I thought I’d post an update on my vegetable growing experiment, if only to prove I do occasionally get out and do some growing rather than just sitting at my computer composing angry screeds about the state of the world.
It’s way too early to present any results from the experiment, which will be some years in the coming if indeed they ever do. But I’m aiming to offer a running commentary as time goes on about how it’s going. I’d welcome any thoughts on what I’m doing, and what I might do better.
So I’ve now pretty much got thirty 10x1m beds in various stages of establishment. Charles Dowding told me that it would be a lot to take on, but having previously being cultivating over an acre I was inclined to disregard him. I must have forgotten the horror of it all, because all of a sudden I fear he was right, and I’m feeling overwhelmed at what I’ve taken on…
Anyway, I chose an area tucked away in an upland corner of my holding for the experiment, reserving the established market garden plots for a time when hopefully they’ll be in full production again. The topsoil is a bit thinner where I’ve established the experimental plots, and the subsoil is chock full of rubbly limestone. Actually, that’s not quite true – there seems to be a band of seriously rubbly subsoil a few metres wide running across one of my two rows of 15 beds, with the rest of the area rather less stony. It’ll be interesting to see if there are any yield or other differences associated with the rubble. Still, at least I’ll be rotating across the plots so it shouldn’t compromise the comparative results too much. It’s probably not the greatest land for growing veg on, and I’m probably not the greatest grower either. At least this way the kind of yield figures I’m likely to get will seem within the reach of ordinary mortals, unlike the terrifying quantities that John Jeavons reports from his Californian veg factory.
The history of this bit of land is that it had been down to long-term permanent pasture until 2010, when I put four pigs on it. The permanent pasture didn’t last long after that! I then tilled it and grew wheat in 2011 (a bit of a disaster – but that’s a story for another day), then tilled it again and sowed a mixed ley of red clover, chicory and cocksfoot in spring 2012, which I meant to grow on for a couple of years but came up with this crazy plan instead.
To establish the beds in this largely preparatory year, I took a no till approach with the Dowding no till beds by simply mulching them with phormisol. I’ll put some compost on in the autumn and start growing something on them next year. The Tolhurst and Jeavons beds I started off by rotavating them. It takes approximately 1 minute to do one pass along a 10m bed with the rotavator, which I’d estimate is at least 100 times faster than hand digging. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, I’m just sayin’. Having first rotavated the Jeavons beds I then initiated a programme of double-digging (by hand, obviously). I’ve only done two beds so far. The first one took me 4 hours to do the 1x10m, the second 2 hours – the difference I think being largely down to variation in the stoniness of the subsoil. Just goes to show how different a couple of bits of land can be even when they’re just a few metres apart.
I’ve left 50cm paths of the untilled ley around the beds, which I guess I’ll have to scythe or strim. The paths are absolutely chocka with docks. Maybe I should have tilled in the whole damn ley, though that would probably only have brought temporary relief. I’m not sure the pigs did me any favours on the dock front, and as an aside I think I’d like to register a slight scepticism about the usefulness of permaculture ‘pig tractors’ (also a topic for another occasion…). Then again, perhaps I should blame my poor weed management rather than my poor pigs. Anyway, I think the docks are going to be a bit of a problem – lots of hard work with a lazy dog? I’ve never really figured out the optimum way of making paths around vegetable beds on largish scales.
I’ve been late getting going with establishing any crops in the beds – let’s just blame it on the cold spring. Still, I never planned to go full tilt in the first year and at least I’ve now got potatoes in one of the double dug Jeavons beds, and in one of the Tolhurst beds. It took me one minute to ridge each bed with – yep, you guessed it – my trusty Honda, and about twenty minutes to plant each one up by hand (22 Sarpo Mira seed potatoes per bed). The potatoes went in nice and deep into the loose soil of the double dug Jeavons bed. It will be interesting to compare yields with the Tolhurst bed.
Having been advised by various folk not to overdo it and mess around with a polyculture bed as originally planned – wise words, I think – the illicit thought occurred to me that I might just grow one of my six rotation crops in the bed originally earmarked for polycultures using conventional methods. It would be my own little contribution to the sustainable intensification debate. Anyway, more on that another time.
Four of my ten Jeavons beds are for carbon-and-calorie/biomass crops. I sowed a mix of four parts wheat (Tybalt – it was all I could get…), one part buckwheat, almost one part lucerne (which turned out not to have any inoculant with it when I opened the package, despite the seed company’s assurances – oh well, I just sowed it anyway), almost one part red clover, a one-tenth part broad beans and a tiny bit of grain amaranth. Seems hard to get grain amaranth in large quantities. Perhaps I’ll rethink that mixture in future years. Anyway, then I raked it, rolled it and put Enviromesh over it to keep the corvids off until it’s germinated. It’s pretty late to be sowing wheat, so I probably won’t get much of a grain crop. I suppose for this year at least the carbon/biomass is more important.
I’ve already made various stupid blunders in establishing the beds, most of them to do with complex technical issues such as my inability to count, tell left from right etc. But I don’t think they’ll compromise the results – the main thing is to make sure that I do the same things year on year across my three different systems, other than the key variables of interest which are basically tillage and fertility. I want to keep inputs as low as feasible, so I’m avoiding irrigation, transplanting etc as much as possible. I’ll see how it goes.
And your reward for reading this far is to see the first official picture of the Vallis Veg Experimental Trial. Don’t it just look lovely? I sent it in to Homes and Gardens Magazine, but I’ve not heard back yet.