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Experimenting with the kitchen garden

The kitchen garden consists of four large, rectangular raised beds, about 45cm high, and a smaller one in the centre which is dedicated to herbs.
View of raised beds duplicate 4.15 copy

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.

It wasn’t all disaster: we had reasonable crops of spinach, lettuce, rocket, and some capsicums:
Capsicum 2015The herbs carried on regardless, as if revelling in the spartan conditions.

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.
Bed 1 1.16Spinach 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 2 1.16
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 3 1.16
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.
Bed 4 11.15
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!

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I admire your fortitude in attempting a kitchen garden with such harsh climatic conditions. I hope you will find out what things work out best for you. Amelia

    January 16, 2016
  2. I recommend Ruth Stout’s No Work Gardening book. I have turned horrible damaged soil into luscious gardens. Pretty shapes and raised beds are good, a shame the soil is damaged. It will be nice when the soil is fertile again.

    January 22, 2016
    • Working on it! Thank you for your suggestion, I had not heard of Ruth Stout, but looked her up, and I reckon she worked out a sensible system for herself, by necessity, trial and error – three of the most important constituents of successful cultivation. In the UK, Charles Dowding has developed a similar approach – see “Organic Gardening the natural no-dig way”. If I could produce enough compost and good quality mulch, I would try this in a couple of the raised beds and part of the herbaceous border.

      January 23, 2016
      • I think all permaculture systems basically entail feeding the soil. Ruth Stout used spoil hay a lot, I used tree leaves. We both composted in situ. I don’t have tree leaves here in dry New Mexico so I am using hugelkultur, burying deadwood. Because I have 5 acres, I put out wildflower seeds and left them uncut to die back. After 3 years my soil in my front yard is much improved. Is your area desert? I only get about 16 inches rain a year.

        January 23, 2016
      • Yes, we are definitely in the desert as we are south of the Delta. We are too far from either the river Nile or the canal system to benefit from the normal irrigation system in Egypt. I have been using leaves from the Indian laurels as mulch for about four years; these have recently all been cleared away by the new garden expert we have. This is an ongoing debate between us: mulch is blamed for harbouring snails, harmful bacteria and insects by most Egyptian farmers and gardeners I have come across, whereas I see it as building up the organic content and fertility of the soil, long-term.
        I know of one permaculture garden not far from us, in Heliopolis ( a suburb of Cairo). It is remarkable for the absolutely outstanding lushness of the plant growth – but this is not what the overwhelming majority of Egyptians would recognise as a garden. Too untidy, “au naturel”, rampant for their taste! However, it is situated on the edge of a public garden, and has the support of the local community and businesses, as far as I know.

        January 24, 2016
      • I guess lush growth would look uncontrolled to desert folks! I would not allow removal of organic matter, it holds water in the soil. Hang in there.

        January 24, 2016
  3. Found another way round this, until I can “re-educate” the gardeners: I have put much of the gathered leaf, twig and other debris in the compost, which conveniently bumps up the brown content of the heap (there tends to be too little brown and too much green in my garden) – so it can all be returned to the soil later on. I hope they buy this!

    January 25, 2016
    • Sylvia,
      Now you are making me laugh! When I lived in Mexico for 8 years, my garden helper felt compelled to remove every speck of organic matter! Sometimes you just have to compromise. Compost bin is good.

      January 25, 2016
  4. Sylvia
    Your reseeded volunteers are your own little landrace varieties. Be sure to encourage them and save seeds! Nothing better.

    February 19, 2016

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