Experimenting with the kitchen garden
Seen from above, the raised beds in early summer 2015 were already showing signs of soil depletion, and yields were not good last year with the exception of some leaf crops and herbs
After a couple of seasons of failures with poor yields of veg such as courgettes, aubergines and green beans (although the leaf crops did well) I’m going to make this year one of experimentation and exploration.
On my last visit to London, I managed to find a precious guide: The Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar for 2016. Now, the phases of the moon and its constellations will set the rhythm for my gardening, while the observance of a mindful approach will bring back the energy of yoga, sorely missed last year.
Egypt has its own Biodynamic Association: To judge from a map displayed in the manager’s office, there is a significant number of farms where this approach is applied, all along the Nile Valley from the Delta to Upper Egypt, and in an oasis in the western desert.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In our case, what went wrong with the raised beds?
Originally, they were filled with about 30cm of sand topped with 15cm of heavy black soil typical of Egypt’s farmland. As the soil lost fertility, there was not enough organic matter to replenish it. A disaster (or two!) with the irrigation system led to rampant overwatering. I suspect roots from the Indian laurels in the hedge also robbed the soil of nutrients. Finally, covering two of the beds with netting against the summer sun protected some plants but caused others to wilt, especially aubergines, while failing to stop tomatoes from succumbing to infestations of pests.
Since last autumn, I have been trying an experimental approach:
Bed 1: Prepared the soil with rough (i.e. not quite ready) compost and horse manure sourced from racehorse stables in Heliopolis. This turned out to be sawdust-heavy, which is a problem as it takes nitrogen from the soil in order to break down. So the bed was left fallow for several weeks before sowing seeds. Mixed salad and chard are now doing well.
Spinach has also popped up unexpectedly, having seeded itself from last year’s plants.
Bed 2: Compost was added to half the bed and seedlings of mixed lettuce and spinach (seeds from the UK) transplanted. Beetroot, shallots, chard and curly leaved parsley were sown directly into the bed, and all have germinated well – even the parsley! Dill and thyme arrived unplanned, self-seeded.
Bed 3: Randomly planted by a local gardener without preparing the soil in any way, other than to whack it into submission while extracting some tree roots. Germination of rocket, flat leaf parsley and coriander was good but growth stunted, except for some of the rocket. Now in flower, the rocket is beloved by the bees. They go for the strong stuff!
Bed 4: Poor watering and neglect had turned the earth into something approaching a great concrete slab, interspersed with chunks of rock-hard soil. Respect to the gardener who managed to turn it – but at what cost to the structure! There was no sign of any organic matter or life, although the bed was planted up in summer 2015. This is puzzling.
Now, plans are afoot to work on beds 3 and 4, and to overhaul the herb bed. 20 bags of organic fertiliser of strictly vegetable origin (as the labels assure us) were delivered today; a professional garden assistant is on board; the Maria Thun calendar is here to guide me. Let’s roll up the sleeves and get stuck in!