16 Jan 2010

Herb Spiral

 I love herbs and have them growing in several beds on my plot. The heavy clay soil on my plot makes it difficult to grow some herbs. For this reason I made a herb spiral. The purpose of a herb spiral is to create many different micro-climates for the herbs, to accommodate their differing needs. For example, herbs that prefer shade and moisture, such as chives are placed at the back towards the bottom of the spiral. Herbs that prefer full sun and plenty of drainage, such as lavender and rosemary are placed at the top, and in front (facing south). The herb spiral that I made in spring worked a treat. All the herbs did extremely well. If I had planted them directly into the heavy clay soil,  doubt I would have had as much success.

I made the spiral with rocks that I found on the allotment site. I mixed the soil with sand and gravel to improve drainage. Before planting the herbs I added some compost. After planting I placed more gravel around the plants. I never had to do anything else to the herbs other than pick them. Oh, and the lemon balm needed a bit of a trim. Other than that the herb spiral was completely self-sufficient. Herbs in the spiral (from top to bottom): Lavender, Rosemary, Lemon Thyme, Thyme, Oregano, Golden Oregano, Purple Sage, Lemon Balm, Curry Plant, Dill, Parsley and Chives. A herb spiral makes it easy to water and to pick. As well as being practical they are also aesthetically pleasing. Great to have near the kitchen if you are lucky enough to have a south facing garden.

A Herb Spiral is a Permaculture technique. Permaculture is a term created by Bill Mollinson which comes from the words 'permanent agriculture' and 'permanent culture' to describe a sustainable way of growing food and a sustainable way of life. There is so much to say on this topic, so I will discuss it in more detail in a future post.

My allotment was completely covered with a thick blanket of snow the other day. My herb spiral was also covered, with a few hardy herbs breaking through the snow. Up until then, all the herbs were doing really well. The rosemary, lavender and curry plant are really hanging on. I haven't had chance to get down there since then to assess what survived. They should all come back in spring though. I am just glad that they did so well for so long.

7 Jan 2010

To Dig or Not to Dig

I prefer to let nature do the work when it comes to gardening. Why fight nature when you can work with it? I don't spend the winter and spring breaking my back digging - I copy nature instead. In autumn the leaves fall from the trees leaving a protective blanket on the forest floor. This helps to protect from frost damage and puts nutrients back into the soil. Slowly, throughout the winter the leaves are broken down by organisms that live in the soil. Years of this makes good soil. So I copy nature's method by covering all unused beds with green manure that I have grown on my paths in between my raised beds, and any other green matter I can find on my plot. This will prevent nutrients being washed away by heavy rains. It also prevents the ground becoming too cold, which means that in the spring the soil will be ready to sow earlier than if I had dug the ground.

The main issue that I have with digging is the amount of worms and other creatures that are killed using this method. These creatures help to aerate the soil and help to break down matter, which makes healthy soil. I hate killing creatures anyway, but surely it is senseless when these creatures are doing the work for us? The creatures will be nice and warm all winter because of the mulch, and they will happily turn the green matter into lovely soil just in time for spring. Of course they won't break down all of the mulch as there is so much of it. But when spring arrives I shall just push the mulch that is left aside, add some compost and sow the seeds. I have raised beds on my allotment which means that the soil will not be compacted by people walking on them. The raised beds are also good for drainage - essential when you have heavy clay soil. Digging also kills slow worms, which are another good friend of the gardener. I found a few of these on my plot last year. The first time I saw one I thought it was a gold necklace until it moved! These beautiful creatures are brilliant at controlling the slug population.

There is a significant difference between the soil of a heavily tilled farm and a forest. The tilled soil is lacking nutrients because most of it is washed away in heavy rains. Therefore large amounts of fertilizers are needed. Years of heavy tilling destroys a large amount of beneficial organisms. The soil of a forest is rich in nutrients and thriving with life. It differs in texture too. It is usually soft and light, making it easy for the roots of plants to penetrate in the spring. I have never walked through a forest in late winter or early spring and witnessed nature turning its soil with a fork! As plants have been around a lot longer than humans, I think it is safe to say that nature knows best. So I shall just keep copying nature. This way my back is happy and the worms are happy. If the worms are happy the soil will be great. If the soil is great the plants will thrive.

Below: Tilled soil, lacking nutrients and life             Nature knows best: An un-dug forest thriving with life


2 Jan 2010

From Brambles to Blossoms

In February 2009 I took on a very overgrown allotment. It was full of brambles, bracken and other weeds. Clearing the brambles was the easy bit. Clearing the rubbish was the hard bit! I found all-sorts - including the remains of an old mattress! I battled with plastic and carpet which was buried a foot under. I lost count of how many trips I made to the skip. It was hard work, but it was worth it. Although I believe in the no-dig approach, the land had to be dug over a few times initially to eliminate the brambles and rid the plot of the buried rubbish. Now I do not dig as a general rule. The exceptions I make to this rule are for potatoes or to make holes for fruit bushes. I'll talk more about my reasons for not digging in a future post, so watch this space.

Left: Brambles

                Right: Getting there

Below: Summertime on the plot. The spot where I am standing marks the boundary of my plot

My friendly neighbours gave me a very warm welcome. They also gave me plants to start me off. One neighbour even made me a couple of raised beds! By March all my raised beds were ready to sow. By the beginning of April I was gratefully munching on spicy salad leaves and rocket. By the summer my plot was in full production. I made a herb spiral that included chives, dill, curry plant, lemon balm, purple sage, thyme, lemon thyme, oregano, golden oregano, rosemary and lavender. I'll talk more about the herb spiral in a future post. Other herbs I grew included echinacea, mint, apple mint, pineapple mint, orange mint, calendula, chamomile, basil and green sage. I grew a lot of rocket because I eat so much of it. I also grew potatoes, carrots, peas, broad beans, dwarf beans, leeks and borage. Kind neighbours gave me some strawberry, raspberry and blackcurrant plants. I also inherited a row of comfrey plants which came in very useful.

Despite the endless rain in the summer months, nearly everything was a success. The only things that didn't work out were the spinach and the beetroot. I blame the slugs for the spinach, but I have no idea why the beetroot were so tiny. I hope for better luck next time!

It is January now, so most of my beds are resting for the winter. I have mulched them with green manure that I have grown on the plot. The herb spiral continues to provide me with all the herbs listed above except the chives. I also have quite a bit of rocket and some leeks. I have one globe artichoke plant that is hanging on for dear life (it's a bit frost bitten!). I am currently making plans for this year. I can't wait to start sowing again.