Allotment update – 24/7/2022

Much is made in certain quarters of the merits of getting early crops out of the way so that a second crop can occupy the same area for the remainder of the year. It doesn’t seem to work out that way on my plot. There are overwintered crops like spinach, chard and brassicas that are gone by April or May, to be followed by a late sown/planted crop that is there for the rest of the summer.
Then there are early potatoes, broad beans and peas that are gone by early July and not a great deal that is both quick enough to grow in what is left and wanted by us to eat. Lettuce and some brassicas are about it.

The peas and beans were cut down last week, shredded and spread back on the ground. The roots were left in and some are shooting again, which is fine though I’m not expecting another crop. This morning I sowed both beds with a cover crop mix. I’ve probably mentioned it before but I’m totally persuaded by the idea that growing plants provide far greater benefit to the soil than any sort of mulch on the surface, let alone dug in.

The formula is simple enough: don’t dig, maintain plant cover to the greatest extent possible and stay off the soil as much as possible. The cover crop can be almost anything but a mixture is likely to be more beneficial than one thing. When you think about it, the whole ecosystem is fuelled by the energy of the sun, captured by photosynthesis. The heterotrophic organisms in the soil must get their energy by consuming what plants have produced via photosynthesis and the plants facilitate this by exuding energy rich products from their roots. In exchange, the soil organisms; fungi, bacteria and animals, break down organic residues to recycle the minerals within, to the benefit of the plants.

The driving force is photosynthesis and the more of it that happens, the greater the amount of biological activity will be supported. A certain amount of browsing will stimulate plant growth, too much will reduce it, so crop harvesting and a few slugs are good, bare ground and heavy pest infestations are not.

The layer of shreddings on the soil was quite thin. I dragged rough drills 20-30cm apart across both beds and sprinkled a mix of seeds in them, then filled the drills in with a rake before turning a hose on the beds for several minutes. The ground was very dry, at the depth of the drill moisture availability should be better than on the surface, hence I didn’t scatter seed on the surface. That at least was my experience last year.

My seed mix, very roughly mixed in a suitable container and not measured in any meaningful way, was:

Italian ryegrass
Winter tares
Red clover
Crimson clover
Phacelia
Verbascum thapsus (Great mullein)
Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove)

All were bought seed, from Sow Seeds, purchased last summer and hopefully still good, except for the Verbascum and Digitalis, which are essentially home grown weeds left to go to seed. I sowed a similar range last year, but later, and didn’t get much but Phacelia and ryegrass. By this spring most of the Phacelia had made massive growth and died off. I used a sharpened spade and/or my hori-hori to remove the rest at ground level, then sowed or planted into the beds. A minimal amount of follow up removal of ryegrass was needed and there is now a good crop of onions, carrots and parsnips in the ground.

All the material removed was shredded and spread somewhere else. Foxgloves and Verbascum are robust native biennials that make lots of growth that stands through the winter. It seems safe to assume that the volume of top growth is mirrored below ground by an extensive root system but both are easily sliced off at the top of the root and don’t shoot again. Only as many as are needed for seed will be allowed to stay and flower. Self sown seedlings in the wrong place are easily transplanted in autumn to where they are needed for cover.

It’s all a bit messy but it makes for beautiful soil with really good soil structure, both important and slightly tricky in a silty soil. Rainfall penetration is good and moisture retention is good. Nutrients are held by the organic material and improved by growing legumes so I use little or no additional fertiliser.

Have I mentioned my paths before? 1m wide woven polypropylene, folded lengthways in three, held down with 4mm wire hoops at the ends and every 1.5-2m. In spring I lift it every few days and dispose of the slugs that hide there. There can be a great many, it’s an effective technique if I keep it up while the soil is moist.

2 thoughts on “Allotment update – 24/7/2022

  1. I have never tried sowing any of these green manures and when a bed is empty and likely to be empty for a while I put a covering of garden compost on it. I don’t overexert myself in the management of the vegetable patch and try to have seedlings of winter/spring/early summer vegetables ready to occupy empty space – leeks, sprouting broccolli, garlic, broad beans. As an aside, I have planted two plants of “Cottier’s Kale”, a perennial kale which can be propagated from cuttings. These came as gifts from a friend and I am looking forward to trying them. The young leaves are certainly nice and tender, not harst in taste as is often the case with kale. It is referred to here in Ireland as a plant for the “hungry gap.”

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    1. I was trying to work out how I could do a meaningful experiment to compare green manure with compost on the surface. Neither the experiment nor interpreting the results would be straightforward but I think I’ll have a go.

      Liked by 1 person

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