|I will start with a whole series of
negatives. The natural environment is not a garden. Gardens
are created by intelligent beings, notably ants and humans, to my
knowledge; to cultivate plants that they intend to crop. This is
the practice known as agriculture.
Gardens and farms are artificial
environments created to serve our interests. We can conduct this
activity with sensitivity towards the natural environment and ourselves
or without such sensitivity. In the latter case we can see the
results in the impact of modern agriculture.
food is produced and a higher population is maintained, albeit with
half of them malnourished and living in misery; the rest seem to be
living in fear of suffering from conditions that are induced by the
very products used to increase production.
- Large agricultural companies make huge
profits and employ large numbers of people, often in poor conditions
for low wages; their well paid workers live in cities and work in
offices to maximise the return on the investments.
Being positive for the moment, I can
tell you that I am discovering an alternative; known to generations of
our ancestors in all regions of the world. With traditional
knowledge and tools, freely available in the public domain, they have
been able to sustain the vast majority of humankind up to this point in
At a time when we are fast losing this
resource, I think that it is time that we observe, reflect and
compromise with all our partners on the planet, in the interests of our
own survival. Each person, family, group can live sensitively
with the land around them by adapting to it and
it's populations; producing for all their needs.
garden is an experiment in how to produce what I require in harmony
with my natural partners; my neighbours be they plant, animal or
human. I do not know how to do it; but I'm learning. These
pages are for sharing what I find, with others. I invite you to
share your insights through these pages by e-mailing them to me.
Continuing my negative theme; my garden
employs no-digging, no chemical products, and no machines. The
wood-chipper and the chainsaw make an appearance at specific times to
harvest firewood and building materials. Earth manipulating
machines and pumps follow the same logic.
How can you have a garden without
Labour seems to be inherent to our
concept of agriculture. In the Bible God tells Adam that he must
gain his bread by the sweat of his brow, in labouring the land.
What if God got it wrong? Since Neitzche has revealed to us that
'God is dead', I dare to suggest that He was wrong
and that now we are free to experiment with different agricultural
practices. For example 75% of commercial agriculture in the
U.S.A. is carried on using no-digging methods.
The first person that I met who wrote
about his practice of no-digging gardening was Mr. K.(?) Richardson of
Keyworth, Nottinghamshire in England. He had been engaged
in not digging his garden since 1922. When I visited him in the
1960's I saw a small, almost weed-free garden of deep, black, spongy
and crumbly soil inhabited by a high concentration of worms and that
produced amazing vegetables. Mr. Richardson assured me that he
and his wife had raised their family of themselves and their two
daughters solely from the produce of this small garden throughout the
second world war.
Who does this
He explained to me that the earthworms
do all the work.
All he has to do is to ensure that they
- enough to eat
- that the soil is sufficiently moist
- that the soil is not compacted,
and the worms would do the rest.
Worms eat compost !
His garden was weed-free because the
worms ate all the plants that he didn't want.
Worms eat only dead tissue; they can tell the difference between living
and dead tissue, like maggots.
Plant materials, with 1/12 animal
excrements which contain the bacteria, are heaped on the ground, and
heat up by aerobic fermentation provoked by the humo-bacteria which
convert the plant cells into humus. Some worms, 'lombrics' eat
the un-decomposed material exposing it more effectively to the
bacteria; others consume the humus and mix it with silts and clays in
the soil. There are around a dozen species of worms in our
gardens and each plays a different role in forming the living loam that
results; the best and most natural medium for plant roots.
This whole process requires air; in the
garden the wormholes provide it, in the compost heap it is up to us to
ensure the necessary aeration and humidity.
The optimum is around 70% relative humidity. In these conditions
the bacteria will guarantee a temperature of around 55 - 60°C and
ensure the destruction of parasitic bacteria and a fast decomposition
In 1933 in Wyoming, a production plant,
like a giant tumble dryer, was built to process domestic organic waste
using the same bacteria that we have in our gardens. In these
optimal conditions they do the work in 5 days; in the garden it takes
from 6 months to 2 years. You can help by opening the heap
regularly; if you see white mold it is too dry, black slime means
that it's too wet. Turning the heap is the universal solution for
both problems, watering it if it's
too dry. You control the humidity and the bacteria take care of
dig your garden !
Without digging we rely on the worms to
get the stuff into the ground. We spread it all over the ground
in a layer up to 5cm thick wherever it is required; if its in short
supply, spread it only along the rows and put fresh, un-composted
vegetation or wood-chips between the rows. This ground-cover or mulch will
limit weed growth and will gradually be drawn into and mixed with the
soil by the worms that live there. Their population will increase
as you feed them. In a year the worm population will process many
tons of soil and your back will be eternally grateful.
Having got rid of all the weeds; and we
need the weeds from around 10 times the land that we can compost; we
must add grass cuttings, leaves, wood-chips, kitchen waste and 1/12 animal excrements, which help the
decomposition process. Before
long you will be asking your neighbours to save you their weeds!
What do you do now?
in my negative mood, what you don't do is to walk
all over your nice new plot, carefully aerated by our faithful
worms. Their work will be ruined if you do so. Mr.
Richardson put down planks alongside the row he was working on to
spread his load; I maintain permanent pathways between plots, of a
metre or so wide, but I have too much land and the cuttings from the
pathways help the compost......Ah! What you do do
next is to sow your seeds, covering them with compost, or plant out
your plants in small holes that you make with a dibber, filling around
the roots with compost and firming the soil lightly. A light watering and your work is done.
You can relax.
What we require most
is patience. A little watering if it fails to rain and the plants
will do their thing.
is the time to get negative again as we consider chemical
products. Before we consider the products that you may buy,
consider the chemical products that you make if you burn rubbish in a
bonfire in the garden. These consist mostly of gases like carbon
dioxide, your contribution to the greenhouse effect; carbon monoxide, a
poison that our blood absorbs as readily as oxygen; phenols and formols
which damage our lungs and cause us to cough (the famous tar that is
measured in our tobacco), organo-chlorides which damage the ozone
layer, and dioxins from which we all flinch.
All inflammable materials are
So back to the compost heap with all that.
chemical gardening products are of two kinds; those to help your plants
grow better, and those to kill uninvited species. The former are
combinations of chemicals that release nitrogen, potassium or
phosphorous into the ground; substances that our plants need to
grow. To a large degree these will be provided in the compost
that you have spread out. However some plants, such as tomatoes
may need a liquid manure to stimulate their growth. This can be
provided with a brew made by steeping nettles or comfrey in rainwater
for several days (now you're regretting that you eliminated them). This
concentrate, or urine are diluted approximately 1 : 10 with rainwater and watered around the
plants that need it. So much for the nitrogen. Sprinkling
wood ash on the ground or in the compost will help with potassium and
calcium. I know that bone meal is a source of phosphates but I have
never actually used it. Organic agriculture using such techniques
produces high quality vegetables and fruits and you can do the same.
are chemical products that kill the weeds that invade our crops and
there are those which kill the insects and other creatures that eat
them. We have almost dealt with the weeds, but in spite of the
mulch some of them will persist in growing in the rows, completing with
our plants. Hoeing will lift them out of the ground to add to the
mulch. Weeding by hand I practice selective weeding which means
that some wild plants are left in place. In particular I leave
unknown plants and decorative, alimentary, nitrogenous and medicinal
species where they choose to grow, sometimes replanting them to a more
suitable location. Some species are good repellents against moles
or insects, these I leave where they can be useful. In this way I
maintain a high biodiversity which is necessary to maintain useful
Working hand in hand
poisons are indiscriminate and will kill the useful pollinators and
predatory insects that we need in the garden. Sometimes I have to
take off an infestation of Colorado beetle by hand and I use elder
leaves to repel aphids but I guess that it must be the birds and predatory insects that take care of the
rest. Instead of spraying copper based fungicides I insert a
piece of copper wire through the stems of affected plants, which works
just as well. The ants just move on when I need the place and
before returning they work a lot on piles of drying or rotting
Now that we have a productive and non-toxic living space we can
introduce other species to share the work in the garden with us.
I started with chickens.
I already had a dog which apart from telling me when I have visitors,
keeping to the path and not sleeping (very often) on the beds, makes
little contribution to the garden. He had been ill for a number
of years with an auto-immune disease but my income did not allow me to
visit to the Vet
One day he had an ear infection which
made a great deal of puss and a lady who saw him at the market was
shocked by this and his general state of health. She insisted on
taking him to the Vet who treated him for 100€. Two weeks later
he was much improved but his ear infection had returned. I phoned
the Vet who suggested a remedy at 14€, beyond my budget, and without
any guarantee that it would be finished, but she added that at least I
could bathe the ear with an antiseptic solution. She gave me the
list of all the products that I could buy but didn't have. I
noticed a sprig of rosemary that I had just planted as a cutting and
made some rosemary tea. I bathed his ear with this and the
following day it was healed. Some weeks later the infection
returned and a repeat treatment did the trick; it has not since
experience stimulated me to look out my bible for animals - The Herbal
Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levi - and
browsing it I read her notes on diet. She invented the
<Natural Rearing Diet> in the 1930's with many Crufts champions
to prove it's value. I had been feeding my 20kg dog, 1.75kg of
tinned dog food and biscuits a day. On his new diet he gets 4
handfuls of flakes at lunchtime, with eggs, milk, gravy or water and
400g of raw meat in the evening; less that half of what he had had
before. He is transformed; full bodied, shiny coat and an end to
sundry infections. This diet is cheaper than before and I
recommend it to you all. Nadine was quite impressed.
lives on the same diet with more milk but smaller quantities. She
catches some of the mice but cant seem to handle all the mice that
accumulate around the house at the end of winter. Maybe I should
stop feeding her or get more cats. At the moment I have an annual
purge with anti-coagulant mouse poison to keep their numbers
down. At least she has learned to leave the birds alone.
At last I get to
the chickens. I had built them a typical chicken shed but they never
liked being locked in for the night and one day two broody hens were
taken from their nests by a fox, in the daytime. Several had
taken to roosting on my scaffolding and the rest followed. I
built them a high roof, 3.5m with perches just below and nest boxes at
eye level. This they have adopted relieving me of the chore of
locking them up at night and letting them out again in the morning.
People tell me that I should have clipped their wings, leaving them to
the mercy of predators! Intact they are surviving and
multiplying. Only birds that go off on their own are now
taken. The evolutionary effect of this is that they form an
homogeneous group, the cocks warning off predators.
them to work
They spend their time
scratching the earth and eating grubs, insects, seeds and worms.
By allowing them to accompany me when I am clearing land, cutting off
the weeds, they loosen up the soil and clean the area. They
spread the cut vegetation allowing it to dry more efficiently.
The worms that they eat are a small price to pay. I do not let
them onto seed beds where they would wreak havoc. They provide
eggs and the occasional fowl for the pot. Wheat and maize grain
supplements what they find in he garden.
She is the last one
left of several Muscovy ducks that Laurent gave me. Although I
have ponds she spends her time away from my garden, perhaps in the hope
of meeting others of her kind. She still returns for the grain
and to have a wash; ducks do this all the time. While she is here
she tours the vegetable garden eating all the slugs and snails
that she finds. She does not damage the crops and even walking on
them with her broad webbed feet does them no harm. When I can, I
must get her some companions, but they will need their own roost as
they're not so friendly with the chickens.
When I have
converted the original chicken shed into a sheep shed and installed
sheep fencing throughout my orchard, I intend to get a sheep or
two to provide milk. Sheep's milk is rich and good to
taste. It makes the best butter, cheeses and yoghourt.
Sheep crop the grass low and maintain clean meadows. Unlike
goats, horses and donkeys they do not attack trees. Their manure
makes an excellent brew for growing tomatoes and suchlike, and is good
for the land in general.
The missing Machines
My neighbours tell
me to use a rotovator, a mower and other 'labour-saving' devices.
They even offer to lend me theirs. Once or twice I have let them
come and demonstrate the wonders that they can perform. No-digging
seems to have put pay to the rotovator, and when I tell them to cut
closer to the ground they tell me that the machine can't handle it and
that they must make two passes. I cut everything in one pass with
my scythe and sickles. I can stop before I cut out an
interesting plant and I advance almost as quickly as they do and with
so much less noise. They leave a smell like a motorway for hours
after their intervention. I can quite simply do without them,
saving me the expense and the inconvenience. Scything is good for
my back, the rotation of the spinal column helps the discs to maintain
Stop being negative and plant the
Having got over my
negative comments I shall introduce you to the natural way to plant
potatoes. In the wild, potatoes grow in the litter on the forest
floor, they do not grow in soil. Our fathers and grandfathers in
their limited wisdom burned all the litter and were obliged to bury
their potatoes in the soil leading, I am sure, to the blight epidemic
that caused the Irish potato famine; which incidentally gave the
Americans a generation of such 'brilliant' politicians.
Planting under straw
I follow nature
and, after cutting off the weeds, I place my potatoes on a bed of
compost. After watering the ground
I cover them with around 20cm of hay or straw. When they show
through I again add around 20cm of straw and in the absence of rain
they are thoroughly watered once a week throughout the growing season.
Very few weeds show through alongside them and they grow quite
As I begin to get
impatient after a month or so I lift the edge of the straw to discover
a few potatoes of a decent size. These I take off carefully
recovering the smaller ones as I go. For a month or so I can eat
fresh new potatoes whilst the rest are still growing. When the
tops have died down I remove the straw, about half of which remains
reusable for a similar purpose. The potatoes are to be seen
laying on the ground where they can be collected without digging.
This method is
described by W.E. Shewell-Cooper in his excellent book - The Complete
Vegetable Grower - published in 1955. He describes the experience
of Mr. A. Guest, a man in his seventies who maintained an acre of
garden by no-digging methods with 3 hours work a day in spring, summer
and autumn, and not more than 1 hour a day in winter. Mr. S-C
however still proposes that we plant our potatoes as our fathers did,
considering that only the old need to think of their backs!
It is important to
use rainwater in the garden and for irrigating our indoor plants.
It is slightly acid and contains nitrogen and other organic and mineral
substances including calcium. This water must not be stored in a
cement or lime rendered tank because it will neutralise the
acidity. It should be stored in a reservoir waterproofed with
expansive clay, or in wooden
barrels. It will be warmer than tapwater, more useful and cheaper.
Back to the weeds///