Saturday, 15 January 2011

It's all about soil

Here at May Project gardens we have come to the conclusion that soil is one of the most important elements in organic food growing, after all it is from the soil where plants get most of their nutrients. It is also an anchoring against wind, water flow and animals which may otherwise damage or even destroy the plant.It is important that we realise that soil is a living organism and like all living organisms it needs constant nurturing. There is a very interesting and informative documentary called "Dirt! The Movie" which looks at man's relationship with soil, or as they describe it "the earth's living skin". I urge you to take the time to watch this very eye opening documentary. The online link is Here at May Project Gardens we have come to the conclusion that soil is one of the most important elements in any food growing en-devour. After all it is form the soil where the plants gets most of their nutrients, it is also the soil which helps them stand strong by providing an anchoring against wind, water flow, and animals which may otherwise destroy or damage the plant. It is very important that when growing in soil that you become aware of the fact that it is a living organisms, and like all living organisms it needs constant nurturing. There is a very interesting and informative documentary which looks at the relationships between man and soil or as they describe it "the earths' living skin", I urge you to take the time out to watch this very eye opening documentary called "Dirt! The Movie". Here is the link where you can watch online.
After two seasons of constantly taking the valuable nutrients out of the soil trough the food we have been growing we have now started rebuilding it. As I mentioned in the previous post we acquired two tonnes of soil improver, this consisted of quite a lot of untreated wood ash, woodland leaves and twigs matter, and other organic material. We do make our own compost but we cannot make it in the quantity we need. The picture on the top right shows some of our home made compost. From the soil samples we collected from the site it was revealed that our soil was low in both nitrogen and phosphorus hence the soil improver (Si). We have now added Si to most of the grow beds and covered them with newspaper after saturating them with liquid comfrey (made on site).

One of the outside beds

The inside beds

Two reasons why we covered the beds:
1. It will help hold in moisture and stop the soil from being washed or blown away.
2. It will deter the wild animals, foxes, birds, etc., from digging and defecating in the beds.

Fox problem on bare soil

The reason we used newspaper is mainly because it is a very easily sourced material and can be collected in large quantities, well here in London anyway, and it does not need to be removed when planting as it is decomposable and a good source of carbon. At first we were worried about the damage the it may cause to the soil because of the ink but according to experts several years ago it was advised not to use newspaper in the garden because of the high toxicity of the ink used, however now things have changed quite dramatically in the way newspapers are produced and the ink is now a lot less toxic giving us gardeners a new abundant supply of composting and mulching material. We plan on adding more mulch material to the beds to help balance out the carbon. Green-ney materials like grass cuttings are high in nitrogen and such materials will be added later on in the season.

Indicator Plants
Permaculture requires a vast amount of observation. We conducted a survey of the site and collected soil samples which revealed heavy CLAY soil with some sand, and using a pH kit we recorded pH levels ranging 7 to 7.5 suggesting neutral/alkaline soil. We also observed some indicator plants growing on the site. Indicator plants are simply plants which give a good idea of conditions of the soil on a site. At May Project the indicator plants which we were able to identify were chickweed, stinging nettle, dandelion, plantain, buttercup and thistle. Dandelion, plantain and stinging nettle all indicate acidic soil pH range 5.5 - 6.5 which is a bit puzzling, however thistle indicates a slight alkaline soil so we are not dwelling to much on this contradiction. Other indicator plants like chickweed and buttercup lets us that the site was, at some point cultivated/tilled. Most of these indicator plants tell us that the soil beneath is clay, so that much we can agree on.

Indicators: Nettles (left) and Buttercups (right)

I thought I will leave you with one last point, wild food. You would think that you may need to go foraging in the woods for wild food but wild food can also be collected from as close as the back garden. Chickweed, dandelion, and stinging nettle are all plants which grow wild in the average back garden and are not only very edible but also bursting with valuable nutrients and can also help boost the immune system. So the next time you fancy a quick snack pop outside and grab a handful of dandelion or chickweed or nettles (young leaves are best) and enjoy. Be careful when harvesting nettles we all know how painful that can be, just bash them around a bit and the sting should disappear.

A small cluster of Chickweed

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Permaculture Influenced

Hello everyone. I have finally managed to go on a Permaculture Design course and loved every minute of it. The course was held in Devon in the beautiful High Heathercombe. It was a two week residential course and as a result I have learnt a great deal about this very interesting subject. I am now attempting to apply some of the permaculture principles and techniques to develop the garden here at May gardens.
We have had some crazy weather lately however we still have potatoes, carrots, swedes, and leeks to harvest. I had some of the leeks and potatoes yesterday and had a very delicious chunky soup. We decided to leave the potatoes and leeks and swedes in the ground for storage one because of the limited amount of storage space we have available to us and two because we wanted to see how well they will do left in. It's going well, the leeks have just about started to go yellow so they are all coming out soon. We also have brussel sprouts and those did quite well in the polytunnel.
We have been working on a new plan for the space and created a base map, this is simply a scaled drawing of the garden space showing all the existing elements e.g: house, growing beds, fences, trees, etc.

Base Map

Once we had our base map and was happy with all the positions of elements we went about identifying all the plants growing on site (naturally) that bit of the process is still ongoing. We identified certain areas on the map where we thought would be good areas to test the soil so we collected some soil samples and tested them. We found out that our soil was a bit stressed and lacking vital minerals to sustain healthy growth.
Soil Samples

We managed to get two tonnes of organic soil improver and have started distributing it around the space, hard work especially in this weather, but totally worth it I think. On the course we were taught how to put a vast amount of information onto a drawing without making too messy, the technique of overlays. This is simply drawing on tracing paper placed over a main drawing. With this technique we could put in information such as wind and sun directions, terrain aspects, vegetation, zones, etc. This makes it easier and neater when presenting a design idea. At the moment we are identifying the plants present on site and working out the best place to put certain crops so we get the best out of the space.
The beds inside the polytunnel have been completed and are now left to settle before we start planting.

New beds in the Polytunnel

We started by lightly aerating the soil by simply forking the ground, avoid turning the soil if you are going to be doing this as turning will bring valuable micro-organisms to the surface and may kill them off killing your soil as a result. Once the site was 'fluffed' we laid out the floor plan then added the soil improver and little at first and raked it in then we toped it up with about three inches of the soil improver. We then saturated the soil with our home made comfrey fertilizer heavily diluted in water collected in our two water butts. In an attempt to reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation we decided to mulch the beds. Mulching is simply covering the soil. We used old news papers. The next step is to repeat this process for most of the outside beds, we will also be attempting to make/upgrade the pathways in the garden.
I will try and put up posts more regularly this season as the development progresses. For now stay warm and keep gardening.