Updated: Jun 24, 2021
The two oft-repeated mantras of "how to be self sufficient" around here are "improve the soil" and "make it a happy place for insects".
There are many approaches to improving the soil.
You can go all scientific and agro-business-professional on it. Take measurements, have the exact correct nutrient and pH balance for this year's crop. This is too reductionist and minimalist for me. Man's dominance over nature kind of thing.
You can embrace the world of permaculture and no dig. But this movement is also too aggressive for my liking. It is all about maximising efficiencies, importing compostable material (stealing it from elsewhere), and the obsession with numbers and yields and speed and performance metrics and abstract things is too commercial, too distant from the earth for me. And, you know, growing crops in pure compost feels unsustainable and hasty and frantic and remote to me.
Permaculture is a massive marketing success. The most perfectly constructed example of cognitive dissonance in gardening. It's a made-up word where the implied meaning and the actual meaning have nothing in common. No-dig means "buy my book". Permaculture is short-hand for "sign up to my extremely expensive cult". The best way to stop a person thinking for themselves is to put the word "accredited" in front of a bullshit course, which also multiplies the price of it by an order of magnitude.
I get people asking me if I can teach them permaculture. No. I cannot. I can't teach you anything. I can show you some of the skills and tricks and short-cuts and cheats that I have learned in gardening over the years. Other than that, buy an old book. Buy lots of old books. There are as many different ways of gardening as there are gardeners. We might do somethings differently. If there is one thing we have in common, it is a lot of old books on gardening.
If there is one thing that old books on gardening have in common, it is the four-crop-rotation.
This doesn't have the precision of the modern agro-business farmer, and it doesn't have the scattergun COMPOST ALL THE THINGS of the hipster no diggers. It considers the requirements individual crops have from the soil, how to best feed the soil (not the plants) to replenish it, and how to manage limited resources over a four-year period.
For example root vegetables generally do better in weaker soils, and potatoes do well with a fresh application of compost. So, the smart thing to do is to grow all the potatoes together in one plot, to add all of our compost here, and over the course of four years (starting with spuds), use up the added goodness from the compost, and sowing our root crops as late as possible into this plot as we can.
Peas and beans add nitrogen to the soil, so let's put these into one plot as well. That's three out of four. Into the fourth, we shall add pumpkins, tomatoes, sweetcorn and salad crops. All of these benefit from a nitrogen-rich soil, so it probably makes sense to put them in straight after the legumes. And because we can't group them together into a single family of vegetables, we shall call this the "miscellaneous" plot, and all of a sudden, our 4-year rotation seems to have worked itself out nicely.
We will start with potatoes, follow it with peas and beans. Next, the miscellaneous, and finally, as far away from the fresh compost as possible, the roots.
This photo is from June 2019. Year one. I got myself a head start with a helpful tractorman, and he cut up a nice big rectangle of grass. You can clearly see that I am already thinking in terms of my 4-crop rotation.
Now, I've been thinking about this 4-crop rotation for a while now, and there have always been some things which bother me.
It was mostly developed in post-war Britain (or at least, my understanding of it. My old gardening books are mostly British. I have some nice old German ones as well, but they are mostly about pruning fruit trees).
The imperative at the time was to feed, not to delight. Britain was going hungry, and the government lead a massive campaign to encourage self-reliance as a matter of national security. They're going to have to do this again, and should probably have already started, but that is a different matter for a different time. The emphasis was on good, hearty, calorie-rich and simple to grow vegetables. Roots got a plot to themselves because they store well. Food and expectations were basic. From my garden, I want more pleasure. I want crops that were not widely available.
But also, some things don't quite work from a soil-improvement point of view. Pumpkins, are a huge group of vegetables. The Cucurbitaceae (or cucurbits) are richly varied and usually a part of the "miscellaneous" plot. They love a lot of space. And I love to eat a lot of them. And some of them crop really well and store really well. All great characteristics for the self-sufficient vegetable gardener. If there is a glut (which there will be), pigs love them. But pumpkins love compost. They are often grown on the compost heap itself. They should not be in a plot which is not supposed to be getting additional richness. It would be good to take them out and put them at the start of the rotation where we are adding to the soil.
Let's see if we can't split the rotation into two parts. In the first half, we add to the soil, in the second half, we take from it. The roots are still going to go last and the potatoes are going to go first, but we can develop the middle.
Similarly, there is simply not enough room in this rotation for the amount of tomatoes, capsicums and sweetcorn I want to grow. These are also in the "misc" plot. Even if we take out the pumpkins, I'm still going to need more space for the lettuces. I eat a lot of lettuces. If you like salads as big as I do, then one lettuce per person per day is not excessive. We are going to need to separate these two as well.
Salad crops love nitrogen, so they would fit well after the legumes (peas and beans). Tomatoes, sweetcorn and capsicums we can call the Salsa Break. Which has a nice ring to it. They take a lot out of the soil, so we want it near the end of our rotation, ready for the first half where we start to add the goodness back in again.
If we put all this together, once again, everything falls nicely into place, and it appears that just by thinking about what we want to eat lots of, and how that affects the soil, we have created the 6 Crop Pirate Rotation and it looks a little like this.
Our 4 year "basic" rotation has suddenly expanded to a 6 year pirate rotation. With a Salsa Break!
In text-friendly format that is:
Potatoes (add manure) ➠
Pumpkins (add well rotted compost) ➠
Peas and Beans (the plants fix nitrogen) ➠
Salad Break ➠
Salsa Break ➠
Or, in tabular format
So, this means, we're going to need two more quarters to our vegetable field. I only have 4 quarters, and I need 6.
I have started to dig, and there is a problem. There are two problems. The ground is absoltuely terrible. I mean, solid like stone, and dead as a doornail.
But there is a social media problem as well. And that is potentially much worse.
To take photos for the occasional "Year of Field" Highlight on Instagram, I head up to the top floor of Big Building, put my camera phone into 13:8 mode, zoom to 1.4x and line up the bottom corners of the field with the 1-third grid line.
This now no longer works! The vegetable field is now so big (1/6th of an acre) that it doesn't fit into this format any more. I need to find new gird lines, and no zoom.
Ok, it's a subtle change which you wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't made such a big deal out of it, but it feels like an improvement to me!