First Six Years of the Garden

Year One in the Garden

We moved here in May 2013, into the cabin we built, and in the winter of 2014 we cleared about an acre of straggly pines, from a gentle south facing slope to the west of where we were renovating the old house.

Pines cleared for the garden, November 2013

Situating the garden was a big decision. We considered putting it closer to the house, which would have been more convenient, but it wasn’t feasible with all the building work going on. These pines were planted too close together and weren’t very healthy, but they had protected the soil beneath with a good layer of pine needles and other organic matter. There was a small creek the other side of the pines, which we thought we might be able to divert for water, but unfortunately it dried up after we cut down the trees and the soil was heavily compacted by the machinery. Since those early days we’ve learned a great deal about water management for the garden, mulching and improving the soil.

The situation of the garden has given us great pleasure – the views are amazing. In the winter of 2018, after we’d finally cleared the rubble from the house renovation we put in some salad beds and tomato trellises closer to the house. That was a good move as we were able to put in better soil and it’s easier to take care of the more tender plants.

In the summer of 2014, we began laying out terraces using the chestnut beams from the old house. We then covered the ground with straw for the winter.

West view, summer 2014
East view, summer 2014
South view, summer 2014

We had our first retreat in August 2014, with some great people and a lot of fun, including hay rolling from the field the other side of the house to the garden.

The hay-rolling race, August 2014

That first year we experimented with the Fukuoka method of natural farming. It was a near total failure. Perhaps it might work better in more fertile soil, or at least a garden that wasn’t already well-established with brambles and weeds. Anything that did sprout, was strangled or trampled before I could find it.

Our very first harvest was of knobbly carrots in September 2014, which was when we realized that our compacted clay soil needed some TLC.

Our very first crop of knobbly carrots, September 2014

Year Two in the Garden

Over the winter of 2014/15 we dug out the natural pool a bit more and began laying out the beds.

South view, with larger pool, February 2015

We also dug swales, in an attempt to keep more water in the soil. This was partly because we moved here in the wettest spring for 70 years! The track was a gushing wellie-deep river and the ground floor of the old house was flooded out. We were concerned about moving water away from the house and thought it would be a good idea to move it to the garden. So we dug ditches, put in drainage pipes and dug swales – then we had a drought.

It was somewhat gratifying to see the swales fill up in the spring of 2018, but we had a lot more work to do to keep sufficient water in the ground. We’ve lost too many young trees to drought. We’ve been off-grid since 2018, running on solar with a back-up generator and the system works really well, except for the fact that it’s a challenge to water the garden enough in the evening as the sun is going down. This year (2019) Dean put in a water tank that can be filled during the day, with a gravity feed water system for the garden that can be run anytime.

Full swale, March 2018

In 2015 we had broad beans, courgettes, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and some potatoes. We would have had more potatoes and corn too, but the wild boar came and ate it all! After that, we had to fence in the garden to keep them out.

In the spring of 2015 we put in an asparagus bed and tasted our first asparagus in May 2018. Fresh asparagus, picked from the garden and tossed in a little oil and grilled, served with a sprinkle of salt, is nothing like you buy in a supermarket. In fact, all our home-grown really does taste better and is more satisfying.

Freshly picked asparagus

Year Three in the Garden

By 2016, I was beginning to think that I might have been a bit over-ambitious regarding the productivity of a food forest/permaculture garden. This was nothing like suburban gardening. The main tenet of permaculture is that you work less if you work with nature, and whilst that is true, the reality of it is entirely context dependent….and with clay soil, there is no avoiding hard graft. We love blackberries, but it took us two years to dig them out of the beds and they are still springing up all over the paths in between. As we are surrounded by woods and fields, there is never a shortage of opportunistic weeds. Yes, a weed is just another plant in the wrong place, but by the time we finished weeding one bed, the next one was smothered. The digging meditation is an excellent way to root out those unwanted suckers whenever they show – as above, so below!

We made the decision not to use manure, after realizing that I’d had enough of dealing with other people’s shit! It’s been a real challenge getting enough organic material in the soil, but I felt that using too much cow manure would upset the balance of the soil and bring in too many parasites. Although our yields were low initially, we have not had problems with parasites, bugs and slugs. We are now using indigenous microorganisms and just starting with biochar, and it’s working well. Technically, I would say our garden is a mix of organic polyculture and permaculture, not that it matters what you call it if it works!

Year three was the hardest year – lots of effort and not so much return. We decided to bring in some fresh energy with some summer volunteers.

Year Four in the Garden

Year four was more hard work, mulching, weeding and watering. The swales were not sufficient and we decided to test an exuding hose system. It worked well enough, but we needed to put in more lines. Getting more water to the garden was becoming a priority. We put a pump in the shallow well in the barn (that had been the only well water supply for the previous owners, the bucket and chain were still here) and ran a pipe to the garden. That well ran dry in August. 2016 was technically a drought here, with a relatively dry winter and spring and no rain at all in the summer. We needed a better solution, but it would have to wait for another year.

On the plus side, the volunteers that year were wonderful. Their work enabled us to catch up and even get ahead of the game, enjoy some excellent company and share the peace and beauty of this place with a lovely young couple. For them, the cabin and surroundings were the perfect getaway and space for intimacy, with each other and the land. They set the Greenwood Standard, that we ask of from prospective volunteers.

With the extra boost of energy, I fell in love with the garden again. We went into winter without a mess of weeds laughing in the wind! And Dean and Jacob set up the chicken run, so we could finally get chickens. (We can’t let the chickens free-range, as the dogs will kill them.)

Year Five in the Garden

More volunteers – also wonderful and now firm friends! This was the year we began to make real progress. The garden began to look like a garden, instead of a heart-wrenching effort to scratch some vegetables out of the earth. We began boxing off the downward side of the beds, so they would hold water more effectively and more weeding and mulching.

This was the year we got our greenhouse. And what a beauty it is, lovingly and creatively built by Marcus and Dean, using what we had left from the house, with purchased roof panels and rafters.

Our volunteers also collected seeds and set up a seed bank. Most of our vegetables are now from our own seed.

Salvage greenhouse

Year Six in the Garden

This year (2019) the garden is doing great! It’s providing us with almost all of our vegetables, everything except onions and potatoes. Potatoes are just a magnet for the wild boar and they are good and cheap to buy here. And onions just don’t do well in our soil.

I’ve started everything off in the greenhouse from our own seeds and planted out when the seedlings are strong enough. Sowing directly is still hit and miss and a bit of a waste of seeds and effort. But the greenhouse makes it all a pleasure. I can potter around when it’s cold and rainy and this year we had broad beans, cabbage, broccoli, beetroot and kale in spring. We’re eating lettuce, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, squash and garlic and I was able to give plants away. We’ll have fresh tomatoes through until early December, as some plants are in the greenhouse and frozen and dried all the way through to next summer. It’s August and I have kale, broccoli, cabbage and more beets in the greenhouse, ready to go out in a few weeks.

Striped aubergine that matures quickly
Garlic drying before being stored
Sweet corn
White fleshed peaches, planted in 2014
Second lot of beets this year (we love beets!)
Tomato trellises
Green tomatoes

The big project this year was the water tank and exuding hose irrigation for the garden. Dean got it finished by the end of May, just in time for the hot spell. It is a luxury. It’s a 10,000L tank and we have three water structuring disks in it to keep the water fresh. It means we can water the garden and run the dishwasher or have a shower at the same time – the kind of things you have to juggle when you’re off-grid. It’s also meant that I can begin to plant flowers around the house, as they need watering in the evening too.

Dean with the water tank for the garden

Of course, there’s always more to do, but I’m really happy with what we’ve learned and what we’ve achieved in six years!

Dreamcatcher Tomatoes

We finally got to put up the trellis for the tomatoes. We’ve wanted to get them closer to the house for a long time, but first we had to build the house and clear the rubble. That’s taken a few years.

We used abandoned yurt poles for the main supports and washing line, with a couple of hula hoops to make the trellis, because that’s what we had. the dreamcatcher weave is an easy way to make the trellis and it’s eye-catching too.

The boxed in beds have a mix of our own compost, forest mulch and biochar. We have cucumbers, aubergines and lettuce planted in between and I’ve just sown basil and nasturtiums. Not much to see yet, but they are growing fast and strong.

I’m using indigenous micro-organisms and chicken shit tea for fertilizer.

Bumper crop

This year (2019) was a bumper crop for tomatoes, despite a surprize hailstorm on 4th July that caused quite a bit of damage. I cut out the damaged stems and fruits and they just bounced back. The plants in the greenhouse will provide fresh tomatoes until the first frost, usually the last week of November or first week in December. I’m currently freezing and drying about a kilo of tomatoes a day and I expect that we’ll have enough to see us through until the first drop next year. That feels great, as I know exactly where these tomatoes have come from and that they’ve been grown without any chemicals and with structured water from our well.

In the past I’ve usually grown cherry tomatoes too, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they are a bit of a waste of space. We prefer big tasty, juicy tomatoes that we can eat in salads, use for cooking and dry for later. I started all the tomatoes from seed in a propagator box in the (unheated) greenhouse in mid- March. I’ve found that there’s nothing to be gained by starting them earlier, as they need the increasing light following the equinox to grow strong and healthy.

This year I sowed three types of tomato:

Corazon de Buey

The ‘ox heart’ is a Spanish heritage tomato – it’s big, juicy and delicious, with just the right balance of tart and sweet, firm-fleshed, few seeds and the best for salads.

The seeds germinated a bit later than the others, they like a bit more warmth and they were slow starters, but once they got going……

Mighty Corazon de Buey, just picked
Corazon de Buey tomato, sliced.

Mucha miel

Another Spanish heirloom variety, with a slightly ribbed, irregular shape and a rich sweet, flavour. It’s a large tomato, with attractive green stripes as it grows. Despite its size, it’s my favourite tomato for drying, as it isn’t quite as juicy as the others and dries just a bit quicker. – (This is important as an off-gridder.) The flavour intensifies when dried, especially with a bit of basil and we’ll have these with spring salads before next year’s new crop. It’s also a great salad tomato and is a prolific cropper.

Mucha miel and Rosa de Berne tomatoes

Rosa de Berne

Rosa de Berne is a Swiss heirloom tomato. It’s a great all-rounder, with a beautiful rose-pink colour and it’s really sweet and juicy. This is a very useful tomato as it is a heavy cropper and ripens early. It doesn’t have the acidity of the others, but it still tastes of tomato. In fact, all these tomatoes are intensely flavoursome.

This is a great tomato for cooking slightly and freezing for use in soups and stews in the winter, but will go nicely with salad too.

They are all winners!

Salvage Greenhouse

DIY greenhouse from salvage

This was our first greenhouse effort:

Greenhouse wreckage

Several hundred euros, several hundred pieces to put together, eighty-five pages of instructions and fifteen minutes of wind!  Obviously way too suburban for our environment. We salvaged some bits of polycarbonate to make cold frames and the mice ate everything – now we have cats.

Next, we tried a walipini.  Walipinis don’t work in clay, with wet winters.  Most of the posts on the internet that show how cheap, efficient and easy walipinis are do not mention the need to consider your local environment and climate, especially amount of rain in the rainy season, very carefully. The walls collapsed and we’re now using it as a pit for rubble from the house build.

Finally, a greenhouse to be proud of, from Dean and Marcus “Rockstar” of the North:

Salvage greenhouse

It’s not completely salvage, we bought the corrugated polyester and acrylic for the windows and the roof rafters. but the rest is made from leftover wood from other projects.  The front pillars are chestnut, leftover from the house.  We would not have been so ambitious as to use them ourselves, but Marcus said: what do you think about using those beams on the front?  It will be beautiful.  And it is.  The doors are salvaged from a collapsed yurt.

The first stage of the project was to rebuild the stone wall next to the barn.  It collapsed in a storm a couple of winters ago.  It happened just as we were contemplating going off-grid and the only bit of the wall that collapsed was right next to the electricity meter.  It was a huge mess.

Fallen wall

There wasn’t much space to work with and we were concerned that the foundation of the wall and the barn had been weakened by the electricity pillar – the wall was very unsteady.  So Marcus put in a buttress, using all the old stones and lime mortar.  It was his first stone wall and by the time he’d finished he could pick the perfect stone for each place just by instinct.

Rebuilding the stone wall

The part sticking out from the barn is an old bread oven, with the access in the barn – there are people around here that still use outside bread ovens – and a well.  The well in the barn was the only water for the house when we moved here, with a bucket on a chain.  We had originally thought about putting a separate roof over the bread oven and well and joining it to the green house, but Dean and Marcus decided that a single roof would be much better and we can’t use the bread oven anyway, as all our winter wood is in the barn.  We use the well in the barn for the garden, as it is shallow and doesn’t take as much electricity to run the pump as the deep well, but it also goes dry towards the end of summer, so we have to work on another irrigation system for the garden this winter.

Greenhouse beginnings

So, the frame went up:

The roof went on:

Greenhouse roof

And the windows in.

Greenhouse from the front

The greenhouse is well-sheltered.  It is on the north side of the wall, but open to the west and shaded by an oak tree in the summer.  Two of the windows open for ventilation, as we seem to go from cool to hot very quickly.  Spring is very short these days. My aim is to use it to get seedlings started earlier, although it is currently home to tomatoes that I repotted from the garden.  It’s December and we still have fresh tomatoes!  We have a small butane heater which we’ll use when the nights get colder.

Greenhouse bed in winter, with coriander, beets and artichokes

With love and thanks to Marcus and Miriam.

At the bus stop

Water Management and Dealing with Your Own Shit

Enough of everyone else’s shit yet?

The first year here, our neighbour farmer dumped a trailer load of cow manure on the garden, when I wasn’t around, and told my husband that I asked for it! Well, that was an error of communication, but it really brought it home to me in the most graphic way: I had to be really clear that I wasn’t going to take anyone else’s shit anymore. I have plenty enough of my own. The technical term is ‘humanure.’

SIGNS OF CORRECTION

Within four hours of my having written, “I wasn’t going to take anyone else’s shit anymore” a dear friend posted this on Facebook.

When you’ve had enough of everyone else’s shit.

Now, I haven’t spoken with this friend in a few months and I hadn’t planned on writing about the farmer dumping the cow manure. This friend does not follow the Sophianic Narrative either, although he is a sovereign individual and lives a natural lifestyle. So what did this little ‘coincidence’ signify to me? It’s PAM banging on the drum of the endopsyche – don’t you feel it too? Haven’t you had enough of this shit?

Sophia has agency. She’s had it since the summer of 2016. This means She is using all means available to get your attention – it doesn’t matter to Her whether you know She exists or not; you are still one of Her children. For those of us in PT, She’s having a bit of fun, showing that She can play with the search engines. She can eliminate the xenosh and their collaborators at any time, of course, but our wise and generous mother is giving us the opportunity to participate in that pleasure with Her and that necessitates refusing to take on other people’s shit and dealing with your own.

mulching

The first principle of Heathen Permaculture, as I defined it is: feed the soil. But what do you feed a goddess? Obviously, She eats anything, the earth is a closed system and everything is ultimately recycled, but some things are clearly more beneficial to the garden than others.

So, that leads right back to dealing with your own shit. We do that quite literally here. All our ‘humanure’ goes on the garden, along with waste from the chicken coop and all our vegetable peelings etc. (after they’ve been composted for a year or so). Some one told us that the best way to make a bed was to dig the top layer of topsoil away and put in a layer of straw and a layer of compost, then put the topsoil back. We’ve done that on a couple of beds this winter and have just planted potatoes and brassicas.

I’m not saying compost toilets and ‘humanure’ for everyone, but it is what we need to do to live here and it’s really not so bad.  Flushing toilets seem quite strange to me now. We have compost toilets and a tree-bog (the loo with a view), no flushing toilets, no municipal sewage. (We have a reed bed for grey water.) And it’s quite obvious how dealing with your own shit has benefits.  I just noticed that the asparagus is coming up already!

Tree bog – known as: the loo with a view

Our indoor compost toilet

The soil looks good this year, finally. It’s taken four years, to get to the point where we are growing around half of all our vegetables and that will increase now we know more about what works and what doesn’t. I feel that it’s paid off taking it slowly and not giving the soil ‘indigestion’ by making improvements too rapidly. A friend nearby got his soil to what seemed like a perfect state within two years, but then the mice moved in to that lovely soft, rich warm soil and ate everything. He still hasn’t got rid of them. In using our own waste to feed the earth, we have moved at the right pace for the biochemical relationship between us and the soil to develop; we are giving the soil all the information and nutrients it needs, to give us exactly what we need in terms of medicine and nourishment.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates

We tried mulching with wood chips on several of the beds two years ago. They are good for weed suppression, but there’s no tree cutting company around here, so we had to go and get them from the wood yard. This was a lot of work and we ended up with lots of hard wood and it takes too long to break down. We will eventually use wood chips for the paths – after we’ve dug up all the brambles – but they didn’t really work on the beds.

Our main source of mulch is leaf mulch from the oak woods close by and grass cuttings in the spring and summer.

We started the garden in the winter of 2014, by clearing some straggly pines over about an acre, laying out beds and digging in ditches and swales and putting in a series of drainage pipes. This is after we cleared the trees and as we started laying out the beds with beams from the old house. We did a lot of digging.

Making the beds

I used to call the garden the ‘food forest’, rather optimistically. Four years later, it’s clear that what we are doing here is technically more organic polyculture than permaculture, but let’s not quibble over terms. Now, we just call it the garden – ‘la huerta’ as they say here.  We haven’t been able to work on the garden as much as we would have liked, we also had a house to build and retreats to run and it was a big help to have some volunteers last summer, but we are making steady progress.

water management: Swales, ditches and drainage

The year we moved here, in 2013, was said to be the wettest in 70 years. It rained torrentially, more or less continuously, from January to May. The track to our house was an ‘over-the-top-of-your-wellies’ river and the mud was relentless. As the soil here is clay, we put in a lot of effort over the following year, digging ditches and swales and putting in drainage, to prevent water-logging. Then we had very little rain, with drought conditions in much of Galicia for the next three years.

Last year was very hard on the garden, with a highly unusual late frost at the end of April, that wiped out the grapes, all our fruit and potatoes, followed by more drought. We lost quite a few trees too. We put in extruding hose, which worked quite well, but will need to be supplemented with water storage tanks, as we can’t run the water for the garden and water in the house at the same time (we are now off-grid). We were almost to the point of filling in the swales, as they were just filling up with weeds, when this year the rain returned. Two weeks ago the reservoirs were all 90% full, and it’s still raining. We have more than enough rain to get us through the summer now, but we really need the rain to stop so we can get out and do some planting.  This summer we will need to do some swale maintenance.

Still, what a joy it is to see our swales and drainage working properly. All that work finally paid off!

We put a drain across the track and this takes the run-off in a buried pipe 80M or so down to the pool. The rain from the green roof of the house joins this pipe and also goes to the pool, you can just see it to the left of the deck. The pool dried up completely last summer, although the summer before people were able to swim in it. If it dries up, that’s it, as we’re not going to pump water from the well into the pool.

Track drainage

Full pool

The swales are filled from a ditch across the brow of the hill and they are linked by drainage pipes that also go down to the other end of the pool.

Full swale

Swale overflow drain

The overflow from the pool goes to the little creek at the bottom of our property. One day, we’d like to clear the creek, to help it flow better, it’s really overgrown at the moment.

Creek

In completion with Matangi, March 2018

Water for the vegetable garden

Water for the Food Forest

2015 was an exceptionally hot and dry year here.  The 2014/15 winter was dry and the only rain we had until November was on our Beltane Retreat.  At one point in the summer we thought our deep well had run dry and we became very conscious of the water we were using. We are even more conscious of our water usage now, as we are going off-grid this summer and we aren’t on municipal water – we need to pump our own water.

I used to take water for granted when we lived in London, but water awareness was one of our first lessons here.  First, the well ran dry in the house we rented, even though the roof leaked into our bed when it rained!  Then when we moved here we had no water in the cabin for a month and that summer, 2013, the gravity well ran dry.  We had another month of driving 10 miles to fill up at the public font that brings water down from the mountains.  Many people in Spain still use mountain water for drinking that comes from the public fonts that are all over Spain.

The gravity well is our reserve well as it doesn’t need electricity to run.  It’s up the hill from the house and the cabin and we laid a pipe so it flows down the hill when we need it.  It’s all we had until we put in a deep well and it only ran dry because we lost a lot of water when we put in the pipe.  It just doesn’t have enough pressure to support all our needs when we have guests, or to water the garden.  So, last summer we opened up the other well that is in the barn.  This is about 15M deep, so we could put in a less powerful pump and the plan was to use that to water the food forest.  That well ran dry too!  The new plan is not to water the food forest.

Most farmers around here don’t irrigate their fields.  They grow potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins and corn and every year they plough in cow manure to get rid of weeds and keep in moisture.  We are not ploughing and we’re not using cow manure.  Cow manure is full of weed seeds and creates more work than benefits.  Our strategy involves swales, ditches, woodchips and trees.

The Lie of the Land

Our vegetable garden is on a gentle south facing slope.  Two years ago we cleared the straggly pines that were there there and began the process of laying out beds and terracing the slopes.  We had the use of a digger for the initial clearing and to lay out the old chestnut beams that were in the house to make the terraces.  The terraces are not formal and not dug out; we are just using the beams to support the downhill side of the beds as we slowly build them up over time with mulch and wood chips.  The aim is to retain rain water and minimize soil erosion from water running down the slope. We’ve done most of the rest of the work by hand, mostly just Dean and I, with a few hours here and there from various visitors.

We get around 100cm of rain in a year, which should be plenty to keep the garden growing throughout the year – if we can keep it in the ground!  The wettest months are November and March, but we can get showers throughout the year and cloudbursts in late summer.  This province, Lugo, is named after Lugo the Celtic god who wielded a spear of lightning.  Lughnasa, the first week of August (thereabouts) is when he brings lightening and thunderstorms to recharge the earth.  Lugh is a Bearer of the Grail.

Our soil is mineral rich, because no one has farmed here for generations.  Before the pines were planted about 20 years ago it would have been cleared pasture for cows and before that it would have been native oak and chestnut woods, that still exist in these parts.  If you turn your back for five minutes in a field around here, an oak tree will shoot up!  However, the soil is solid clay and without the pines providing shade and a constant supply of mulch, it turns to concrete in the summer when the sun beats down.  It’s a beautiful and sheltered location, but it’s very hard on seedlings.

Trees

We have planted about 50 fruit and nut trees so far.  We lost all the hazelnut trees last summer, as the hosepipe wouldn’t reach them, but all the other trees survived.  Mature trees are expert water managers.  A mature fruit tree can drink nearly 200L of water a day and our aim is to keep as much water in the soil as we can, so that we can minimize watering in the dry months.  It might take us a few years to get to that point, as the trees are still young and not rooted deeply enough, but that’s our aim.

Trees are intelligent beings.  You might not be able to hold a conversation with them, but that is just as true for many human creatures.  If you plant a tree in the right place and support it when young, with the minimum intervention, it will adjust its needs to whatever the Planetary Animal Mother provides.  So last year many of the trees dropped their leaves to conserve water because of the drought, but their roots were safe and they are already budding this year, after a mild wet winter.  Trees collect rain and transmit it into the soil.  It has been shown that broadleaved trees intercept blowing rain and conduct it down the branches and trunk to the soil.  The roots then provide a path which carries the rainwater into the deeper soil layers very quickly.  Our indigenous species like ash, alder, chestnut, willow, birch, oak, elm and many hedgerow shrubs are known to be particularly effective even in heavy clay soils, like ours.  Coniferous trees are less effective at catching rainwater.  Trees reduce flooding and prevent soil erosion, as well as providing shade and evening out the temperature extremes.

Ditches and Swales

Everyone knows what a ditch is and a swale looks like a ditch, except it runs across the contour of the land, rather than down it.  A ditch moves water away from where it’s not wanted and a swale retains water where it’s needed.

Swale diagram

 We are using a combination of ditches and swales, to move rain water away from a very waterlogged area and into the swales.  The swales hold more water than would stay on the surface and allow it to gradually percolate downhill below the topsoil, reducing evaporation and encouraging strong plant roots as they reach down for the water.

A full swale
A full swale

We have dug three rows of swales across the slope, fed by the ditch, so that the parts of the food forest that were dry now have water leeching below the surface.  Initially, we put old wood in the swales, as I’d read that the wood preserves the moisture and prevents more evaporation.  I thought it might mean less mosquitoes in summer too.  But the swales are so full that with the wood that they overflow all over the beds, so we are making adjustments.  It also encourages brambles to fill the swales, as they love old wood.  We will probably shore up the downhill side with planks over time, as this will prevent wood chips and mulch from filling the swales.

Mulching and wood chips

If you walk in the woods anywhere around here, the earth is protected by a thick mantle of rich, dark leaf mulch.  This is what the food forest was like before we cleared the trees, which stripped off and compacted the mulch layer.  Mama does not like to be seen naked, so the weeds then grow prolifically to cover the bare soil.  We laid thick layers of hay from the fields when they were cut, to keep the earth covered and some of the weeds away, but it doesn’t work as well for growing as wood chips and mulch, so we strip it away when we make the beds.  Hay works well to cover empty beds over winter, to keep them weed free and warm ready for planting in spring.  It tends to get fungus easily, so wood chips are better.  (But not all wood chips are equal – soft wood is much better for mulching.]

Mulching reduces evaporation so that the soil stays moist in summer.  You can mulch with almost any natural material that you can lay down in layers, like cardboard, old wool carpet or straw.  However, some materials take longer to break down than others, so if you want to plant shortly after mulching, wood chips are hard to beat.  We haven’t got all the beds covered yet.  There’s no tree-cutting service anywhere near us and Dean has to drive to the wood yard 10km away and load up the truck, then we have to wheelbarrow it into place.  It’s laborious, but the earth and the plants will thank us for it.

Our aim is to minimize our work in the garden and maximize our enjoyment and yield.  It’s a two hour job to water the garden with a hosepipe and when we go off-grid that means two hours of running the pump!  Working with nature to manage our water makes so much more sense.

Gardening with Woodchips

A couple of years ago we watched a documentary called Back to Eden.  It is an excellent permaculture documentary, that pioneers the use of woodchips in the garden.  If you can get over the Christian, Bible quoting dsitractions, the natural farming methods of Paul Gautschi are truly Goethean, based as they are on observation and contemplation of nature.

Our land is clay, and most people around here are dairy farmers. They grow potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage and corn and not much else.  The permculture sites always reference talking to your neighbours as a good source of information, but that’s only useful if you want to do as they do.  We do not want to plough up our land and cover it in cow shit.  Cow shit is full of seeds and you have to leave it for years before you can use it and ploughing destroys the mycelium network, through which the plants communicate. The Gautschi approach immediately appealed because this area is naturally temperate woodland – blink and an oak tree grows.  So do, brambles and weeds on any bare patch of land – the Planetary Animal Mother does not like to parade around naked!

We started the vegetable garden in January 2014, by cutting down about an acre of straggly pines that had been planted too close together on a gentle south facing slope.  (See: First Six years in the Garden.) It took most of 2014 to clear the area and lay out some chestnut beams that came from the old house.  We covered the whole area with straw for the winter of 2014/15 as we didn’t have enough chips the and we needed to keep some of the weeds away. We have made raised beds that form terraces down the slope.  We put in swales and planted trees for the canopy layer in 2015.  The earth got terribly compressed by the wood cutter’s truck and the tractor for clearing the branches away.  We left most of the stumps in place as they will gradually break down and they keep some of the moisture in the ground.  As the land is south facing and there are no longer any trees there, it’s really muddy in winter and rock hard in the summer.

The biggest challenge was getting enough woodchips.  We bought a Titan chipper from the UK, which works well, but we still have to drag in the wood to chip. (It does not work well on soft wet weeds or vines.) We have oak woods all around, but these are wild woods, full of brambles and it takes a couple of days to get enough wood to chip for a day.  Most of the permaculture sites that talk about woodchips are based in the US, where there seem to be an endless supply of tree surgeons wanting to offload their chips on anyone who wants them. Not so here.  Finally, after having bought thousands of euros worth of chestnut beams from the local wood mill for our house, Alberto happily agreed to let us have as many woodchips as we want for free.  Although Dean still has to drive over there, load up the truck and bring them back here.  It’s still more efficient than chipping our own. (UPDATE: the chestnut hardwood chips didn’t work that well over time.  they took too long to break down and dried out the soil in hot summers.  Our own oak and pine worked better.)

Straw v woodchips? Straw makes a good layer to suppress weeds and to keep in the moisture, but it’s not good for growing in.  I don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, so everything has to be grown in place from seed and the straw makes an impermeable mat that is too tough for the seedlings to get through.  (UPDATE: salvage greenhouse.) moved the straw away on some of the beds as they grew, but it’s more work than woodchips and not as successful.  With the woodchips I just move the woodchips aside to expose the bare earth, sow the seeds and push the wood chips back and the seedlings germinate and grow.  I keep straw for the paths.

So, we are still building our wood chip beds and have many. many weeds.  I leave most of the weeds, many of which are wild herbs and medicinal plants, as well as food for pollinaters and predators that would otherwise eat all my plants.  We haven’t used any fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides and everything that survived the drought of 2015 grew just fine. The thistles, gorse and brambles are the only weeding that we do – sometimes plantain, which is plentiful around here.  My aim is to keep the garden work to a couple of hours a day; of course it doesn’t work out that way because of the weather and the fact that we are still setting things up.  Still, in the first year we’ve had: carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, peas, chard, peppers, onions, radishes, beetroot, beans, broad beans, courgettes, squash and we would have had sweetcorn, but the wild boar got it all!

Seed Balls

We experimented with the Fukuoka method and planted seed balls of different kinds, throughout October to grow in spring.  We made seed balls with a mix of clay and well rotted manure and placed them under the straw.  I tried throwing them out, but they just all sat on top of the straw, which didn’t seem like a very good idea.

We hoped to discover what would germinate where and maybe something would survive the winter.

There are three different kinds in separate patches in the area by the pool that’s bramble free.

Group 1:

  • carrots
  • lettuce
  • bush beans
  • kale
  • cabbage
  • radish
  • onions

Group 2:

  • spinach
  • peas
  • bush beans
  • coriander
  • turnips

Group 3:

  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • onions
  • beetroot
  • musrard

On the lower terrace we planted various mixes of:

  • turnip
  • cabbage
  • kale
  • mooli
  • daikon
  • peas
  • broad beans
  • coriander
  • spinach
  • chard
  • cavelo nero
  • rocket
  • lambs lettuce

On the mid terrace we planted a mix of:

  • onions
  • bush beans
  • turnips
  • peas
  • cabbage
  • spinach
  • radish

On the upper terrace we planted (on 13th November):

  • peas
  • lettuce
  • chard
  • turnips

The beans came up within a week or so and some survived the winter.  Other seeds have germinated too, but what were they?  Radishes, maybe?

LEARNING: waste of effort and seeds in our environment.  We could not find what had germinated and the dogs trampled most of it.  The rest struggled with our clay soil and the brambles and thistles won every time.  We need more formal planting if we want to eat anything we grow.

The vegetable garden

We cleared about an acre of pine trees for the food forest.  We decided to clear the trees because they were planted too close together and very weak and spindly.  We’ve left the stumps in the ground as they will rot within a couple of years.  The site slopes gently and is a southerly aspect.  The soil is clay, but very rich under the pines.

We used the ancient chestnut beams from the old house to lay out terraces.  The aim is to hold some of the rain that will wash down the slope.  The rain is plentiful in spring, autumn and winter, but we need to keep the moisture in the soil for the summer months.  We are working with the Fukuoka method as much as closely as possible, so we have cut the brambles to the ground with a brush-cutter, but we haven’t done and ploughing or weeding and we’re not using any chemicals.  We’ll have to eal with the brambles as we go along.

We then covered the whole area with a thick layer of straw from the fields.  Our neighbour cut and rolled the straw, but he doesn’t need it for his cows as he has over 750 rolls from his land apparently!

We will be planting fruit tees and shrubs on the upper terrace and vegetables lower down.  We debated using a cover crop or green manure, but the land is so rich that all we really need to do is cover it to prevent as many weeds growing back as possible and to keep in the moisture.

Luckily we had guests here for the Equinox retreat who were happy to help out and roll the straw bales from the well field to the food forest area.