Category: Trials and Observations

Building a Hugelkultur Bed on Plot #59

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #6

After researching and constructing a couple of Hugelkultur growing beds for our ‘growing for the future’ project at work recently, I decided that I’d put one in on our allotment as well.

Hugelkultur – it’s a German word meaning ‘mound (or hill) culture’ – is a technique developed by Permaculture practitioners that is said to offer a range of benefits:

  • It’s a good way to productively use up unwanted biomass that won’t compost easily and might otherwise sit around on a site for years before it decomposes.
  • It helps with water retention, as decaying woody matter tends to be sponge-like, soaking up water and releasing it slowly to nearby plants.
  • Nutrients stored in the biomass are released slowly over the 5-6 year lifetime of the mound, without the need for re-fertilisation.

The system does also have its detractors – see the Wikipedia article on the subject for more details – but as I’m only trying it on a relatively small scale, I’m sure the interest of the experiment alone will outweigh any minor drawbacks.

Biomass

For ‘biomass’ read: pretty much any woody organic matter that you have lying around that you’re happy to bury in a mound of earth.

In our case, I was keen to get rid of two old wood piles that had built up at the back of the plot, consisting of four years’ worth of fruit bush, willow and other assorted clippings and cuttings. Unfortunately, they were both situated right next to my neighbour’s huge compost heap, which is sadly infested with bindweed. Said woodpiles were therefore a bindweed climbing frame for most of the year, and of minimal use for anything else, except wildlife habitat (and we’ll be addressing that with more bug hotels in due course).

I also had a few branches left over from cherry tree that we removed three or four years ago, and some prunings from the overgrown plum at the back of a neighbour’s plot that I tackled for them last summer, and some old, brittle sunflower stems. All good material for Hugelkultur. The one thing I avoided using was the fresh trimmings from the willow on our plot that I coppiced right back a couple of weeks ago. That stuff sets down roots and re-grows at the slightest excuse and I didn’t want to turn the Hugelkultur bed into a willow fedge.

Hugelkultur Bed Construction

If you’d like detailed instructions on how to build a Hugelkultur bed, there are plenty to be found online, including lots of video demonstrations. Edit 12.02.19 Also, Helen – who left a very helpful comment, below, has a post on her ‘Growing Out of Chaos’ blog with some further tips and pointers.

Here’s how I went about it.

1. Trench and Ridge

Last year I grew potatoes and then squash on the two ridges shown here. To prepare for the Hugelkultur bed, I dug out a channel between them, just a couple of inches deep or so, to give an overall height of around 8 inches (18-20cm or so)

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #1

2. A Layer of Biomass, a Layer of Soil…

Starting with the thicker, woodier stems that will take longer to decompose, I started building up the bed in layers. First a good layer of woody material, then a thin cover of soil. The latter is to make sure there are plenty of soil microorganisms and fungal mycelium introduced to the centre of the pile.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #2

3. And Repeat

Keep doing the above, until you’ve got a pile that you feel is high enough for your purposes, or until you run out of biomass to add to the heap.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #3

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #4

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #5

4. Cover with Turf and Soil

I haven’t actually completed this stage yet. Some of the wood from the bottom of the second pile was still quite dry and with persistent rain forecast towards the end of last week, I wanted to leave the top off to give it a good soaking, again, to help with the decomposition.

Next week I’ll be digging out some rough, grassy turf from the centre of the plot, where I need to lay some more flags for our path, so I’ll dump that on top, inverted, and will finish off with a load of leaf-mould that’s been breaking down for a couple of years, and soil that I’m digging out of the back of the plot, where I plan to recycle some more concrete flags.

5. …And Grow

I’m expecting that the Hugelkultur bed will shift and settle as the woody material in the middle breaks down and collapses, so it’s probably not suitable for anything like a fruit bush or a tree. But annual plants should do well, planted into the outside of the mound.

I’m planning to grow squashes in the bed this year, to see how they do. They’re quite hungry plants, so I’m hoping the mass of slow-release nutrients will feed them well through their growing season. I’ll aim to grow the same variety elsewhere on the plot in regular soil at the same time, by way of comparison. I’ll keep you posted.

How about you, have you ever tried a Hugelkultur growing system? Any tips or warnings if so? Please do let me know, via the comments.

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Soilfixer Trial Part V: First Results

I’ve harvested the first batch of produce from the SoilFixer trial beds down on Plot #59.

Quick Recap

I’ve been carrying out a soil improvement product trial this year at the invitation of the folks at SoilFixer.co.uk, testing two of their compost and/or soil enhancement products, versus ordinary compost and untreated soil.

It’s a very rough, ready and rather unscientific method that I’m following: I set up four small raised beds, planted broad beans and sowed two varieties each of turnip and beetroot. In mid-June I reported on the good growth so far.

Harvesting

I took a look at the beds last weekend and realised that it was past time to pick some crops. I freely admit, I’ve left the harvesting a bit too late, and should probably have done so sooner, but Jo and I were on holiday in mid-July and things have been hectic before and since.

There was really no point in picking the broad beans; the blackfly had all-but wiped them out and the few pods left on the plants had all gone over anyhow. So, I decided that for comparison purposes I’d lift the four largest ‘Boldor F1’ golden beetroot (the ‘Detroit 2’ don’t look like they’re worth harvesting yet) and the largest ‘Purple Top Milan’ turnip. Just the one? Well, yes, because frankly I’d let them get a bit out of hand:

July 2017 SoilFixer Harvest
Nice-looking golden beetroot and… turnip, or deadly weapon? You decide.

Here are the results, table-wise:

Bed Crop Weight
One (C.H.A. Compost) Boldor F1 Beetroot 290g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 935g
Two (Compost) Boldor F1 Beetroot 305g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1147g
Three (Soil & SF60) Boldor F1 Beetroot 414g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1678g
Four (Plain Soil) Boldor F1 Beetroot 371g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1141g

And here’s a quick graph I threw together:

That’s right folks, I’ve picked almost 5kg of turnips so far, and there are plenty more to come. If anyone knows any good turnip recipes, please do post links or details in the comments (I’m begging you…)

Conclusions?

Well, what can I say? Based on this very small and not-at-all statistically significant sample there’s a clear winner in terms of yield – the soil that had been enhanced with SoilFixer’s SF60 product – as long as by ‘yield’ we mean sheer mass, rather than anything relating to how usable and tasty the veg might actually be. (I hasten to add that the beetroot were fine, it’s the massive turnips I’m worried about.)

Would I be happy to use SF60 again? Most certainly, and I plan to use up the rest of the tub I was sent in next year’s greenhouse containers. Likewise, I’ll be adding a good scoop or two of C.H.A. to my home compost bin when I put the lid on it at the end of the year.

But would I be happy to put my hand in my pocket and buy a supply of SF60 or C.H.A. for my personal use? Well, that will depend on my doing some further testing, and also reading the results of the other triallists’ efforts (which were hopefully a bit more usefully clear-cut than mine).

Hedging my bets, I’d say that if I was trying to grow a specimen crop – super-hot chillies, say, or something tropical in a greenhouse, or a heritage vegetable that I wanted to save seed from – and wanted to give my growing medium a boost, then I think SF60 would be a good product to use. Commercial growers might want to investigate further.

I’m not so sure about the C.H.A. for my own use. I don’t think my compost quality requirements are stringent enough to require much in the way of amendment. Again, if I was producing a lot of compost for a commercial or specimen growing project then it might be worth trying. But I’d need to see more evidence of a clear-cut and dramatic compost improvement before I’d be able to commit.

Room For Methodological Improvement

On reflection (hindsight being a wonderful thing) I could have designed and executed the trial much better; either by growing a smaller selection of crops, or even a single crop – ideally one that wasn’t quite as prone to pest-problems as broad beans (blackfly) or cabbages (slugs) – and assessing how many plants of usable size and quality had been grown by a particular date. Either that or growing something simple to assess, like potatoes (again though, potential pest and disease problems there) and simply harvesting them all at once and weighing the yield from each bed. Or I could have tried something like strawberries; grown the same variety, then assessed both yield and flavour with a blind taste test.

I could also have done better with the production of the compost used in the first two beds. Unfortunately I used too much touch grass in the original mix (the stems didn’t break down properly) and the bags I used didn’t drain as well as I’d hoped. Plus, I started the compost off late, or rather, early in the year, which didn’t give it enough time to break down fully into the humus-rich material that the C.H.A. product is designed to produce.

What I can (and will) do next is harvest the rest of the turnips and beetroot from the trial beds and weigh them, to add to the data-set, on the off-chance that clarifies anything. Although after eating a few meals’ worth of roasted beetroot, I reckon that’s going to leave me with around 25kg of turnip to dispose of. They’ll be destined for a return trip to the compost heap, unless I can think of something more intelligent to do with them. I know for a fact there not room in the freezer for that much turnip soup…

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A Quick Mint-Cuttings Experiment – Conclusion

Back in April and May I posted about three different mint cuttings that I’d taken from an old ‘Eau de Cologne’ mint plant that I wanted to propagate.

Here are the original cuttings again, for reference:

April 2017 mint cuttings
Various amounts of stem, root and leaf left on the propagules, to see which, if any, perform better.

All three cuttings have grown strongly in the nearly three months since they were taken and potted.

July 2017 mint cutting

This cutting was taken mostly bare stem, with a small amount of leaf, seen at the bottom of the original pic. The main stem has developed really nicely, there are several leafy side-shoots developing, and runners have begun to colonise the edges of the pot as the plant seeks to expand its territory. All signs of a healthy mint plant.

July 2017 mint cutting

This cutting was originally taken as a length of bare stem only, seen top right in the original pic. Again, once main stem has grown well and started sending out both side shoots and runners to extend its reach around the pot. Growth hasn’t been quite as vigorous as it was for the plant that started off with a little extra leaf on it as well.

July 2017 mint cutting

Finally, this cutting was one that was taken with a couple of decent-sized leaf clusters attached and it seems to have performed the best of the three. Growth is strong on two main stems, and a strong runner has circled a third of the inside of the pot and sent up another vertical stem.

To conclude this brief and not-very-scientific-at-all observation: it seems as though the best way to take mint cuttings might be to trim a length of stem that has one or two leafy nodes already in growth, rather than just a bare length of stem, but the latter method clearly works just fine as well. This does make some sense: the leaves will provide energy through photosynthesis that the cutting can use to establish its new roots.

On the other hand, if the cuttings were taken at a different time of year, the rate of moisture loss from the leaves might have depleted the cutting’s stores before it could take, and killed it. And of course, this conclusion doesn’t take into account all the various and sundry factors that could have affected the relative growth of these three particular plants, such as the possibility that predation – they all look a little slug-bitten in places – could have held them back at times. But it was an interesting little test to run.

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Soilfixer Trial Part IV: Strong Growth So Far

Let’s take a look at how the SoilFixer trial beds are coming along.

Quick Recap

I’m participating in a trial for Soilfixer.co.uk, testing two of their compost / soil enhancement products against regular compost and plain soil. In mid-April I’ve set up four small raised beds, and planted broad beans and sowed two varieties each of turnip and beetroot in each. The simple aim of the trial is to assess whether the product-enhanced beds result in better crops.

Planting and Sowing

Each bed was planted with two broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants (stated off in modules in the greenhouse, in identical, shop-bought compost). I also direct-sowed a row each of beetroot ‘Detroit 2’ and ‘Boldor F1’, and turnip ‘Purple Top Milan’ and ‘Petrowski’.

Good, Strong Growth

The beetroot and turnip seeds germinated well – I made a note that the germination in the SF60 bed seemed to be slightly stronger than the others, although not by much – and, along with the broad beans, have grown strongly in all four beds. Here’s a quick comparison of just one bed (the plain soil control bed) to give you an idea of how much growth they’ve put on:

May 25th – Just over a month after planting / sowing, and following an earlier thinning of every row, and everything is starting to grow away nicely:

May 25th 2017 - trial bed #4
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #4

May 31st – A few days later and the increase in leaf-mass on the turnips in particular is quite considerable:

May 31st 2017 - trial bed #4
May 31st 2017 – trial bed #4

June 11th – Another 12 days’ worth of growth and the plants were beginning to choke each other:

June 11th 2017 - trial bed #4
June 11th 2017 – trial bed #4

At this point all four beds were thinned to 10 or 11 beetroot and six turnips per row.

Comparison

As for the comparative growth rates between the four beds, I have to say that there’s not much in it at this stage. Here are the four beds on the 25th May, which probably gives the clearest indication of how the individual plants were growing, before the mass of foliage makes differentiation difficult:

(Click on the images for a larger version, if you’re interested in more detail, and your screen-size allows)

May 25th 2017 - trial bed #1
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #1
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #2
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #2
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #3
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #3
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #4
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #4

As you can see, much of a muchness. But the end result that matters is the quality of the crops, so there’s still a way to go before I can draw any firm conclusions.

Next Steps

I’ve planted out a pair of ‘Redbor’ kale in each bed, to start filling up the as yet un-planted half. I’ll be adding two or three cabbages before too long as well.

Pest Problems

Unfortunately, the broad beans in the trial beds have been hit pretty hard by an aphid infestation of assorted blackfly and greenfly. Or at least, three of them have, so far. Here’s a pic from June 11th of the beans in bed #4, the plain soil control bed:

June 2017 - broad beans, many blackfly
Trial bed #4, plain soil, major blackfly infestation

The same problem was spotted on the broad beans in beds #1 and #2. However, bed #3, the SF60 bed, was pretty much pest-free:

June 2017 - broad beans, no blackfly
Trial bed #3, SF60, no blackfly?

A couple of days later I checked again, and there were now a few blackfly on the bed #3 beans. It could be that the pest just hadn’t found these beans when I took the pics on the 11th, or it could be that something in the SF60 imparts a quality to the beans that makes them less attractive to the fly. It would need a much larger trial to reach a firm conclusion, of course.

And I’m happy to say that a small tribe of ladybirds has since moved onto the beans and is hopefully making short work of the blackfly problem:

June 2017 - broad beans w. ladybird
Organic pest control, ladybird style.

Additional Observations

As I mentioned, it did seem as though the SF60 bed produced slightly stronger seedlings, but as all the others have performed as well in the long run, it may just have been a quirk in the seeds.

Also, all four beds have been quite weedy – as you’d expect on an allotment site such as ours; very windy and so open to incomers from all directions – but the two compost beds were the weediest. That’s more likely to do with the quality of the home-made compost that was used. Sterile, shop-bought compost might have resulted in fewer weeds, but the point of that part of the trial was to see if the C.H.A. produced better home-made compost, so the weed seeds were probably inevitable.

I’ll continue to observe and record, and the next update will hopefully include a cropping comparison.

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A Quick Mint-Cuttings Experiment – Update

About a month ago I posted details of – well, not really an experiment, more an observation – of three different mint cuttings that I’d taken and potted up. As a few people were interested enough to comment, I thought I’d post a quick follow-up.

Here are the original cuttings – all taken at the same time from the same stock plant, an ‘Eau de Cologne’ mint – for reference:

April 2017 mint cuttings
Various amounts of stem, root and leaf left on the propagules, to see which, if any, perform better.

All three cuttings have shown signs of new growth:

May 2017 mint cutting - leafy stem

This first pot was the one at the bottom of the first pic. As you can see, the existing growth has increased dramatically (and it’s picked up a few greenhouse whitefly or aphid passengers…) but there hasn’t been any new growth from elsewhere along the stem. It seems that the apical dominance of the growing tip has ensured that one node continues to grow, and others are being suppressed.

May 2017 mint cutting - bare stem

In contrast, this pot was originally the bare-stem cutting (top-right, original pic). As you can see, three new growth points have developed at nodes along the stem and are developing at varying rates. I’d expect that they’d all eventually continue to develop to roughly the same size.

May 2017 mint cuttings - assorted leaf

Here (originally the top-left pot) there are two different growth patterns, a mixture of the above. On one cutting the two existing leafy growths have developed. One the other the original (very small) leaf growth has died back and two new ones have developed instead.

Interesting, no? I’ll keep an eye on all three pots and see if the situation changes.

Edit: For an alternate and soilless take on rooting mint cuttings, see Mal’s Edinburgh Allotment Blog.

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Help a Researcher – Record Your Yield with MYHarvest

MYHarvest.org.uk

One thing Jo and I have been wondering, over the past three years of allotment growing, is: just how much fruit and veg are we harvesting from Plot #59? I’ve thought in the past of trying to track and measure the weight of the crops that we pick, lift and cut from the plot, but the sheer faff of weighing and recording has always seemed likely to be more effort than it was worth just to satisfy our curiosity.

Well, now we have an excuse for taking those measurements, and a means of recording them, and a good reason to do so, in the form of MYHarvest.org.uk.

The website is the front-end of a research project by three academics from the University of Sheffield, who are interested in getting in touch with home and allotment-based grow-your-own gardeners. The aim of the project is to “estimate the contribution people who grow their own fruit and vegetable crops are making to UK national food production”. They hope to gather significant evidence to support the use of land within towns and cities for growing food. And if that means more allotment sites are made available, then that has to be a good thing.

The research is focusing on the 25 most popular UK food crops – simply because there won’t be time to collate the data on every possible species and cultivar – but you’re welcome to record anything outside the list as ‘other’. And I’m sure the researchers will enjoy spotting the more unusual and/or interesting crops that participants end up recording.

Anyhow, we’re going to give it a go, for as long as our good intentions hold out. We’re up to (an estimated) 7Kg of rhubarb so far, and counting.

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