The Great British Swale Off.

By Andy Williams.

Let’s face it, swales are exciting. It’s one of the things that really engages people when they first come across permaculture design, and with good reason. They’re easily constructed even with hand tools, don’t require inputs or maintenance if properly installed and really work. Swales have become somewhat unfashionable lately however, with their suitability for temperate climates being brought into question. As someone who has installed them on a wet Scottish field, I thought I’d add my opinion to the debate.

The fact you’re reading this suggests you know what a swale is, but in case you don’t they’re basically a ditch and berm dug along the contour of land, to catch overland flow of water and hold it until it’s absorbed into the ground. They’re used extensively in areas of low rainfall, or where rains come in infrequent but large events. Swales recharge aquifers, and can bring dried up springs back to life downslope. All good you might think, but swales are not without controversy. Some permaculture ‘celebrities’ are huge advocates for swales in wet climates, whereas other big names insist that other techniques can achieve the same result more effectively. So how is anyone supposed to know which advice is right? I’m no expert (and frankly, avoid anyone who claims they are; they tend to be keyboard warriors) but I’ll explain my reasons for installing ours.

A large part of the site design is transitioning from an open, exposed field into a silvopasture/agroforestry system of perennial productive trees and shrubs over pasture, essentially a cool temperate savanna system. Our field is a foot of compacted topsoil over solid clay. In winter, every step squelched underfoot. At first glance we’re the last place on earth you’d think would need more water in the soil, however the water holding capacity of our land isn’t great. Once that foot of topsoil is saturated, any rain becomes overland flow. And after a few weeks without rain, the water that was being held in the soil begins to run out and plant growth slows. If we put in drainage, as is common here, it would help keep the fields more usable in wet conditions but in summer we’d still have no resiliency to drought. Drainage ditches do exactly that, drain. Summer or winter, gravity still works, and any overland flow runs away. Without drainage however, the topsoil is too wet in winter for most productive tree species. Building berms or mounds to plant on is one solution for that, which also has the advantage of providing deeper topsoil for getting trees established. What we could do with then, is a drainage ditch that we can ‘switch off’ when we want, combined with a berm for planting on. That sounds an awful lot like a swale now doesn’t it? We’ll come back to the ‘switch off’ feature shortly.

We initially installed one swale with a retention pond at its end, for wildlife habitat. It was meant to be an experiment, to see how it performed over the summer. This was the summer of 2018 however, so we watched it do nothing but bake in the sunshine. For three months. Day after day, warm winds desiccated the exposed soil. The swale ditch itself was bare clay at its bottom, and soon resembled fired terracotta. In February we’d planted a row of hybrid willow cuttings down the southeastern boundary of the property. By autumn they’d reached knee high. Hardly impressive for willow under normal circumstances, but during the summer of 2018 just surviving was impressive. We’d put more of the same variety onto the swale berm in May, not really expecting much from them. They didn’t just grow, they flew up, putting on 8 feet of growth by autumn. In hard packed, poor soil.


The only place on the croft that things were thriving was on the swale. Spare tomato plants we’d put out just to avoid throwing them in the compost outyielded the ones we kept by a factor of three. Purple sprouting broccoli grew huge and healthy. All with zero irrigation, zero fertilisers and no attention whatsoever, through 60mph winds even. I suspect that there are a few factors coming in to play here. In the case of the willow, being planted into bare soil, without grass competition, will have certainly made a huge difference. The vegetables will have done better with the protection of the berm. But no matter how beneficial the microclimate, nothing grows well without water. Without rain, we were relying entirely on dew fall. Once the sun was up, about 1.30am in midsummer, that dew was hit by intense sun. But on the south side of the berm, that moist soil is in deep shade for hours, making it available to plants for longer. By the middle of summer I’d seen enough, and installed another two, each with a retention pond.

During major rain events, overland flow runs into the swale and goes into the pond at its end. Once the pond is full the water back-floods the swale. Each swale and pond has a broad spillway, and once the swale is full, it slowly over-spills here, where it won’t cause any erosion, and is picked up by the next swale down. This summer I’ll fit a pipe monk to each of the swales, giving us the ability to decide whether we want to prioritise filling the pond or the swale ditch. This is our ‘switching off’ function I mentioned earlier. In drought conditions this could well make the difference between harvesting fruit, nuts and timber or watching trees die.

This spring I intend to expand the swale systems. I’ll put two new swales in, between the existing ones, so that every other swale has a retention pond. There is a large barn, not owned by us, uphill of the top swale. I’ve installed a small ditch to catch the runoff from this roof. This ditch is four inches higher than the top swale, and a pipe drains the water by gravity into the top swale. This gives us a huge amount of water to play with, so I’ll double the size of the pond on the top swale and run some pipe to give us pressure fed natural irrigation water across 90% of the croft. The three original swale berms are planted to hybrid willow, giving us easily processed stick wood for fuel, cuttings, woodchip and eventually material for producing biochar. The new swales, once installed, will be planted with fruit and nut producing trees and shrubs. We’ll graze between the swales, which will increase the organic matter in the soil and deepen the topsoil while animal manures are washed into the swale ditches, fertilising the trees. The trees and shrubs will push roots deep into the heavy clay subsoil, increasing water infiltration as well as also increasing the organic matter in the soil. Over time, the water holding capacity of the site will increase to the point where it’s productive even in drought years. I’ve been told repeatedly that drought just isn’t an issue here. I was being told it even last summer, while farmers were deeply worried about lack of grass growth. As I write this it’s early March 2019. Rainfall over winter has been far lower that usual, and it’s been so warm in recent weeks that the trees are already budding out. The land is far drier than is typical for this time of year. If we have another drought this year, things will get serious very quickly. Here in Caithness we have comparable rainfall to Kent, and the croft lies just below a ridge. without overland flow from uphill, we’re reliant on rainfall completely. The earthworks we have installed give me a massive amount of peace of mind.

So, why don’t people like swales? A number of reasons, most if not all of them perfectly valid.

  1.  They permanently change the land, and its hydrology. They do, sort of. But so does planting a tree. A tree sends roots down sometimes hundreds of feet, and permanently changes the way water is infiltrated as a result. A swale is just a ditch cut into the topsoil. I can fill that back in should I choose, and the field would be pretty much flat again. A swale is no more permanent than a drainage ditch.
  2. They can have unforeseen effects on land hydrology downslope. True. But here, downslope is Loch Watten. There are springs all over the place, and all the fields have mains water supplied to drinking troughs. It’s just not a problem.
  3. Keyline design does exactly the same, with less permanent change. Pretty much, yes. Keyline is a system of land design that equalises moisture across the landscape by the use of a specialised subsoiling plow that shatters the subsoil without disturbing the topsoil much at all. At the same time, seed is planted into the furrow. The plants send their roots down into the shattered subsoil, and over time the topsoil layer deepens. It is a remarkable technique that’s well proven. It does take a tractor and a keyline plow though. We could possibly hire a neighbour with a tractor, but importing the plow would cost a great deal for the 5 acres we have. The topsoil deepening effect can be achieved by rotational grazing, albeit more slowly, which we plan on doing anyway. It would take years for the soil to be deep enough to plant fruit trees without them drowning in winter. One of the major benefits of swales, for us, is the microclimate effect. Keyline does nothing to change microclimate. If we had another 20 acres it’s certainly something I’d use, as I’ve said it’s a proven technique, but it’s just not practical at the scale of our croft.
  4. They can cause landslides. Yes they can. In land that’s prone to slipping, swales can be disastrous. We’re on a gentle slope over solid clay here though, it’s hard to imagine land less prone to slipping.

So, what should you do? My advice is to listen to all the conflicting advice available. Weigh the pros and cons, and how they apply to your context. And that’s the key thing here. It doesn’t matter what any expert says, no matter how experienced the individual, when that person doesn’t know your land, and what you want to achieve. Blanket statements saying a particular technique is always appropriate are dangerous, but so are blanket statements always condemning a particular technique. These things come in and out of fashion, but fashion should have zero influence on your decisions when you’re going to be living with the consequences for a very long time, and so is whoever works your land after you.


Earthworks update.

By Andy Williams.

It hasn’t rained. It hasn’t rained in a very long time. We’ve had one brief shower since early May, roughly eight weeks ago. Now normally I’d be loving the opportunity to get so much done out on the croft, but we have a lot of bare earth baking in the sun, waiting for rain to sprout the meadow seed mix we’ve spread everywhere. The existing pasture is coping with the dry conditions well, but everything we’ve planted is struggling. In late winter we planted well over 700 bare root trees. They’ve done well, but a few weeks ago trees that were healthy started suddenly dying, When we pulled back the mulch around the base of a random tree, we found that the soil had shrunk so badly that it had left a huge crack that took two spadefuls of soil to fill. Every tree was like this, apart from the willow.

We’ve had to barrow soil to every tree and shrub we’ve planted, remove the stones holding the mulch down, remove the mulches, fill the trenches, reverse the process, then water them all. It’s taken some time. While we were at it, we added a scoop of slow release fertiliser to the fill around each tree. It’s not something we plan on doing in the long term but these trees have had a very rough start and at this point their survival has become the priority. Under the circumstances, I’m comfortable bending the rules occasionally to accelerate the establishment of the system. This is extreme weather, and once established the systems should be resilient enough to cope with such events easily, but only if we can get it there. The earthwork systems we’ve installed should make droughts like these practically irrelevant, but only after they’ve actually had some rainfall to harvest. Is it any wonder I’m frustrated?

One silver lining to it being so dry for so long is we’ve been able to see some of the wildlife benefits of the earthworks. Even when they’re bone dry, hard baked soil with no plant cover, the birds love the earthworks. The crest of each swale berm has a healthy sprinkling of bird droppings. Many bird species won’t search for food very far from a perch, and for some species fence posts just won’t cut it. Instead of an unbroken field of grasses and scrubby plants it’s now got high and low points, sheltered and exposed spots. The diversity of birds in the field has already started to increase as a result, and now occasionally at dusk we see a barn owl hunting. I often find evidence of bird kills on the very highest points of the berms, though I couldn’t say what species is doing it. The berms will eventually be planted to productive tree and shrub species, so will really benefit from the enrichment.

This week, after much sulking  thought, I worked out I could just about get a hose to the lowest earthwork. This is a stepped pond, with a curved berm behind it, shaped to catch and reflect the southern sun. It has a contour ditch to one side that collects overland flow and directs it into the pond, and should the pond fill completely during a major rain event the ditch will act as a level sill spillway so the berm won’t blow out from the weight of the water. There are several level platforms cut into the sides of the pond, the largest being the highest, just a couple of inches lower than the height of the level sill spillway.  In the event of the pond becoming overfull, first it’ll soak the top platform, then start to soak into the berm. Only then will the spillway kick in, so the water can’t get any deeper. It means that should we choose to, we can release water from further up in the landscape, flood the pond and soak the berm to water the whole area. The back of the berm has been planted with willow cuttings and then the whole area has been seeded with a meadow flower mix. It’s a small pond by agricultural standards, but even after months without rain it has a couple of feet of water in the bottom. Once it’s greened out the plant roots will knit the soil together and it’ll be a source of permanent water as well as being one of the most sheltered places on the croft. When the willow on the back of the berm has grown, it’ll be woven together to make a dense screen that will really shelter the whole earthwork from the wind. I dug a lot of big stone from this pond, so I’d planned on adding them to the berm to act as heat stores. If you’re going to add piles of stones to an earthwork though, you might as well make them comfortable to sit on. I’m going to rebuild the first of the stone seats I put together, but it’s hardly a priority.

With the hose just able to reach the end of the water collection ditch I was able to finally test it all. You can spend all day double checking the levels, but until you see water in it there’s always a niggling doubt in the back of the mind. This is the only truly finished part of the earthworks. By the time I’d finished this one, the sun had baked the soil so hard that trying to work it with spades is just brutal. I’ll post the other parts of the system as they become finished, because in the raw form they really don’t look like much. Have a look at these two photos for the contrast.

I don’t expect the pond to be full very often, and almost never during summer. If it’ll hold a couple of feet of water when it hasn’t rained in months however I’m sure it’ll be significantly higher for most of the year. Most new ponds seep a lot more water than they do when they’re older, clay particles washed into the pond are drawn into the tiny seep spaces and partially block them, making the pond to hold water better. You can buy preparations to give a pond a head start, or to fix a leaky pond. Other techniques use ducks to manure the water, because duck poo has particularly fine particles. We don’t have ducks yet but we do have clay. I’ve mixed up a tub of clay and water into the consistency of double cream. I’ve watered a third of it down and added it to the pond while it’s full. The pond already seeps very, very slowly, so any improvement should be significant. When the pond is full it’s over 8 feet deep in the middle. It’ll be interesting seeing what sort of depth it settles at. The next phase of the earthworks isn’t going to be built for at least a couple of years, but I’m so pleased by how this pond turned out that I’m really looking forward to it.

“Testing, testing” the soil

By Brendan Williams, (age 11).

We did some ph testing recently of our soil. We took samples from the top field, bottom field, middle field (the garden) to see if it was acidic or alkaline for our little plants.  Oops I didn’t even explain what we did. We got 3 jars, put some ground up soil into the separate jars, added water, then waited (a few impatient days). After it had settled, we put the water into a test tube, then added a ph solution and barium sulphate. We shook the test tube to mix them together. We checked against the chart. Dark green for alkaline, pale green for neutral, slightly acidic is pink and very acidic is red. All 3 of our samples were neutral! We were quite surprised in the garden sample, cos there was SO MUCH PLASTIC and creeping buttercup there, yet it was fine (amazing, right?) Now we know that our plants should be happy with the soil.


Hope you enjoyed my first blog  🙂



Well, well.

By Andy Williams.

I went for a walk along the new earthworks this morning. We’ve yet to do the fine work with the spades so the pond in particular is still a little rough, so I wanted to see how much digging I’m in for this weekend. What I found was almost two feet of water. Superb. The top of our field is the ridge in the landscape, so it’s from the water table. This area is covered with wells and springs, but you can’t just sink a hole anywhere and hit water. We have a deeper, older ditch that was originally dug to take the water from the barn and it’s occasionally wet at the bottom (oo-er!) The new pond has water barely a metre down, and it’s not rain water. I noticed when I was using the digger that at one point I had water flow, but this is a lot more than I was anticipating. If this is reliable through summer it’s a huge deal. Over time we’ve always planned to take the croft off grid, so reliable water for livestock makes life a lot easier. What’s stunned me is that this water already has a pond skater. This pond is less than 24 hours old and someone’s moved in.

There’s a spot right at the top of the field that’s reliably wet. If we can develop that into a functional spring, we could gravity feed that water to anywhere on site. It’s starting to look like the site design has acquired another pond.

Meet bucket.

By Andy Williams.

Bucket is wise. Bucket can tell us things. Bucket can be a surprisingly illuminating diagnostic tool. Hang on and I’ll tell you all about it.


I dug this hole back in March, so I could use the soil as a mound for the hazel tree we planted on it. We have many such holes around the croft that were dug at the same time, and they’ve been surprisingly interesting. We knew the ground here gets saturated very quickly when it rains very soon after buying it. As soon as we started planting we learned that we had roughly 18 inches of good topsoil over clay subsoil. Since we intend to dig ponds eventually this was excellent news, but it affects the hydrology of the site. At least one of us walks the fence line every day, checking the trees, so it’s easy to keep an eye on these holes. Immediately after rain they have up to four inches of water in them, draining to an inch or so within three days, and being no more than moist within four to five days. I put this down to a combination of water being infiltrated into the ground and the drying effect of the wind. Soon after we planted the trees I found the bucket jammed between some rushes. I shoved it into the hole so it wouldn’t blow away, intending to pick it up later, and promptly forgot about it until every time I passed the tree.

It added another dimension to water table observation. I’d read about using a bucket to monitor rainfall in a book I read years ago, but the author hadn’t thought of sticking it in a hole to get two sets of data. I really wish I could claim credit for it properly.

Typically, you stick a bucket somewhere it won’t blow away and watch it over a year. It’s as simple as that. If it always has water in it you have a wet climate. If it often dries completely you have a dry climate. All pretty obvious so far yes? Where it’s useful is in determining unusually dry spells, when pasture may need extra water to stay alive. Unlike proper rain gauges the bucket factors in moisture lost to the wind. It won’t however factor in moisture lost to ground infiltration, but my hole does (seriously, stop sniggering). Rain in Caithness is regular but not very often too heavy. In terms of inches of precipitation it’s similar to Kent, apparently. Windier though. The bucket has so far not gone beyond half full, but hasn’t gone lower than four inches deep either. The sun and wind evaporate the moisture fairly consistently, so will be having a similar effect on the pasture. Our soil isn’t waterlogged, it’s intermittently wet because moisture is slow to percolate through the clay subsoil. And that can be fixed easily through sensitive earthwork construction. It’s a game changer for our understanding of this site. And that, I think you’ll agree, isn’t a bad result from a forgotten bucket.

Say hello to my little friends #2

By Andy Williams.

Finally, we have some livestock. No, not chickens. Think smaller. Think much less aggressive. Think just as likely to eat you given half a chance. We finally have our worm farm. We’ve been burning all our food scraps and vegetable peelings since we moved in, so as not to attract vermin. We don’t generate much, after croft work all day we tend to demolish meals, but vegetable peelings are a resource that I don’t like wasting. The worms turn that waste stream into valuable worm castings and liquid plant feed. You can buy commercial units but they can cost upwards of £90 and it’s hard justifying that sort of expense when we’re on a tight budget. This is my solution.

I started with a pair of 80 litre recycled plastic tubs. I drilled a load of holes in the bottom of one, and fitted a tap in the side of the other, right at the bottom.

I put a double layer of weed membrane in the bottom of the first tub, to cover the holes, and filled the tub with worm bedding material. In my case, I used old manure and hay. When we were digging the old manure out of the derelict garage, there was a thick layer of hay that was reasonably intact. It was full of composting worms, so I set a load of it aside for this project. I’d also set aside a bucket of really prime material that was more worms than manure, and had been feeding them with old coffee grounds. I added this bucket to the top of the tub while I was at it.

I put a couple of bricks in the bottom of the other tub, and put it up on a stand I made from stacked rocks. I put the manure filled tub inside the one on the stand. Quick bit of advice here, it turns out that 80 litres of wet manure is quite heavy. Shocker eh? It would have been much easier to put the manure in after putting it on the stand. It was raining, I was rushing. Give me a break. Anyway, I added some clean cardboard to the top, this keeps the bedding moist. I’d cut a scrap of plywood to size, and put it on top as a lid, held down with a rock. Job done. To add scraps I just take the lid off, fold the cardboard back and put them on top of the bedding.

Job done. The liquid feed will collect in the bottom tub, and get drained off using the tap. To harvest the castings I’ll just start adding food scraps and coffee grounds to one side. Within a few days most of the worms should have gone to that area. allowing me to harvest the other side and replace with fresh bedding. Then I’ll repeat the process on the other side over the next week or two.

Spud bed, round two.

By Andy Williams.

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.

How hard can a spud bed be?

By Andy Williams.

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!


A nice comfrey bed (or taking the p*ss again).

By Andy Williams.

On a (literally) lighter note, we got the comfrey crowns in yesterday. Comfrey is an amazing plant. It used to be widely used as food, but is now considered potentially toxic so is no longer recommended for eating. Comfrey is attractive, producing flowers ranging from pink to blue. Bees love it. It’s easy to propagate, and is best known as a bioaccumulator. Comfrey roots are huge. The tap root grows down into the subsoil and brings up minerals into its above ground parts. Once established it can be cut several times a year without harm and the leaves either used as a green mulch, essentially a slow release fertiliser, added to compost heaps as an activator, fed to livestock, or made into comfrey tea for feeding plants. It’s easy to propagate, you just take sections of root and plant them. Most varieties self seed to the point of being invasive, but the Bocking 14 variety is sterile, making it more suitable for our uses. Eventually we aim to have it growing under all our fruit trees. It’ll provide good ground cover and can be cut a couple of times a year to feed the trees. No need for any synthetic fertilisers or barrowing materials around the farm, just a walk with a scythe-. This first patch though is to be used for a different purpose. We’re going to have a composting toilet between the veg garden and where the main greenhouse will eventually go. The toilet will have a diversion system for urine, which will go into a short soakaway. The comfrey has been planted either side of where the soakaway will go, to make use of that fertility and convert it into a useful resource. No urine puns from me! You’re welcome.


Our minimal tillage approach.

By Andy Williams.


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.IMG_7676.JPG

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.IMG_7649.JPG

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.