Monday, 10 December 2018

Winter Salad from the Foraging Garden

This week, I'm joining in with the lovely Happy Acres Blog's 'Harvest Monday' feature and am sharing my morning's harvest with you. It's the beginning of my abundant free salad season - my perennial salad plants seem to be at their best from now through until the spring, so I'm looking forward to a season ahead with lots of fresh salad. I'm also feeling super chuffed at not having had to lift a finger to make that happen!

So for my lunch time salad today, I picked:

Some wild rocket from the flower bed. This plant is probably about five years old now and I thought it had had it actually. But as you can see, it's still soldiering on, even if it is a little long in the tooth!

It's just starting to pick up after I chopped all the flower heads off during the autumn, so this is the start of my rocket season. During the summer, I still use it a little, but it tends to get little holes nibbled into it from flea beetles, so I'm a bit selective about which visitors I feed it too! Over winter this isn't a problem. Today, I used this as the bulk ingredient.

Nearby, I still have a little milky bellflower in leaf, which is good and mild flavoured again now it's finished flowering.

I also picked a little sweet violet leaf from under my apple tree. This one tastes good, but is a little hairy. Not the texture you tend to think of when planning a salad! So I just put a little in and generally no-one notices.

My lamb's lettuce is just starting to come through. I bought seed for this maybe ten years ago now and since then I've never needed to sow it again - it appears in my vegetable beds (and some flower beds) each autumn and grows away until it flowers and goes to seed in the spring. At that point, I weed it all out to make room for vegetables, but so long as I let it seed, it always comes back in the autumn. This is a really good, mild salad leaf with lovely flavour and texture. A little later in the winter I should be able to use this as a bulk ingredient too. Right now I just have little bits to use, but it's well worth adding in nevertheless.

Also in the vegetable garden are a  few marigold plants, which are still flowering away well. I just use the petals, although you can eat the whole flower.

Over to the forest garden, I have some new salad plants - my saltbushes. These are related to quinoa and so are really mineral rich. And they really do taste salty! The leaves have a great texture and the flavour is really good too.

Lastly were some primrose flowers from under my silver birch tree.

We ate this for lunch with a simple honey, oil and vinegar dressing and some roast squash.

For more harvesting inspiration, head over to Happy Acres to see what else is coming out of the garden right now!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Drought Relief - A Regenerative Gardening Approach

It's currently pouring with rain, so it seems rather odd to be sat here writing about drought relief! But this year we had a really hot, dry summer and plants around here really suffered. So with that in mind, I'm taking measures to improve things for the years to come. And I'm using a biological, regenerative approach.

If you're into organic gardening and haven't come across the regenerative approach, I urge you strongly to find out more! I've been banging on about helping your soil food web, increasing the microbes in your soil for a while, but this year I did a bunch of research, listened to some lectures, read a few books and feel like I've emerged with much better understanding of what's going on between our plants, the soil and the life in the soil. This regenerative approach is not just really helpful to me in the garden, it's also rather exciting! Perhaps in a geeky kind of way, I admit! But I think I'm going to have projects to work on off the back of all of this for many years to come, as I explore the implications of this new way of looking at  the world. Very nice! I'll list up some sources of info for you at the bottom of the post if you want some pointers for your own research.

So drought prevention is all about allowing rain to infiltrate your soil and then providing the means for it to hang around without waterlogging the area. You've got a few steps to think about - firstly - where is rain being prevented from soaking in? Days like today are perfect for investigating this - get your raincoat on and head out there to see where water is pooling up. These areas have a problem and if you have a heavy clay soil like me, you're sure to be able to find them. If you're on a sandy soil, you can skip this step (step 1 below) and move on to step 2 - working to hold on to water.

So for a clay soil - you've found your puddling areas, and you'll notice that these are likely to be areas with moss or other problem weeds with either sharp, creeping roots or tap rooting ones, such as couch grass, dock and thistle. In these areas, there is soil compaction going on at some level in the soil profile - maybe at or near the top, but maybe deeper down. Where you have soil compaction and water logging, your plant roots cannot penetrate. They need oxygen. To be healthy, your plants need microbes and beneficial microbes cannot survive in waterlogged conditions. Disease causing ones can survive here. It's really important to sort this out.

You have two steps to improve this:

Step 1. Open up the clay using compost and grit/sharp sand.

This is the classic advice for these situations and doing this provides instant gaps between the tiny clay particles, allowing water and oxygen in. Where you have open soil, free from plants, dig these materials in. Mix them with your soil to at least a spade's depth, but ideally these areas should be double dug - dig out soil to a spade's depth and then fork over the base, mixing in compost and grit to a second spade's depth. For areas with established perennial plants, use a combination of a compost mulch, along with narrow yet deep holes filled with compost and grit/sand. To do this, use a sharpened bean pole, metal rod or similar to punch holes an inch or two wide and at least a foot deep into the soil all around your plants. Mix compost and grit/sand together in a bucket and sprinkle it into the holes.

Step 2. Seed your soil with microbes to keep it both free draining and moisture retentive in the long term.

Step one, if done using shop bought compost, can easily revert back to rubbish, waterlogged soil. Unless, that is, you set up a system for the soil to keep itself open and to keep adding more organic matter to itself each year. What I'm about to describe paradoxically helps a sandy soil in the opposite way, by also helping the soil to hold on to any water passing through. For both good drainage and moisture retention as a long term condition, you need microbes - this is where the biological, regenerative approach comes in.

Add either home made compost, a well made, aerated compost tea or a shop bought microbial soil amendment, such as an EM1 liquid feed or my current favourite from here in the UK - Microbz soil improver.

aerated compost tea
Watering on aerated compost tea. Note the large holes in the watering can's rose - big enough to let the microbes through.

Microbes do three important things for the soil, in terms of drought resistance.

Firstly, they form symbiotic relationships with plants, helping them to produce ever more complex chemical structures, from simple sugars, right up to enzymes, proteins, lipids (fats) and ultimately the complex organic compounds, better known as humic acids. These humic substances are stable, organic compounds. Unlike the organic matter in shop bought compost, they cannot be digested and broken down into simpler substances, such as carbon dioxide gas. They are a stable store of carbon in the soil and will help your soil to maintain a good structure. Your soil will soak in more water, yet will be free draining enough for this water not to puddle up.

Secondly, micro organisms actively improve the structure of the soil themselves by producing a glue like substance that binds tiny soil particles into micro aggregates. Bacteria make tiny soil aggregates and fungi produce larger, yet still very small ones. All in all, your soil will become more randomly structured and so more naturally porous. Water will soak in and drain through your soil more extensively. Plant roots will be able to extend more deeply and thoroughly into the soil, enabling your plants to reach deeper stores of water during dry weather.

fungal hyphae in compost
In this magnified image of some activated compost, you can clearly see the fungal hyphae as white strands. This compost has been prepared this way to make an aerated compost tea that is rich in fungi for my more woody plants.

The third important drought busting thing that microbes do, is to use these soil aggregates to feed water to plants. Water will cling on to these teeny tiny clumps of soil in a microfilm around them, even under the driest of conditions. Experiments have shown how much water can be held this way: If a fully saturated soil is described as being 100% saturated with water, a dry, dusty soil that blows about in the wind - the type we had here in the UK in abundance last summer - is still 70% saturated!!! That's a lot of unexpected water! It's just that the water is held as a microfilm around the soil aggregates. Under normal farming conditions, or in gardens that use a lot of chemicals or have been suffering with water logged soil - ie where there are no beneficial microbes - this is a problem, as plants can't access water that is held in this way. The water is too tightly bound to the soil particles for plant roots to be able to pull it off. But microbes can get at this water and if you have lots of those in your soil, forming symbiotic relationships with your plants, they will feed this water to your plants in return for some of the sugars that your plants are producing each day.

So it's a win win situation! Drought shmought!

As I said, the way to increase microbes in your soil is by adding home made compost, an aerated compost tea or a microbial product, such as EM1 or Microbz. The best times to apply these things are the autumn and spring. This needs to be coupled up really with full plant cover - microbes and plants come together, the one feeding the other. To grow more microbes, you need to grow more plants as they live and thrive in the root systems of your plants.

Once you've set up this system, it is self perpetuating and you don't need to repeat it unless something drastic happens - like you use heavy machinery on the soil during wet weather, compacting it again. Or in a vegetable garden, that gets dug up regularly - this will damage and at least partly destroy the microbe communities in the soil, so it is worth seeding these in once a year.

As I said, I've been toying around with some of these ideas for years, but feel like I'm only now getting to grips with the wider implications of our microbial helpers. This year is the first year I've been applying these techniques broadscale in my garden. I'm looking forward to seeing the results of this and will keep you posted. If you're liking the sound of this, give it a go! And if you do, it'd be great to hear how it's working for you, so post us up something in the comments below.

For more information about regenerative practices, good starters include:

Regeneration International, who are working to increase the use of this approach globally. International news about this is posted up on their page along with their own blog articles. Inspirational reading.

Advancing Eco Agriculture are based in the US. They provide loads of free information - a blog, podcast, webinars and you tube lectures about using the regenerative approach in farming. They're doing some great work.

The book - Farm as Ecosystem - by Jerry Brunetti is a great primer.

Lastly - search for anything by Elaine Ingham on you tube. She's just great!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Introducing Tuesday’s Robin

In all the gardens I work in, there is a friendly robin, who often comes to see what I’m up to. The garden I work in on Tuesdays had the friendliest robin of all. Sometimes he follows me around all day, hopping quite close to inspect any fresh earth I’ve turned over or perching in the bushes or trees nearby to sing me a little song.

It’s in the autumn and winter that I see him do this the most - when he isn’t busy chatting up the ladies and looking after his young chicks as he does in the spring and summer. This time of year, even if I’m not digging over any soil, he often turns up nearby and will sing me a soft and quiet song, rather than his usual territorial exclamation of a song that he calls from the treetops. This song is gentle and meandering and given the muted volume and the fact that he follows me around to sing it, it appears to be sung just for me.

This week I managed to get you a recording so you can hear tuesday’s robin too. Please excuse the sound of my clipping in the background! He was sitting in the hedge right beside me while I chopped up materials for the compost.

I wouldn't call myself an expert at befriending robins, for that you'd need to turn to someone like Jon Young and his amazing bird book 'What the Robin Knows'. However, my top tips for this are:

1. Make a point of spending good chunks of time in the garden as a whole and working away in a single spot in particular.

2. Start letting your robin know you've seen it and that you're friendly, rather than a threat. If a robin approaches, say hello! Don't turn and stare at him - he might find this threatening. Instead, once you've spotted he's there, get back to what you were doing and just perhaps keep an eye on him out of the corner of your eye.

3. You could try playing a little call and response - this is something birds do with each other - one will sing a little tune and then the other will sing a little tune back and then the first one will reply again and then the second and so on. So hum, whistle or sing a little tune and then pause and see if your robin will sing back. Or wait for your robin to sing and then when he pauses, sing a little tune back. You may find you get a nice little duet going! You might find he takes to this straight away or it may take a good few tries to get something like this going.

4. If a robin approaches really quite close, keep still or only move very slowly and chat to him, so he can get used to you. You may eventually find that he hops right up to you and looks you in the eye. This is a really special thing!

5. The next step I'm working towards is to be able to feed my little robin. I've done it once with a little worm, but I've tried and failed so many times. You need to build up some trust first and then very gently toss something kind of towards but not directly at him. Usually I've found that anything thrown towards a robin scares him off. It's all about slow movement and a lot of patience. The time he took it, I carefully put it down and then slowly looked away - but made sure I could still see him out the corner of my eye. And I waited a while... and then hooray - he came and took it!

One thing you'll find as well as you get to know your robin is that they all have distinct personalities. One robin I've met - he used to come visit me on wednesdays - was great for call and response games. He'd sing so very softly and we'd sing/whistle back and forth to each other for ages. He used to be really plucky and would come sit on the edge of my weed bucket to watch what I was putting in. Tuesday's robin is a louder singer. He sings away merrily by himself, often long and beautiful songs. He's taken longer to become comfortable enough with me to get down on the ground and inspect my work, while I'm still at it. My robin at home is only just now starting to pay me visits while I'm out in the garden, but then I don't have such a regular routine with tending my own garden and often have noisy children with me!

So I definitely recommend keeping an eye out for your robin. Or whichever bird it is that is friendliest where you live. It's a lovely way to begin to feel connected to the natural world around you.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

A Festival of Leaves

It’s been such a beautiful autumn this year. Driving out in the countryside and working out in the garden has been a real pleasure for all those wonderful fiery tones all around.

And I’m getting a really good leaf harvest now they’re finally dropping. 

I’ve been collecting them up to make into leaf mould. If you’re not doing this already, I really recommend it. It’s a fantastic soil conditioner. It is full of organic matter and, more importantly, full of just the right kind of microbes for everything from a forest garden to a perennial bed - all those plants that will grow in a mature, forest ecosystem. If you think about it, these plants in the wild would expect a yearly dose of fallen leaves. This leaf fall is not just pretty, it’s a key event in the calendar for forest ecosystems. In fact, if you think about it, it’s basically soil critter Christmas!

This feast of autumn leaves means it’s time for microbes in the soil to get fat! Or certainly for their numbers to swell as they take on the monumental task of gorging themselves until every last leaf has been turned into soil - into organic matter, into plant food, into more fungi, bacteria, predatory protozoa, nematodes, micro arthropods and arthropods. In short - more workers for those forest plants to help them find the right kinds of foods they need in the year to come. To get back to our Christmas analogy -  it’s like us stocking up on new socks, that new gadget for the kitchen or toys for the kids - the things we need to keep us going through the year. Each different species of microbe has a different specialism - a different mineral, for example, that they’re particularly good at mining for. So long as these microbes are there in the soil, the plants can call on them when a particular mineral is needed to help grow flowers intead of leaves or to help synthesise the appropriate substances needed to fight off a pest attack.

In a garden environment, we’ve taken a bit of a step away from natural ecosystems and tend to have a variety of different ecosystem types all rubbing up against each other. Fallen leaves are fine in areas that grow the types of plants found in woodland habitats - perennial beds, shrubberies or woodland gardens, for example. But we don’t want our lawn or driveway to start thinking about growing forest plants, so fallen leaves and the soil environment they create are a problem for these areas and it needs us to step in and help out by raking up those leaves. We’re basically holding succession back - halting the natural inclination of the environment to grow up, mature and become a forest.

So we rake up leaves from lawns, driveways, patios, vegetable beds - anywhere we don’t want to grow those forest style plants. I either pile mine up into huge mounds, or where I can, I make chicken wire pens to pour them in to. On a small scale, you can fill black bin bags punched with holes or hessian sacks. Make sure your leaves are damp, but not totally sodden. Site them somewhere shady and leave for at least a year. Apply the resultant black, crumbly leaf mould in the autumn to any appropriate garden beds bereft of their own festival of fallen leaves!

Friday, 27 May 2016

Understanding Soil Ecosystems

I've been doing a little research into soil ecosystems. After all, this is what my no-dig approach is all about - supporting those networks of life within the soil that help to keep it healthy and full of nutrients for my plants. And what I've found out has made me even more adamant that the no dig approach is the way forward. I've also learnt some very useful new tips about managing the soil in an appropriate manner for the type of plants I'm trying to grow.

My main source has been Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis's book 'Teaming With Microbes' and I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in finding out more about some of the science behind the no dig approach. The basic conclusions of their book are that it's important to look after the complex ecosystems in the soil as microorganisms in the soil readily provide all the nutrients our plants need to grow just as a by product of being alive. Different types of soil ecosystems exist for different types of plants and we can manage the soil carefully to encourage the system needed for whatever we're trying to grow.

Just think about it - no additions of man made fertiliser, synthetic or organically produced, are needed in an old growth forest. Thriving and abundantly healthy natural systems exist because of this soil based support system, which can only be found in undisturbed soil. Hence the no dig approach. As soon as you dig the soil, you smash up delicate networks of mycorrhizae, you throw deep soil micro organisms to the top and bury those that prefer to be at the surface. Whole hosts of organisms can't recover from this shock and are wiped out. Their complex interconnected networks have to be completely rebuilt. Additions of fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides are also lethal to this system. Intensively farmed soils are consequently all but dead.

But when they are left undisturbed, it's an amazing system and it's something that we can support through careful management practices.

The soil contains ecosystems every bit as complex as those in the rainforest, temperate woodland or coral reef, for example. All manner of beasts make homes alongside each other - predators and prey both visible to the naked eye and so tiny we can't perceive them without magnification. In a single handful of soil, there are more organisms than there are people on the planet. Think of the worlds of activity going on in a simple back yard with all that mini life hidden beneath the surface.

They're busy at it - living, thriving, hunting, scavenging, dying, eating, excreting, creating the basis of all live above their world - food for our plants.

The main organisms we're interested in are the smallest - the fungi and the bacteria. They consume the wastes of larger soil organisms and the wastes they produce are nitrogen based and form the bulk of soil-based plant foods. Fungi produce ammonium and bacteria produce nitrates. Both of these natural forms of nitrogen are in a plant-ready format and are more easily absorbed by plants than synthetic forms of nitrogen. Neither is washed out by rain water in the same way that synthetic fertilisers are, making more food available to plants.

And handily, the soils that fungi thrive the most in are those that support the types of plant that like ammonium based nitrogen - forest soils. Bacterially dominated soils - producing nitrates - support plants that are less woody and with typically shorter life spans- your vegetable garden or lawn, for example.

Here are a few top tips for encouraging the right kind of soil food web for your plants :

- for a bacterially dominated soil (eg the vegetable garden), use a home made compost with green plants as the main ingredient. Either incorporate this into the top layer of soil or use it as a mulch on top.

- for a fungally dominated soil (eg forest garden or shrub and perennial plant based flower bed), use a home made compost with brown materials as the main ingredient. A leaf mould is ideal. Apply as a mulch. Don't work into the soil. You can also simply add woody materials as a mulch- little piles or a mulch of prunings of twigs and small branches or even woodchips can all help tip the soil food web more towards a natural woodland type.


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