I have to admit, I can be a bit of a magpie when it comes to new growing methods, plants and products. Over the past few years I've sown or planted and attempted to grow all sorts of new and intriguing food crops (oca, yacon, Chinese artichoke, cucamelons, tomatilloes, goji berries, wonderberries, to name but a few...)
I’ve harvested the first batch of produce from the SoilFixer trial beds down on Plot #59.
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.
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:
Here are the results, table-wise:
|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…)
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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Let’s take a look at how the SoilFixer trial beds are coming along.
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 31st – A few days later and the increase in leaf-mass on the turnips in particular is quite considerable:
June 11th – Another 12 days’ worth of growth and the plants were beginning to choke each other:
At this point all four beds were thinned to 10 or 11 beetroot and six turnips per row.
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)
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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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Old pallets, as long as they’re in reasonably good nick, are a great boon to the allotmenteer. Especially if you need to knock together a few small raised beds. Such as these four, which I set up yesterday for the trial of four different soil mixes that I’m running this year for the folks at Soilfixer.co.uk.
I nipped back down to Plot #59 this morning, lugging a tub of Soilfixer’s SF60 along with me, and back-filled the four beds. In all four cases, I’ve re-used the soil from last year’s carrot bed, which I know is of a reasonably uniform texture and plain composition, as it was all sieved through last year and didn’t have any fertilisers or other amendments added to it.
In bed #1: a mix of soil and the compost that I made with Soilfixer’s C.H.A. (composting humification agent) over the winter.
In bed #2: a mix of soil and the non-C.H.A. enhanced compost.
In bed #3: a mix of soil and a few measures of Soilfixer’s SF60 Soil Improver.
In bed #4: plain soil, no enhancements.
Here are comparison pics of the contents of the four beds (as above, clockwise from top-left) just after the relevant amendment had been added (or not), before final raking in and levelling.
The pics were all taken at roughly the same time of day, in similar light conditions (direct sun, little or no cloud cover) so I think we can safely conclude that the C.H.A.-enhanced compost is a little darker in colour than the non-C.H.A. compost. Whether that’s down to an increased amount of colloidal humus or simply the darkening effect of the C.H.A. (a charcoal-dust-like black powder) I’m not able to say. But the darker colour might help the soil to warm marginally quicker.
I’m going to leave the beds to rest for a few days, then I’ll be back at the weekend to plant out the first crops: a couple of broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants in each bed, for starters. I’ll also be sowing a few seeds that I think will be reliable germinators: beetroot and turnip. Later on I’ll add some more veg plants, maybe a tomato and a kale, and probably a couple of flowers as well, perhaps some Tagetes or French marigolds, and possibly a mignonette Dahlia or three.
Then it’ll be a case of observing and recording any observations as often as I’m able to, including rates of germination, any noticeable differences in growth patterns, the degree of weed infestation, and anything else that I notice.
I’ll keep you posted.
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This year I’m trialling two soil improvement products on behalf of the folks at SoilFixer.co.uk. The first, a Compost Humification Agent, was added to a bagful of compostable material back in December. A second bag of compostables was set aside at the same time, to act as a control.
This past weekend, I checked in on the two proto-compost samples to see how they were getting along. The bags have been sitting around on plot #59 over the winter, so I wasn’t expecting anything to have changed massively, what with the lack of heat to kick-start the decomposition process. But as I dumped each sample out into a plastic bucket, I was pleased to see that actually there had been a fair bit of break-down, even in the colder winter conditions
Hard to tell at this stage whether the addition of the C.H.A. has significantly accelerated the decomposition process, but the second sample did seem a little darker in colour. But of course, the proof will be in whether or not the trial crops actually perform better in C.H.A. compost enhanced soil.
Each sample was churned around, to get some air into the organic matter, before being re-bagged. I removed a couple of handfuls of tough, grassy stems from each sample. The stuff didn’t seem to have broken down at all – some shoots were even showing signs of re-sprouting – and it’s not the sort of material I want to add to the trial beds in due course. I then added a few scoopfuls of home compost from our recently-emptied bin and added more C.H.A. to the relevant mix.
Each bag will be re-aired and re-mixed a couple of times over the next week or two. Ten, before too long, it will be time to start the trial proper by setting up the four trial beds, adding the appropriate amendments (or not) to each, and planting out some of the seedlings that are already coming along in the greenhouse.
I’ll tell you what crops I’m planning to grow in the next Trial update.
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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks at soilfixer.co.uk who wanted to know if I’d be interested in trialling their soil improvers.
“We’d like to send you some of a new product we’ve been working on,” they said, “a compost humification agent.”
Humification, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process by which organic matter decays into humus, a dark-coloured, sticky substance that’s an extremely important part of the organic fraction of the soil. Humus increases the soil’s water holding capacity and improves nutrient retention, whilst also helping fine, sandy soil particles to clump together into just the sort of lovely, crumb-like granules that provide really good growing conditions for a wide range of allotment crops.
I’m always up for a spot of experimentation, especially if the results are likely to involve improved soil health and/or crop yield – Soilfixer’s notes estimate a 20% – 100% improvement is achievable – so I readily agreed, with thanks.
I was expecting a 500g-ish pack, so was rather surprised when an 18 litre bucket of Soilfixer C.H.A. arrived a week or so later. “Blimey,” I said to meself, “how much compost are they expecting me to humificate..?”
As it turns out, just enough for a 1m x 1m trial plot. I’ll be setting up four such plots on the allotment next year. One will remain untreated, another will have the C.H.A.-enhanced compost incorporated, one likewise with regular (garden) compost, and the fourth with a second product that they’ll be sending me early next year. I’ll then aim to grow the same crops in all four plots – I’m thinking a selection of broad beans, kale, beetroot and turnip, to give a bit of variety – and record the results to see what, if any, noticeable improvements occur.
In the meantime though, I needed to set myself up with a trial batch of C.H.A. compost. Which I sorted out on Saturday, like so:
1) Mix up a blend of fresh green material, dry woody material, half-composted grass waste and nearly-done (one year old) compost in two trugs:
2) Open the C.H.A. tub and see what it is I’ve been sent:
3) Add a measure of C.H.A. to one of the trugs at the roughly-prescribed rate and mix well:
4) Bag up the two mixes in old compost sacks, label the appropriate one, add half a watering can of water, punch drainage holes in the bottom of the bags and then store to let the composting process do its thing:
That’s pretty much it for now. I’ve not made up a full sack of each as I only need enough for that 1x1m plot to begin with, so I’ll keep an eye on the volume of material in each sack – which will reduce over time – and top them both up if required.
Hopefully by April or May I’ll have two lots of ready-to-use compost and a selection of seeds and/or seedlings to sow/plant out. Then we’ll see what we shall see.