In fact, I have my eye on that large roughly 20m x 20m mostly unused front lawn at Homeland, a) because we do all our living and playing on the back lawn, and b)…. Oops, I’m digressing. My opportunity finally came to start preparing a reasonably large 23m x 5m area at Dreamland solely dedicated for vegetable production.
“Now in autumn?” you may ask. “Shouldn’t you be planting vegetables in spring?” Well, yes and no. This piece of ground has been lying basically fallow with some odd mixture of grass, slowly dying over the long dry harsh summer we’ve been having. Exactly half of the area, split neatly through the middle length-wise, has been baking under weed mat, while the other half has been baked by the sun to the extent that the ground has cracked open in quite a few places. So weed mat vs sun will form a very interesting experiment in itself.
With the soil so dead in that area, now is a good time to plant a winter cover crop that will open up the soil through the winter by growing in deeper roots, capturing and feeding nutrients and in general encouraging and enhancing the whole soil food web.
To make things interesting, we had another delicate little timing issue too. On completion of the grass paths , we literally had one day before a massive storm hit our area and the weather was forecasted to turn cold and wet for quite a few days. In fact, it is now drizzling steadily as I’m typing, with much harsher rain to come. I wanted to get the cover crop in before the rain hit, not because the cold will help the seeds to sprout at all, but all that water will be good for them to get ready for sprouting as soon as the sun sticks it head out again. So, apart from the measurements and lines, which had already been done, I had one day to do everything before the rain hits.
So although it was a nice warmish day with land breezes creating nice surf on a semi-favourable tide for the beach breaks, I sacrificed a dawnie surf session in order to get cracking at the break of dawn. First up was laying the irrigation pipes. It doesn’t make any noise so I could lay them very early while our tenants may or may not still have been asleep. I don’t think they sleep that late, anyway, but I still feel it’s just polite not to start up a whining little petrol engine right next to the house at that early hour.
By the time the irrigation pipes were done, I could start up the little tiller machine to try and grind out the dead grass. It battled with the hard clay, even in the areas where the weed mat was, although that was slightly better to work with. For good measure I tilled it length-wise first and then width-wise. Tired of the grinding bouncing little demon, time pressure told me it was time to move on.
Next came the arduous task of carting in topsoil, one wheelbarrow at a time. Pushing and dumping the wheelbarrow is still OK, I just wish someone would invent a cheap strong fast wheelbarrow loader. It’s just not cost-effective to hire a bobcat for such a smallish job, but on the other hand, it’s a massive job to get done manually. Anyway, I set a few targets, cranked up some lively music – “you better lively up yourself, ‘cause I said so…” – and got cracking. I’ve learnt my lesson with this type of exercise before – so I started at the furthest end. That way each trip got shorter as the day wore on. Four wheelbarrows then rake and spread, four wheelbarrows then rake and spread… I finished with 15 minutes to spare before my artificial deadline when the kids came back from school.
I was under the impression both the kids were going to help me sow the thousands of seeds, as they did so nicely with the grass and perennial clover in the paths. You sort of work it in your timelines that it’s going to take about a quarter of time shorter as it would by yourself. Great was my dismay when I heard the one had an away play-date and the other one ran cross-country the morning, so he was tired… Anyway, he did come hang out, revved the music up a bit more – “scaramoush scaramoush do the fandango” – and did a few of the more interesting tasks. I must say, he made really nice shallow furrows with the colinear rake, little precision engineer that he is.
The autumn / winter cover crop seed mix I got from Diggers Club was a curious thing. It was a four-part “combo” that came with detailed instructions and even more information, which was good. It consisted out of two types of annual clover (Dalkeith and Trikkala) and mix of two types of mustard seed (Brassica napus and Brassica juncea), which are all great for autumn sowing. However, the fourth component was a Lucerne, which according to the detailed instructions, you should sow in the spring in a different bed or field. So why at all is it in the mix?
Anyway, so there I was, rushing along the beds – three times along each bed for the three furrows, times three times along each bed for the three different seeds, times 4 beds, times 25m. That’s a lot of sowing. If the seed counts on the packets are correct (does anyone ever verify that?) that must be a good 32 000+ seeds. It felt like a lot, and it took quite a while, or so my back says, but it doesn’t quite feel like 32 000 seeds. But then, it probably is. Who’s counting when you’re regenerating growth?
After sowing I screwed in the first two blocks’ risers and sprayers, as the sun was setting too quickly while the rain clouds were building up in the south west. A dramatic end to a long busy day! I didn’t have enough risers to finish all the irrigation, nor enough time as it was getting dark very quickly, but in the dusk I could still quickly test the sprayers. Happy customer.
During the rainy days I prepared the remainder of the sprayers and made some more home-made stakes in the shed. After the rain, it was an hour or two of screwing in the remaining sprayers, whacking in the stakes and tying the risers to the stakes – job done. Now it’s over to the clover, mustard, rain, sun and worms to regenerate the soil. I’m looking forward to planting these beds in spring. I think I must start planning a crop rotation cycle while it’s bucketing down.
What about permaculture?
So you may ask where do the permaculture principles fit in? We had some really interesting discussions around this topic during the Organic Market Gardening course. Olivier Sofo, our trainer, is a qualified PDC trainer, but also a highly productive vegetable grower. So it looks like conventional urban vegetable farming, which it is, but you work in the permaculture principles by how you approach and implement it.
Let’s look at diversity, for example, I’ll typically have three rows in one block, unless one of them is a massive big vegetable, and I’ll typically split each row in two. So, if we plant a different vegetable in each partition, that gives you 6 vegetables per 20 x 1 meter block; and each of our 6 blocks will have a different mix of vegetables. So even though each row is mono-cropped for productivity, that is a lot of diversity in quite a small space. And besides, I can bet you there will be left-over clovers and other interesting plants coming up in-between. This area is also right next to the forest garden, which has as much diversity as you can get.
You get a lot of multi-functionality too if you have a good crop rotation cycle. By planting, for example, heavy feeder, light feeder, green manure, fruiting vegetable, leaf vegetable and then root vegetable in succession, you are using some of the multi-functionality of the previous crop to feed the soil for the next crop, or to extract from the soil what the previous crop put into it.
Re-use, re-cycle, composting the off-cuts, no-digging – all those principles are used too, as well as providing a yield!
The tricky part of this all is to design a complementary set of crop rotation cycles that can run side-by-side in the rows in the same bed, where you need to have good companion planting within one block, as well as cycles with similar time-frames so that you can process a block at a time, not having to work in-between the rows. I see a large pin-up board with multiple swim lanes coming up, and, and… More about that in subsequent post!