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Posted by Richard Perkins over 10 years ago
Having read Craigs’ recent article I got inspired to write a little update about how my own garden is doing after 2 hours work with the help of a new farmer friend and a bit of over scaled machinery! I identified with the sense of constraint that having a busy international schedule can have regarding looking after your own needs simply and effectively! The last 6 weeks have been extremely busy setting up a home and lining up various cold temperate climate enterprises.
Arriving in Sweden to teach a PDC back in in June I ended up staying around. After securing a low impact portable home as an investment (which you can read more on later) my next step involved establishing an annual garden to produce the bulk of the basic foods for the community I live within primarily. About 8- 10 adults full time currently on a few hectares. The property is shown below and ends at the first drainage ditch to the S.
Situated about 80km SW of Stockholm, the site I am developing production on is generally a highly sandy soil with a good level of organic matter generally, and particularly from previous cultivation over approximately one third of the area. Having come from an organic farming and horticulture production orientated background I am generally into a “no nonsense” approach to growing basic foodstuffs. By this I refer to minimizing work and effort and establishing solid, reliable and storable foods as priority before getting funky with less common, exotic or less substantially yielding plants. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally into wide diversity and “playing” in my garden too, but the old adage, “obtain a yield” speaks to me in terms of getting basic needs covered as priority one, so we begin with soil. I often find it humorous how much credit humans take for “growing” things, to me vegetable plants aren’t worth a lot until cropping and I consistently notice I’m a lot rougher and hastier than students and colleagues expect from me when planting out! I guess on a garden scale you can afford to be very caring and gentle with individual plants. Its appropriate microclimatic design, plant choice and the various layers of soil building that results in high yielding, disease free, low input annual production.
Climatic Data for the region
Having moved to a colder climate than my own, (and noticeably more expensive too!) I’m always focused on leveraging microclimates here. With a relatively short growing season, only approximately 5 months frost free maximum, we have designed up a simple but effective way to deal with annuals for our garden. Perennials will all be nearby in our forest garden and perennial agroforestry tree nursery. We have begun soil building over 2500m2 for this, but the design process is still in early phases so I will keep you posted on that later.
The site we are working on has extensive tall trees (20-25m) sheltering all sides save the S- SSW aspect, where the predominant winds blow here. Even here it is considered generally sheltered, but I aim to maximize heat traps, sinks and windbreaks as much as possible to influence micro- climates; we have designed in cropping heat traps trees and shrubs within the larger existing shelterbelt to be planted as soon as spring allows it. A lot of little heat pockets and shelterbelts intelligently laid and planted will dramatically change the cropping patterns of this site. By planting 2 or 3 rows of successively taller shrubs and trees as a horseshoe around the W and E sides, peaking on the N edge of the garden, we will effectively trap heat in the growing space. These will all be edible croppers and/ or useful support plants, eg, Eleagnus, assorted Berry fruits and Sea- Buckthorn.
A quick sketch to communicate the garden plan to the community
The S edge slopes ever so slightly towards a drainage ditch that carries excess water away from the pasture land. We lay the beds accordingly. Out towards the ditch this area is visibly moist, evidenced by the Juncas in the photo below, and probably compacted by machinery over the years (even very sandy soil can get heavily compacted)
Here we accordingly establish beautiful basketry willows, to make use of the excessive moisture, filter water entering the ditch and provide diffused wind protection for the milder SSW breeze. 6 rows in total, they will be established in two seasons, 3 rows one year, 3 the next, then coppiced alternate years to keep the windbreak permanent. Given the relative sheltered position of the property this should prove ample and leave enough space to pass a tractor and allow full sun into the garden.
Alternated coppicing allows continual windbreak/ ecosystem services/ fodder, etc. This is willow destined for the chipper to heat the home and water at Martin Wolfes' agroforestry research site- we will use up to 6 rows of more densely planted annually harvested basketry willows
Picking up on the tension of using fossil fuels versus doing things by hand in Craigs’ article I was moved to share how we have created the majority of the 400m2 growing space with only 2 hours work so far; I’m all in for minimizing the time, money and effort I need to exert if I can utilize someone elses work in a mutually beneficial way! Marking out the garden with coloured lines really helped to visualize the space and flows through the garden, as well as serving the vital function of communicating the vision with the other community members to ensure all are on board and in agreement whether they have participation in the garden or not.
Without much spare time (this garden implementation began a few days before I left Sweden on a 2 month teaching adventure) we began searching around for mulch sources. I was quietly measuring up large hay bales to calculate volumes I might need when I met the farmer who was curious what I was up to. We struck up a friendship and organized a mutually beneficial agreement to utilize the farmers “waste” resources (This might not be a lasting scenario!), as I soon find out theres over 100 bales of slightly mouldy hay down the field he doesn't want to give his cows, (although they love it) and get our garden built with virtually no effort or time. 40 bales of hay later and another hour and we have 15cm of dense old hay laying out across 400m2 with 20 bales already lying in the future site of a 2500m2 forest garden and perennial nursery enterprise we shall establish next year. Nice!
“Would we like it if the farmer came with his muck spreader and laid out 10cms of manure/ straw mix over the whole lot that afternoon?” “Yeah, sure!” I replied. That did not even need translating. Without any more effort and with no extra fuel used than the farmer was planning to use clearing his yard and we now have a beautiful even covering over the whole garden. Perfect!
30m3 of manure later...
Now to explain a little of the thinking behind some of my decisions...
Hay is full of seeds, here noticeably Timothy so one must be very careful to mulch with it! It’s not uncommon to find people weeding a lot of grass from their no dig mulch beds after this! Hmmmm. My priority with this garden was to get things rolling very quickly in order to have a garden in place and rotting down over the winter so I can get started with the appropriate scale of annual production for 10 people next spring on a very tight schedule. Ideally I would have placed thick layers of cardboard down first, but given the potential of the hay germinating I have decided to get this whole area temporarily covered on the top, probably using strips of scrap agricultural plastic the farmer has offered. Cardboard would still be nice to ensure hardy perennial weeds are controlled, but it would entail at least 10 x 30km trips with a trailer and a lot of time.
Covering with plastic could make things a little anaerobic, but given things are getting really cold biological action will slow down considerably. With the mulch layer thoroughly soaked and some compost tea applied I’m confident the seeds will rot out very nicely and some useful MO activity can get to work. The covering can ome off before long snows, it's just to be sure. With at least 30cm of covering now on the soil, and a good period of time under cover from the top I’m not very concerned that anything will grow back through. Later on we will mulch only with straw or other seed free OM and definitely not hay. The final layer of rotted silage has no viable seeds so could be left uncovered probably, but being away for a long while I’m personally happier with it all covered for now until I can get back there. Given these are “waste” to someone else I was able to achieve this rapid garden overhaul at minimum cost with incredibly low effort, and to me on my schedule that’s worth more than slightly more ideal starting conditions that require more effort, time and money. It reminds me of an inspiring community in Belgium obtaining ridiculous amounts of free organic food having grown relationships for years.
All our vegetable starts will begin life indoors and not go out until May, some June, and by this time we will have extensive high quality 18 day compost ready to plant into. Pulling back the covering in the spring we will shape the paths by lifting material onto the beds and shaping it all to a more aesthetic arrangement, and by that time my Super Pain will have arrived and we will lay out 20cm deep woodchip paths.
This not only looks attractive but will help inoculate the beds with beneficial mycelium, particularly with very small additions of the rich forest litter all around us in our composts. Aesthetics are very important near the home, especially in a shared community space where not everyone gets super excited about soil carbon, microbiology or even vegetable gardens for that matter!
By extending the plastic covering 1m out beyond the beds we can kill off grasses around the beds where we will establish a closely planted living willow hedge, utilizing thousands of free cuttings from the biomass plantations next door.
This will be protected by a 1.8m deer fence to deal with elk, deer (and hopefully the cats) initially for a year or two until the living fence is established and comes into its own. It is certainly not going to look very attractive for a few months, but then I’m trading a huge amount of effort and toil for a new beneficial relationship with a farmer happy to bring all his excess organic matter, a bunch of time, petrol, money and my back!
Interestingly there is a noticeable lack of small birds in my mind in Sweden, and its garden birds I want to employ for a lot of the potential pests, caterpillars in particular. Interestingly some locals reflect back that it is only the last 3 years or so that this seems to have been the case, anyone clued up on any Swedish insecticide/ pesticide market changers in this time frame!? Over the winter we will feed birds and establish both nesting boxes and perches for owls and other predator birds for rodent prowling. In establishing myself here I feel very happy to trade the colder climate for the lack of squirrel and pigeon problems!
Having grown food extensively commercially, as well as worked in Organic retail I feel clear clear that I am not willing to grow annuals for people outside my family/ immediate community! The one exception is organic leaf salad from the Jean Pain heated glasshouse we kick off in April. As we have a shop in the local town of Gnesta and organic salad sells at 14 Euro ‘s/kg in the summer, with no local production in the winter, we figured this will probably be the most productive 100m2 footspace in Sweden next year!
Our shop in the local town of Gnesta, focused on local seasonal produce and hand made artisanal products from the community
Back to the garden…. Half the space, the N to S rows on the E side of the garden will be yearly rotations of brassicas, beans, pumpkin/ squash and potato. Super easy to grow, they also all store well and make up the bulk of our foodstuffs. A lot of farms here have beautiful earth cellars, and with a new door ours will be ample for storing winters supply. Rows of mulch such as comfrey alongside each bed provide easeful chop and drop maintenance, nice functional additions to any row crop scenario. On these double reach beds, save a few interplants with beneficial flowers, etc, these rows will be more traditionally cropped. The other garden space will also be double reach beds for salads, herbs, flowers and all other general kitchen vegetables. This garden will have more polycultures and diversity. We have some friends establishing future Seed Swaps in nearby Stockholm but with limited time, Swedish language and no vehicle I decided to stock up with seeds from Tamar Organics from the UK. I’ve used these seeds commercially and enjoy the quality, service and reliability that this company offers.
I recently invested in this very high quality juicer. Not only can we utilize garden scraps that normally ends up in the compost heap as high quality foods, we will run a highly profitable and sociable juice bar at the shop several days a week too. I used to turn over as much with this same machine in a retail setting as selling the bulk of the fresh produce.
Annual vegetables are a great way to mine minerals from the soil, and if the nutrient cycles are not closed loops, export them straight off site. After making several hundred 18 day compost piles by now, I think I’ve got the art down pretty well now. In a recent pile illustrated here we disappeared an adult fox in 5 days! Gently easing back the decomposing mulch in Spring where we want to plant we will use pockets of 18 day compost as an extremely rich and diverse inoculant and chelated nutrient crumb structured growing medium as we plant out seed starts. We also make small amounts of the pile go along way with Actively Aerated Compost Teas (AACTs) which we apply regularly as a foliar and ground spray as we kick start MO activity as Springs warmth returns. I will apply this fortnightly to begin with as the whole garden matures, reducing this down to perhaps monthly the following year and then after. We also make really nice BioFertiliser to deal with general nutrition.
This successfully fermented barrel will meet most of our annual nutrition needs
So it might not look particularly aesthetic just now, but with a little effort in spring the form and structure of the garden will become very beautiful too. Sure we still have a couple hours of fencing and a few more for cutting willow and establishing that. Shaping the paths/beds and chipping enough wood for the pathways may take a couple of days. All in all its not a huge time investment, especially as we will not have to dig from now on and weeding will be unnecessary if the mulch regime is maintained. Already in Spring and then by the end of the summer I expect it to be totally transformed and blossuming! I will keep you updated…
Half way through the final layer; rotted silage applied on top of the manure on the right of the photo, now 25- 30cm thick nutritious mulch all over the garden
Low Impact Appropriate Housing
In the weeks I’ve been in Sweden building networks and planning regenerative enterprises for the Spring one of my main priorities has been establishing a home. With my personal circumstances changing dramatically recently I held a desire to set up a base that would be cheap, functional and mobile, just in case I chose to ever move. I wrote a little about the German circus wagon I have been renovating here and these last couple of weeks I have been in the country I have added a natural fridge and continued the inner fit out, including starting paneling the sauna at the front of the wagon.
The natural fridge draws consistantly cool air from a long chimney under the wagon and condenses and runs excess humidity away, the air passes easily around food in the wire baskets (from the dump) venting out the roof. Ideal for vegetables and dairy, which do not particularly benefit from conventional refrigiration.
With the garden set out and my home in a basic livable state I’m now in Mallorca teaching a PDC at the beautiful Ecoconvivencias and then off to Luxembourg to run the first PDC there in the country. Winter will see us preparing for a large Polyface and Holistic Management inspired grazing operation set up at very low cost via another beneficial farmer relationship alongside all the courses and practicums you can find out about here.
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