Systemic acquired resistance
I can only just bear to tear myself away from Hepp Solzer's book on permaculture. It's such a funny mixture of a book - a revelation, a memoir, another way of life, a new way of life. It's one of those exciting reads where lots of ideas and observations that I often wondered about, but never found a reference for, all suddenly explode onto the page.
There's a lot about hugelkultur, which is a very old German/Austrian way of making raised beds using logs and other large bits of material. These are buried into the soil and more bulky material is added in, then turf or sods laid on top and finally topsoil on that. The bulky logs and material slowly rots down creating a moisture and food trap that the roots of your vegetables, fruit trees and bushes can tap into whenever they need.
These raised beds are tall, up to 1.5metre high with steep slopes, angled against the wind so that the far side is a microclimate. In between the beds you can compost add more food to the system. For the last 40 years Holzer has farmed this way in the harsh conditions of alpine Austria. His raised beds run for metres across his large farm. These beds are said to have a remarkable effect on very poor compacted soils. Turning areas previously thought it impossible to grow food on into rich habitats. It's certainly one way to get rid of all that bulky material that won't go in a green bin.
It's a topsy-turvy world where the rules are merely guidelines, where traditions are both respected, observed and then if necessary completely disregarded. It is not for everyone, but within it is more answers to our soil problems than most others can contribute.
After reading the chapter on these raised beds I went into a minor frenzy of digging in the chicken pen. For sometime now I have a series of root balls, branches and other material too thick to go onto the compost or green bin. I buried these as deep as I could get them, added a layer of chicken bedding; straw and grass clippings and then topsoil. I have to confess it looks much like a grave - a human sized one. God knows what the neighbours will think?
Eventually I'll need to make a fence to keep the chicken off, but for now they are having fun hill climbing. It gives them a new perspective at least. I'm going to try growing some potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and green manures to stabilize the soil. Eventually I'll add some fruit bushes.
Another good read is Eliot Coleman's article in the Grist, which begins to unravel some of the issues empirical science has with organic farming. Coleman is America's answer to Charles Dowding and is well worth dipping into.
I'm particularly interested in the idea of 'systemic acquired resistance', in other words healthy soil. It 's interesting to see science catch up with long held observation that if your soil health is in good order, you have lots of organic matter for the worms and other beasties to make use of, your plants will do better. What is hugely important in all these system, be it hugelkultur or compost-making, is that no-one is trying to eliminate pests. The answer is not to try and rid yourself of your problem but increase the overall health of system from ground up. Nature rarely has a pest problem and neither should you. In short make like nature might.
On an entirely different note some of us over on Twitter are having a courgette challenge to see who can get the first courgette. You can do everything and anything to will the plant on but you can't grow it under any protection. No cloches, no polytunnels or greenhouse. Straw bales, windbreaks, special spells, homemade feeds yes, but protection, no. I've only just sown my courgettes and they are yet to come up, but I still think I've got a chance against all those who sowed a month ago. Join in. There's no prize other than saying eating courgettes earlier than the rest of us. Oh, that and the glory.
Alys Fowler is a writer and broadcaster.