Above one of our normal pedestrian access paths on my ‘north plot’ there is a section where I can make a growing plot about 4ft x 20ft. I’m preparing this section as a ‘lazy bed’, or my version of those. This area will be a ‘nursery area’. I have been collecting a variety of seeds to start my landraces, but obviously limited numbers of each. I’m hoping to increase my seeds by letting as much go to seed as possible, but with my borderline growing conditions, I’m thinking the plants can use as much help as I can give them, hence I’m making some soil improvements.
I temporarily marked out the area with string and spread out woodash over the whole area. I then loosened the compacted soil a bit by digging the fork in and lifting, but not breaking the turf. Hopefully the woodash will help the pH a bit, although since it has been sitting outside a while much of the KOH may have leached out already. Even if it doesn’t help the pH much, there is a bit of charcoal, which may act as biochar in time. Much of it is also ash from paper and cardboard which my husband likes to burn in our other stove (not the range cooker). This leaves a residue of clay (from the coated paper) which I think will help my lighter soil too.
After spreading the seaweed, I had a go at lifting and inverting some of the turf. Ideally you want to fold the whole turf over like a carpet so as to have no holes for the grass to continue growing through. In practise I had to do this a different way. I used a spade and a mattock to try lifting a couple of strips of turf, but this is a) too heavy and b) too sticky for me to manage in a reasonable way. I think I made my bed far too wide for this technique to be practical – it is about 5 ft across.
I called it a day after turning three strips – one wide and two narrower. I had meant to turn over both sides like this, and then dig out the soil either side to cover it all thickly. What I did instead was cut small deep turfs (two spades by one spade probably) and cut a full spade depth of soil with each, and built the bed up by inverting these as close together as I could. I managed to fold over strips two spadewidths by two spadewidths at either edge of the bed. and infilled in between with turfs. I may get more grass regrowth this way, but I don’t think in practice it will make much difference and will save going back over doing most of the second lot of digging. Inverting the clods separately rather than trying to peel them over like a carpet definitely made the job a whole lot easier. It also exposed quite how compacted the soil is. Despite all the misty weather – a fine mizzle of low cloud that has meant the surface is quite claggy, especially where I walk often – handling the turfs has been relatively clean. The soil an inch or so down is actually – not dry exactly – but certainly not as wet as it deserves to be. The rain is not penetrating nearly as well as it should.
This leaves me with a muddy ditch either side for which I need to find a good surface for walking on. I’d prefer this to be a growing surface rather than an added material. I’m thinking something like white clover would be the obvious choice. Daisies would be good too, and self heal.
I’ve made a bit of a ramp down at the top end so that I can wheel my barrow down easily. I did the same at the bottom end too so as not to end up with a puddle or a step there, digging a little culvert to take any excess water into the bordering trees. I then skimmed the uneven soil off the paths, putting the loose soil onto the top of the bed to fill in the gaps in between the upturned turfs a bit. One of my access paths goes accross below the bed, so I had to take a bit more turf off this to get the levels more even.
I’m finding the soil generally satisfactorily deep. At the very top end was I hitting rock at about a spade’s depth, so since I am almost doubling the depth by putting turfs on top of the grass surface I should have a reasonable depth of soil to grow in. The soil at the bottom end of the bed is also shallow; the rock surface must be a bit uneven. I was finding bits of bedrock sticking up in the path a bit.
It wouldn’t be true to say the soil is completely lifeless. I don’t know about microscopic life, but there were a few pale earthworms, what I think may be clickbeetle larvae, and some weevil larvae. Not exactly teeming with life though. It is amazingly homogeneous in texture, just a fine silky silt brick, topped with grass and with pignuts throughout.
Having evened off both sides, I then I topped the entire bed with seaweed. This will protect the soil a bit from the rain and further feed the soil organisms. I didn’t bother level the earth on the top of the bed, just tried to fill in the bigger cracks. I’m pretty sure the weather will soon break it up enough, and hopefully the larger pores will keep it aerated. I needed more seaweed than I had initially thought to give a good layer.
I think my main challenge in the rest of the planting areas will be the very compacted nature of the soil. There are no air pores in it at all. Hopefully the daikon radish will make some good holes to start off. I’ve also sprinkled some parsley seeds in already, but am not confident they will compete with the grass very well. I’d like to be in a position to start broadscale growing in 2023, but if the daikon don’t take well I may have to try some other biennials like hogweed which grows elsewhere in the field, but not on this bit yet. The alternative is more not-very-lazy-beds!
Much of this blog post appeared in slightly different form and more pictures on the Permies web forum here