December 2014

I compare the year’s yields of Homeacres’ experiments with dug and undug beds, show how to judge the quality of compost and manure, catch up on winter growth and maintenance at Homeacres and at Steph’s allotment and receive an award from the Garden Media Guild.

Comparing harvests, dug and undug

Looking back on this year’s trials at Homeacres, the two which compare growth in undug beds as opposed to dug beds have both given quite even results.

In the one with compost dug in, harvests are over 100kg for both dug and undug beds, off beds of only 5×16 feet (1.5x5m). 100kg! And in the case of the undug bed, for little preparation-time, simply spreading compost on top: see

In the beds where compost is spread on the surface of the dug area, growth has been more different. The undug strip of 6.5×30 feet (2x9m) has yielded 71.9kg of vegetables, compared with 60.8kg of the same crops on the dug strip of the same area. Both these beds had two inches of municipal, green-waste compost spread on them in May.

There is a third bed of the same area, growing the same crops, and it received two inches of composted cow manure in November 2013, on top of the undug soil. Its plants have suffered more slug damage, mainly in the spring after the rain of last winter, and because the manure was more strawy than I would have liked. This bed has yielded 66.6kg so far this year.

For 2015, this experiment continues in a similar vein.

One conclusion so far is that digging is simply not necessary, and you can thus save a lot of time and effort. Another conclusion is that using well-decomposed compost is worth it if you can source it, particularly in wet areas with heavy soil, as here. In drier regions and where soil is lighter, spreading younger manure (still minimum one year in my opinion) and younger compost (min. 6 months) is viable, see below for more on that.

One or two inches on the surface is enough to feed and stimulate soil organisms and give good harvests over the following year.

In the photos below, the first is an overview of the three strips which run diagonally to the right. The strip nearest the camers is dug with municipal compost on top, the second is undug with same compost, the third is undug with cow manure on top. The band of green is mustard, sown early September after squash, for green manure: it rots down after moderate frost.

Quality of compost and manure

How to judge the suitability of manure and compost, for growing plants?

I look for a dark colour, some crumbliness, and not too much undecomposed woody or fibrous material. Especially as Homeacres is a damp spot with clay under the surface loam. The photos show less-decomposed and more-decomposed cow manure, with straw bedding. Both are the same age but the more-decomposed manure was turned in summer and its lumps broke with a fork, to admit air and feed the organisms of breakdown.

Autumn growth

The weather has been kind to brassicas, a warm autumn and often damp, but sunshine too. The chinese cabbage I sowed in early August, less than four months ago, grew into hearts weighing between one and two kilos (over 4lb). But some had caterpillars in after my fleece cover blew off in October and I did not re-cover, expecting colder weather and no more moths or butterflies.

The savoy cabbages are slower-growing and were sown in May. All summer they were under mesh to keep butterflies out. Now they can stand a while until needed, they resist frost.

The third photo is two squash varieites after roasting, when Steph was preparing for a course. We tasted them to compare and were disappointed with the Futsu, it was more watery and fibrous with a less intense flavour. Also it is longer to cut off the skin, from being so ribbed. Kuri squash tick all the boxes!

Growth in the polytunnel

It is late for sowing any seeds, hopefully you have plants growing. Homeacres salads are thriving undercover, I sowed them in mid September and we have already picked many of the plants twice, of their outer leaves. Such as mustards, salad rocket, lettuce Grenoble Red, chard, chervil and endive.

The photos are four days apart, November 23rd then November 27th. These plants were watered only once in the second half of the month and I shall next water them in three weeks time.

Also I have a lot of edible mushrooms coming up between the plants, more than I can eat in fact and more than last autumn. All fungi love no dig, which preserves their mycelium, and I think the role of fungi in maintaining healthy soil, vigorous growth, is little understood.

For example even the Soil Association tended to forget about micorrhizal root interactions, until recently. But now there are many companies selling mycorrizal products and the addition of money to any concept makes it more discussed. I do not think you need any mycorrhizal products when using compost, which is full of them, and when practising no dig.

Allotment and award

I gave Steph a hand at her allotment and it was a pleasure to see how after six years of no dig, with compost mulching, the surface is so dark and easy to weed and plant into. The site is full of sticky, pale clay and other allotments, dug over, make me shudder!

In the middle of Steph’s allotment are some fine brassicas which were planted AFTER onions, in mid July. The mild autumn has helped them to grow quite large, from calabrese and cauliflower already cut to Brussels, kale and flower sprouts.

A few days earlier I had been in London with the Gardeners World team, for the annual awards ceremony in all gardening media. Everybody apart from Monty Don was there, I had a good chat with Carol Klein, said she is missing her nursery. I was so delighted to win Practical Journalist of the Year, am receiving my award from the director of Thompson & Morgan, Paul Hansord.

Yacon, course, tomatoes

On the most recent weekend course in mid November, I harvested yacon to show everyone what it is like. It needed a spade to remove the 5kg of tubers, in so doing I kept hitting large pieces of glass from when this was a nursery in the 1950s-1970s. No dig is good for leaving all that history out of the way.

The yacon tastes quite sweet, is low on carbohydrate and stores well. Then I took a group photo.
Also shown here are small tomato plants from sideshoots, Sungold mostly. Unfortunately a frost got in the greenhouse and damaged them last week, we shall see how they grow.

Dismantling hotbeds

Its that time of year again. Mick gave a hand to shift lots of compost and manure, making new beds on the pasture nearby, of the dark compost from the growing beds.

Then we had a problem, what to do with the 9 month old horse manure of the actual hotbeds, because it may be contaminated with aminopyralid weedkiller. I have been monitoring problems from this in the same batch and its a horrible thing. So we made separate beds with this material and I can run a trial on them next year, to see what effect there may or may not be. Not knowing is the worst thing and a month ago I filled a seed tray with some of this manure, then sowed peas, broad beans and tomatoes. All are susceptible but so far they are healthy, a great relief.


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