Harnessing the power of fungi to restore soil fertility

You know you read those descriptions of plant soil requirements – ‘Any reasonably fertile, well-drained soil’, like no fool would garden in soil that wasn’t reasonably fertile and well drained? Well some of us fools do. I battle with low fertility, alkaline pH and patchy drainage. I recently had a full soil analysis done, and the pH is 8.1 and the soil is deficient in organic matter and most minerals, although the zinc level is freakishly high for some reason that will need investigating.

Drainage is a funny one here because we are in Blackmore Vale, legendary for its boggy clay, but the level of my plot has been raised by about a metre against the flooding, mostly with rubble, and it is surrounded by a major ditch (or moat, depending on the weather), so it is very sharply drained close to the ditch and progressively boggier with every metre you move away from it.

In the annual veg garden I built raised beds and filled them with composted cow manure from Komit Kompost, which needed to be topped up annually for the first few years as the compost broke down. This is the traditional approach – bring in tonnes of soil improver. It worked well and now it is a great growing medium for veg, but I can’t afford the cost or the back power to apply this to the whole of a one-acre plot,  so I need to do something different elsewhere. Plus, everywhere else I want to grow perennial plants, and as soon as the roots go down into the subsoil, they will encounter the original hostile conditions. While I grow lovely shallow-rooted veg, the trees that I have planted mostly look stunted and unhappy.

Digital image
The veg garden

I have a theory. I read about a compost tower, where you bury a 6 inch soil pipe vertically, with several feet of it in the soil and a foot or so sticking out, with a bung in the end. You chop up your compost materials small and add them, and they break down and feed the soil. The beauty of it is that it only takes up a 6-inch diameter space, and you can apply it where you need it, no shovelling required. The downside is the need to chop up the materials small and the need to bury it 3 feet down – I would need a minidigger to do that and would excavate several boulders! Plus, it’s a solution for a small garden, not the scale I work on.

So I have made a different kind of compost tower, three of them, from four pallets screwed together, for the forest garden. So far, so standard. In conventional composting, you would take out the contents, turn them, replace them, do this three times, then shovel the compost out and take it where you want it. Way too much work! The capacity for hard labour does not increase with age, and let’s just say I’m looking for easier ways to do things these days!

dsc_06651I continually add compost materials to the top of this tower, but I never turn it or interfere with it. For a lid I regularly add a layer of cardboard held down with planks. And that’s it. I have never dug this piece of land. It is about 150 feet by 50 feet, and I used mycorrhizal fungi when I planted the apple trees. By now, the native mycorrhizals plus the added ones should be thriving. Mycorrhizal fungi are incredible organisms, as are all fungi.  Connected to the plants’ roots, they are the soil’s internet. In un-dug soil, if a plant is attacked by a pest, another of the same species tens of metres away will produce deterrents to that pest – it is the mycorrhizal fungi that enable this kind of communication. They also distribute soil nutrients from areas where there are plenty to areas that are deficient. When you dig, you break up the mycelium and destroy the mycorrhizal network. It’s one of the biggest arguments for no-dig.

With three strategically placed sources of compost on the plot, with the soil undisturbed, I figure that the mycorrhizals over time will distribute the nutrients from the compost and improve the whole plot. In addition, I am including plenty of nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating plants in my planting plan, and hopefully the fertility of the plot will improve from lousy to at least reasonable over a few years. Repeat testing will tell.

As the compost in the towers shrinks down, I just top it up with whatever I can lay my hands on. My one  rule is ‘nothing thorny’. In time it will stop shrinking, at which time I will unscrew the sides, level the heap and start again elsewhere. The towers are not things of beauty I will confess, but I am a fair way off worrying about beauty on this particular plot. It’s all about getting an ecosystem going that’s not all hogweed, docks and nettles.

Will it work? We shall see. As with all proper gardening projects, it will take a few years to come to fruition, not a single weekend with Alan Titchmarsh supervising.



On courgette tyranny

Right now my Twitter feed is full of messages along the lines of ‘What can I do with this 20 kg of courgettes/runner beans?’ These two are the usual offenders. There are plenty of good recipes for preserves, courgette cake and so on, but what you don’t hear is ‘sling them on the compost heap and go to the beach’. While the country as a whole bins a third of the food that it buys, and far more than that is wasted before it even hits the supermarket shelf, us grow-your-owners beat ourselves up over a few wasted vegetables (if you consider composting a waste, which I don’t – compost bins need to eat too!).

courgettes1It might be a ‘middle class problem’, and the peach glut that I occasionally get must be the ultimate middle class problem, but it is a real problem nonetheless. If you have even one productive apple tree, particularly like the ‘Katie’ that I have, which ripens in August and doesn’t keep for more than a week or so, or a modest row of runner beans, you can end up enslaving yourself to a quest to preserve it all in a race against time and it can get quite stressful.

DSC_0617[1]By all means make preserves, as long as you enjoy doing it and are going to eat them. Chutney keeps pretty much forever anyway and courgettes make great chutney. Personally, I have never found a means of preserving runner beans that is not a delayed way of composting them – salted, pickled or frozen, they have always lingered for a year or more, then been thrown out in a clear-out. Courgettes I like to freeze, fried in discs. Defrosted and warmed in a frying pan then mixed with pasta and cheese, they make a great mid winter lunch. But when the freezer is full, I don’t mind composting a few. Yes, it’s great to have food preserved for the winter and not to have to go out in the cold for supper, but it’s not like we have feet of snow in the UK, and the garden can carry on producing fresh veg all winter, up until the hungry gap.

When you’ve made as many preserves as you are likely to eat, and frozen as many as you need, when your friends act like they are doing you a favour taking them (or worse, avoid you!), don’t stay up all night finding inventive ways to preserve the crop, or beat yourself up about the waste. Compost them, and plant fewer next year. If you can’t find someone who would like your windfall apples, then leave them, they will feed a multitude of wildlife. Growing veg takes a lot of energy, and growing much more than we need is not the best use of that energy and time, probably the most precious and limited resource we have. In order to be sure of having enough, I always aim to grow a slight surplus, but I bear in mind that, growing my own, I waste far, far less than if I was using the commercial food chain in any form and I don’t worry about composting some.

Don’t be tyrannized by your courgettes – sling them in the compost and go out and have fun in the sun while it lasts (she writes on a drizzly day)!

There’s a revolution afoot in the garden

Next year I plan to have a year off growing annual veg, not only to get to grips with the more neglected parts of my garden, but also to have more fun. Today, instead of starting out with a marathon weeding session, which is of course what Sundays are for, I got up early and went to West Bay for a swim in the sea before all the tourists got up. It was breathtakingly cold, but also breathtakingly beautiful, and I’d like to do more of such things, along with some more cycling challenges. On top of that, at this time of year I tend to be so flat out watering, weeding, harvesting and preserving that I have little time to make anything creative in the kitchen or to go foraging.

I still want to eat well though, and that’s the catch. I love my veg. And so I’m going to have to be efficient with the energy that I put into the veg that I grow. I’m paying attention to what is indispensible in the kitchen this summer, what is easy to grow that I really can’t live without, and what is a prima donna that doesn’t contribute enough for the time and space it takes up. I am influenced in this by the fact that lovely Goldhill Organics is local, and I can buy locally grown organic veggies there every week and not have to buy supermarket veg.

DSC_0582[1]First on the list of things to go is okra, having just had the electric bill that its extra heat contributed to. Despite extensive and expensive mollycoddling it has produced only a handful of pods for the second year running. It’s out. Also aubergines and peppers – since I can buy local organic ones and they are challenging to grow, they can go on the list too.

DSC_0575[1]High on the list of things to stay is French beans – generous and easy and a staple in the kitchen, with a small footprint, they are must haves. Also courgettes and lettuce, and of course, tomatoes. I eat so many tomatoes in summer that buying them might bankrupt me! An automatic watering system might be useful though. With French beans, salad, courgettes and tomatoes, one could happily eat well all summer. I was going to scrap the sweetcorn – another demanding and temperamental crop – but then I tasted it harvested straight from the garden and cooked immediately in a little butter. You just can’t buy that! Autumn and spring spinach is essential too.

Most of the brassicas can go, temporarily at least. Much as I love growing cauliflowers, they are easy to buy and even non-organic ones hold little pesticide residue. Purple sprouting, alongside the perennial kale, and some pak choi, may be the only ones to earn a place next year, possibly following some summer calabrese, which has produced harvests for week after week this year.

DSC_0578[1]Having had some white rot on the onions and terrible rust on the garlic, not to mention the leek moths, I am resting the entire onion family next year, with only some perennial Welsh onions in the edimental garden for fallbacks. Carrots in tubs, but not in the ground, and I think I’ll give the celeriac and parsnips a miss too – they are fussy and easy to buy well. A few new potatoes, but no main crops.

DSC_0586[1]Wow, that has slashed the growing list! Some early mange-tout and sugar snap peas and plenty of broad beans, plus maybe a Crown Prince squash or two providing we eat our way through the stockpile still in the freezer, and the list is about complete.

The empty beds can be heavily mulched and left for a year, which will help clean them of weeds, and the beds I am using can be polycultured, which will simplify rotation. Obviously there are still perennial fruit harvests to pick, store and eat. There are the asparagus, globe artichokes and various perennial veg that I planted this year, and there is also a world of foraging outside my gate.

Who knows whether, after my ‘gap year’, I will go back to aiming for self-sufficiency in annual veg or if I will carry on down a revolutionary perennial and foraged path. Time will tell!