18 July 2008

Mulching for garden productivity

At this time of the year our Angora goats like to sleep outside. The kids are big enough now for us not to have to worry about foxes and they sleep at the top of the hill near to the house so we can hear them bleating if there's a problem.

We take this opportunity to clear out the goatshed which is an open airy space with a metre deep litter of straw, hay, goat and chicken droppings and goat's hair. It's a lovely dry clean bed for our Angora goats, it smells sweet and sitting in there on a cold winter's evening feeling the heat on your bottom is very pleasant .

The shed is at the top of the hill where we have our main vegetable garden and we collect all the water which comes off the roof. We have two hoses connected our water containers and the water flows by gravity in the classic permaculture way down almost to the chickens shed which is at the bottom of the garden. The chicken shed roof has it's own water barrels and they're just high enough to water the new part of the vegetable plot at the back of the shed and all the planting around it. We use that water for cleaning and filling the containers for our chickens and the plants around the area love the regular watering and all the compost around the shed. This photo shows the shed, then the slope up to the tent frame which I use as a cage to keep the chickens away from things I really want to protect.

After I've planted the summer vegetables I use some of the goat's bedding as a mulch. I know that normally you shouldn't use animal bedding near plants but it's clean and dry enough not to have problems with the mulch rotting the plants. I know too that people say not to use hay because it's full of seeds, but if you have plenty of material, you can just keep adding more and more mulch and the weeds don't stand a chance. I use sticks to protect the newly planted things from chickens and when I (or the chickens!) spread the mulch, the sticks keep it away from the base of the plants.

We empty the shed with a pitchfork and the chickens start straight away scratching though the bedding and the shed for insects. They spend about two weeks doing a fine job of clearing the inside of the wooden structure which helps it to dry out and last longer and they also scratch and clean around the shed making a superb compost which I use for potting up plants and cuttings. Fortunately, they're too busy up at the shed to spend much time disturbing my newly planted summer vegetables.

I barrow the material down to the garden and mulch around all my plants, tucking in the mulch around the established shrubs and perennials to smother weeds and between the newly planted vegetables to retain the water in the soil and cut down the need for watering.

I couldn't grow what I grow in such a small space if it weren't for mulching. Our garden is on a very poor sandy soil on a south-facing slope. We've terraced it with raised beds to contain the soil and the regular mulches helps stop the soil and it nutrients being washed downwards.

The mulches also stop the soil compacting and promote the development of micro-organisms, encourage earthworms and help keep the soil warmer at the start of the growing season and cooler in the really hot few weeks when the plants need as much water as they can get to swell up and provide us with food.

Plants that are mulched grow a strong network of roots to search for food and water and they rely less on human intervention for their survival. They hold themselves up well and the lower leaves are less likely to be lost through soil-borne diseases and splashing after heavy rains.

The constant temperature and humidity means that the fruits rarely split and we have very few cases of blossom end rot. If long-release mulches such as wood chips are used before winter, then lighter materials are used in the spring, the results can be superb and by adding more and more mulch over a period of years, the resulting earth is dark, crumbly, easy to work with without digging and very productive without the addition of any fertilisers or bought-in compost. When I'm making a new bed from scratch I often incorporate logs of rotten wood , branches, leaves, wool - in fact anything which retains water like a sponge and attracts the numerous insects and worms who help the organic material to decompose. By doing this, then adding a good cover of grass clippings, litter from the goat shed and earth the beds are a wonderful mixture of nutriments. 

The preparation takes time and a bit of lifting and carrying but a well-prepared growing surface will retain its goodness for a very long time and I need to do lees weeding and very little watering thanks to all the water retained in the beds by the logs and branches.

14 July 2008

Our terrace - the most used space in our house !

I always seem to be talking about our terrace, but a lot of things go on there!

HERE a link to a slideshow which will give you an idea how it was made and how it expands our living space.

13 July 2008

Stone facing up to the little windows of the loft

Fabrice is still facing the red bricks of the extension with stone. It's a long job and we need to go further and further away now to get the stones but it will look lovely when it's finished !

6 July 2008

New to growing Stevia

Stevia cuttings in waterSome of you may already know about Stevia, also called Honey Leaf and Yerba Dulce, a plant used as a sweetener - just a teaspoonful of the powder, depending how the plant was grown of course - can be equivalent to a cupfull of sugar.

Many claims are made for Stevia, that it has properties which help maintain blood sugar levels, it improves digestion, protects against Candida and even suppresses bacterial growth around teeth. Anything that helps reduce the amount of sugar we consume is a good thing and I grow it to reduce our honey consumption and be self-sufficient in a plant which I use in cakes, for sweetening drinks and bottling fruit.

I've been looking for seeds or plants of Stevia for some time. As if by magic, I was given three plants for my birthday in April this year.

Our vegetable plot should be ideal for growing Stevia as an annual - although it's a herbaceous perennial shrub in its native sub-tropical Paraguay. The plant likes moist sandy soil - ideally in raised beds which prevent the plant from rotting. My plan was to lift the plants or take cuttings and overwinter them on the back terrace where, under plexiglass and with the heat of the south-facing wall the conditions are frost-free. My citrus and olive plants have done well there for the past few years.

After hardening it off for a couple of weeks, I planted one of the plants into the garden and it disappeared overnight - totally consumed by slugs who ate the stem almost down to the root!

I spent a few early mornings cutting the slugs into bite-sized chucks which our chickens gobbled down enthusiastically and felt confident enough to plant another - protected by a ring of wood ash to deter even more slugs. The second plant didn't do well and lost a lot of its leaves and despite my attempts to revive it by retransplating it into a pot, it died.

Stevia Plant growing well in a potI kept the third plant in a pot and it's growing well. To get a good crop of leaves and to stop the plant flowering (It dies after flowering.) I nipped out the leader stems which has make the plant bushy and it's now a healthy specimen.

I've used the leaves to sweeten rhubarb in a crumble and the taste went well with the Angelica I put in with the rhubarb. I had to sprinkle some "real" sugar on top of the crumble because although it's heat stable and can be baked, Stevia doesn't carmelise like sugar, but it's good to know that I could be buying less sugar in the future.

Stevia cutting showing roots developingAs the weather warmed up I started taking cuttings from the mother plant. I took off the lower leaves, dipped the stem into a rooting hormone and put the cuttings into little pots full of sandy soil. So far, the cuttings put straight into soil are struggling and don't look as though they're going to make it but after seventeen days the cuttings I put into water look healthy and they've started shooting out little roots. I'll wait for another few days then pot them up to make new plants for the garden and to give away to friends.
When I've enough plants I'll put them into the potager to grow on and harvest the leaves for drying and storing in Autumn. Once the Stevia leaves are properly dried the leaves whole or ground to a fine powder will keep for years in glass jars.

I've a few other posts in the blog about Stevia - How to overwinter it and about the idea times and conditions for cuttings. Just click on the label "Stevia" below and you'll get all the posts on the same page.