Thursday 23 November 2017

Organic matter for nerds

Preserve your soil organic matter
My old brussels sprout stalks are fed to Cathi's sheep
I take a frivolous attitude today and my post might be even more disjointed and lacking direction than usual. Never-the-less I hope it will contain some significant content and might serve to guide you to my more serious posts about organic matter - many gardener’s holy grail.
Today I will reveal my obsessive nature in conserving this valuable gardening resource. It might therefore surprise you that none of my gardens contain a proper compost heap although on a good day I admit to a temporary pile. I sometimes suspect that some gardener’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to wallow in the joy of making the stuff. In another life I might be one of them. What really gets me is those gardeners that compost their waste and never get round to using the sweet smelling manna.

‘Organic’ is a hugely abused word. You might have noticed that all plants and animals are a completely organic tribute to evolution and yet when you buy them they tell you that some foods, flowers and vegetables are more organic than others and sell them at inflated prices. I spend no little time removing them from my trolly. This is only exceeded by filtering out the ‘fat free’.

When Lady Eve Balfour the much loved founder of the organic movement farmed nearly a century ago one of her missions was to persuade farmers that organic matter should  be recycled on the farm. This involved having both animals and plants. Not usually an option available to gardeners - who would have obtained manure from local supplies.
In our modern society an equivalent option is organic recycling. I tend to be disparaging about the green bin. I rarely use mine. Never-the-less despite my constant harping, the ensuing so called compost does have some value. Less to the soil and more to the benefits of avoiding ‘land fill disposal’ . 
What I argue today is that like Eve Balfour we can recycle within our own garden. Easy for me with an acre. Less so on the average small plot.

Lady B would have had plenty of FYM which is the very best soil improver. Unfortunately it brings weed seed into the garden and sadly these days can be contaminated with herbicide
The idea has grown that gardeners need to purchase organic matter from outside resources in order to maintain their own soil fertility. The sources of some such resources are environmentally dubious.
I maintain that the belief that is necessary to buy in manures and bulky organic matter is nonsense. It might be a crutch to rapid soil transformation, it might enable the use of pretty mulches (mea culpa), and it does contribute to replacing organic matter that the gardener has removed or destroyed. I cringe at all the goodness that goes in the green bin and wince when I see organic matter being oxidised away by unnecessary soil cultivation.
The thing that goes unrecognised is that the photosynthesis of your own plants is more than enough to create all the organic matter needed to produce a wonderful soil. As long as you don’t kick nature in the face and squander.

Benefits of organic matter
It is beyond the scope of today’s offering to detail all the wonderful things organic matter does for the soil. In fact without it it would not be soil. Here is a brief summary

1. In numerous ways it directly and indirectly improves soil structure with all the attendant benefits of aeration, drainage, water retention and resistance to erosion

2. It is part of the substance of the soil in various forms such as decaying organic matter, glomalin and humus - and not least living organisms themselves!

There will be more mycorrhiza and consequently more glomalin if you do not dig

3. The mineral content released when organic matter decays is a source of nutrients - particularly nitrogen which can leach away if in inorganic form.

4. Not only is organic matter made up of nutrients, its surface electrostatic charge holds nutrients which are freely available to plants.

How you might  conserve and recycle organic matter in the garden
Enough of the lecturer in me, more of the lengths I go to to retain organic matter. You might conclude that I am obsessive, stupid, misguided, lazy, unhygienic, untidy and inefficient. At my age I don’t really care.

1. Don’t destroy organic matter by excessive cultivaton. 

2. Don’t throw away soil!

3. Return all the organic matter you grow to the land. For many gardeners some or most of this process will be via a compost heap

Most snails prefer to rasp up decaying organic matter rather than your plants 
4. It is a moot point whether direct recycling of fresh organic matter is better for the soil than adding decayed matter from a compost heap albeit compost is much tidier. I do not believe fresh organic matter encourages pest and disease; sometimes quite the reverse and my own slug and snail damage is far less than most people’s.

Is decay on the surface better than compost? It's not as tidy
It was a bridge too far for my friend Rowena when in a previous post I mentioned I scatter all my vegetable remains on my veg garden. Indeed I top, tail, clean or pod my vegetables in situ. Less acceptable in a small garden. Rowena I understand - and Harry’s pictures of his worm bin were lovely.

Rowena prefers the mess to be in the bin
I think myself a little dotty when I walk a long way from the kitchen to scatter a handful of apple or orange peelings! Any advantage of such small quantities is immeasurably small; it’s the exercise and feel good factor that keeps me going!  I can’t bare washed soil from the carrots to go down the sink!

It's not really me
5. I personally have less organic matter that might be composted than most gardeners do. My lawn mowings are not boxed away. Not only is my lawn greener, the worms ingest them and redistribute the organic matter to my borders. All my weeds are tackled by spraying or hoeing or hand weeding when they are small and therefore can be left on the surface to desiccate and decay. Visitors are horrified when I pull out a weed and chuck it down.
Most of my Autumn leaves are left where they fall or if on my lawn are shredded by my mower. Sometimes leaves may be swept up and used as a mulch elsewhere in my garden.

6. More than most folk I do have lots of herbaceous tops in Autumn. Herbaceous perennials are my passion and in particular large ones. Such vegetation by Autumn is low in nitrogen and slow to decay. My solutions vary with place, season and whim.

My Lobelia tupa is tall and straggly and this year has already been cut down
In my wild gardens I use my hedge trimmer to shred herbaceous tops in situ or just leave them alone and let nature take her course. At home I might shred them more tightly to leave as a mulch. The tall plants are a headache and I have variously buried them when creating raised borders, left them in a discrete pile somewhere out of the way or (more rarely) burned them in situ in such way as to create beneficial char. Not being mechanically minded I do not have a shredder but such an implement can be used to make a great mulch.
My more sturdy herbaceous tops are left in situ as long as seems sensible to provide insect habitat and to protect, insulate and fertilise the soil. Autumn vegetation by springtime is much easier to handle. 

All this potential 'humus'
Lyndi's field six months after spraying
6. I have written about several of my projects such as Lyndi’s field and Cathi’s verge where I have eliminated perennial weeds by spraying with glyphosate and planting without any soil cultivation. No organic matter was taken away. I shudder when I see gardeners stripping organic matter to make new garden features. All the goodness, organic matter and fertile soil is retained when you spray and their is no loss to oxidation by stirring the soil. Users of glyphosate have fertile biologically rich soils.

My charcoal will conserve carbon for a very long time
7. My garden generates a lot of woody prunings. I burn them. Not exactly ecologically sound but I do douse the burning embers of my very hot fire to make charcoal. In doing so I make this ‘everlasting’ bulky soil improver and perhaps halve the carbon dioxide I would otherwise generate.
There have been occasions where I have buried woody prunings when for instance I have wanted to raise soil level. It serves as a soil improver for several years.

They bury woody prunings at Funchal  botanic garden
At Blandy their leaves and woody pruning are composted in the ground 
8. On the subject of burial after thirty years of burying great wads of newspaper I have now desisted on grounds of impending senility and finding suitable holes. Their considerable soil water holding benefits continue for several decades.

Two month's supply of the Times. It will be about a  foot down and will retain winter wet
9. I make my own soil or soil/charcoal potting composts. I shamelessly reuse them and turn any liverwort and pearlwort to the bottom of pots and trays. Only rarely does my old potting compost again enrich the ground. My point is that it is never  wasted.
As I read through this list I see I have descended into writing in the ‘first person’ Perhaps just as well as you will find that some of my eccentricities are unsuitable for you.

Links to further reading

I was alerted to research that nitrogen fertiliser did NOT speed up composting

Herbicide contamination of manure

Harry Kennedy's worm bin

I buried newspaper

Garden eccentric Tony Cuthbert made a very long list of things that can be composted

Tony didn't think of this one

....diamond dove droppings  are rather small....wonder if Cuthbert thought of hair clippings....

Saturday 11 November 2017

So what are you going to grow on your vegetable garden Roger…

Now that you say you are going to stop growing them?

Growing hardy annuals 
April sown hardy annuals
I have taken my bat home! As a no dig gardener I cannot claim to have stopped using my spade. Too many times have my best vegetables gone uneaten. Too often has my plaintiff expectant appeal “would you like leeks and greens tonight dear?” been witheringly rejected and I have been later served up with some fancy exotic concoction. I cannot add up the times that I have been unfavourably compared to Tesco. How often have I been reprimanded for not producing ephemeral things like basil, coriander and salad leaves to order?
And why are my best vegetables ready when we are not there? I am sulking!

I must confess that the decision has been eased by the knowledge that lovely fresh vegetables are sold in the village as farm-gate sales. Not a fancy trendy farm shop that is a supermarket in disguise. Just homegrown stuff or more often fresh vegetables from the wholesale market. No silly stuff about buying ‘organic’.
For years I have opted to buy their big bags of firm ripe onions. We just love them and Brenda gets through massive quantities all year round. Their ‘dirty’ huge red carrots are a joy to behold. Bought in from a farmer whose main market is ‘processing’ they are unblemished, firm, juicy and delicious. Why should I grow cauliflower and cabbage when not only are their’s cleaner they are so very cheap? I will miss my own sprouts - especially what I call sprout sprouts at the end of the season in late winter.

Well perhaps I exaggerate.
Ungraded I pick out the big ones
I will miss this
......and especially these
I won't miss these
Of course I will continue to grow tomatoes. Nothing can compare with your own. Brenda will continue to freeze them and make delicious soups and sauces to delect us for the rest of the year. 

I stumbled on Big Boy this year as wonderful marmande-type Albenga had sold out. It was absolutely superb
And modern pencil french beans are so effortless, long cropping, high yielding, fresh, tender and tasty. Two successional sowings supply us most of the Summer. I will continue to grow the perennial vegetables asparagus and rhubarb.

Ironically I grew wonderful carrots ‘Norwich’ bought from Mole seeds for the first time last year. (I have recently discovered how to properly use environmesh and let the plants push the material high rather than me support it). 
This year we have grown carrots again which do so well on our sandy soil. Unfortunately I mislaid my large packet of ‘Norwich’ and had to satisfy myself with a couple of very small packets from the rather pathetic range at the garden centre. They have grown very well, are clean, high yielding, shapely and carrot fly free, but unusually lack flavour. They took their first carrot delivery of this year’s crop at the ‘farm shop in July …. and the rest of my own stayed in the ground!

The environmesh remained for a while as a stroud
I will miss my super-sweet sweet corn. But not more scrabbling around to lift misshapen new potatoes.

What to do with my vegetable plot?

This post is not really about not growing vegetables. It is what to do instead and to show you some pictures of my haphazard annuals flung down in a strop. Pity I did not ask Peter to take better pictures than these of my own....

My direct sown mesembryanthemum would have preferred a sunnier summer
These will seed themselves and come back every year
Salvia horminum was much admired on my open day

Escholtzia can be very persistent but that's alright by me
My parsley self sows every year and joined the party
I will be collecting seed to scatter in Lyndi's field
I will grow more 'everlasting' annuals next year
My vegetable garden is highly fertile after years of recycling of all the organic matter it has created (other than what is eaten). It is not as organic black as my previous vegetable garden on clay. Clay soil responds so much better to my minimum cultivation. Never-the-less my soil has a very acceptable structure.
What’s more after nye on ten years of adding my home made charcoal the surface is open, porous and in ideal condition for broadcasting of seed.
Might I add absence of cultivation bringing weed seed to the surface and years of preventing weeds seeding  - occasionally  failing -  gives scattered flower seed a clear weed free run.

I 'throwed' at the edge of the farm field but only a few 'growed'
I ought to mention that when I took my life changing decision that I did have a stock of large packets of annual flower seed bought previously from Mole Seeds. They had been bought for a project involving direct sowing on the margin of the farm field which surrounds my garden. You might conclude that as I have not mentioned this before that it was something of a failure.

One reason for my farm field edge failure was that my sandy soil often gets dry at the surface when so often the weather turns dry in late April and throughout May. My hardy annual seeds were sown at the very end of April. The difference between my present success and previous failure was the nearness of my hosepipe and a few light waterings with finger-over-the-end squirts simulating rain. In April the ground was still well charged with water and only the surface was dry. Only two or three five-minute waterings were needed to get the seed going.
After my flamboyant haste to scatter the seed over half of my 150 square metre veg garden some gaps became apparent. I was able to fill them with several spadefuls of seedlings moved from more densely sown patches. These clumps were well watered in. (Seedlings planted in clumps grow out a long way to find their own space)
Despite my claim for absence of weed seed this is not quite true. I did a little hand weeding and when they were very small I hoed out a few weeds on a dry windy day. I routinely glyphosate spray round my whole garden so any weeds at the margin or in a few larger gaps got a squirt.
Fifteen generous Mole seed half packets have this year fought it out and have provided more than four months of colour. Unfortunately by November the nasturtiums had taken over  - but the first frost has now taken them!

So what shall I do next year?
Probably something very similar to this one. It has looked at times really attractive and the riot of colour was admired on my open day. There is a fantastic range of hardy annuals available and there are many more I can grow and no doubt many of this years plants have seeded. I will report further next year.

My new space will give me extra room for propagation 

Relevant links
My previous vegetable garden was also unorthodox

I take every opportunity to promote Mole seeds

Link and relink to my pieces about charcoal

We ate some Big Boys from a commercial source last week. They tasted nice but not as good as my own. Tasty Toms

Thursday 2 November 2017

Acis autumnalis - the Autumn snowflake

Autumn snowflake
If you investigate acis via a search engine you will find plenty about pubs, german shepherds and sea nymphs, lots about estate agents  and financial institutions but nothing about plants.

Every garden should have some
If you try Acis autumnalis you will fair rather better and find this slightly trendy exquisite late Summer/Autumn bulb. Every plant connoisseur should have one.

It appreciates my gravel garden
I do not remember where I first got my own. Probably a green plant from an alpine nursery. I now have hundreds as they bulk up very easily. Just as well as the going rate for the sturdy small bulbs is in the region of two pounds each!  Peter Williams who provides most of today’s pictures spotted some at very much more!

Actually not green, the stems and leaves are rather more brown
I suspect that they move best as a green plant or bulbs straight out of the ground. If you do buy dry bulbs get them fresh and immediately plant them - whenever this may be. If a friend forks out a few for you - at any time of the year - plant them as soon as you get home.

Spot mine
They grow best in an open well drained sunny position. Mine love the gravel mulch in my rock garden. They do well for Peter in the less shaded  parts of his woodland garden. Perhaps since learning about their value I have increased my stock all around my garden!
Apart from teasing apart small clusters of bulbs to divide them they set seed freely. I have not found them to self sow but if ripe seed is collected and sown in a pot straight away they are very easy. Sown seed is probably best overwintered in an unheated greenhouse and I suspect like most hardy Spring bulbs they require the Winter's cold before they germinate. Peter reports that his acis flowered in their second year from seed.

Peter's pictures below show how he divided his own acis this Summer

Peter has elected to dig out a complete clump
Rather a large lump!
What lovely fat bulbs
I suspect Peter potted two or three bulbs in small pots. Alternatively they can be divided and go straight in the ground.

Tough little plants enjoy the wet weather
Where to buy acis seed

My previous efforts on bulbs and corms

Ipheon - dubbed by a reader as a telephone plant!
Hyacinth (Bouquet)

There are three posts on cyclamen and three on daffodils linked to by clicking them in the theme column
Also you will find indoor bulbs  (amaryllis and clivia)

Also my posts on achimenes

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