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How To Grow For The Future

forde abbey in january

Longer Summers and warmer weather might strike a chord with our nostalgic notion of childhood, but the reality for the garden is far from idyllic. Going by last years crop of vegetables in the kitchen garden, higher temperatures had less than productive yields and we’re still feeling the effects of the Summer heatwave in terms of bugs and undesirables lingering far longer than they ordinarily would.

Many of the gardening practices are of the sort handed down from one generation to the next, but the old style of thinking in terms of digging over the soil and mulching it is not so relatable anymore, especially with a new pattern of weather emerging. Having travelled to America and Japan in pursuit of sustainable methods of gardening, Joshua Sparkes, our head gardener is keen to road test some of the new ways of working.

This week sees the start of a series of trials in the kitchen garden designed to test conventional methods of growing alongside some alternatives. The results of which will help to inform our wider gardening practices, not just in the kitchen garden, but with cut flowers and in the borders, shaping a new direction and how we grow with the future in mind. 

The trial will consist of four ‘no dig’ beds and four, ‘conventionally’ gardened beds; ‘no dig,’ meaning just that. Between now and July, the ‘no dig’ strips in the kitchen garden will be off limits when it comes to the trowel and the fork. Sheets of cardboard, recycled from the shop, have been flattened and arranged – jigsaw style – across these lengths of soil. Over this a two inch mulch has been scattered and later in the year, Olly Hone will be planting them with root crops, salad crops, beans and courgettes to match the same strips of land exactly opposite these beds that will be grown and hoed in the usual fashion. Same vegetables, same method of watering, just a difference in terms of elbow grease and digging.

A ‘cover crop’ trial, involving clover, peas, beans and rye is also underway. A cover crop will greatly enrich the health of the soil, not only covering the soil in the heat and reducing the cracks that might otherwise appear, but helping to create biodiversity by attracting pollinators into the garden. Using the same cover crop seeds, Olly will then test ways of working the cover crop into the soil, either digging it in or ‘crimping,’ which involves crushing the stems and flattening them and planting rows of vegetables in amongst them while they degrade.

Success will be measured in taste, the quality of the crops and the conditions in which they are growing, something we hope to share with visitors to the garden in September in a kitchen garden festival – more details to follow later in the year. Scrupulous note making will take place in the meanwhile with spreadsheets documenting specifics and timings to make the trial as exacting and scientific as we can.

The benefits of ‘no dig’ have been well documented, and it’s an interesting one to explore. Turning the soil over might be the prescribed wisdom that’s been handed down from one generation to the next, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relevant in today’s climate and necessarily the best recipe for enriched soil health. Imagine, for one moment a village with all its houses, roads and interconnected a’s to b’s, and imagine that world turned upside down in an earthquake. Not an obvious analogy when it comes to the garden, but a visual one when it comes to understanding the principles of ‘no dig’ and why it’s better to preserve the structure of the soil and the networks in place . By mulching over the weed band we’re also hoping to suppress any pernicious weeds, with earthworms providing a natural method of cultivation that feeds the soil and prevents the germination of perennial weeds.

This is the theory, but we’ll be sharing all that we’ve learnt by posting regular updates on instagram as we go, so do follow along and see what happens next.

Posted on January 9th 2019

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