For the past week I’ve been working on raised bed 2. That is, digging out most of the soil and sand and doing the hugelkultur treatment myself.
This is partly because our gardening assistant disappeared, as they so often do. But I also wanted to check the condition of the bed, and take equal care with how the treatment was done.
Into the trenches went dead wood cut from the hedge, a vast quantity of stems, branches and leaves pruned from the basil bushes in late summer, plus dried clippings from honeysuckle, jasmine and plumbago. For good measure, I added chopped up squash and pomegranate peel – which may take a while to rot down in a conventional compost heap – and some banana skins, covering them with more twigs and leaves before I combined soil and sand to return it into the bed.
I’m no spring chicken , and the only way I could manage the task was by dividing the bed into four sections of roughly 1m x 1.2m, and doing them one at a time. My observations as I worked were not encouraging some four years after constructing the beds:
- There was almost no visible life – not a single earthworm; just the occasional wood louse and snail.
- The watering hasn’t worked. Most of the bed was too wet, even to a depth of more than 30cm, while a few patches were bone dry.
- Perhaps as a result, the soil was in layers, a bit like a sponge cake: Sand below and thick, gluey soil above. Some roots were set hard in cement-like lumps of soil which had to be broken up by spade.
- There has been a nightmarish invasion of roots from the Indian laurel hedge, and one other tree with different roots (likely the “decorative orange” nearby, which flowers profusely in spring but never produces any fruit).
Clearly the irrigation methods have been at fault. Compost and fertiliser were added each year, crops have been grown consistently, and the soil should be in reasonable condition. But our gardeners – whether qualified agricultural engineers or labourers – have repeatedly used basin irrigation, which means flooding the bed in preparation for planting, and then (over)watering occasionally as the seedlings grow. This has presumably washed organic matter down, incidentally to the level of the tree roots as they enter the bed, taking the fine particles of sand as well.
The practice may well have existed in Egypt since ancient times, running in parallel with the annual Nile flood which replenished the land with a fresh layer of fertile alluvium, but it makes no sense in today’s environment. I despair.
I guess that using the “no-dig” method could manage the situation by adding a thick layer of compost on top and growing the crops in that. But we can’t produce enough compost to do that, and I’m not persuaded that the stuff available commercially in Egypt is of a high enough quality.
So I’ve worked out a compromise: What might be termed “targeted composting”. Bed 2 was due to be planted with mizuna and salad leaves; carrots; and broad beans to provide food for us, and food for the earth by means of their nitrogen-fixing mechanism. I applied a top dressing of compost for the leaves; mixed it down to a level of 10cm in the drill prepared for carrots; and deeper in the holes prepared for individual broad bean seeds.
On top, I plan to spread the dried horse manure we have in stock, and hope for the best. In his guide to organic gardening the no-dig way, Charles Dowding* warns against this if it is mixed with sawdust (which it is): you have to be very careful to leave it on the surface and not mix it in, or the wood will actually drain nutrients away from the plants as it breaks down. Better to prepare the beds well in advance, weather the manure on the surface, and then sow.
There are so many challenges to gardening the natural way; it’s a wonder that anything ever grows in nature, let alone produces nourishing food.
- Organic Gardening the natural no-dig way, Charles Dowding, green books