Carole and I have been corresponding for some time now and I love to hear about and see the pictures of how her lovely garden is progressing. I asked if she would like to write about it for a blog post and she has sent this delightful account of the garden and its ongoing journey.
Thank you very much Carole!
A small West-Yorkshire garden, April 2017
I received Anni’s book for Christmas a couple of years ago. I asked for it because I wanted to garden using Permaculture principles, but I only have a small garden and most of the books seem to assume you have a lot more space than I have. My back garden in North-West Yorkshire faces North, and is wide and short with overhanging trees so it gets very little light. This means I need to grow most of my productive veggies in a small front garden. Our house was built on an industrial site so the soil was poor quality (whatever the builders could find) and very shallow. We bought 8-foot planks from a farming supplies place over the road, and walked them home, much to the amusement of drivers on the busy road we had to cross. We dug up the lawn and built raised beds. This is what it was like soon after, in 2014:
I also have a couple of square raised beds at the back, and am experimenting with veggies that will grow with little light. This is where perennials make sense as it takes longer for things to grow in poor light. Perennial veggies, once established, should be more productive in a shady space.
In my first year I grew veggies in a fairly traditional format. However, having read Anni’s book I have taken to heart some key principles which I am now applying to grow in a slightly different way. What follows is some of these principles and how I’ve used them.
The first is polyculture – mixing up flowers and vegetables, and growing in mixed guilds rather than blocks. I have already been mixing things up, with flowers such as borage, pot marigold, nasturtium, yarrow, verbena borienalis, and self-sown violas and snapdragons mixed in with the vegetables. I grow runner beans and sweet peas in the same pots and plant the whole lot out together.
Growing in guilds – finding plants that benefit from growing alongside each other and that happily share the soil and other resources – is an approach that I am trying this year. I’m planning my spare raised bed space in terms of groups of three plants, mixing flowers and edibles. So if I have half a raised bed where the beans were last year, I’ll divide it into two and grow two groups of three different plants rather than planting all my kale there. My kale will be scattered around the garden, teamed up with red orache and cosmos (for example).
Another principle is growing with nature rather than against her – recognising the roles that plants (including ‘weeds’) play and appreciating the generosity of plants that readily self-seed or spread. Over the winter, the ground was covered with chickweed and self-sown limanthes (poached egg plant). I left it alone as it was covering the soil (bare soil is unhealthy soil) and in the spring I treated it like green manure and cut it down to wilt on top. When I pull up dandelion leaves from paving I drop the leaves onto one of the raised beds. After reading Anni’s book I look at dandelions in a different way – their leaves are rich in nutrients and the flowers are good for bees (and pretty!). I only loosely ‘plan’ my space, as I’m very happy for nature to take a hand and if I get gifts of, say, lambs lettuce, then I let it stay.
I have a drift of self-sown foxgloves this year which will provide food for bees, more seed and foxglove plants, and lots of leafy biomass for the soil. As I find more perennial veggies, and as my soil improves, I will increase the proportion of edible plants in the space. Meanwhile, inspired by Anni’s example, I’m watching what nature does and thinking about the phases that nature is taking the garden through to improve the soil. Nature thinks long-term, following deeper timescales than we do.
Looking after the soil and the microorganisms that live there. This includes minimising soil disturbance, and recognising and using the plants that are naturally rich in nutrients. I have a small comfrey patch which will provide potassium rich leafy mulch and flowers for bees. I also have a nettle seedling under the bird feeder (a gift from the birds?) which I am nurturing, because nettles are so useful for nitrogen-rich greens for us and the garden. It might also dissuade the neighbour’s cat from settling down under the bird feeder.
No dig – minimising both soil disruption and energy input – I was interested to read the section in Anni’s book on the complexity of the soil, the worm burrows and mycorrhizal networks that develop in a healthy soil. I’m trying to grow perennial veggies to minimise root disturbance and reduce the energy input associated with growing from scratch every year. It is harder to find perennial veg, but so far I’ve successfully grown Paul and Becky’s Asturian tree cabbage, red sorrel, wild rocket, garlic chives and chives, welsh onion, red chicory, sweet cicely, wild strawberries and regular strawberries – and, of course, herbs.
I also grow self-seeding annuals such as red orache, which I allowed to go to seed last year and it is certainly living up to its reputation to readily self seed. Rather than dig up the dead plants, I chop them down leaving the roots in the soil and dropping the remains of the plant on the ground. As it readily self-seeds, there is no energy involved in growing it again the following year – nature does the work. There may be some ‘weeding’ involved, but as Alys Fowler says, if weeding becomes lunch, it isn’t so bad. Again, I can cut the baby plants off at soil level to harvest them rather than pulling the whole plant up, minimising soil disruption.
Thinking about productivity – because I have a small space, I am learning from experience to grow plants that are particularly productive, both for us and for wildlife. Kale is amazing – we get baby leaves for salads, a good crop of caterpillars and therefore butterflies (we have to live with a period of ‘holy’ kale but that’s OK). The kale then recovers and we get nutrient-rich greens through the winter. Come spring, we get tender flower shoots that we cook in butter and eat like asparagus. I let a couple of plants flower, to the delight of the pollinators, and hopefully will get some seed (one of my goals for this year is to learn how to save seed). Once we really can’t eat it any more, it will go into the compost and make a good soil conditioner for us. I’m also taking a leaf out of Anni’s book and seeing what happens if you leave kale in the ground. This hearting kale (Shetland) is growing again from where I left the stalks in the ground. I’ll leave it and see what happens:
‘Pests’ are essential to a fully functioning ecosystem – for example, a good supply of slugs makes for a happy hedgehog, who may move in (and indeed has, judging by the hedgehog manure). If we painstakingly remove all the slugs then we won’t have a hedgehog around to help us. (We don’t use slug pellets because they kill slug predators such as hedgehogs and frogs). The first year that I grew kale, it ended up looking like doilies (my neighbour’s description). The following year I was so ill that I couldn’t go into the garden. It did splendidly well without my intervention. The next year we had no problems with ‘pests’ such as slugs or caterpillars. What had happened was that the predators had learned where there was a plentiful food supply, and they now do ‘pest’ control for us. All we need is a little patience to wait for the predators to discover a rich food source. We now happily share our greens with fellow dwellers in our little garden ecosystem, and there is still plenty for us.
Growing for biomass – following a blog post from Anni about growing leafy plants to add biomass to the soil (chopping and adding to the soil surface), this year I’m trying Callaloo from the Heritage Seed Library. Rather than carting everything to the compost bin, I’m laying trimmings and cuttings down on the soil surface, letting the worms do the work of digging and reducing energy outputs.
This also follows a couple of permaculture principles which I keep in mind: keeping everything in the system, and the problem is the solution. For example, I needed to do some pruning and was worried that the cuttings wouldn’t all fit in the compost bin – but I wanted to keep them in the system. Another problem that I had at that time was that I needed to mulch the strawberries and didn’t have any straw. The solution? – I used the woody cuttings (hydrangea) to mulch the strawberries with:
Gradually, and with help from writers like Anni, I’m learning how to apply Permaculture principles to evolve a productive and thriving little ecosystem in a small space. I’m amazed at how many species of insects I find in the garden – create the habitat, and somehow the little critters find you. Just hanging out and watching all the activity in the garden brings me much pleasure – food for the soul.