(n.b. more photos to be added in due course)
Building and maintaining fertility
There are plenty of growers and writers who are far more authoritative about growing than we are, so for in-depth detail and experience we’d recommend speaking to them or reading their work (see the bottom of this section for some of the people/books that have inspired us). All we want to say here is the basics of how we approach our growing, just to demonstrate one way of doing things. We still have so much to learn, and there’s undoubtedly lots of things we’re not doing as well as we could but, nonetheless, we hope this section is useful.
Before we started to grow vegetables, we wanted to understand and plan how we were going to build and maintain soil fertility. One of our starting points was getting a soil analysis done. You can get different levels of detail from a soil analysis, depending what you want. We chose a detailed mineral breakdown for our first analysis, but have fallen into a yearly cycle of analysis (one sample per part of the rotation, every September) of just phosphorus, potassium and pH.
The most important soil characteristics, it seems, are nitrogen (N), potassium (K), phosphorus (P), pH, organic matter, magnesium (Mg). There are far better resources than here to read for more information – and especially what to do if any of these (or other nutrients) are lacking in your soil (see some of the books & resources below).
The only major alteration we have done is to add lime, after our first soil analysis showed a lower pH than we wanted (we were aiming for pH 6.7 as this is the optimum point of availability for the majority of nutrients necessary for plant growth. The lime we used was agricultural ground lime from Longcliffe calcium carbonates – other processed lime such as waste lime from processing sugar is restricted for use under organic standards.
Our other starting point, in terms of planning our soil fertility, was our approach to growing. We always knew that, if possible, we wanted to grow using ‘stockfree’ organic methods. This was partly a nod towards the vegan principles of our landlord (Unicorn Grocery), but also our own belief (despite being non-vegan ourselves) that society as a whole must reduce the level of animal farming if we are to have any chance of feeding a continually growing population.
The main difference between stockfree-organic and normal organic is the use of animal manures. Muck is a wonderfully effective way of adding fertility to the soil, and most organic growers on our site would have used some kind of manure. Being stockfree, however, we don’t use animal-derived fertility. Instead we use plant-based fertility, in two ways:
(i) green waste compost – where we buy in composted green waste material and spread it across our fields. Green waste suppliers typically get their material from domestic green bin collections, or dumps, or also from food waste. They compost it in large heaps, turning it regularly and maintaining an optimum temperature for decomposition.
We try to find out where the green waste supplier has got their material from, get a nutrient profile if possible, and at the very least buy graded ‘PAS100′ compost (as demanded by organic standards). The PAS100 standard requires that the compost has been tested for nutrient content, successful germination of seeds, is free from harmful levels of heavy metals and bacteria that could be detrimental to human health, and has a minimal percentage of non-organic matter contained within it.
Suppliers should tell you the pH of the compost too, as it will have an effect on your soil’s pH. The first green waste we bought in, for example, was pH 7.21, which had a useful liming effect on the soil – without having to buy in mined lime.
(ii) green manures – where we grow plants to, at the very least, retain soil nutrients (e.g. mustard, rye, various grasses) or, even better, to add nutrients. The latter is achieved by growing leguminous plants (e.g. various types of clover, vetch, lucerne, fenugreek) that are able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and ‘fix’ it in the soil. Green manures also help suppress weeds and improve soil structure.
The suitability of different species of green manure depend on a variety of factors such as timing of sowing, how long you intend the green manure crop to be in for, what the soil needs, your rotation etc. We’ve found Cotswold seeds to be an excellent source of advice and information, as well as some of the organic growing books we’ve read (see below).
The main point is to minimise the amount of time that soil is left bare – bare soil will lose nutrients through leaching and lose structure and topsoil through erosion, especially over the winter. This means not only following finished crop areas with a green manure but also inter-cropping between your rows of vegetables. We have not tried much inter-cropping, but intend to this coming season. So, for example, with our rotation (see section 3) we sow Persian clover to follow early garlic and leeks.
Step-by-step of growing
There are lots of ways of preparing soil, planting, weeding, irrigating and even harvesting, but this is how we do it for the majority of our crops:
1. Flail mowing
We tend to start with either a green manure ley or a crop residue. Both will need mowing as close to ground level as possible. We use a flail mower as this chops up the plants into smaller pieces, which aids incorporation into the soil after ploughing.
This is a simple but time-consuming job. We use some of the lowest gears of the tractor in order to have high revs for the flail and to travel slowly enough to chop up the plant material effectively. This uses a lot of diesel (and is very noisy, so we wear ear-defenders).
It’s generally a one-off job, but can sometimes need a second pass.
2. Power harrowing
Before ploughing green manure leys, we will use a power harrow (also known as a Roterra), with its rotating teeth, to break up the soil surface and plant residue. After two years of establishment, the ley can be remarkably difficult to plough without breaking it up a bit first. The power harrow will cut up the dense tangled plant matter and start to kill it off – it all helps to make the plough do a cleaner, more thorough job.
This is quite a slow job, and uses a fair bit of fuel. One pass is enough.
Ploughing is definitely more of a skilled job, one that requires lots of practice. We’re not the best ploughers, but are good enough for our purposes. The most important thing is to bury all the ‘trash’ (i.e. all the crop residue). Any exposed plants can regrow and take much longer to get rid of. We read an old guide to ploughing (called ‘Good Ploughing’!) that we borrowed off our neighbour, which was very useful (can’t remember the author’s name unfortunately).
4. Power harrowing
After ploughing we aim to get a good tilth to the soil, and for this we use the power harrow again. It’s another simple task. Depending on soil type and conditions, we can make between one and three passes with the power harrow (with second of third passes being quicker than the first).
The power harrow can leave the soil quite fluffy – lots of air pockets for slugs and excess moisture to get into. So we mostly roll straight after working up a tilth, in order to firm down the seed bed.
6. Chain harrowing
Before sowing or planting we want to kill off as many weed seeds that are in the top couple of inches of soil. We let them germinate and then kill them by either burying them or by exposing their tender roots to the sun. The chain harrow is perfect for this – a set of trailed spikes that work over the top two inches of soil. The number of passes depends on the weed seed burden, and how soon we want to be sowing or planting.
It’s better to plant into a firmer bed, so before using the module planter we roll the ground again. We might not need to roll if we’re direct sowing – it depends on the soil and how many times we’ve chain harrowed.
8. (i) Planting
Ideally we’d leave at least three weeks between ploughing and planting, in order to get enough weed strikes in, and to establish a good enough tilth and to allow sufficient breakdown of the previous crop so that chemical compounds producing during its decay don’t act to stop germination of seeds or uptake of nutrients of planted seedlings. At this stage, we then use our module planter to plant the seedlings that we’ve bought in from plant-raisers.
There are different types of planter, and the various parts and processes are a bit tricky to describe in text – it’s best to go and see one in action. But, essentially, they all plant the modules at an in-row spacing of your choice and, to some extent, to a depth of your choice. With such a mechanically complex machine it can take up to an hour to get it set up correctly. Even then we still keep an eye on how the machine is working and go over by hand where necessary,to make sure that the plants are in firmly enough or not buried.
One of the key factors is the modules themselves. They mustn’t be too dry, nor too soaked (the make/composition of the module substrate can make a massive difference). The plants need to be strong and well-established, without being pot-bound. They then need to be handled quickly but carefully by those sitting on the planter.
The choice of inter-row spacing is a key decision to take, and one that we’ve changed several times since starting growing. Generally, the width between tyres on the tractor (wheelings) is changeable; so too is the number of rows and the inter-row spacing that you choose for the module planter. The choice will mainly depend on what equipment you have and what crops you’re growing.
Many organic growers that we know only plant two rows of crops between their wheelings. This allows for easier weeding, and the chance to inter-sow green manures effectively. The main disadvantage with this is a lower yield/acre. We have chosen three rows of crops between 64” wheelings, spaced 19” apart. This is quite tight for bigger crops like cabbages, and makes weeding a bit more tricky, but overall it works for the majority of our crops (e.g. spinach, radish, celery, leeks) and, as far as possible, we wanted a higher yield/acre.
For sown crops we ideally leave at least four weeks between ploughing and sowing – a bit longer than transplanted crops as the transplants have a head-start, and sown crops take time to emerge. We like to reduce any weed competition even more than with the transplanted crops.
For sowing we use a Stanhay seed drill, using the same inter-row spacings as the module planter. Again it’s a bit difficult to accurately describe how it all works without having the machine in front of you. The basic idea is that you have one sowing unit per row (we do three rows within the tractor wheelings, so three units). You choose a seed belt for the crop your doing, which determines the in-row spacing by having a certain number of holes in the belt at certain spacing and the right size hole for a specific crop so only one seed goes into the soil at each space. You put seed in the hopper of each unit, lower the machine and drive forward with the tractor. There’s a drive wheel that turns the seed belt inside each hopper, so the seed is dropped (through the seed belt holes) at the spacing you want.
Like the module planter, it’s mechanically complex and can take a bit of fiddling to get it set right.
It’s harder to immediately see if it’s working as you can’t see the seeds in the ground without getting on your hands and knees and scratching around for them! We tend to check the seeds are being dropped correctly before we put the machine in the ground, then after a few metres in the ground we scratch around looking for seeds. After that we just keep going and have to trust the machine! The final check comes when the seeds have germinated and emerged. If the spacing isn’t right we try something different next time we sow that crop.
Apart from that the most important thing is to keep the hopper and seed belt housing dry. Any moisture can prevent the flow of seeds through the mechanism.
9. Netting or fencing
For many of our crops, we then need to lay a mesh over them or surround them with electric fencing, to protect them from insect or bird pests or hares. For our brassicas we use ‘Wondermesh’, but there are other makes too. For lettuce & spinach, we use poultry- or hare-proof electric fencing, that’s at least 50cm high.
This is one of the biggest cost differences between our production and non-organic growers. We don’t use noisy bird-scarers, we don’t shoot, we don’t use chemicals to kill or ward off insects. The mesh is held down with plastic pegs, and every time we cultivate, irrigate or harvest, we have to uncover and re-cover the crops. It takes a fair bit of time. With the fencing, it’s a little easier, but we still have to regularly move it in order to mow and stop the vegetation growing through it.
10. Inter-row cultivating
Once a crop is in the ground (whether sown or planted) we start using tined cultivators that are set up to weed in between the rows of crops but not the crop rows themselves. We have several cultivators that do this. You can get different points or tines or blades to fit onto these types of cultivators, which can change how much soil is disturbed and how much it’s moved about. But they all end up having a similar effect of either burying or exposing weeds. The key to success is to destroy germinating weed seedlings at the early stage in their development when they are white and stringy and have possibly not even emerged on the surface.
We use a range of different weeding implements:
(i) steerage hoe
This is the most accurate weeder as it gets closest to the crop, but it requires two people to operate. One person to drive the tractor, one to steer the hoe. It’s a relatively simple task – the main challenge is getting the hoe set up to the right spacings. Once underway, we try and go as quickly as possible without making the implement jump around too much, or throw soil over the crops, or lose accuracy. We have it set up with L blades and arrow-head points.
(ii) finger-tine weeder
This is the second most accurate weeder, and it only requires one person (to drive the tractor). As long as the tines are set up correctly, we can drive through the crop looking forwards and concentrating on driving straight. Straight rows of crops make all the difference here. The tines on this cultivator are basically metal fingers that drag through the soil disturbing the weeds.
(iii) tool bar cultivator
This is the least subtle of our weeders, but does a great job of disturbing weeds and is useful for throwing soil in towards the crop – like a mini-ridger. It’s also a quick one-person job. We have a mixture of points, but probably use arrow-head points the most.
11. Hand hoeing
We have tractor implements to weed between the rows but not in-the-rows (unless we had enough money to buy a high-tech laser-guided Robocrop weeder that is able to weed all the way around a crop… highly unlikely). So the in-row weeding is done using a hoe. There are quite a few different types of hoes, many of which we’ve never even tried. We were recommended oscillating hoes (also called stirrup hoes) by other growers, and we think they’re great – they can be moved both forward and back through the soil at a good speed, and you can get different width ones to suit the different spacings of different crops.
Hoeing is one of the most time-consuming jobs of all, so speed & accuracy are essential (the more practice the better). We aim to keep our backs straight and let our arms do the work, moving the hoe back and forth with long strokes, and keeping the hoe head in the soil for better efficiency.
With our type of irrigation (see section 5 for more), we can spend up to an hour moving the hose reel and boom into position, as well as uncovering the nets across our crops. Once engaged, the irrigator powers and moves itself, so we only need to come back to it when it’s finished.
There are so many ways of irrigating – let alone different models of irrigator – that it’s not worth trying to describe the exact settings of our irrigator. Suffice to say that we have a good manual, and a good contractor who set it all up and showed us the first time.
We only irrigate when we feel we need to, and we haven’t developed a scientific way of determining this. A soil’s requirements for water depends on various factors including type of soil, the weather, how the soil’s been cultivated, what’s growing in it – all combining to give a certain ‘rate of transpiration’. All we feel we can do is keep records of rainfall (with a rain gauge) and temperature (min/max thermometer), and study the soil and how our crops look. Between these factors we get a feel for when we need to irrigate.
(n.b.see section 5 for photos of our irrigation equipment)
We have chosen to grow hand-harvested crops (see section 3 for more on crop decisions). Broadly speaking we harvest in two ways:
(i) standing, bent-over, with a knife – e.g. leeks, celery, cabbages
(ii) on our knees, by hand – e.g. true spinach, radish
We sometimes use a spade or fork if particularly hard soil conditions require it – e.g. for garlic – but we are about to get an ‘undercutter bar’ implement for the tractor. In dry conditions (i.e. passable for a tractor), this will be useful for lifting garlic as well as other crops like leeks and celeriac.
Speed and thoroughness are vital, as ever, and never compromising our quality control. Every crop has its particular method and detail to harvesting. The best advice, we think, is to work alongside experienced growers at harvest time and, just as important, try and work somewhere that sells fresh veg. This will give insights into the best approach to harvesting and maintaining quality control that meets your customers’ needs.
Our machinery & equipment
Massey Ferguson 135 Tractor, £3,000, second-hand, bought in 2009 off ebay
We use this tractor for moving the irrigator, flailing, sowing, planting, all weeding jobs, as well as ridging. It’s our workhorse. It’s relatively light-weight and low on fuel use.
John Deere 2140 Tractor, £6,000, second-hand, bought in 2011 from Griffiths & Sons dealer, Ruthin
We use this tractor for heavier jobs like ploughing and power harrowing. We also put our rear-loaded forklift on it.
Kuhn BNE210 flail mower, £3,350, new, bought in 2010 from Clarke & Pulman dealers. Uses a lot of diesel but is an essential tool, chopping up the crop residues sufficiently to aid breakdown. Recommendations from other growers suggested this was one of the few implements worth buying new, because of the amount of wear & tear you’d be inheriting with a second-hand one.
Lemken 3 furrow plough, £900 second-hand, bought in 2012 from a private seller on ebay. We needed help from our local agricultural engineers getting the plough set up right – as mentioned above, ploughing is one of the more skilled jobs that we do, so we really benefitted from an experienced person coming to help set the plough up.
Power-harrow, still borrowing off a neighbouring farmer
Creates a great tilth, although the John Deere tractor that it fits to can cause compaction underneath this nice tilth. We’ll be fitting longer teeth to try and compensate for this.
Chain harrow, £150, second-hand, bought in 2010 off a local dealer
Cambridge roller, £140, second-hand, bought in 2009 from a local dealer
Not only do we roll the ground before module planting, we also roll before and after sowing green manures, as it leads to a better germination rate.
Chechi Magli 3 row Trium module planter, £4,000, second-hand, bought in 2011 from Edwards Farm Machinery
We previously had an OPICO module planter, but we weren’t happy with it – mainly its inability to plant leeks at sufficient depth. The Chechi Magli planter has been worth the investment – it includes, for example, easily adjustable hand-screwed depth settings so there’s no need to get the spanner out for a minor improvement. The rows are set 19” apart, making the units very close together. The person in the middle ideally needs to have short legs!
Stanhay mark II seed drill, £150, second-hand, bought in 2011 from another veg grower
This is set up for our crop rows, also at 19” apart. The key to the seed drill is the quality and range of belts. A lot of belts / chokes / base plates came with this drill, serving most of our needs.
Stanhay mark II seed drill, £250, second-hand, bought in 2011 from a neighbouring farmer
This one is set up for inter-sowing green manures.
Fiona seed drill, still borrowing off a neighbouring farmer
We use this to sow whole blocks of green manures.
Nicholson steerage hoe, £500, second-hand, bought in 2011 through Wrights Register
Also known as an inter-row hoe, beet hoe, scuffler or scruffler. We found these hard to find, but worth getting, as it’s the most accurate of our weeding implements
Finger tine weeder, £150, second-hand, bought in 2011 from York Auction
We bought this on a bit of a whim, but it’s turned into a really useful weeding implement.
Ferguson tool bar cultivator, £100, second-hand, bought in 2010 off ebay
Especially good for weeding ridges, but it’s so adjustable we’ve used it for various crops.
Vital tools! Handles bought from Rollins, but also available at Fruit Hill Farm. Ash is the best wood, and we avoid any tropical woods.
Spring tine cultivator, £80, second-hand, bought in 2010 off ebay
We’ve not used this much, but it can be useful for breaking up tough ground.
Spring tine cultivator, £120, second-hand, bought in 2009 off ebay
We don’t use this much anymore, but was a brilliantly cheap & effective tool for weed strikes in our first year, before we got our first green manure in. Good for killing off persistent grass problems such as couch by keeping disturbing the ground in the heat of the summer sun. Works particularly well to cultivate lighter sandy soils.
Ridger, £150, second-hand, bought in 2009 from another veg grower
The only crop we grow on ridges is garlic, and we’ve adapting the conventional three body ridger to take a fourth ridging body in order to work on the garlic. We ridge in September and plant (by hand) in October.
Undercutter bar, £200, second-hand, bought in 2011 from another veg grower
Not used this yet, but we hope to use this to speed up harvesting of root crops. Conditions need to be dry.
Transport box, £200, second-hand, bought in 2011 from York Auction
Useful for shifting heavy things around. Initially what we used to harvested into.
Rear-loaded forklift, £700, second-hand, bought in 2011 through Wrights Register
We take the forks out into the field and load our harvesting boxes straight onto a pallet, which is then easily loaded into our delivery van.
Harvesting knives, £6-8 each, new, bought in 2010 from Homesense (homeware shop) and 2011 from Zenport Industries
The quality of harvesting knives makes a massive difference to the speed (and quality) of the job. A good sharpening tool is essential too.
Ford Transit delivery van, £6,000, second-hand, bought from Evans Halshaw dealership
Came with 12 months warranty (very useful!). Long wheel base. Can fit three pallets in the back + space around the sides.
Buying machinery & equipment
We started with no machinery or equipment, and now have 2 tractors, 15+ implements and various hand tools. As listed above, most of these were bought second-hand, from a variety of sources:
- dealers – plenty of agricultural dealers around the country, often advertising in the agricultural press. We felt more assured going to dealers for our bigger items – one of our tractors, module planter, flail mower. Warranties are unlikely except for new kit.
- farm sales / auctions – good fun, especially trying to spot how some people place their bids. Obvious thing with these kinds of sales is you’ve got to know what you’re after, and have a price in mind before the auction and stick to it. It’s amazing how prices can get whipped up way above expectation in just a few seconds. There’s also plenty of bargains to be had, including toolkits, hand tools and smaller items.
- farming press – for private adverts, the farming press is often a good start. At various different points we have searched through the Farmers Guardian, Farmers Weekly, even Golf & Machinery Trader (for irrigation equipment), and a range of tractor magazines. Wrights Register is a really good service, especially for harder-to-find items – this is where regional reps will try and track down items for you, and they take a cut of the sale price.
- ebay – there’s a surprisingly extensive choice for some machinery (e.g. tractors) but not for others (e.g. cultivators). We found it best to search for the nearest sellers, as we thought it essential to see the kit first.
- farmers we know – some of the best kit we have got from neighbours or other farmers we know. The level of trust is often higher, you can see the kit working, and know a bit more about its limitations and past usage.
…or in our case, a lack of knowledge. Our best examples of buying machinery or equipment were when we had an experienced grower or farmer with us. There really is no substitute for their level of knowledge. However, these have been rare occasions, so we’ve had to learn as much as we can ourselves, which has meant us making some mistakes (e.g. our first module planter) and, quite often, buying something we’re not 100% sure about. Not the best way of going about things, but it’s all worked out okay in the end.
(ii) machinery maintenance (or adjustments)
Because so much of what we’ve bought was second-hand, we’ve had to learn to judge how much work a piece of machinery might need, and whether we’ll be able to work on it ourselves. Thankfully most of our equipment is relatively simple and old mechanical technology. Most of the time it feels like a big set of Meccano, albeit pretty rusty, and we’re only ever really changing bolts, shifting units to the right spacing, or fitting new cultivating tines.
Having somewhere to get replacement bolts of any thread or length has been really helpful, as well as a breaker bar, spanner sets (metric, imperial and Whitworth), angle grinder and copper grease. We’ve also got a good list now of places to get spare parts for old machinery:
Old 20 parts company – machinery and tractor parts
Acorn Service tractor parts – vintage tractor parts and tools
Williamsons – tools (new and second-hand)
Massey parts – for Massey Fergusons
Chandlers Massey parts – as above
For the bigger, more complicated pieces of kit, it’s a lot harder to judge how much work they might need. An instruction / maintenance manual is highly desirable. We got manuals for our tractors from www.tractormanuals.co.uk. We also keep a record of our maintenance work – when we’ve changed oil, filters, greased the nipples etc. – and it’s worth asking if any sellers have their own maintenance records for the machinery you’re looking at buying.
(iii) transporting machinery
Finally, one of the difficulties we’ve had is transporting machinery around. Some of the sellers (dealers or private adverts) we’ve bought off have offered to deliver, which is great. This has not always been the case, however, especially with farm sales or auctions. So we’ve had some issues trying to sort out delivery – generally through a pallet network. It almost doubled the cost of some of our smaller items, especially as tractor implements tend to take up two pallet spaces.
It would have been much easier from the start if we had had access to a trailer. It would have been a good idea for us to have fitted a trailer bar to one of our cars, just to use one of our neighbours’ trailers.
Good books and resources
(i) information on growing
- Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm – the UK’s leading independent research, development and advisory institution for organic agriculture
- Organic Growers Alliance – great online forum and quarterly newsletter packed with advice and info on organic growing
- Soil Association – organic certification and advice
- Organic E-Prints – open access archive for papers related to research in organic agriculture
(ii) soil analysis
- Anglian Soil Analysis Ltd – this is who we use
- Laverstoke Park – well-respected soil analysis service based at the UK’s largest biodynamic farm
- Larkcom, J (2002) Grow Your Own Vegetables, Frances Lincoln Ltd, London – a fantastic resources, detailing how to grow every vegetable there is
- Lampkin, N. (2002) Organic Farming, Old Pond Publishing, Ipswich – a great book to really understand what organic farming is. Has an excellent chapter on soil
- Conway, A and Reynolds,R and Dise, N and Dubbin, B and Gagan, M (2006) Environmental Science Air and Earth, Open University, Milton Keynes – Part 2, Earth is a great place to start to begin understanding what soil is, some basic scientific knowledge is required to get the most out of this book
- Davies, G and Turner, B and Bond, B (2008) Weed Management for Organic Farmers, Growers and Smallholders: a complete guide, The Crowood Press – understand weeds and what to do with them
- Davies, G and Lennartsson, M. (2005) Organic Vegetable Production; A complete guide, The Crowood Press, Marlborough, Wiltshire – as the name suggests a complete guide from the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic)
- Hall, J and Tolhurst, I. (2006) Growing Green; Organic techniques for a sustainable future, Vegan Organic Network, Altrincham – explains the vegan organic approach as well as vegan organic standards
- Cubison, S (2009) Organic Fruit Production and Viticulture; A complete guide, The Crowood Press – fruit production guide in association with Garden Organic
- Buczacki, S. and Harris, K (2005) Pests Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants, 3rd edition. Collins – helps identify any pest and disease issues with some advice on organic approaches
- NIAB and HDRA, (2007) NIAB Organic Vegetable Handbook 2007, Cambridge Marketing Ltd – information on vegetable variety trials
- Coleman, E (1990) The New Organic Grower; A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, Cassell Publishers Ltd, London – a bit of a bible amongst organic growers