Monday, 8 February 2021

slabs of dark chocolate cake

Mulched beds

Really cold outside, especially after the wrap-around warmth of the house. The wind is from the north east and has built since morning. I'm layered up, hatted, hooded, snooded to work in the vegetable garden.

Throughout the year we make compost: weeds, leaves, coffee grounds, prunings, grass cuttings, non-food kitchen waste, wood ash, cardboard and paper. All into the compost bays so no need to burn or put into wheelie bins. Zero carbon. Although the micro-organisms and invertebrates do the majority of the work, one man and his fork tend the compost, turning the contents of the bays once to ensure that they are mixed and aerated.

Our compost bays are old pallets tied together. When a bay is piled so high we can get no more on, we cover the contents with an old builders bag and leave until it's time to give it all a turning.

Female slow worm
The micro-organisms then take over, initially boosting the heat of the compost to 70C, putting paid to weed seeds, the roots of perennial weeds and soil pathogens before slowly cooling. The mix of waste is then processed by myriad invertebrates. All organic and chemical free, the tall pile of material eventually breaks down to about a third of its' original bulk. As the compost cools, it becomes home to wood lice and mice and blood-red brandling worms. In the summer, carefully pull back the builders' bags and you're likely to see slow worms here. These are native legless lizards that are completely harmless but love to eat the invertebrate feast that lives in the damp and dark of the compost bays. A slow worm may consume thirty slugs a day. Nature's five-star compost award.

That's pretty much it. After  nine months to a year, the compost we produce is friable not coarse, does not smell offensive and is not slimy. Ready for use.

In February 2019 we heard Charles Dowding speak about no-dig gardening. Forever organic and composters,  our gardening world turned upside-down when we stopped digging as my allotment-holding dad, grandad or great-granddad would always have done. 

At this time of year we now wheelbarrow the finished compost (plus well-rotted horse manure from our poo-pals down the lane) to the vegetable beds and give each bed a mulch of at least 2" (5 cms). We garden on the thinnest of sands - its' demand for hearty compost is insatiable! The freshly-composted beds look luxuriant, like slabs of dark chocolate cake.

The surface mulch is slowly drawn down into the soil by worm activity before being replenished the following year. The undisturbed soil is characterised by fungal - mycorrhizal - activity. Plant roots and the tiny strands of fungus in the soil connect providing plants with a much wider range of nutrients and consequently greater health and more-vigorous growth. There is growing evidence too that plants that grow in close contact with soil fungi are healthier for us as eaters.

The organic, no-dig soil is home to a healthy population of earth worms. The healthier the soil, the greater number and variety of worms will thrive. There are twenty five species of worm inhabiting British soils: horizontal, surface  - or deep, vertical burrowers. As organic matter passes through the worms it is enriched with a highly-fertile gel that contains up to 50% more nitrogen, potassium and phosphates than went in!

This bounty beneath the soil of course attracts predators - thrushes, robins and blackbirds thrive on nutritious worms. As do badgers and buzzards. My nemesis is the family of moles that is determined to undermine my paths or erupt in recently-sown carrots. Moles typically consume 250 worms each day. Their young are evicted from the protection of their subterranean runs in early summer - and then form up to 40% of a tawny owls diet at this time.

After the mulches are roughly raked, I cover paths that connect the beds with rotted wood chips. Once again, the mycorrhizal fungi kick into action on the wood chip paths. The plants on the path edges are frequently the healthiest as they benefit from the increased fertility that the fungal activity on the wood chips brings to the plant roots.

This nurturing of the soil runs counter to much of modern farming. There, soils are compacted by heavy machinery with little organic, composted matter added. Frequent deep ploughing destroys the invertebrate and mycorrhizal activity below the surface, while above ground, oil-based fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are applied as many as fourteen times during a growing season. We had the great pleasure of taking part in a webinar led by

Home grown
Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) and Plantlife on the subject of ‘meadows and floodplains: a natural partnership’. A staggering photo showed one metre of soil loss due erosion arising from poor soil management and flooding. The flood meadows of the Wye were orange with the sediment run-off. Something has to change.

Back in the garden, not only is it satisfying to look back at the work completed, it is also satisfying to know that as our small plot produced over 200kgs of our own locally-grown, organic, plastic-free vegetables for us in the past year with no food miles - and that even the moles that flourish beneath us are playing a part in increasing biodiversity. The beds will now wait until mid-February when, hopefully, the soil will have warmed a little, for our first plantings and sowings of this year.

A buzzard labours in, mewing above the trees as twilight approaches and is joined by a second bird. This triggers a celebration of wood pigeons clattering into the darkening sky.

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