There are a few ways to grow vegetables that I know of, and we have tried them all over the last 50 years, starting with when I took over my mums backyard in Melbourne with a pumpkin plant, which went on (and on) to bear several QLD Blues. I took a large one on a weekend surfing trip and shared it with my friends raw, BBQ’d and stir fired. No one else was enthused ( they preferred hot chips) but for me the growing obsession had begun.
And so it was with great interest that I attended a field trip of the Organic Growers of W.A. last Saturday. The very fine Peter Langlands welcomed us to his parent’s historic Guilford property where he tends a small market garden on the banks of a creek. Peter read “The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery several years back and was horrified by what humans are doing to the planet. Like when I read the book, he had to skip over the terribly depressing middle to get to the end for (hopefully) solutions. He decided to take action and growing organic veges was his act.
This delightful young man showed us 20 or more perfectly straight rows of gorgeous vegetables of nearly as many types, most under row covers, all meticulously weeded. He had a veritable arsenal of tools: broad forks, stirrup hoes, a mini rotary hoe which was turned by a cordless drill, 3 types of seeder, etc etc. There was weed mat on the ground with holes burnt into it at regular spacing for the plants. Micro greens were growing thickly in other rows, which he cuts regularly with a tiny motorized cutting and catching machine.
|Photo by Organic Association WA|
Peter finds he is not big enough to consistently supply restaurants and wholesaling to shops was tying up too many days of the week, but he has landed on selling his gorgeous produce every Saturday on the verge outside, for a set hour. Family, neighbors and friends are flocking to his popup green grocery…. now supply and demand are dovetailing nicely.
So this is method one, intensive growing in very good soil enriched with compost, kept stirred and weeded by hand and/ or small tillage machine. He has been disappointed that a certain certified organic compost he has purchased has contained plastic and glass. He is also mindful that the plastic- based row covers and weed mat will have to be disposed of before breaking down .
Let me say now, on my soil I could not get away with method one, and in most soils of the world the constant disturbance to the fungal component would not work. Bare soil exposed to the sun after weeding on our North west slopes leads to fungi death and subsequent soil degradation. I am always telling Stewart never bare the soil, put the weeds back where they came from. Once fungi is gone, tilth is only achieved by heaps of work. However, in a shady place on a river flat, in a humid climate and with a good supply of quality compost and fine mulch for top dressing , Method 1 works, maybe for many decades, and is extremely productive. Obviously many young people like Peter are embracing this in their own locale and growing clean food for their community, cheers to them!
If you are not so blessed with rich compost- like soil built up over years of “pasture and grazing” or forest cover, or alluvial soil… indeed if you have been gardening like this and notice a decline in fertility leading to ever- more weeds and pests, let me describe method 2: Full Mulch Cover. Sheet composting is another name, and permaculture founder Bill Mollison espoused it. You can let the weeds go mad in the rainy season. Preferably just before trouncing the lot with a heavy layer of wet mulch, you will allow a flock of ducks to graze it down and rid the area of molluscs and their eggs. Traditionally you start by layering 5 or so sheets of damp newspaper or cardboard over the grass, and piling at least 4 inches of weed free mulch over that. A mix of Leaves, straw, woodchips and a little poultry manure would be perfect. Emulate the forest floor! Add all your detritus: vacuum cleaner dust, dog fur, eggshells, small amounts of wood ash. To plant seedlings you make a hole in the mulch and add a few handfuls of compost . After a year the soil is transformed, and the garden tightly packed with a diversity of plants.
There is no room for weeds.
In reality, with our extremely long ( 10 month now) dry periods, the garden will need regular watering, but nowhere near the amount needed by method 1 on the same soil. A year on it will probably be needing more mulch where plants have failed and there is a bare patch. Initially, plucking protruding kike could be laborious, but it will dwindle if starved of light so keep plucking or piling ( on the mulch) . In any case , whenever it is wet is the time to mulch again, because microfauna are always converting mulch to humus in damp conditions. If they are kept fed on plant sugars and plant debris you won’t have to bring in more mulch. You will find yourself growing more and more perennials to save the work of gathering and spreading mulch. Again the ducks will come in handy mid- winter when they could be let in for a few weeks on snail detail.
Method 3 Raised beds. Wicking beds? Well mulched paths leading around planter boxes. No bending . Neat! Fill with quality compost, spread an inch of mulch, plant out. Great. In the case of wicking beds ( please google search for my article on these in right hand top corner) you may eventually have to empty everything out and find the leak but happy days for many years after the expense and hard work they are to build. A large deciduous tree or trees that provides light shade (thornless honey locust?, Jacarandah?) over head would be a blessing for any garden in summer and mulch provider in Autumn
Method 4, follow moving poultry cages…I ‘ll call this “the Joel Salatin method”. We have made bamboo cages with tarp or “Gilligans Island” thatch roofs which are hanging together so far and I am never so happy as when seeding a freshly ploughed , de- bugged, fertilized and mulched area where the chicken tractor has been for a day. I keep a lidded bucket full of groovy perennial pasture mix, my Hoe Mi , a bucket of compost and a bag of mulch for thin areas near the tractor. By this method the chooks and I have transformed kikuyu, cape weed and Guilford grass infested dirt into chocolate soil capable of growing deep rooted perennial prairie.