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Cut Carbon in the Garden: Hand Tools for a Large Garden

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

My wheelbarrow
Every day I carry an amazing weight and volume of stuff around, to and from and in the garden, with my trusty old barrow. It is Yugoslavian and dates to 1991, still rolling beautifully even if the hood is beginning to rust around its four bolts attached to the frame. I prefer pushing to pulling, even though a time and motion study revealed little difference in effort required. Building labourers may be seen pulling wheelbarrows because they "can't stand the sight of the bloody things".

Over the course of a year, I use mine to fetch three tons or so of horse manure from the neighbour's yard, spread twenty tons of other compost on beds, carry many tons of vegetables back to the shed, take lawn-mowings and crop remains to my compost heaps, carry hundreds of module trays to beds for planting, fetch lots of firewood and, finally, it transports a large pot of vegetable stew to our village hall for harvest festival supper.

I wonder how many good wheelbarrows are available to buy. In contrast, I was given a smaller B&Q model, much lighter so the children like it, but flimsy and prone to topple over on legs that are too narrow.

A wooden dibber
Between March and October there are few days that do not involve dibbing holes, for planting module raised salad and other vegetable plants. The right side of my body has become a little distorted, muscle wise, because it can be hard work if soil is dry. So the last two wet summers have been fantastic for dibbing!

I find it easiest to make holes for the small, round modules out of plastic trays, compared to the larger, square modules out of my ancient polystyrene trays. However, only recently I was comparing some lettuce that were grown in each kind: the plants from larger modules are now significantly bigger and look rather more vigorous. On the other hand, this may be nitpicking as most of my small-module crops grow well.

Module trays and pots - don't sterilise them!
The polystyrene trays I still use, over twenty years old, are frayed and losing their corners, but still grow fine plants. Each tray is filled three or four times a year, always without any cleaning. Yet almost every gardener is labouring under the misapprehension that all pots and trays must be sterilised before re-use. That nugget of ‘advice is surely sponsored by the plastics industry.

Copper tools a joy to use
A no dig system requires few tools for soil cultivation and those I do use are beautifully crafted ones from Austria, purchased through Jane Cobbald at www.implementations.co.uk. They are called copper but actually consist of an alloy, 95% copper and 5% tin, the same as used by the Roman army for their swords. These tools are softer than iron ones and might struggle in stony conditions, but love working here in clay and humus, their edges keeping beautifully sharp, through not rusting. This makes them a pleasure to use, including the spade I use for chopping crop residues before composting, a trowel which slides easily into the soil, and a swivel hoe whose blade lasts far longer than equivalent iron models I have used in the past, When the blade wore out, after three years use, I bought another for £15 ($20.75 USD) and found I was easily able to undo the copper nuts attaching it to the frame - because they don't rust!

It is also interesting to observe the carefully crafted trowel handle, which has been curved and widened to add strength to a potential weak point. I compare this to a stainless steel trowel of much stronger metal but with a weak point where the simple, thin shaft joins the trowel blade. You may have guessed that this was a B&Q model: I was given four and two have already snapped off at the weak point. I suppose most gardeners just go and buy another one…

To Dig or Not To Dig: An Experiment in No-Till Growing

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Winter in the northern hemisphere is often seen as a time to bring out spades or forks and ‘turn over' or ‘break up' the soil. I know quite a few people who actually enjoy doing this, but if you don't, is it really necessary?

I garden on dense clay, undug for a decade or so, its drainage tested to the limit by the recent abundance of rainfall. Crops are looking good though - brussels sprouts, spring cabbage and Treviso chicory all blooming. Leeks are large and parsnips are yielding beautifully. When harvesting them, the undug soil is full of air holes.

However, many gardeners have been taught by respectable bodies such as the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) that winter digging, to open up the soil, is vital for next year's growth. They read frequent pieces of advice in the gardening media about the need to dig and aerate, and to incorporate manures and compost, instead of simply placing organic matter on top of the soil.

In fact even the RHS has some gardeners who accept that maybe we can still learn more about soil. In March 2007 they asked me to set up an experiment to compare the results of growing vegetables in dug and undug soil.

I publish below the results of the first year's cropping of these four dug and undug beds, in 2007. They all started as weedy pasture and their history is as follows.

Beds 2 and 4 were first dug in March 2007, with compost and manure incorporated underneath a spit of the turf, which was then placed upside down above the organic matter. Beds 1 and 3 were not dug or touched in any way except to place the same amount of organic matter on top of their pasture turf. This consisted of 5cm (2") of well rotted horse manure and then 10cm (4") of green waste compost, which was sufficient to kill grass, buttercups and even dandelions. The same amount of manure and compost in the dug beds meant that all four beds were at least 15cm (6") above soil level, with boards of wood around them and paths measuring 45cm (18") in between.

The soil is a heavy clay loam which comes up in intractable lumps when dug, needing either frost or alternate drying and wetting before a tilth is possible. On the undug beds, sowing and planting is into the compost on top.

I work the beds in two pairs of dug and not dug, growing the same vegetables in each pair. Mostly I raise plants in the greenhouse, enabling rapid establishment of both spring crops and then second crops in late summer. Looking through the table below should give you an idea of the cropping plan. For example, beds 1 and 2 were planted in early April with lettuce, beetroot, onion and chard plants from the greenhouse, allowing time for second crops planted in July and August.

Harvests Dig/No Dig by Charles Dowding, 2007

BEDS 2 & 1
Dug (kg) Not Dug (kg)
Lettuce leaves 5.85 6.65 18 plants each bed, 3 months picking
Beetroot 3.05 3.29
Chard 3.82 5.09
Calabrese 1.12 .62 some cabbage root fly damage
Onions 3.54 3.45 bad mildew on all onions lowered yields
1st harvests total 17.38 19.10

BEDS 1 & 2 (Second Harvest)
Dug (kg) Not Dug (kg)
Leaf radish .35 .35 cabbage root fly damage
Lettuce, leaf 1.89 2.70
Turnip 3.10 2.60 roots of tennis ball size on average
Swedes 4.77 (4 roots) .32 (1 root) gall midge damage on no dig
Sugarloaf chicory 2.62 3.87
2nd Harvests total 12.73 9.84
Grand total 30.12kg 28.95kg
BEDS 4 & 3 (Planted later than 1 & 2)
Dug (kg) Not Dug (kg)
Lettuce hearts .28 .33 slug damage, eggs from old pasture
Dwarf beans .50 1.32 more slug damage on dug bed
Spring onions 1.25 1.31
Show onions 3.67 3.43 5 onions both beds, some mildew
Carrots 3.10 7.98 less slug damage to seedlings, undug beds
Red cabbage 3.55 2.93
Celeriac 2.24 3.73
Leeks 1.36 1.51 leeks were longer on undug bed
Mustards .98 .93
Chicories 1.62 2.16
Grand total 18.55kg 25.63kg

Totals of the Four Beds
Two dug beds 48.67kg
Two undug beds 54.58kg
NOTE that weights recorded are of vegetables’ main edible parts only - cabbage outer leaves were discarded, onions and celeriac were trimmed, beetroot leaves were removed and so forth.

Characteristics of growth differences
The undug beds showed quicker growth in spring for almost all crops, while the dug beds caught up in summer and autumn for most crops. Salad leaves were nearly all more productive and suffering a little less slug damaged on the undug beds, while the brassicas tended to do better on dug beds.
It will be interesting to set these results against those of 2008, which I shall report in a following article. Meanwhile I wish you a happy festive season with, I hope, plenty of delicious vegetables.
More information at www.charlesdowding.com