonderful Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar by Maria and Matthias Thun. Its produced every year and details how the moon and planetary phases affect plants every day of the year, and consequently when is the best day to sow or plant certain crops.

I've decided I must stick by it this year, as I've only really dabbled with it before. It's a commitment for sure, but I'm very interested to know what difference it makes. The biodynamic farmers swear by it and who am I to just dismiss it without really trying it properly?

A blog on Biodynamic preparations will follow at some point!

If you'd like a copy of the book, go to Floris Books. It's a very interesting read even if you're not intending to follow it.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow on Scilly

The first proper snow on Scilly in 22 years has fallen. Compare the photo on the last blog with this one!

My first spuds are planted below this blanket of snow! Fortunately they're not poking their shoots up yet, which is a good job. I imagine these temperatures will slow them down a little bit.