Country Matters: Put down the spade and enjoy the fruits of your labor shortage

Many years ago I had three vegetable gardens that seemed to need attention almost simultaneously. Two were in Co Meath where I lived most of the time, the third in a place of wild beauty overlooking the ocean in West Waterford where excursions were made regularly.

he Déise field is remembered for the taste of the vegetables grown there, staples like new potatoes and lettuce, and perennial favorites like purple sprouting broccoli and onions.

Much for the potatoes had to do with digging up virgin clumps (the ground had been a pony pasture) to form dams, after mature manure had been applied in cartloads collected from where cattle had wintered on hay bales in a sheltered corner of the field . What the animals didn’t eat was pounded into thick mulch, the quality of which improved over time. This was spread over sections of the coarse sod and absorbed into the soil where the only preparation had been the attention of a wheeled paraffin blowtorch to dislodge the wiry clumps of couch grass.

Could this be called no-tillage gardening, the benefits of which are now regularly published? Almost maybe. Potatoes laid on old mulch, however, had to be covered and re-covered as green shoots burst between sods, some as firm as peat from a bog. Proponents of no-till say that undisturbed soil controls pests and weeds better, stores more carbon, and produces better harvests.

A complete ecosystem exists beneath our feet, a soil food web where plants interact with bacteria, insects, worms and fungi.

Almost 20 years ago I quoted a scientist who said that plowing is the most dangerous thing you can do to the soil. Prof Anthony Trewavas, a plant biologist at the University of Edinburgh, advocated ‘herbicide-assisted’ crops as the way forward, along with no-till which would not uproot worms and beetles or wash away nutrients. Opinions on the use of herbicides have changed significantly.

No-till opinions now regularly appear like autumn fruit in the hedges, bolstered by the findings of research groups like the James Hutton Institute, which boldly states that there are more living objects on a teaspoon of earth than people on the planet. A complete ecosystem exists beneath our feet, a soil food web where plants interact with bacteria, insects, worms and fungi. They feed on organic material that is processed into nutrients.

Charles Dowding, Somerset farmer’s son and market gardener, has written about a dozen books, including the most recent No digging, urging plant growers along this route. He didn’t invent the practice: There are books from the 1940s and 1950s about it, as well as “square” gardening, which encourages cleanliness and avoids ground trampling. History also shows similar methods in some early civilizations, most notably among Native Americans.

Dowding planted a traditional vegetable patch alongside a no dig patch with identical amounts of compost. The no-dig yield is 10 percent better. The method must not fail, he says. Even poor soil is improved by laying down mulch and letting the organisms do the work. But how will the humble potato fare without the warm blankets of soil to protect it from the elements and the raids of hungry corvids?

No Dig: Nurture Your Soil To Grow Better Veg With Less Effort (Dorling Kindersley, €42) by Charles Dowding is available now

https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/country-matters-put-down-that-spade-and-enjoy-the-fruits-of-your-lack-of-labour-42035271.html Country Matters: Put down the spade and enjoy the fruits of your labor shortage

Fry Electronics Team

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