This is my third year of having a plot at the Laxey allotment and during that time I've continued to update my bed layouts and to try different types of crops. Even so, I feel that I sometimes make decisions that turn out to be less than ideal for my growing situation. If it weren't for these well-intended mistakes then I believe my yields could be higher and I could decrease the time I spend dealing with the more challenging points of gardening at LALAA.
Permaculture teaches that through thoughtful analysis of your land and resources that you can increase your yield while decreasing the amount of effort you put into gardening. After the Introduction to Permaculture course I attended a few weeks ago I've been continuing to learn more of its gardening idealogy and realise that it provides excellent solutions to some of my own issues.
One of the key principles of Permaculture gardening is understanding your land - both the positive aspects as well as the challenges. It takes time to really see how it changes throughout the year and to be aware of any issues that can be improved or capitalised upon. Sometimes when a gardener takes over a piece of land they see it as a blank canvas and then rush to the garden centre to select the seeds and crops they want to grow. However there's really no such thing as a blank canvas when it comes to working the land; there's the soil type to consider, the plants already growing there as well as the geography, weather, temperature and wind that can either help or hinder your grand gardening designs.
The most obvious issue that most of us in the allotment have to deal with is soil erosion. In fact the topsoil at the top of the site is half the thickness of that at the bottom. I'm fortunate to be along the bottom but it doesn't stop the soil from wanting to move even further down the hill. My crops help to ground it during the spring and summer but by biggest mistake has been in leaving many of my beds exposed to the elements over the winter. The wind and rain beat down on the exposed soil and carry it down into my stone pathways where weeds begin sprouting. To make things worse I add a lot of seaweed and manure each year which may in fact just be eroding down the hill.
The allotment is situated along a hill that rolls downward into Glen Roy. The south side of the glen raises up into a slope covered in trees and to the east are more hills that block the gales coming in off the sea. However the lay of the land creates a funnel for any wind that comes in from the south-west. This wind has been responsible for broken sunflowers, bowed brussels sprouts and damage to all other plants that dare to grow more than a couple feet off the ground. Even plants that are staked have a definite lean to them, as you can see in the image of the Hollyhock above. I'd like to grow plants with a bit of height but I'm going to have to either figure out a way to create a wind-break or these plants will have to be delegated to the back garden.
Our rich clay soil tends to hold onto moisture in the summer which reduces the amount of watering you need to do. However the same water-retaining factors have made the site a bit of a swamp in the winter since water from the road along the top of the field tends to run down and onto our allotment. Fortunately we blocked up the gate where the water was getting in so we hope that the land won't be as sodden this winter.
I'm not completely convinced that my own plot will dry out though since it looks like a small spring forms above it in the winter months. The land in this area just oozes with water and I've had to dig a channel to help the water drain away from my beds and into the field. It wasn't nearly so torrential last year but if this summer is anything to go by then we'll be in for some real wet weather come winter.
Every gardener has weeds to contend with but usually there are one or two that can become your arch nemesis. We're fortunate to not have things like couch grass or horsetail at the allotment but what we do have is an abundance of dock weed. This fast growing plant produces literally tens of thousands of seeds that waft away in the wind and onto the land all around it. They then shoot up into three foot high plants that not only crowd out your more delicate crops but greedily feed off the nutrients and water in the soil.
While some of us try to keep on top of the Dock there are others in the allotment who allow it to seed and blow onto their neighbours' plots. It's quite an issue at our site but it's one that we hope to tackle in the long run. In the meantime I'm looking for solutions on how to keep those seeds from sprouting up by the hundreds. When it's warm and dry I can hoe them down but this tactic isn't as successful during wet summers such as the one we have right now.
Another weed that I regularly have to dig up is Creeping Buttercup. Though its bright yellow flowers look cheerful and bright, it is inclined to take over any soil that you turn your back on. It reaches with it's long runners into my rich fertile beds from the grass pathways along my plot and I'm constantly having to pull them out. I've never seen any bees foraging on them either which definitely downgrades their usefulness in my book.
You may of heard of New Zealand Flatworms from me before but if not, let me assure you that you don't want them on your land. These foreign invaders love the mild climate and moist soil in this part of the island and they've absolutely ravaged the earthworm population. They're a Kiwi stowaway that initially came to the UK on the bottoms of imported plants sold through garden centres. In the last few decades they've naturalised themselves in the northern reaches of England, Scotland and Ireland and are in the process of turning vast reaches of fertile land into compacted bogs. They do this by predating on the earthworms to such a degree that the worm population crashes. Without worms the soil isn't worked from below resulting in less air and organic material being brought down. This compaction also leads to lower levels of drainage since the clay has a tendency to hang on to moisture.
Though manual digging helps to work air and nutrients down into the earth it's a lot of work and I wish I had earthworms to do the job for me. Unfortunately I've only been able to spot only a handful of worms in my soil all this year and don't expect them to return anytime soon.
The last major challenge I have is the climate this far north. It's relatively mild but the summer temperatures can sometimes be barely discernible from those of winter. This summer in particular has been a dreadful one and many of us gardeners have given up on growing anything tender outdoors. Reading through other people's blogs I see bucket loads of tomatoes, oranges growing from outdoor trees and towering sweet corn set against bright blue skies. This year I was lucky to get a bumper crop of globe artichokes and not much else.
The wet combined with warmish temperatures has also resulted in potato blight attacking our potatoes and outdoor tomatoes. This means that large swathes of land dedicated to these crops have produced little or no yields this year. My own potato patch had to be dug up early due to blight and we're currently trying to eat through the 'new' potatoes before they begin to go off. As a friend mentioned earlier this morning, it's a good thing we have supermarkets to fall back on these days. The Irish of the 19th century weren't as lucky and one million died of starvation and another million emigrated to North America as a result of the great Potato Famine.
Despite this rather extensive list of challenges not all is doom and gloom on my plot. My next post will evaluate the positive side and opportunities it provides and I hope to use both this and the next post as a basis for making some positive changes. Gardening is something that I love wholeheartedly but summers like this one have really put a dampener on my enthusiasm. I hope that by adopting Permaculture as a way forward that I'll be able to find logical and natural solutions to my current dilemas and be able to ensure a good yield no matter what Mother Nature throws at me.
For more please visit my blog at www.lovelygreens.com
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