Sunday, 19 July 2009

Farming the soil

Today feels more like spring than mid winter. It is warm(ish) and windy. The laundry will dry outside today and I won't need to have wet washing hanging around the kitchen for days on end this week.
The wind isn't too bad... it shouldn't cause any damage to the garden... the broad beans are the most susceptible to being blown over now, and they seem to be faring ok.
I have picked today's vegetables already... cabbage, broccoli, leeks and one jalapeno to add to the curry (to be made with "Kapunda chevon"... ie goat)....curry with a cabbage/broccoli vegetable dish, rice and raita. As I have mentioned before, the menu depends on what is ready to harvest outside.
Another update... this is the wheat paddock.... all 8 or 9 square metres of it... but if this works, there'll be lots more next year.
There are some beautiful looking vegetables out there now too. This is the "rainbow chard" or coloured silver beet, depending on where you come from. Most of it has been raided (by me) but still looks lovely.
Beetroot.... these look quite similar, and it isn't surprising, as they even have the same species name... Beta vulgaris. There are three varieties that I know of.
1. Beta vulgaris var. cicla - Silver beet, Swiss chard, and also known as "hau pi cao" (Chinese) and bette or bette a couper (French)
2. Beta vulgaris var. esculenta - beetroot
3. Beta vulgaris ver. vulgaris - sugar beet (I'd love to try this one day.)
Below is a space in the garden where I have cut quite a few cauliflowers. In the space, I have put a few more coriander seeds (not up yet) that will produce the next crop... after the row that is far down the yard, near the onions and artichokes. Coriander is one herb that you have to keep planting regularly as it goes to seed easily as soon as the weather warms up at all.
In this space is now some more (self sown) silver beet, celery (still small, in front) and some sprouting broccoli.
I try to plant something whenever I remove other vegetables. After leafy green vegetables or brassicas, I usually try to put peas, beans or strong smelling herbs or vegetables that seem to get rid of any pests.
It feels like farming the soil and its inhabitants... micro organisms and fungi and all of those things that live in the soil... even worms. As long as the soil is healthy, the vegetables can look after themselves.... they are programmed to do just what we want them to do... grow big and strong and eventually produce flowers and fruit and seeds for next year. All I need to do is to make sure that they have the materials to do what they want to do anyway.
Soils in Australia are old. That means that they have been worn from rocks a very long time ago, even when compared with most other continents and these soils have been rained on, blown around in the wind and heated and dried more times than those in other continents. Soluble minerals have been leached from the soil and left the remainder as relatively "poor" soils at least in minerals and organic matter. Australian native plants have adapted well to this and many of them do not do well with added artificial fertilisers. However, when growing "foreign" plants (most of our vegetables) the first consideraton needs to be this depleted soil.
In my garden, the soil began as hard red clay that becomes slippery on the pathways in winter and cracks in summer, leaving strange patterns on the ground when it dries out. The clay could easily be moulded into shapes and could form flexible strands that didn't break when I bent them. It was tempting to try making some pots from some pieces! This soil was also very alkaline. Friends were buying soil and making garden beds to hold it. I couldn't afford that, so I began to dig my clay with a fork and spread organic materials over it. I used pea straw, chicken manure, cow manure, grass clippings from the local garden man, leafy compost under the kurrajong trees and all the weeds I could pull, along with gypsum (clay breaker) and the odd bit of "blood and bone" when planting hungry vegetables. All of this went into the garden beds, one patch at a time. I was actually making soil.
I started with one garden patch and as it would become functional, I'd extend my territory. Several years ago a visitor commented on my "raised garden beds." In fact, I didn't intend to raise them, but after adding more and more material, they are all at least 20 to 30cm above the original ground level. They aren't retained formally and in places they spill over a bit. I have used wooden boards held in place by stakes made from pieces of reinforcing rods, rocks that I've found, and some that were left in a heap here by a parevious owner. I have also used bricks, logs from kurrajong pruning (not good firewood) and pieces of found materials... after 150 years of rubbish accumulation, it is intersting to find antique garbage!
Now I have reasonable soil in those patches where the best vegetables grow. It is an ongoing "work in progress." I am still making soil.
In the summer, I can't keep such a large area growing. There isn't enough water or time to carry it all over the place. Last summer, one particular garden dried out terribly... it isn't so much the drying out, but the temperature. If the soil gets too hot, it is as if it is sterilised, and takes a long time to improve once the rain comes. The answer to this is to insulate the soil with plenty of mulch (pea straw is what I use) and protect it from the worst of the sun. Putting mulch on the bare ground and leaving it for months with no new plants seems a superfluous activity when everyone is so used to attending to green growing plants. This is what I call "farming the soil." I look after the soil and the plants know what to do for themselves.
Once the plants are growing, it is necessary to watch them very closely. Any problems that they have will be due to pests or the lack of a particular nutrient... often a trace element. This is due to the leaching of material from the soil over a long time... The most vivid example that I can give is beetroot. For some reason, there is a lack of boron in the soil in my garden. Without boron, beetroot will produce plenty of leaves, but no fat root that we want to eat. The lack of boron also causes the leaves of celery to have lumpy bits on the inside of the stalk... a kind of rough patch on the biggest stalks. A tiny bit of boron fixes that!
I often wonder what other trace elements might be missing... I need a multi-vitamin for soils. There is a crushed rock mineral additive that organic farmers use, and I think that this is what I need. Perhaps I could add that under the summer mulch this year.

1 comment:

Jane said...

Additional information about Boron. Too much boron is worse than not enough and it can't be remedied, so add with caution.
Soluble trace elements, which is how I began on this "trace element" path, need to be added regularly as they are dissolved and wash away. Rock dust is a better solution as it lasts much longer, though it is necessary to have the pH of the soil within a fairly narrow (6 - 7) range in order to make the minerals sufficiently soluble to be available to the roots of the plants.