One of the first things I heard about permaculture was how easy it is – a “no-dig” solution to the world’s insatiable demand for food. My mind conjured up images of someone (me perhaps, or Her Outdoors) wafting seed at the ground, then coming back later to wander through our very own Garden of Eden, trees dripping and ground heaving with all manner of perfect fruit and vegetables. A smallholder’s paradise, where chickens take care of the pests and all you need to do is lie in the shade and plan what you’re going to do with today’s harvest.
It’s an attractive image, especially when you’ve spent seven years creating this:
This was our veggie patch yesterday (the first time Her Outdoors has been happy to have it photographed). The ground was initially dug over by pigs, and all the “raised beds” were dug by hand, fertilised with Pepito’s manure, wood ash from our burner, rotated to help prevent disease (“help” is a key word here), nurtured, slaved over, repaired using wood from écovallée and stared at dejectedly. It’s been a labour of necessity, love and hope – and if you’ve ever done any gardening (I haven’t – Her Outdoors did this pretty much on her own), you’ll have looked for an easier way to get the results you want.
So when someone tells you about no-dig food production, you look into it.
Having read a bit and watched a few permaculture videos on youtube, permaculture can be fantastically easy. Provided you have the ground terraformed by JCBs, have uncountable tons of topsoil and manure delivered by fleets of trucks, and a huge amount of money to spend on seeds. Oh, and a sub-tropical climate with massive amounts of rain followed by months of sunlight. And plenty of time. And help.
What if you have none of those things?
One answer, found through permaculture, could be hugelkultur. If this is the first time you’ve come across this excellent word, it won’t be the last. Anyone who’s tried it raves about it.
Last winter, we built a small “flugelbed” (any Swedish-sounding word works for us) in the polytunnel. It wasn’t a real krugelschmugel – more a raise bed half filled with rotting wood and manure, topped with earth from molehills. It’s been great. Carrots thrived in the sifted soil, free from pests who haven’t evolved to fly up to that altitude. Unfortunately, the deer have enjoyed breaking in and using it as a salad bar, leaving beautifully cropped plants next to telltale hoof prints. Our response will be to create a deer-proof fence around the polytunnel when we get round to it, which will surely do… something.
But that’s not the point right now.
The point is that we’re starting our first shnugelbed outside. It’s a very long-term project but one we’re very excited about. Lacking a JCB, Her Outdoors prepared the area to be used by leaving a tarp on the ground for a year or so. After the rain loosened the clay-heavy soil, she spend a few weeks carefully removing the bindweed:
Yesterday the hugelproject looked like this:
All we needed to do next was place the soil to one side of the (uphill is wise here):
We’ll be returning to this project regularly to monitor its progress. In a few years, the results should be spectacular.