Natural Farming on Skye

over view of farm area
Potential Natural Farming area

Sometimes I just get a bee in my bonnet or a brain worm, and it niggles at me until I`ve worked out a solution. When I read `The One Straw Revolution` by Masanobu Fukuoka it opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. The concept that humankind cannot understand nature and that we should therefore immerse ourselves back and let nature take the driving seat is beyond what I was trying to do with my perennial vegetables and `edimental` food forest. My gardening has shifted away from annuals, but I now feel I can go back to growing them in a freer style. This thread, https://permies.com/t/163437/RED-gardens-simple-garden, on simple gardens was another part of the jigsaw for me, giving the concept of a simple succession or crop rotation if you will.

Neither what Fukuoka did with a two season grain system, or what Bruce Darrell did with a successional monocrop is quite what I want to do. Neither would work here, and I`d like to avoid the plastic sheeting too. I also want to create landraces for Skye of each of the crops I grow. This is another concept that is obvious once you take off the blinkers of modern agriculture. Diversity is the tool that will overcome changing times ahead.

There are two main problems I need to overcome: being able to cover the soil adequately in winter, either with standing crops or mulch, and initial clearing of a large area of grass.

Tackling the second issue first. I am hoping that direct sowing of grazing rye, Secale cereal, into short cut turf as soon as possible (end of September) will give it enough time to get roots going overwinter and then provide enough competition during the summer to crowd out some of the perennial grasses. If this doesn’t look successful by late spring, I’ll have to try mulching out the area with plastic and/or cardboard.

I had thought of trying to rent a field locally, but really that would be a bit over ambitious, so I`m going to use the area of the treefield which had mainly ash trees, now cut right back, due to dieback. It`s a bit of an irregularly shaped area, but that won`t matter when working manually. It is well drained (which is one reason the trees haven`t thrived; the grass there is more suited to drier conditions) with a slight slope to the south east. The soil (compared to much of my land) is pretty deep, being more than 12 inches to bedrock in the main, although quite compacted and with stones that make digging slow. After growing to maturity the first summer, hopefully the rye will produce enough straw to mulch out most of the rest of the grass over the following winter.

So the basic idea is a simple rotation: grains → peas, beans and broccoli → roots → replant perennials including potatoes→ back to grains again. I`m going to encourage self seeding where possible and gradually develop landraces over time. I`m not wanting to spend too much on seeds to start off and hope to spend no more than £100 this year (much of that on the grazing rye). Some of this will be for sowing next year, I want to autumn sow, or allow self seeding where possible, as being less work than spring sowing, although more seeds will be required to allow for losses over winter.

My first step was to start ordering seeds. I`m going to try and get two new varieties of each of the crops I want to grow and combine them with whatever other seeds I can obtain in the meantime. I have a few different varieties of peas for example, saved up over the years.

My next step is already taken. In this part of the treefield the trees have not been very successful. As well as the ash, there are a few small rowans, and some relatively young spruce and pine that I planted to create an intermediate shelter belt. There are also some baby korean pines and a couple of monkey puzzle seedlings, but in the main the area is quite exposed. I am going to try to make a quick growing shelterbelt from my perennial kale. Many of the side branches have broken off in the wind this week, and I have cut them to shorter lengths, so getting two or three cuttings per bramch. These I have inserted just downwind of the embryo shelterbelt. I don`t suppose the kale will inhibit the conifer`s growth, and by the time the conifers are big enough to shade out the kale, they will be creating shelter of their own.

9 thoughts on “Natural Farming on Skye

  1. Hi Nancy

    Yes, Mr Fukuoka was an absolute genius and utterly inspirational. I learned initially about letting the garden just ‘be’ and learning from nature through reading his books. I think that natural farming as a general concept / guiding principle is most definitely a way forward in these precarious times. And I agree that you need to make your own interpretation of what natural farming would mean on Skye because every place is unique and needs to be interpreted in its own right alongside the needs and capacities of the person who cares for it. Over a long period of time you have consistently demonstrated that you apply what you know, you see what happens and then you interpret what that means and how to proceed.

    I like the idea of a shelter belt of kale! It certainly is a robust (if wobbly) plant. Have you thought about dead hedges as well, Jake at Forest Garden Wales is a big advocate of them in windy situations.
    https://www.forestgarden.wales/dead-hedge/

    What grains are you thinking of growing? In the past I have been interested in the idea of growing grains, but it is not something that I have the space or other resources to do. Buckwheat was one thing I would have liked to experiment with.

    Assuming the experiment works and that in the future you are able to harvest significant amounts, would that be for personal use and involve storage of produce over the winter, or would you be looking to sell or otherwise share the produce, or am I jumping too far ahead?
    Anyway, I am really interested in all of this and look forward to reading further posts.

    May you follow purposefully where nature leads.

    Anni

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  2. Thanks for your comment Anni, I’m not sure I’m following purposefully, but certainly meandering with enjoyment! I have thought about your book ‘Edible Perennial Gardening’ as well (which I read with interest some years ago) but this area is intended for annuals in the main.
    As regards grains, I’m hoping to grow oats and barley, maybe rye too. I do like the ornamental nature of the grasses. Elsewhere I’m interested in trying bistort as a perennial grain crop. Mine didn’t flower too well this year, but I was pretty impressed by the seed, which is not dissimilar to buckwheat, when I did get seed set last year.
    The ‘Natural Skye Farm’ may not turn out quite as I envision though. The following crops need to be seeded into the previous maturing crops, and whether enough seed and seedlings will overwinter is dubious. Dead hedges, is a good thought, I’m contemplating leaving the pea and bean support sticks down as a mulch (I prefer climbing peas and want to succeed with runner beans) and this would give low level protection during the winter for the overwintering plants which I’m most worried about, but some lowish dead hedges might be possible, I’ll maybe try that a bit and see. The alder sticks don’t tend to last very well, so would need replacing each year.
    As regards selling the produce – definitely jumping ahead! I’ll be pretty pleased if I get a reasonable crop for ourselves (particularly with grains), the other veg. I may sell in my shop, but will have to have more time at the right time for harvesting them if I want to do this. It would be fun to have a ‘forage your own’…
    I’m keeping my options flexible at this stage – I think I will plant a small conventional garden in the field in the spring to try and bulk up my seed stocks and that will be a good pilot for testing timings. I may end up with a single free-for-all self-seeding glorious mess! (or an even more weedy meadow!)

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  3. Normally we don’t play with sticks. However kale sticks are OK. They are softer, so less likely to cause damage. The dogs actually love a kale leaf stalk as a refreshing chew treat! I didn’t get too much collateral damage, although there were a few sacrifices!

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