It’s not often you find yourself waiting impatiently for rain when you live in the UK, but that’s what I’ve found myself doing for the last 36 hours. Here’s the thing. I’ve read all the books, researched online, then read the books some more. But until I see my earthworks dealing with a real rain event, there’s going to be a niggling doubt there. And it’s not rained in a week. It’s meant to rain tonight and tomorrow so I’m keeping everything crossed while muttering at the dark clouds on the horizon.
Today , after finishing tidying it up with spades, we’ve planted the berm of the swale up a little. We’ve put in the only proper apple tree we have, that a friend kindly gave us. I’ve carved it a little niche in the berm and lined it with stone to protect it while it’s little. We also put three autumn olive bushes around it. They’re a nitrogen fixing fruiting shrub that should do well here. We’ve put in 40 hybrid willow as a nursery crop, along with a few sycamore we found growing in the old garage. The plan is to replace them gradually as we buy the fruit and nut varieties we want. They can be chipped to be turned into a mulch that will encourage the fungally dominated soil we want to develop on the berm. We’ve put in four black locust on the end of the berm nearest the veg garden. They only produce a thin canopy even when they have leaves and will be coppiced routinely once they’re established so won’t cast any shade. We’ve added several buddleia for pollinators and even a few marigolds.
This is a very new swale, and it’s all bare earth. Covering that fast is vital, to prevent erosion of topsoil and stop invasives from moving into the open niche. We have a bee-friendly meadow seed mix ready to go on tomorrow, assuming it gives us some rain, but in the meantime we’ve seeded the berm with vegetable seeds. you know all the half empty veg seed packets that build up in your tin? All those saved varieties, bits shoved in unlabelled envelopes because ‘of course I’ll remember’? Wild seeds collected on autumn walks? We put the lot in a tub, added some sunflower and rocket seeds, gave it a good mix and spread the whole berm with it. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get some veg from it.
Under a foot of topsoil the ground is hard clay here. It’s hard work getting into it even with a mechanical digger. This means the bottom of the swale ditch after a week of wind and sun is like concrete. I plan on broadforking it (you know, assuming it ever rains) to break it up a bit and planting daikon radish fairly thickly to decompact the subsoil. In the meantime, I’ve put a sandbag across the pond entrance to keep the ditch from emptying into it. Hopefully a little soak should soften it up.
The pond…. I really had meant to dig a very small one. It had to be small, I’d already decided where the berm was going to go! But then I hit water and had to reconsider. I’m delighted with hitting reliable ground water, but it has made us evolve the plan. We’re going to enlarge the pond, to make better use of the water. Basically, the digger is coming back for a few days.
Still no rain. You know, in case you’re wondering.
Well, that’s the potato bed finally done. Remember that all I had to do was dig up that one last sheet of roofing metal and I’d be ready to build the no till bed? Well the metal sheet came out easily enough. The two more sheets of baling mesh I discovered while digging it out however took a good deal longer. Still, finally it was done and I was able to start barrowing manure out of the garage to build the first layer of the bed. Digging manure out of the garage always seems to take longer than planned because of all the plastic mixed in with it, but for a while it seemed to be nothing but manure for a whole glorious afternoon. I was able to blast through it quickly for once instead of picking over it, feeling the wet goat crap seep through my work gloves.
For the record, my hands have never been softer. I wonder if there’s a market for ‘Goat Shit Spa’?
Anyway, I was about halfway through covering the area with manure when it occurred to me that I could modify the bed structure to better suit the materials we had. A conventional no till potato bed is a thick layer of compost or reasonably rotted manure covered with a mulch such as straw or hay. The chitted potatoes are put on top of the compost, and the mulch is pulled together to cover them. The potatoes root down into the manure/compost and the tubers develop there. Generally the limiting factor with this technique is the depth of the layer the potatoes grow in. It’s often used as a technique to grow a staple food while transitioning from lawn to vegetable garden. The grass and weeds die under the thick layers of added materials, while the potatoes grow. What if you have a near limitless supply of manure to use though? We had a huge bale of spoiled hay to use up on this bed, far more than we needed to just mulch that small area. Our limiting factor is the small area of ground free of creeping buttercup, not the materials needed. I decided to see what would happen if I used a layer of manure, a layer of hay, then another layer of manure with a hay mulch over the lot.
I was spreading the manure I’d already barrowed out, when I went to move the wheelbarrow. I shoved the fork into the ground out of the way when I heard a thud that made my heart sink. I knew that sound. Buried roofing sheet. The area over it was already a foot deep in manure but there was no helping it. Digging it out took the rest of the morning. The new section of baling mesh I found while digging it out took a chunk of the afternoon. Still, by the time the light stared to fade to evening I had the whole bed completed. I’ve left most of the fence stone slabs in behind it to give it a little wind protection, and where the one is missing I’ve left a keyhole indent into the centre of the bed, so we can access the whole bed without having to step on it. Overall I’m rather pleased with it.
Where the raised beds have been built in the main veg garden, we have a serious problem with buttercup. We’ve decided to sheet mulch them with membrane until next year, by which time the buttercup should be dead. I still had some hay left, so next to the raised beds, I made some large mounds of mostly rotted manure and have mulched them with some of the hay. We plan to plant squash and pumpkins through the mulch into the manure compost, and train the plants out over the sheet mulch. That way we can actually get some kind of yield from the beds without uncovering them. That’s the theory anyway. We’ll see how it works in practice.
Last year, after taking possession of the croft, we spent a week here living in our camper in the driveway. At the time the house wasn’t fit even to camp inside, but the bathroom worked so we were fairly comfortable. Our main reason for being here was to meet the people who were going to make the house liveable, but you can only spend so long looking at the view so I decided to tackle the front garden. It was choked with trees and undergrowth, and while I don’t like taking down trees unnecessarily, they were too big to be that close to the house. The tree slap bang in the middle of the garden was a willow, so rather than just add it to the burn pile I cut the branches into roughly foot long sections. These we stuck in the ground along the western boundary, my reasoning being that it was the direction of the prevailing wind and we knew the croft needed better wind protection. The ground there is also the wettest, giving the willow cuttings the best chance of taking. All there was in the van by way of tools was a folding entrenching tool and a bow saw, so we resorted to kicking a strip clear of the knee-high buttercup to get to the ground. We had to guesstimate the distance from the fence because the fence posts are at all kinds of angles, the bottoms having long since rotted away.
By the time we moved here in mid-winter the buttercup had died back of course, showing the line of willow weaving all over the shop. We’ve since planted a double row of Italian alder along that fence, but I’ve left in the willow to see if they take. Anyway, after taking the cuttings from the thicker sections, I was left with hundreds of twigs from the growing tips. Rather than just leave them on the ground I took a couple of the buckets that were lying around, filled them with rain water and shoved the twigs in. I found some comfrey growing in the understorey, tore plenty of leaves off and shoved them into the buckets to rot down in the water. Comfrey water is an excellent liquid feed, I reasoned it might give the twigs a reasonable chance of rooting. Just before we left the croft, I took a pee in the buckets too, just for good measure. You might be noticing a bit of a pattern here.
That was last September, and I’ve not really given the cuttings any attention until now. We’ve planted 200 willow cuttings along the eastern boundary, but they’re the fast growing Bowles hybrid variety. It’s the kind typically used for biomass crops, and can grow to ten feet in its first year. I plan to use it extensively, but that’s for another post. With the high yielding willow already being established on site I couldn’t think of a suitable use for the willow I cut last year, which is why I’d neglected them so long. Yesterday, while wrestling with the plastic hell that was developing in the potato bed, I decided to take a look at them. I had an idea brewing and besides, I wanted a break from fighting the mesh. The tops looked fairly dead, but the lower parts of the twigs were still green, living wood. Very few of them were showing any root growth but they all looked pretty healthy. These sticks had been completely abandoned all winter, through many periods of freezing and thawing. I took their survival as a good sign. But where to put them?
Our land is north facing. The house sits on the western boundary, and to the east of it is an old barn. Originally it was the house for the croft, and there’s a gentleman in his 80s living locally who was born in it while it was still in use. The roof needs serious repair, it’s four feet deep in the same manure we’re in the process of digging out of the garage, the gutters are missing and the chimney at the south end is leaning at enough of an angle to make me nervous in high winds, but the walls are still looking good and it’s an excellent windbreak. We’ve decided not to even attempt to tackle the barn until next year, but it does need to be factored into the site design. With the House one side and the barn the other, all it needs is a wall to the north and another to the south and it becomes effectively a walled garden. Extremely useful in a windy place like Caithness.
Rather than just building walls, we’re going to use buildings. I want a big workshop at the north end, with PV solar panels on the roof. The south-facing roof on the house is too small to take enough to be of practical use for panels, and with a long-term plan to take the croft off grid, it makes sense to make every structure serve several purposes. At the south end we want to put a big greenhouse, with some very clever systems installed. Eventually it’ll hold the aquaponics system. It’ll have to wait a couple of years however, because I want to take my time and build it properly, and we have our hands full already without having to go through a planning permission application at this point. Rather than just leave the south end of the garden open, we’ve put the willow cuttings in there. If they take, they’ll provide some shelter for the veg plot while growing slowly enough to not take a huge amount of attention to keep them from shading it out. We’ll take them out when it comes time to build the greenhouse where they’re planted. While we were at it, we planted a row of comfrey root cuttings just inside the willow. It’s a fairly shade tolerant plant and it’ll be handy having it right there in the veg garden for making liquid feeds. Not bad for two hours of work, and all free apart from a few quid for the comfrey.
On Tuesday, frustrated that we still have no veg in the ground, I decided to work on a no till potato bed. There’s an area near the derelict garage that’s been buried under an old hay bale since the last owner lived here, that seemed relatively free of buttercup. It’s not under any of the areas I want to put structures on, won’t be in the way when we put in more veg beds and won’t encroach on any paths. Perfect. We’d not even have to move the old bale very far. I thought I’d probably be done before lunch, leaving the afternoon clear for some heavy work. Oh how naive.
As I rolled the bale away, I found the edge of a piece of the plastic mesh used on hay bales, sticking out of the ground. No big deal, that would come up easily, wouldn’t it? It was only an inch or so underground. That was true for about a foot, then it went straight underground at right angles. Ah. Oh well. Still be done by tea time, eh? As I dug I found more and more sheets of the plastic mesh, all interleaved through the soil at different depths, tangled in places. This mesh is evil stuff. It’s weak enough to tear if you try to pull it out with brute force, though it’s impressive how much it’ll take when a few strands are twisted together. Like most plastics, it’s pretty much rot-proof so it couldn’t just stay in place. The advantage of no dig is we would probably never need to dig down that far again, but knowing it was there would be like an itch in my brain that wouldn’t go away. Every time I looked at that bed I’d *know* it was there. It had to come out.
When we bought the croft I’d said that really such decent pasture was wasted on us. We wanted to change the site to something much more diverse, so we’d have coped with transforming former forestry plantation land, a bog, or exposed bedrock. We’d certainly looked at all three during our land hunt. Appearances could be deceptive however. The front and back gardens, along with the area we’re transforming into the veg garden, are riddled with plastic and baling twine. In permaculture terms, it’s the whole of zone 1. You can’t sink a spade in anywhere without it catching on a strand of that indestructible string, and when it’s buried in a clay soil it’ll stop your spade just as surely as stone will. We’ve filled bin bags with the stuff, along with food wrappers, baling twine, pet food pouches, baling twine, strands from rotten clothing, baling twine…. You get the idea. I’ve found plastic 18 inches down. Not once, but over and over. It’s literally everywhere, and getting rid of it is going to be an ongoing job that will take years. Luckily, removing it is fairly satisfying.
This mesh however is a whole different level of frustrating. It goes down well over a foot, and as I’ve removed it, I’ve worked out far beyond the area I’d intended for the spud bed. I’ve filled a large wheelbarrow with it three times so far. Well I say ‘it’, but there’s a co-starring role for the baling twine of course. Last night, just as I was finishing, I came across a sheet of corrugated roofing metal. It’s four inches down. It’s large. I’m sure though that after it’s out I’ll be done though. No, really. No laughing at the back!
We all know what a fence looks like. It’s metal wire strung between wooden posts. Usually yes, but there are occasional local variations. In the slate producing areas of north Wales they’re often wire twisted around slate posts. It’s a clever use of what would have been a waste product, and they last a lot longer than virtually any wooden post would. Here in Caithness they have a different variation of a fence. Stone slabs are set upright, with about an inch overlap where they meet. That overlap means that each slab is supported by the slab to either side while supporting both of them at the same time. It’s impossible for any one slab to fall over. Either the whole fence stays up or the whole fence goes over. Caithness tends to be fairly windy, so it’s an excellent solution for livestock. Animals have a solid windbreak to get behind in bad weather. It doesn’t need maintaining like a hedge or fence does. Clever eh? Only one little problem. What if you need to move a solid stone fence?
We have one marking the outline of our back garden, which has stood for 80 years. Over time, the soil inside the garden has built up until the weight of it has slowly pushed the whole fence over at an angle. Its position also means we have to either climb over it or walk around it to get into what will be the veg garden. It’s time for it to go. Simple. Just dig a bit, lift a bit, move onto the next slab, right? In reality it’s not quite that easy, as we discovered yesterday. Every slab is sunk a good two feet into heavy clay soil that hangs onto the stone so well that we have to dig a trench the full depth of the slabs, then lift each out by brute force. They’re typically roughly three feet wide and five feet long, and solid Caithness stone. The real factor in shifting them comes from the thickness, which can vary a lot. The thinner ones I can move fairly easily. I’m not a small person, and after a few months of labouring on the croft I can generally get by. Some of them are three inches thick however, and moving them hurts! In a whole afternoon we only managed to lift out four of them. The way the stones lean into each other means they have to be taken out in order, you can’t just move up and down the row. The next two slabs are skinny ones. Lovely. But the one after that is three and a half inches thick, and the widest in the whole row. I freely admit it intimidates me. Today my whole upper body aches. I’m giving myself until Monday to recover, then it’s back to the digging. Only thirty of them to go. Doddle. No, really!
The slabs actually have value and are sold second hand locally. We’re going to use them on site. We’re going to turn them into walkways to access the veg garden in wet weather. Barrowing compost, manure and soil amendments out, and harvested crops in, would normally compact the ground and make an awful mess after rain. Not in our garden. We’re having a wide stone pathway running every third bed. It adds functionality to the veg garden at no cost.
Forget the gym. The gym is for the weak. You want The Croft Plan. It’s like a gym, but you never go home. You live at the gym now. And you’ll never leave.
Creeping buttercup is hard to eradicate and what will be our veg garden is overrun with it. We have a plan to sheet mulch large areas with black plastic until next year, then grow in those areas while the areas we’ve grown in this year are mulched for a year. As part of designing the system to be future proof, we’re putting in metre wide paths every third bed. Theoretically they should make wheelchair access easier should it ever be needed, but getting those paths clear of buttercup was posing an interesting problem. Today while clearing rubbish we came across an area that seemed suspiciously garden fork proof, and we came across paving four inches down. Pathway problem solved, and we’ll be able to take wheelbarrows into the veg garden even in wet conditions. Buttercup is tough, eh? Let’s see how it handles being buried under four inches of Caithness stone.
Until relatively recently, the rotovator was king. If you wanted to establish a vegetable plot you bought, rented or borrowed a rotovator and ground the top foot of soil into a beautiful soft seed bed that you could sink your bare hand into up to your wrist. One of my earliest memories is of watching my grandfather wrestling a machine over his veg plot every spring, and he grew amazing crops. A rotovator can cause issues however. In soil with a high percentage of clay the rotating blades of the machine can have a ‘smearing’ effect at the bottom of the soil being mixed, producing an impenetrable layer. This can hold water in the topsoil rather than letting it percolate down into the subsoil, causing waterlogging. Many plant roots cannot penetrate this compacted layer, causing poor growth and adversely affecting yield. Every time the soil is worked this way the problem becomes even worse.
In recent years, our understanding of soil structure and biology has changed fundamentally. Soil is a living ecosystem, not merely a medium to hold plant roots. Soil in a natural ecosystem forms in distinct layers. Dead plant matter and animal manures are deposited on the surface. Insects, weather and bacteria get to work on it, breaking it down. Worms take some of it down into the lower layers, increasing the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter increases soil’s water holding capacity and provides food for the microbiology living below the surface. Other worms bring up particles from the mineral rich subsoil. As plants are grazed by animals or have the above ground parts harvested by humans, a corresponding amount of the plant’s roots are shed by the plant. The shed roots biodegrade, leaving channels of organic matter through the soil, improving aeration and fertility. The combined effect of these actions creates a healthy soil with a complex structure that supports billions of bacteria and archea. Take a handful of soil in your hand and you’re holding an entire world, teeming with life. The different species of archea and bacteria feed on the organic matter, gels, and each other to form an incredibly complex food web.
In addition to the creatures and plants in soil there is of course a third kingdom, that of fungi, and the fungal interactions in soil are truly remarkable. Fungi form symbiotic relationships with many plant roots. They send out filaments through the soil over huge distances, harvesting resources over a much greater volume of soil than plant roots alone could manage. The fungi exchange these nutrients with plants in exchange for simple sugars, since they are unable to photosynthesise themselves. A plant root is composed of living cells, it takes significant resources to grow and maintain roots. Fungi, on the other hand, send cells out along tubes, the hyphae, that are not actually living tissue in the way a plant root is. Once the fungus is done with that strand it withdraws the living cells back from the tip, along the hyphae, into itself. This is how fungi are able to collect resources much more efficiently than plants alone can. It’s an elegant symbiosis, benefiting both. Fungal hyphae have been observed moving nutrients over 50 metres from their source, and they are now understood to actually communicate with plants, allowing plants of different species to communicate with each other over significant distances. The fungal soil web has been referred to as the internet of the soil for that reason.
The bacteria, archea, insects and worms can feed on the hyphae , and the fungi have mechanisms for killing and harvesting the archea and bacteria. It’s this web, of these billions of creatures feeding, reproducing, dying, interacting with plant tissue and fungal hyphae and being acted upon in turn that produces the natural fertility of living soil.
This is an extremely simplistic explanation of the complex interactions in soil of course. I’ve barely scratched the surface here and research is ongoing. Recent research by Dr Elaine Ingham has found that virtually every soil she has tested contains enough fertility to last for billions of years. The problem is that the fertility is bound up in a way that is not accessible to plants. To make that fertility available takes living processes. Put simply, it’s the living soil web that makes that fertility available to plants in a form they can use. If the right soil life is encouraged, and we have the technology to do this, then we need never use fertilisers ever again. In terms of agriculture, this is a game changer. Still think soil is just dirt? There are recorded lectures by Dr Ingham available on Youtube and I highly recommend them.
What does all this have to do with establishing a veg garden? Even today most experienced gardeners advocate either rototilling or double digging every spring to prepare the growing beds. This smashes apart the delicate soil structure, mixes the layers and destroys the fungal hyphae. It brings up weed seeds from the lower layers. It’s done with the best of intentions of course, to decompact the soil and introduce air into the soil. Recently dug over soil has a beautiful feel, evenly textured and soft. The trouble is that such soil exposed to the elements quickly settles. With the life that gives soil its natural structure destroyed, there’s nothing to hold those air spaces open. Rain washes the particles down into the air spaces and the soil becomes more compacted than it was before it was broken up. It’s a short term solution that is counterproductive in the long term. This is why it needs double digging every spring.
What are the other options then, if the conventionally accepted method has been proven to be destructive? Welcome to no dig. In our context we have serious compaction in the area we want our veg system. Livestock has been kept there for so long that while the soil seems extremely fertile, the action of animal hooves over and over has compacted the ground badly. That compaction has allowed creeping buttercup to dominate the area, and creeping buttercup seeds remain viable a long time. Excavated seeds have been sprouted after 80 years buried deep in the soil. Rotovating would continually bring viable seeds to the surface, it’s one reason it’s so hard to eradicate. Without at least knocking back the buttercup however anything we plant will just get choked out. No dig is not only a good idea for the reasons I’ve already explained, it’s vital on this site.
In a true no dig bed the soil is never dug, just as it sounds. Vegetables are cut at ground level and the roots are left in the ground to add organic matter. Root vegetables are typically just pulled out, which is easy because the soil is soft, or if it’s particularly dry they’re sometimes loosened with a fork to make it easier. Compost and other soil amendments are spread on the soil surface and left for the soil life to incorporate. The beds are never stepped on so they don’t get compacted. Between crops and during the winter the soil is never left bare, it’s mulched. In drier climates than the UK the beds can be mulched with organic matter like straw, even while crops are growing. The mulch is broken down by the soil life and acts as a slow release fertiliser while protecting the soil from erosion and drying out.
In the UK organic mulches are habitat for slugs so are best avoided. Here mulches are typically plastic sheeting that’s tough and lasts for many years, though paper and cardboard are popular with purists who dislike using plastics. Many people adopt something of a compromise, minimal tillage. For high turnover commercial systems the beds need to be replanted quickly, often the same day. Tools exist that till just the top inch or so of the bed, so produce minimal disturbance. In our context, where the soil is very compacted, we’re compromising in order to loosen and aerate the soil but without destroying the structure. This can be done using natural processes if you don’t mind waiting longer than we’re prepared to. The simplest technique is applying a thick layer of manure or other rich organic matter, covering it with mulch and letting nature take its course. Another way would be to plant a closely spaced crop of something with a deep taproot like daikon radish and leave it for a season. We want to be able to grow at least some crops this year, so we’ve invested in a tool that is perfect for our croft. Meet the broadfork.
This is a two handed fork with deep tines, that are shaped into a parabolic curve rather than the straight tines on a conventional garden fork. To use you stand on the crossbar and wiggle the handles a little to force the tines into the ground. Then you lean back using your body weight to pull the handles toward you. The tines lift the soil a little but don’t destroy the structure. You lift the fork clear of the soil, move it back 8 inches or so and repeat. Keep going until you run out of bed. Our soil was so compacted we had to broadfork it in both directions, but afterwards we could really see the difference. The area that’s been worked is raised and feels springy underfoot.
Most people who use a broadfork report that after a few years of using it for bed preparation the soil is soft and loose to the full depth of the tines and it’s no longer needed.
We’ve laid out our beds to be 30 inches wide. Many of the tools developed for intensive vegetable production using minimum tillage have been designed for beds of this width and it seems sensible to future proof the layout by going with this width from the start. All of our beds will be 10 metres long so we can have all plastic mulches, weed control fabrics and fleece bed covers the same length. It also makes planning crop rotations and growing the right number of transplants simpler.
After broadforking we’ve added rock dust as a soil amendment and a broad spectrum mycorrhizal inoculant to introduce the beneficial fungi, and topped each bed with a foot of aged goat manure. Finally we’ve leveled the manure and covered each bed with black plastic sheet mulch. We’ll leave them covered until we’re ready to plant. This will warm the soil and any viable seeds in the manure will sprout and die without access to the light. The manure is full of worms. They will hopefully thrive under the mulch, aerating the soil and mixing the rock dust and manure with the aerated soil beneath. With the beds as rich in nutrients as ours are this year only heavy feeding plants will likely do well, but we’ll also be sheet mulching the remaining area and leaving it in place until next spring, by which time the creeping buttercup should be dead or nearly so. This will give us some manured beds and some less fertile, an excellent start to introducing a planned crop rotation.