Lauren Lochrie, the farm's permaculture consultant, is here to tell us about some of the green manures.
What are they?
Also known as ‘cover crops’, green manures are plants that are sown after harvests so that the soil does not remain bare and exposed to the elements which leads to erosion, run off, loss of general integrity and productivity.
The idea being that they can then be ‘dug in’ (like manure) to break down and release nutrients back into the soil, or harvested to provide another yield (such as fast growing greens or animal feed) before or after the ‘main crop’. They are often plants that improve soil, supress weeds and have other uses.
It’s all about the soil!
Soil itself is a living thing and as well as the billions of microorganisms, worms and fungi housed in it, requires plant roots to provide an underground framework that supports this microcosm of life. Plant roots bring up water, nutrients, and minerals – worms and tiny critters create burrows, organic matter and air pockets, and fungi make available other essential elements for plants via their root system – in turn receiving sugars that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
These are mutually beneficial relationships that have evolved over millions of years, and as interdependent and integral to each other as they all are, we too must extend our care for the soil as without it - we would not have food, essential materials, clean water or air either!
Like a cut or open wound, nature quickly covers the soil (its protective living layer) with fast growing plants to support this intricate system and to keep everything connected, moving and cycling. When we compact with machinery, over churn and chop up the soil, we disconnect and disrupt this vital network and spraying chemicals exacerbates this, helping wipe out the tiny lives of this vast system that we too are dependent on.
Fun Fact - There are more living things in 1 teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet!
Super soil stewards!
Therefore, whether you’ve realised it or not, if you wish to grow your own tasty and nutrient-dense food in a way that works with nature, you will actually become a regenerative soil farmer, enlivening it as a steward of the land and of the future…Thank you in advance!
It’s all about building the soil, mulching and adding organic matter layers to support the underground network and provide a healthy growing medium. This may help to shed light as to why a common practice used to achieve healthy, organic crops is the ‘no dig’ gardening approach.
It saves back breaking digging work, which as we now know, impedes the essential activity of all the soil lives, so don’t pop your veggies in a well turned over (aesthetically pleasing) yet desolate and unconnected patch… cover and build, build, build the soil!
We must realise better and appreciate these simple yet profound ‘services’ that nature provides as we are not separate from it. When you are working with your local environment, using green manures, and building soil – you will not have a weed problem as the ground remains covered – with just what you want! Trying to go against the natural wave of regenerative life is futile and hard work. Therefore, enhance the environment around you, stay ‘in flow’ with the land and farm for connectivity, for that ensures in-built resilience and sustainable productivity… naturally.
Simple, natural solutions!
Green manures then play a vital role for healthy, long-term food production and help us understand more about soil function, its wider implications, and why we want to plant them in the first place.
A key rule of thumb is that if you take something out of the ground, immediately replace it with another plant, or sow seeds in its place. Plan in advance what you would like to eat and know the time of harvest, therefore also know what can be planted at the same time that will provide not only a continued, vital service for the soil, but also another service for you such as natural dye plants, fast growing greens, edible flowers that may also be a pest deterrent – the more ‘functions’ the better – so take the time to notice and start simple.
Using cardboard and other natural mulches (that break down) on top of grassy areas, covered with compost, can be a good way to establish new, no-dig growing beds. Anything Charles Dowding is a great guide, follow this link to his videos.
Mixing plants with different life cycles such as perennials and annuals brings biodiversity, and like the varied soil microorganisms, mutually beneficial ‘services’ that support the community network are also needed above ground!
So, it is ideal to consider companion planting different herbs, veggies and flowers together for improved growth all round – reflecting and connecting with the wider ecosystem by supporting more wildlife (above and below ground), including essential crop pollinators.
‘Pests’ can take over and destroy single crop beds, so mix your food crops in with other edible plants and flowers that act as a deterrent, plant a patch of ‘sacrificial’ veggies away from your main crop, increase biodiversity and habitat for pest predators – we must see and garden for the whole picture!
Get out there!
Essentially, try not to feel overwhelmed by the number of things you ‘need’ to learn as the best way is to just go for it! You can’t get that kind of knowing from any book, failures too are very useful learning tools you will not forget, so be kind to yourself!
Start off by growing together a handful of plants and plan for different harvests throughout the year were possible. Consider each plants’ natural ecosystem services such as enriching the soil, providing pollen, shade, repelling pests, and retaining moisture.
You can build on your skills just as you build the soil – so get out there, take notice, get creative and enjoy it!
Find more articles like this on our online course platform - Gartur Stitch Farm School.