Outside, in the ground and no-dig

Outside, in the ground and no-dig

Here at Salty River Farm we love growing. In both our no-dig beds and hydroponics we grow from seed and love watching the journey from seedling through to harvest. We enjoy being immersed in the seasons and enjoy the change from winter to summer crops, it keeps our life as growers interesting.

We don't call ourselves organic growers, say that we practice permaculture or that we're regenerative farmers. We take ideas from all of those practices, choose what's going to help us and are always on the lookout for better ways to do things. With every decision we make on the farm we try to be mindful and consider ourselves caretakers of our little farm, trying to make the soil and whole environment better for the future.

We spend a lot of our energy building and maintaining our soil health. We use only natural products to grow our vegetables. We don't use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides on or around our no dig beds or hydroponics. Our gardens are intensive rather than extensive ... we put all our energy into a smaller area so we can stick to our 'two person power', and not have to use tractors or other big machinery.

We first learned about no-dig gardening during a lockdown. We had been struggling to grow in the ground and were ready to give up, we were sick of spending hours upon hours weeding. We thought surely there's a better way. We stumbled upon Richard Perkins on You-tube, a market gardener in Sweden. It was a revelation. We then set upon our local small town, begging cardboard boxes from every shop. Why cardboard?

To set up the beds we laid cardboard down upon the grass. We then used wooden planks to set up a guide where to tip the soil for growing beds, and woodchip for paths between the growing beds. We ordered and had delivered to the farm a big pile of beautiful, well balanced soil and another big pile of woodchip. Then we set out to fill bed/path/bed/path until we had 16 x 24metre beds, 75cm wide. The soil and woodchip are 150-200mm deep. Once each bed and path was filled we'd remove the wooden planks. The cardboard and soil smothered the grass and they couldn't grow anymore because they couldn't see the light. And boy did our seedlings love the beds. And we fell in love too, no (or very very little) weeding.

Now we have 20 x 20metre beds and 8 x 5metre beds. Hopefully that'll be enough because setting up the beds is hard work.

No-dig means that you're not digging up the soil from below to the surface. If soil from below is dug to the surface, weed seeds are brought up to the light and think it's their time to grow! When you dig, you're also breaking up many good things that are happening down in the dark. Like the highways that worms make underground to get about. Or the pathways that old plant roots have made which transport water and nutrients for future plants. 

At the start of each season, we top up the beds with 2-3cm of brought in compost. We love the idea of using our own compost ... but we've trialled it, and it's very tricky to make sure the compost gets hot enough to kill seeds. I used some of our compost to make some new flower beds, and it's ended up with ... mustard, cucumber, tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuces, coriander ... you name it, it's growing there! Our compost is good for around our orchard trees, where it isn't a problem, but not in our no-dig beds where it's vital to earn income. As I've mentioned already, we don't have time to weed. So buying in compost that we trust is fantastic quality and won't sprout weeds is a huge advantage. 

When the crop is finished at the end of the season, what happens next depends on what the crop was. Some crops, like kale, we chop off just under the soil surface. It's then ready to be topped up with compost and replanted. If it was a crop of something like rocket, we prepare the beds for new crops by covering them with tarpaulins, until the previous crop and any weeds have died down. The covered beds stay moist, the worms do their work and the bed gets to have a rest until it is replanted.

Our edible flower crops encourage bees and other helpful insects by providing food and a home for them and in turn they pollenate our crops.

A big part of our growing is bug prevention. Because we don't use synthetic pesticides to deter bugs, keeping them out in the first place is essential. A big part of prevention is keeping our crops as healthy as possible. A stressed plant will be the most venerable to bug attack. We use a lot of netting to cover and protect our crops, especially when they're young. If we need to, we use natural, non-harmful sprays such as garlic and chilli spray or neem (in the cool of night and once the bees have gone to bed).

No-dig suits us to a T. Less time weeding, successful crops grown in beautiful rich soil. No heavy digging.