Saturday, 15 August 2015

Back home - rampant garden

So some 5.410 kilometers later we were back from our little road trip - along with a healthy amount of wine and cheese at that! The rolling hills of the Tarn countryside, with its small farms and pretty villages sometimes seem to me like a journey into a peaceful past, and over the last 13 years or so I have grown very fond of it indeed. A lot of the time when visiting a beautiful place like that I find myself thinking: "why then do I not live here?!". Luckily though, I then come back home and without exception I go: "Oh, I know why!"- and then I feel extremely priviledged and lucky...

If you go away for a week or two at the beginning of August, you will invariably come home to find that your vegetable garden has gone a bit wild; you will have masses of weeds to pull out, and courgettes turned into marrows the size of tree-trunks! And on that note I thought I would introduce you to my new vegetable garden, as I think I promised in an earlier post. 

I have spent a lot of time gardening every summer since I moved in together with Karna back at my parents-in-law's farm, half a kilometer from where we now live. The soil in our part of the world is heavy to say the least - heavy clay, that is what we have. It is nicely nutritious and to say that it retains water well would be something of an understatement! The main problem it poses is that in wet weather it turns into a dense sludge which suffocates the roots of all plants and causes them to rot. Then, when it dries out it practically turns into cement. So it requires some hard work in order to be able to plant seeds and grow things in it. Normally this is solved by plowing the land in late autumn and then leave the lumps of clay to freeze into small fragments during winter. You can then cultivate in spring, and with some luck grow things quite successfully. The main problem with this system to my mind, is that it stops you from for example keeping cabbages in winter (because the whole patch needs to be plowed) and it also means having to wait for a long time in spring until things have dried out sufficiently to start cultivating, thereby delaying sowing and planting sometimes towards the end of May.

So when it came to creating a vegetable garden here at our own place, I had to think of a way around some of these problems. I decided that framed raised beds inspired by how the Victorians in England used to grow vegetables might be the way forward. The moment I started mentioning this to people I was immediately warned that it would require some unbelievably hard work to set up. It did! By the beginning of June this year I started to feel I might have moved half the county 50 centimeters all by hand. So was it going to be worth all the hard work? 

The patch of land that we decided was going to be ideally suited for the purpose was all meadow initially, so the first step was to put the pigs there for a few months last autumn to get rid of all the grass and clover and stuff - above as well as below ground. During winter we then dug up some tree-roots and once things dried up a bit in spring (which turned out to be quite late this year) I borrowed my father-in-law's tractor and cultivator and gave it a thorough cultivation. After that the hard work begun; I raked the topsoil into ten beds - eight ones sized 1 x 9 meters for annual vegetables and two smaller ones for asparagus and garlic. We then mixed in lots of mulch-rich soil and manure, along with some coarse sand and a load of rotting silage. The idea is to encourage a lot of biological activity in the beds as that both generates heat and eventually improves the soil quality. I also added some homemade bio-char. Finally a thorough (ask my back!) mixing of all these ingredients, and sides make from oak planks where put around the beds. (We did not have enough oak to go around, so in the end only three beds were provided with sides. As soon as I find time to saw more oak planks we will add more sides.)

As all this work took a lot longer than planned. We ended up planting and sowing a lot later than normal - well into June - and on top of that we have had cold and rainy summer. Despite all this things grow like mad, so we must have done something right! The picture above shows what the garden looked like mid July, and below is what it looks like now. 

The reason for the eight beds is to allow for crop rotation. The first year you add lots of manure to the soil and grow courgettes, pumpkins, corn, cucumbers and cabbages. The next year you use the same pair of beds to grow carrots, beetroots, lettuces and onions. The following year potatoes and finally a fourth summer of beans, peas and broad beans which fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. As far as handling the winter is concerned, obviously we don't know how that is going to turn out yet, but the hope is that the raised beds will stay drier because of being raised and that some light digging will be enough to make the soil malleable in spring. Fingers crossed! 

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