Today I visited the plot of land that we’ve been allocated. The ground is well compacted and required some sod busting to gain access to the under the soil, ready for planting. I didn’t dig too deep, just 10cm into the topsoil, which looks moist and fresh. I was delighting to share the day with a local fantail and what started as the possibility of showers turned into a full sun 25ºC day. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the intense heat however I happily pushed on to complete a trench of 24m, planted with sunflowers, climbing beans and peas. Interplanted with a select of beneficial bee plants.
The plan is to continue to dig and plant on a weekly basis. What I’m expecting to gain from all this work other is exercise, quite time in nature and produce some to eat ourselves and some to give away to charities. I know that with Covid-19 disrupting my work life plans this year that I’m not on track for giving and supporting others.
The process that I used was break up the sod layer, sprinkle in a thin layer of well rotted wood chips, and mix this together, then plant the seeds, apply another layer of wood chips. And finally, to level the soil off and press the ground around the seeds.
I’m hopeful that rain will fall this evening per the weather forecast.
We visited the patch of land that we have access to in Springston today and started to plan the regenerative agriculture trial, plant out about 100 sunflowers in two different areas and to review the soil.
One discovery was that in the untreated grass area that we are hoping to plant and transform into a market garden is that this area appeared to be thistle free, while the area just to its right where a weedkiller has been used by the farmer, thistles are coming back with vengeance. Check out the video.
Here are photos of the in the two areas, and our other findings were generally disappointing:
Our untreated area
Surface insects = watched the ground carefully for 2 minutes, discovered no movement. Sub-surface insects = dug in a spade depth, watched the ground carefully for 2 minutes, discovered no movement.
2. The other treated area
Surface insects = watched the ground carefully for 2 minutes, discovered 1 sandfly type insect moving. Sub-surface insects = dug in a spade depth, watched the ground carefully for 2 minutes, discovered no movement.
The opportunity we have is that there is an unused patch of land that we have requested access to develop. The approach we want to take is on the borderline of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, we want to both increase the diversity and health of the soil while also turning the area into a productive market garden.
We are not experienced in either practice/methodology and see this as an opportunity to learn and grow in ourselves as much as on the land. Like the term Agile is used in product design and development, we have cherry-picked the parts we believe that we will be able to manage.
On the Regenerative Agriculture side, we are going to be focusing on:
Restoring watercourses (in our case it will be water storage in the soil/local area)
Reducing dependency on outside inputs
On the Permaculture Agriculture side, we are going to be focusing on the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems:
Working with, rather than against nature
Looking at systems in all their functions, rather than forcing a system to manage a mono-crop
Allowing systems to demonstrate their own strengths.
How are we going to measure if there has been any improvement?
The current situation is that there will be change, but will that change be good? Working out how to measure this is something of interest to us. There are several factors that we believe we can use to establish if what we do have improved the situation, and these include;
ABOVE GROUND INSECTS: We will complete an insect count, and in 3, 6, 12 months time we will complete the same count of the same area
BELOW GROUND INSECTS: We will complete an insect count, and see if there is a change over time
SOIL PH: We will test several points of interest and see if there is a change over time
SOIL MOISTURE: We will test several points and see if this changes over time
SOIL DEPTH: We will test several points and see if this changes over time
PLANT HEALTH: We will photograph our plot over a period and see if the plants look ‘happier’ than those grown in nearby areas
PLANTS: We will complete a plant diversity count, and in 3, 6, 12 months time we will complete the same count in the same area. It is assumed at this stage, that the count WILL change as we will be introducing new plants to the area. We will therefore include a control area, perhaps a central path
What we are planning:
We have started by having the area grazed by sheep, thank you to the neighbouring property. From our experience of home gardens and increasing the diversity of both plant and bug life, and given that the area isn’t massive (it is only 15 x 35 meters) – we plan the following:
No weed killers – weeds are plants too, and we believe that they probably can add some value. We will manually pull out invasive weeds if needed, however, we expect that we will be able to increase the diversity and this will transform what happily grows in the space. The fact that only grass is growing shows that there is quite an imbalance to us.
Keep the ground covered. Any area that is open to wind and sun will have moisture and goodness sucked out of it. We’ve seen this in our raised garden beds, it is important to have a cover crop of some kind, and the grass that is there at the moment will be adding goodness.
We will introduce more variety of plants, flowers to attract bees, legumes to draw nutrients to the surface, herbs to help give some structure to the design. Cover crops to increase the variety of plant matter in the ‘chop and drop’ mulches.
We will selectively cover areas of the grass with a layer of non-treated rotted wood chips and bark. The aim here is to increase water absorption and to attempt to increase the fungal nature of the soil. Allow this to rot and mix in.
Hand plant in sunflowers. The aim here is to provide some layered shade for lower crops – we’ve also already established that sunflowers are quite frost hardy and in autumn help protect pumpkins, beans and peas planted in another area – extending their growing periods.
Water issues. We will request that the area will not be included in the mass watering via irrigators and transition to hand watering and then moving on to self-watering by building up the soil and its resilience to moisture loss. We have access to lucerne bales and will attempt to add these to areas to encourage water storage in-bale. We have access to a 1000lt water container and will attempt to collect water for local delivery.
Soil conditioners. We will introduce homemade compost, biochar, compost tea, and between winter seasons request that the area is grazed.
Challenges we are up against?
Lack of time to make changes
Lack of funding
An unknown period of time for use of the land
What do we know about the land?
Historic images suggest that the land has been used for cropping and grazing since the 1940s. Below snapshots taken from the various images at Canterbury Historic Aerial Imagery – which is a fantastic resource. From the 1940s imagery, there is evidence of a watercourse and later a pump house and well appears to be added inline with this watercourse path.
From other resources, we have discovered more data, some of it might be useful in time, most of it we have no idea what it all means. More to learn.
On our home plot and on other plots we have been investigating what little we can do to stimulate a better return without having to use unnatural fertiliser and other disruptive farming/soil modification techniques.
Our small step: At a plot that we had access to, in 2019 we planted in a mixture of sunflowers, beans, peas after the land had been used for a potato crop. We don’t sadly have full control of the land, otherwise, we would have planted more ground cover plants to reduce the amount of moisture loss (which is high in late summer), and to increase the soil richness allowed legumes mulch down, and if allowed would have run sheep through the area – and ultimately wouldn’t have allowed the entire area to be cultivated and turned over. Much of the farming practices seem quite disruptive to soil biology and unnecessary.
Research: A few years ago we attended a University of Canterbury ‘What if Wednesday’ night time lecture series and we started to gain a better understanding of what the global issues that we as a wider community faced. We also attended a number of Blinc Lincoln University events and have been interested to witness changes in the farming technical community.
Change: There seems to be a growing sense of urgency for the environment, and instead of a drive to continue to pump goodness into the land via sprays that kill weeds, that the weeds and other beneficial plants may, in fact, be assistive of regenerating the life of the soil and the microenvironments that all co-exist to make productive soils.
It appears to us that the farming style is changing and that we as humans may be drifting towards a far more sustainable approach to the use of land, and how to benefit the most from the land – by caring for it, rather than fighting against it.
Media is starting to pick up on how attractive a regenerative approach is, and it is great to see many starting to really take an interest in how this can work for their own farms and changing their current practices:
We chopped and stewed comfrey leaves about three months ago, and the resulting rotted down slime mixed with water makes a delicious tea for winter plants. We pour some into a bucket, add water at 50/50 and then deliver it to the base of our fruiting trees and other crops. The tea liquid is absorbed by the soil quickly, and the thicker chunks break down over time, supplying a natural fertiliser over time.
Also into our comfrey tea we added seaweed and this will help provide nutrients and minerals for the plants. We’ve found that citrus really like our seaweed teas.
Comfrey tea / seaweed tea not suitable for human consumption, so if you are making it and have inquisitive children, please do store it in a suitable location. We have tried to make our garden as child friendly and edible as possible, however there are some flowers and plants that aren’t edible.
It is always a good time for weeding, or as we like to call it thining. In our raised garden beds, we try to contain the bad weeds (twitch glass is the worst at the moment) and to reuse the beneficial plants, some of which are also edible.
Above left: before weeding, we know that on the left of this raised bed are two rows of carrots of one age and another that is younger, there is also a row of beetroot and chard seedlings that we are using for our salads. The weeds in this raised bed are mainly miners lettuce and chickweed.
Above right: after weeding, we thinned out the miner’s lettuce and chickweed and some of this was used in today’s salads, some are chopped and dropped and the rest was layered into the compost heap. We leave some of the weeds in place growing as they help support the plants we’re growing (we believe in a canopy type environment) – this also helps with reducing frost damage to tender plants.
Above left: before weeding, we know that there are chard, beetroot, kohlrabi seedlings and pea plants growing in this bed. The weeds in this one are mainly chickweed, with some miner’s lettuce.
Above right: after weeding, most of the process for this was to chop and drop, we’ve noticed that the chickweed stores a lot of moisture, as does miner’s lettuce and as this breaks down the bedded plants use it.
What is chop and drop? When a weed is plucked from the soil and ripped into bits/chopped and placed back on the surface to decompose in place.