Time to Learn About Soil

Andrew's been off with The Kindling Trust over the weekend and will be with them over the next few weeks to learn about running a food growing business. On Saturday Andrew spent the day on Fir Tree Community Growers Cropshare in Cheshire being taught by Jenny Griggs. Some of you may know Jenny, who earlier in her career wrote the wonderful book Growing Green: Animal-Free Organic Techniques with Iain Tolhurst. A big part of the day was understanding how soil works and the maintenance of soil, it blew away some of the gardening ideas that are still in use today both on allotments and on television.

Stop digging you're killing your soil.

Though Fir Tree doesn't use animal manure, they rely on green manures and fungal compost - we'll get to them - they did blow the myth about spreading muck on your plot in autumn. There is little benefit in digging in animal muck before a wet winter for the nitrogen will leach out any nutrients you want before spring. Yes, soil structure will be improved but it won't feed your plants. The best time to dig in muck or any green manure is in spring before planting; as long as the muck is more than six months old. Muck younger than that can have a risk of transferring E.coli 0157 into your crops and then you. What fascinated us is that Fir Tree don't use animal manures but instead relies on organic pelleted nitrogen, green manures and bacterial compost. Whilst we were there, we saw several acres sown to red clover. This protects and covers the soil over winter, locking in nitrogen. In autumn, fungal compost - well rotted leafmould and woodchip - is sprinkled in between the growing clover. This rots down, adding humus to the soil as the clover over winters. Then, six weeks before planting the whole lot is mowed down and then rotavated in and left to rot down.

Better crops for less back breaking work.

However, it was the principal of under sowing that hooked us in; to sow clover in the first week of July between existing crops. It doesn't work for all crops. For example, onions won't like it as they do not tolerate weeds but perpetual spinach will (see the image above). Then when the crops die back or are cleared you will not be faced with empty ground. There is a distinct argument for not leaving soil bare at anytime of the year. Jenny showed us a map of the world, showing in 1997 the state of desertification, and the areas of degraded soil. Sadly, where we are the soil is designated as degraded due to the clearing of the uplands of trees many centuries ago. This means most land round here is only fit for cows and sheep, and the only way they are still here is because of the use of chemicals. This has been compounded further by the use of silage and the stripping of grassland to make it. As I write this they are making silage in the fields out front, this is the first of maybe two or three crops. It means nothing good is being returned to the soil.

Good soil management doesn't mean chemicals.

This is something we have become passionate about on our 1/4 acre. The desire to learn from our mistakes, we have spoken about our previous use of sprays and the effects it had, and why we will never return to using them. We all see the effects of sprays and chemicals in our day to day lives, in the fields we pass, in the lack of wildlife in the freshly ploughed fields and in the rise of cancer and other illnesses in our society. We're not going to get into an argument about cancer and agriculture here, there have been enough studies worldwide to corroborate that cancers have been linked to the use of chemicals in food production. We are not here to point fingers, we at Pig Row are trying to make a change and leave the world better off than when we got here. That means we want to learn from our mistakes and embrace a more sustainable model of growing. Though the Wartime Garden has meant that we have not been leaving gaps on our hillside, we are at present faced with an early spring garden that does have bare beds and we don't want this. The reason is simple, bare beds = weeds. Weeds = weeding. Weeds = digging. We want to avoid all this if we can as digging does bring more weed seeds to the surface. So we are learning to employ mulches and how we can improve the soil without digging. This is has led us down the minimum digging route, also known as minimum tillage. This basically means no digging, more mulching, something we will be using this year on our hillside. Yet, there is coming a point, with Andrew's back, getting older and general carting of muck that means that the use of clover seems to be a practical, low impact route into keeping fertility and growing into old age.