No Dig Gardening

No-dig gardening has been written about since the mid 1940’s.  I mean just take a look at Albert Guests’ “Gardening Without Digging” (below).  Kinda reminds me a little of myself, standing there in my double breasted suit, smoking a pipe while admiring my garden.

But is was wonderful Esther Dean, who took the concept to the mainstream in the 1970s with her book “No Dig Gardening”, which has sold over 100,000 copies to date.

More recently it’s been promoted as “A new layering system…” or Lasagne Gardening with Patricia Lanza’s book.

 

How to get started?

Firstly you’ll need to assemble some ingredients:

Materials for a border: Straw bales, timber, bricks.  NB: If you’re building a garden over concrete or bitumen you will need boarders at least 30cm high.

Newspaper or cardboard boxes.

Bales of hay- ideally lucerne but straw will do (pea straw is great)

Manure – chicken, cow, pig – I’m not a huge fan of horse manure as it tends to include more weeds.  Would be fine for a deeper bed.

Compost

Potting mix

Water

Step by Step

1. Place your newspaper and/or cardboard in a sturdy wheelbarrow  right where you’re working and fill with water.

2. Mark out the edge of your new garden with your border material

3. Take the now soaked newspaper and place down thickly (the tougher the grass/weeds, the thicker it needs to be)

4. Throw some veggie scraps over the newspaper to encourage worm activity

5. Place down a thick layer of straw (if the straw breaks off into ‘biscuits’ go one layer deep)  approximately 20cm

8. Water well

6. Cover with a good layer of manure – use the ‘hottest’ first e.g. chicken.  Again water well.

7. Cover with another straw layer and follow with with manure, watering between each layer.  Continue until you’ve reached the height of your border.

8. Finish with a final layer of pea straw or sugarcane mulch.

9. Pull aside holes in the top layer of mulch and put in a few handfuls of potting mix.

10. Plant directly into the potting mix and water well.

Here’s a time-lapse clip showing how it’s done.  Maybe turn the volume down though…

 

 

Important Tips!

If you’re planting directly over lawn, mow the law on a very low setting just before starting the newspaper layer

Make sure you remove plastic tape from any cardboard boxes and plastic wrap from magazines.  Staples are fine.

Don’t use waxed vegetable boxes as in most cases it will be a petroleum based wax.

Some permaculture books suggest using old clothing, jeans, bed linen etc. as a sheet mulch for the bottom layer.  In my experience this is no longer the best idea as many of these now contain polyester which won’t break down.

The more thoroughly you can water whilst building the no-dig bed, the less is will sink down afterwards.  It also helps to speed up the composition of all your ingredients.

No dig gardens are better suited to well established seedlings – not seeds or root vegetables.

Now get (no) digging!

Crop Rotation 101

Why bother?

When starting a kitchen garden, we focus a lot on plants and yields.  What do I like to eat?  What do I want to grow?  As time with dirt up your nails increases you tend to get more focused on the soil and its needs – then the plants take care of themselves.  Part of this acknowledgement is realising it’s actually a pretty amazing thing to grow such high nutrient food year after year in plain old ‘dirt’.  But it’s not all a oneway street.  Soil gets depleted of elements and especially the three majors: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  We can work around this natural cycle though, by planting in tune with the soil’s fertility.  Additionally, by moving plant families around, you’re less likely to have problems with soil borne diseases and other pests.

We are family

To effectively use crop rotation we have to understand the different plant families.  Some of our veggies are fairly obviously related e.g. carrot and parsnip.  Some are less so…think potatoes and tomatoes or beetroot and spinach.

Here is a quick run down:

Onion Family (Alliaceae)

Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard, Bok Choy and other asian greens, Radish, Swede and Turnips

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

Carrot, Celeriac, Celery, Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Parsnip

Potato Family (Solanaceae)

Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Potato, Tomato

Marrow Family (Curcubitaceae)

Cucumber, Zucchini, Melons, Pumpkin, Squash

Bean and Pea Family (Leguminosae/Fabaceae)

Alfalfa, Beans, Clover, Fenugreek, Lupin, Peas

Daisy Family (Compositae/Asteraceae)

Lettuce, Chicory, Endive, Jerusalem Artichoke, Salsify

Now we categorise our veggies according to the parts we eat (basically).

Legume

Bean and Pea Family

Root

Onion Family

Carrot Family

Leaf

Cabbage Family

Daisy Family

Fruit

Potato Family

Marrow Family

Let’s get started

Know we’re armed with all this knowledge we can start to plan our beds.  To start with a four-bed system is a good idea and if you don’t have separate garden beds you can simply divide a large patch into four.  It’s also a good idea to throw a little lime on the soil after the ‘fruit’ season as this will sweeten the soil for root crops.

 

  Season One Season Two Season Three Season Four
Bed One Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit Root
Bed Two Leaf Fruit Root Peas or Beans
Bed Three Root Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit
Bed Four Fruit Root Peas or Beans Leaf

We sow the seeds!

A little about seeds

Seeds are made up of two major parts.  Firstly the embryo which includes the roots and the shoots.  Secondly the food source.  Seeds are so bloody clever they pack their own lunches!

It also explains why seeds and grains are energy-dense sources of food for us big brained mammals.  To grow, seeds need to absorb around 60% of their body weight in water.  Additionally they also need access to air. So when growing seeds it’s a balance between moisture holding growing mediums while also having excellent drainage.  You can assist the water absorbing process by pre-soaking your seeds before planting for a day or so.  Soaking below are some purple king climbing beans.

I tend to only pre-soak large seeds as smaller seeds are too fiddly.

Direct in garden or seed raising mix?

For root vegetables (carrots, beetroot, parsnips etc.) I’ll always sow directly as the large tap root is susceptible to damage when transplanting.  Peas,  beans and corn I’ll also usually sow direct – the large seeds making it a straight forward process.  Most other herbs, brassicas (think cabbages, broccoli asian greens) tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers…well pretty much everything else, I grow into seedlings before transplanting.

How deep to plant?

It is very tempting to plant seeds deeper than they need to be.  While working for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, I found kids always wanted to plant the seeds far too deeply.  It certainly seems to be our default setting.  Generally speaking seeds are planted to the depth of their width.  So broad beans around 1cm while lettuce and cabbage seeds barely need covering.  I dare you to simply spread some lettuce seed across the surface of some seed raising mix and just water without covering.  In around 10 days they’ll germinate and anchor themselves nicely.  We all know how wonderfully weeds grow, and nobody is sowing them at a specific depth.

Caring for seedlings and feeding

Seeds germinate well in dappled light (especially in summer) and this will also prevent the seed raising mix drying out too much.  You will know it’s too shady if seedlings grow ‘leggy’ i.e. thin and tall.  Temperature is the other necessary factor in germination, with most seeds only coming to life when the soil temp is close to 20 degrees.  Professional seedling producers use heat pads to artificially raise the temperature of the soil, leading to subtropical growth in temperate climates.

Use a fine spray of water initially as you don’t want to move the seeds with large drops of water while they’re trying to take root.  A hand-held pump sprayer is perfect.  As mentioned above the seed provides the required nutrition to germinate but once growing a weak liquid feed is a good idea every 10 days using worm juice or a seaweed concentrate.

Where to source seeds

Here are some links to seed providers who specialise in heirloom or old variety open pollinated varieties.  This means you can save the seed year to year and your plants will turn out true to type – something not always possible when saving seed from hybrid plants common in nurseries.

www.diggers.com.au

www.thelostseed.com.au

www.edenseeds.com.au

www.greenpatchseeds.com.au

www.theitaliangardener.com.au

Seed raising mix recipe

Most of these ingredients are readily available at good nurseries or landscaping suppliers (river sand and loam) and will save you lots of money if you’re propagating a lot of your own seeds.

One part river sand

1/2 part vermiculite (this is a naturally forming mineral that is a great insulator and holds moisture)

1/2 part weed free garden loam

1/2 part compost

Handful of blood and bone fertiliser

Mix together and keep in a sealed bucket.  Moisten before use.

Remember you can re-use this seed raising mix after planting out your seedlings by adding it to your next batch – don’t throw it out!

Planning a kitchen garden

We certainly live in times where the perception is to achieve something you have to be moving at a furious pace; report writing, renovating and making sure you respond to friends’ Facebook comments within 15 seconds.  Even relaxation time has to be booked in and analysed: “is this yoga class really giving me spiritual enlightenment?”.

1) Observation

Anyway, give yourself an afternoon off on the next sunny day and get into that comfy chair to simply pay attention to what’s happening in your garden.

In only a few minutes, birds will start to ignore you and you can begin to note the following:

Which way is north, east, south and west?   (Free compass apps are available on most smart phones)

Where are the sunny and shady parts of the garden?

Note any breezes and the direction they’re coming from.  (You can also check for wind damaged trees e.g. missing foliage from strong/salty winds)

Bugs, bees, birds and butterflies.

Where are the eyesores or ugly views?

Take a wander and note dry or wet patches of soil.

Look for trees that may cast a shadow over areas or offer competition for water a nutrients.

Take note of the slope of the ground and where this will direct water during heavy rain.

Pay attention to the types of weeds that have grown over winter.  Tough, woody weeds usually mean poor soil.  Lush green leaves (that you’d probably eat if someone told you it was okay) are signs of fertile soil.

2) Elements

This is the fun bit and often where people start without the knowledge gained in step 1 – Observation.  Think about what you’d like; raised garden beds, a big patch for potatoes/pumpkins, compost heap, worm farm, fruit trees, chook house, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries or other dedicated perennial bed/s, bee hives, herb patch, sensory garden, edible maze, berries, water tank, potting shed, green house – and the list goes on!  REALLY clever design is where you start to help these elements work together.  For example, including your chook run amongst your fruit trees fertilises the trees, minimises pests and provides shade for the chooks.  Your pumpkin patch may be down hill from your compost heap so its receives lots of nutrient rich run-off during wet weather.  Your potting area may look out over the rest of the yard or kids play area so you can safely garden while still keeping an eye on everything!

3) Right thing in the right place

This is where we use a Permaculture design technique called Zoning.  Basically it means thinking about how often you’ll use the above elements in your day to day living and placing them accordingly.  We start with Zone 1.  This is stuff you access every day such as herbs, picking greens such as lettuce and annual veggies.  You know, stuff you pick and cook or eat straight away.   If you’ve included a chook house, you’ll want part of your zone 1 to include a trip to fetch the eggs and check on your hen’s water and food.  You can see how this zoning exercise will influence your chook house design as wallowing through a muddy chook run to get eggs can soon lose its novelty!  Depending on your needs a clothes line may be a requirement in Zone 1 if you have a big (or young) family and need to hang washing daily.  Again your keen powers of observation from step 1 will let you know which north facing position will allow you to dry your clothes in the sun throughout the year.  I also have my worm farm in Zone 1 as it means food scraps are disposed with as conveniently as just throwing them in the bin.

Slightly less convenient is Zone 2 where you may include fruit trees, berry vines, a potting shed or greenhouse.  Other vegetable beds such as carrots, beetroot that need less TLC than heavy feeding lettuce etc. can be located in Zone 2. In an urban house block, you may have no further need any further zones and indeed a small courtyard or balcony will mean you only need Zone 1!

When designing larger properties the same logic follows with Zone 3 and 4 used for grazing, managed forests or woodlots, bees and other areas not visited every day.   Typically Zone 5 is ‘left for nature’ on large acreage although in an urban setting I often think of the rural land outside the suburbs as my Zone 5.

This idea of Zoning can be used in any from of design when aiming for maximum efficiency.  You can use it to design an office building, a house, a kitchen, and life in general!

4) Work to a timeline 

This is a really valuable step as it acknowledges that creating a kitchen garden isn’t like building a swimming pool, where you have a definite start and finish date.  As food gardeners we really do follow the seasons and that means for example that the time for planting bare root fruit trees has really passed.  Simply note it as a job to do in June/July next year and start working on the soil preparation now.  However now may be the best time to install a greenhouse as it will allow you to establish summer seedlings.  Chickens are often available at point-of-lay currently, so a chook house is another great spring activity.

If you prefer to plan on a laptop rather than paper check out here for a free 30 day trial of a garden planner…although I prefer to work on paper.

Approaching a kitchen garden design needn’t feel like project management.  However taking the time to think things through means you’re less likely to waste time and money, while increasing your chances of having an enormous backyard harvest!

The chemical brothers…understanding acidity and alkalinity (pH)

http://youtu.be/hPym09LQfnc

Anyhow if you’re still with me, I’m hoping you’ll soon have a better understanding of pH in your soil and maybe even think  about regularly testing your own soil one day.

Back in 1909 in Denmark at the Carlsberg Laboratory the focus (believe it or not) wasn’t on beer.  A chemist called Peder Sorensen had discovered the importance of ‘potential hydrogen’ and thus pH was born.  I’m assuming he kept his findings in his awkwardly named Peder file.

I like to think Peder relaxed after his great discovery and had a quiet beer.

Mr Sorensen produced a logarithmic scale which starts at 0.0 and goes to 14.0.  Zero is the most acidic, while 14.0 is the most alkaline.  All importantly 7.0 is neutral and pretty much where we aim for with soil for our veggie patch.  Unlike a temperature or volume scale like most of us are used to, each step up or down on this scale is actually a ten fold increase.  To illustrate the power of this let’s say your soil pH is 6.0.  It means it’s 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.0 but 100 times more acidic than a pH of 8.0!  So the take home message is your pH chart doesn’t work like the volume on an amplifier – small numerical changes are actually BIG!

In your soil, the pH has a huge influence on the availability of nutrients to your precious vegetables.  It seems crazy, but can keep pouring on phosphorus, but if you’re soil is too acidic, you’re plants can’t access it.  You can see by looking at the below chart that a sweet spot is between 6.5 and 7.5.

Testing your soil’s pH.

There are a couple of kits available in nurseries and hardware suppliers that cost less than $30 and will last for years.  In the kit you’ll find a colour card, a small bottle of liquid and some powder.  Take a sample of your soil and put it on a small plate.  Add the liquid to make a paste, then dust over with the powder.  Almost immediately you’ll see the soil turn a colour that you can match on the colour wheel to discover your soil’s pH.  As I’m doing a lot of pH testing for clients, my own garden and testing the Backyard Harvest bio-compost product, I’ve invested in a professional lab model which can be calibrated for ongoing accuracy.  This was several hundred dollars, so it may pay to see if cheaper hand held models are available.

How to change your soil’s pH.

Generally soils in productive gardens will need to be made more alkaline, however there is an exception in the case of blueberries and if you’re growing ornamentals then hydrangeas and azaleas also prefer acidic soil.

To raise soil pH (make more alkaline) we need to add calcium in the form of dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate).

To lower soil pH (make more acidic) use elemental sulphur.  This stuff forms with the water in the soil and produces sulphuric acid which lowers the pH.

Having said that don’t forget to add compost, compost, compost!  Good quality compost has a neutral pH of around 7.0  Adding compost helps to bring either acidic or alkaline soil back to more veggie-friendly conditions by helping to make nutrients available to plant roots.

Different pH for different veggies?

As a broad principle, green leaf based veggies (spinach, lettuce, cabbage, kale etc.) prefer a pH in the more alkaline range, say 7.0 to 7.5.  Vegetables where the focus is on eating the fruit (tomatoes, capsicum, cucumbers, pumpkin) prefer a more slightly acidic soil around 6.0 to 6.8.  This helps to explain why tomatoes and pumpkins happily pop up in compost heaps where conditions are typically more acidic. Check out the below chart and promise yourself you’ll explore you soil’s pH this weekend!

 

Portable Gardening

 

Going potty

When I planted these strawberry guavas, I knew a couple of things.  Firstly, I had a house for sale and I wasn’t sure whether the new owners would be as enthusiastic about my little Chilean beauties as I was.  Second, I knew they’d take a few years to produce fruit hence the combination of those factors lead me to get them in some decent pots until they found a permanent garden in the future.  I’ve picked some classic terracotta pots for these as they’re less fickle than high fashion glazed pots.  One thing I’d wish I’d done was to purchase pots with an internal coating to help maintain the moisture.  The neighbouring geraniums are in pots with such a coating and I really notice the way they hold onto their moisture much better.

Pots are also great because you can move them during the year to follow the shade or the sun or the rain depending on what they need.  Citrus and olives love the sun, so they’ll love being backed onto a north facing wall which may have other plants gasping in protest.  Upcoming  heatwave?  Well pots allow you to move everything into the shade for a few days meaning you don’t risk losing them.  Of course they can be quite heavy so only attempt this will the right tools e.g. a sturdy trolley and someone that can manage it (especially during heat waves!)

Knowing when to water

The great thing about containers is the ability for you to control the growing medium.  Generally potting mixes are a safe bet – you’ll notice they’re made up of larger ingredients such as pine bark which make bigger gaps meaning better drainage.  Of course the flip side of this great drainage is that you have to water more often.  I like to include compost  in the mix to ensure there’s lots of organic matter in the mix, and this also helps to hold the water better.

In a normal garden bed I usually stick my finger into the soil up to the second knuckle and by seeing if the soil sticks to my skin I can tell the soil moisture.  Pots can be a little tricky so I’ve found the best way is to tip the pot ever so slightly to see how heavy it is.  The more moisture the harder the pot is to move.  It’s amazing how light a full pot can be if the soil has started to dry out and indicates they need to be watered more frequently.

Want an example of how not to container garden?  Well I purchased a couple of these recycled half wine barrels a while back and planted up a valencia orange and tamarillo.  All good I hear you say, but unfortunately I forgot to check the drainage holes in the bottom of the tamarillo’s barrel and wondered why it was looking pretty average a few months later, especially when compared with the lush orange.  The soil mix was fertile and revealed a stack of worms as I pulled it aside to check what was going on.  As I dug down I noticed water starting to pool…hmmm.  Yes, I was drowning my poor tree!

Remember containers need drainage holes!

Feed regularly

The excellent drainage of pots also means the fertility will flush quickly through the soil.  I combat this by adding a good sticky compost which will hang onto the moisture and therefore the nutrition.  I also tend to ‘top dress’ the potting mix with organic fertiliser such as pelletised manure (dynamic lifter) or blood and bone.   Plus of course worm juice!

If you’re interested in learning more I’ll be giving a free “Growing Veggies in Boxes” workshop on Thursday May 10 from 1pm at the Cloverdale Community Centre, 167-169 Purnell Rd Corio.