Here at the SOG site we sit down together at least twice a week for lunch and have a good old natter about the finer points of growing vegetables, share ideas, trials and tribulations etc… One book that is very applicable to our scale of vegetable production that has become very popular around the world, and a point of discussion over a tea and a biscuit, is Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener. Having bought a copy 6 months before moving to Sheffield, I read it eagerly, keen to learn how he and his wife make a decent living (over $150,000 in Quebec, Canada), on less than 2 acres of land.
One of the key techniques they use is permanant raised beds that increase the amount of top soil the plant has to grow in before it’s roots hit the impenetrable sub-soil layer. These are created by digging out the pathways either side and piling soil up to about 8 inches high. The roots of each plant grow down rather than horizontally, allowing the grower to plant crops closer together and increase the yield per square metre. This method of growing was made more widely known here in the UK by Charles Dowding and he has thoroughly documented his experiments of his dig vs no dig raised beds on his website: http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk/
Below is a photo of my first two outside trial beds that I have dug, put compost on and shaped with a landscaping rake (I cultivated it all with a tractor first so it wasn’t too back breaking!)
A strictly no dig bed is one where no culitvation tools are used except maybe the back of a rake to prepare the top for drilling seed such as carrots. All you do is simply add another layer of well rotted compost to the top and plant into it. No forking etc.. whats so ever. The idea is that the worm populations increase dramatically and all the space made by them, and other micro arthropods, along with the soil fungi, create the perfect structure that stays loose. The fast nutrients re-cycling that occurs means plants grow much faster and yield much more, the only downside is the amount of compost you have to use!
One other grower I’ve heard about who’s using the same no dig raised bed method as Charles Dowding is Paul Kaiser who lives in Sebastopol, California. His top tip is to leave the roots in the soil when you clear the previous crop from the bed, as the structure root fibres leave when they break down is exaclty what the next plant needs to use when forming its root system. There is quite a bit of controversy about his methods, as using this amount of bought in compost is prohibited by Organic certifying bodies (this is because it’s deemed un sustainable to import large amounts fertility to your site) . A detailed article about their farm can be found here: http://craftsmanship.net/drought-fighters/
Having inherited some raised beds in the poly-tunnel I took over when I first started renting here at SOG, I was amazed at how productive and healthy the plants I grow in them are. I have taken Paul’s advice on board and started taking the secateurs to the previous crop to keep a good structure in place for the next crop.
Here I am pictured standing on one of the raised no dig beds- what you should never do as it compacts the soil!
A film project about Jean-Martin Fortier and their farm The Market Gardener’s Toolkit has just been completed and is almost available to buy. You can see the trailer for the film here: http://www.possiblemedia.org/marketgardener/