Every year I mulch my no dig allotment with an inch or two of composted manure or homemade compost, but this year I am trying something different!
This was my allotment in the winter of 2017, Charles and I mulching with some beautiful local manure. The load cost me about £30 for approximately five tonnes; the farmer I buy from doesn’t need all of his manure because some of his land is dedicated to wildlife meadows. They are considered by locals to be the finest wild flower meadows in the area!
The grass path belongs to my allotment neighbour, he kindly lets me use it too.
Five tonnes is too much for an allotment this size, so we brought some back to my home gardens for the front garden beds and a few beds in the back garden. This job is rather hard work as it means filling up Charles’ trailer with manure, driving it the very short distance to my house and then lugging it up five steep steps into the front garden. Charles ends up having to do the heavy work, I physically can’t do this (too risky with arthritis!) so when I’m on my own it has to come home very carefully in the boot of my small car in old compost sacks which I can carry. Fortunately I make a lot of compost at home so this isn’t an annual event.
The mulch of compost – usually an inch or two per year (3-5 cm) – feeds the plants and soil at my allotment for a whole year, no need for other feeds, even for hungry plants or beds which have 2 or 3 different crops over the year. It works for everything – from sowing parsnips to planting brassicas. It’s a wonderful way of abundant growing.
This year is going to be different!
Rather than mulching, I’m going to use homemade plant feeds from nutrient rich plants at the allotment, no new mulch. The plants will be fed by last year’s mulch and the feeds I make.
I am often asked for advice from people who are having difficulty sourcing compost, or making it, or spreading it for whatever reason. So the plan is to see how well the vegetables grow here fed only with foraged and grown nutrition*. I will be exploring different ways of feeding the soil and plants using homemade liquid feeds.
It isn’t a full-on scientific experiment of course, but I do have a reasonable idea of how well plants grow at the allotment now (including many photos of the past 9 or 10 years) so will be able to have previous years’ growth to refer to. My allotment has been no dig for almost a decade and the soil is in very good shape, which does make a difference. I am wanting to see here how much difference (if any) a year ‘off’ from mulching will make.
I also have my allotment neighbour’s well mulched no dig plot to compare with.
* the compost in the allotment bins won’t be wasted, I’ll bag it up and use it in my home veg garden
What is the allotment soil like now?
My allotment is heavy clay and has been no dig for 9 or 10 years. This is the soil now in April, much of the mulch has been incorporated by worms and other soil life. You can see however that there is still some compost on the surface from last year, so it is not bare earth. This does make a difference – fewer weeds, less evaporation of moisture, habitat for beneficial insects and of course will be feeding the soil too.
Will I be mulching again next winter?
At this stage yes, that is what I am planning. This experiment is just for one year. I rely on the allotment veggies to help with the family budget and I know that mulching with compost works extremely well, it helps me to produce a lot of food.
One load (costing £30) lasts me 2 years, so I think the £15 investment annually is very worth while. I also have the compost I make in the 3 compost bins here. I will leave one bed un-mulched as an experiment in 2019 (that’s the plan, anyway!) to see what happens.
Last autumn I made 3 large tubs of comfrey and nettle feed, in anticipation of this spring’s plantings. I’ll be using this to water in everything I plant.
This polythene covers an area of invasive horseradish. I’ll be taking it off as soon as I have planted the other beds and emptied those large tubs – I clearly wasn’t thinking ahead when I positioned them on top of the polythene….
Here, there’ll be the opportunity of seeing how it works on un-mulched beds as this area has been covered now for at least 18 months. It’s going to be interesting to see what’s underneath that plastic. The sheet is years old and has already been reused by several people.
I’ve harvested overwintered parsnips, mangelwurzels and chicories. Those beds are clear now, ready for new plantings which have been delayed due to endless horrible weather. I’ve got trays of transplants desperate to go in. That’s a job for early next week.
Parsnips, carrots and radish were sown in one bed on April 1st. I didn’t water them with comfrey tea because it was about to pour down again, so I was keen to cover them up. I cover with enviromesh to keep birds off mainly; the fleece is an extra cosy layer which will be removed next week. The enviromesh remains until the parsnips have germinated.
At Homeacres, Charles and I have set up a 4 small bed compost trial. The key tools for here were a manure fork and shovel.
Charles had already made a simple frame from old timber, creating four small beds of equal size, and added a two inch layer of well rotted manure at the bottom. On top of this we added two inches of green waste compost equally in three beds, filling the fourth to the surface with the compost. In the other three beds we topped up one with Melcourt horse manure, one with Dalesfoot wool compost and the other with Homeacres 8 month old compost. After levelling and firming the beds, we planted 6 potatoes and 18 onion sets in each square, then covered with mesh to protect against rabbits.
Afterwards, we hand weeded the dig/no dig experiment beds (significantly more weeds on the dug bed) and planted them out, covering with fleece to protect the young plants from the horrible chilly weather. I forgot to take photos of us planting!
At home, my Sugar Plum Raisin F1 tomato has produced flowers. It is part of the Rob Smith range from Dobies, on a grafted root stock and was given to me to try out at the Garden Media Event. As I understand it, Rob won the BBC Big Allotment Challenge – having no tv I have no idea what that was really, but he did come across at the Media Event as a really friendly person.
The idea is the you don’t pick the tomatoes, they dry on the vine and become a softer version of ‘sun-dried tomatoes’. I am very glad that I only have one such large tomato plant at this time of year – they are not frost hardy so it has been living in my house. I’m putting it outside every day to help it become sturdier; it’s going to have to be planted in the polytunnel soon because it’s so big. Fortunately I have a lot of bubblewrap to make it a tent if the weather gets too cold again.
The rest of my tomatoes are small seedlings. Growth has been very slow in the gloom of March and April so far, but next week’s forecast sunshine should really bring everything on.
The first early potatoes in pots inside the greenhouse are sprouting – time for more compost to ‘earth’ them up. Trays of seedlings cover every surface in the greenhouse.
In the polytunnel, this early pea is racing up the pea sticks. In previous posts I have mentioned the Blue Butterfly Pea that was regrowing… it wasn’t, my excitement was in error – it is a regular early pea. Somehow I have managed to sleep-sow early peas in the polytunnel and forgotten all about it. I was wondering why the pack of Oskar peas from the Real Seed Company was almost empty….whoops! How can a person forget that she has sown peas?!
The plants in here are fantastic, so much food! I’m allowing anything that is bolting to flower for now and leave the doors open every day, so that bees and other insects can feed. The cold spring has resulted in fewer flowers so I am happy to provide more forage for them.
I’m going back in there now to harvest Rapa Senza Testa (turnip greens), broccoli, kale, herbs, beetroot leaves and chard for dinner this evening. The Rapa shoots are almost as tall as me!