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PDC Blog: Day 3

Jump to: Soil fertility case study, No dig gardening practical, Double dig gardening, Making compost or The chicken tractor method

I woke up to a view completely obscured by a thick blanket of mist, the early morning chill making it even harder to leave the warmth of my bed.

Revived with a breakfast of fruit salad with fresh ginger, hot Rooibos tea, and organic corn porridge (for those that way inclined), I meandered outside to watch Bokkie play around with Karen’s Pekinese dog, Oscar.

Dog plays with bush buck

A bush buck, Bokkie arrived at the farm after her mom had been shot, and is now completely tame, often sleeping with Andrew or Hazel. She regularly joins us as we have breakfast and capers around the lounge!

Bush buck in the house

After our morning beanbag game we did a bit of Thai Chi, before sitting down to our morning’s lecture. The discussion began with an overview of soil fertility, using Wild Olive Farm as a small case study.

Soil fertility of the Wild Olive Farm

The land was initially very barren, with the veggie garden literally sitting on top of a bed of solid rock (30cm in diameter).

Wild Olive Guest Farm before permaculture

Hazel sent off the soil to a laboratory for testing and the results were not very positive. She was told that the soil is little more than a holding dirt. The Department of Agriculture suggested using fertilisers.

But, Hazel was not deterred. One can CREATE fertile soil.

After a year of practicing permaculture, Hazel sent in more soil samples and the results were outstanding. Not a single trace element was missing.

Wild Olive Guest Farm after permaculture
Romaine, spinach, frissee etc. growing on a bed of rock

The laboratory was so amazed that they drove (from Cape Town) to Wild Olive to see for themselves how such a dramatic change happened.

It's clear that a change of perception in mainstream farming is necessary; when you start seeing a bed of solid rock as an advantage (just imagine all the minerals coming off that soil!) you’re beginning to understand the permaculture way.

We then discussed what soil is made of in detail. To find out more about soil please visit: What is soil made of?

And it was time for the daily break for tea, which usually consisted of home-made rusks, scones or biscuits (and for me, banana’s!). Find out more about the raw food lifestyle. Before we knew it, it was time for our practical, which entailed looking at various gardening methods which ranged from easy to difficult. We traipsed off to an unused area of grass, where we’d establish a no-dig gardening bed system.

Practical to create soil using the No dig gardening method

No-dig gardening essentially means creating a garden from the ground up, on any surface, with the benefit of enriched soil. To find out the steps in establishing this method, visit my article on Quick 'n easy no-dig gardening. We went to the level section of grass, which had been previously covered with straw mulch to keep the soil moist. We then took note of the surrounding landscape, a vital part of permaculture.

Layer of mulch for planned no-dig bed

We learnt that in every forest, you have a crown tree. Here, the Cape Ash is the crown tree, which protects the area from wind, provides shelter, and brings rain (through its moisture level).

Crown tree

Hazel points out that the trees are naturally staggered, which allows wind to come through. Thus when creating a windbreak using permaculture methods, stagger your trees from small to big, directing the wind upwards.

We then created a layer of cardboard, first removing the tape. Carbon is the basis of all soil, and recycling your cardboard in this way puts carbon back into the soil. Each layer is watered to help break it down further.

A layer of cardboard for no-dig gardening bed

The guys then added the 3-week old (hence well-rotted) manure (nitrogen), which consisted of a mix of horse, donkey and sheep.

Layer of manure goes on no-dig gardening bed

Ervert, Leon and Irshaad then threw some straw on the bed. We learn that alternating nitrogen (manure) and carbon (straw) layers is important as they break each other down. All our water runoff goes to the crown tree.

Andrew, Sebastian and Leon return just in time for our next layer, which is fresh compost.

Bringing the compost

Laying compost on no-dig bed

This is followed by a mulch of hay which acts as a protective layer and keeps moisture in. Using our hands to dig strategic holes in the bed, we drop in a couple of scoops of compost (use only as much as is needed to plant the seed/seedling) and start planting!

First we plant the always successful three sisters – sweet corn, climbing green bean (housewife or scarlet) and gem squash. A wonderful example of permaculture in action, the green beans grow at the base of the sweet corn, feeding it with nitrogen - the bacteria on their roots helps them absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that plants can use.

The green beans use the sweetcorn as support as it grows upwards. The large, prickly gemsquash leaves in turn cover the area and keep it cool, prevent weed growth and deter animals.

Then everyone takes turns to plant sage, gooseberry, basil (which will shade the parsley), parsley (works well with marigold and chives at its base), sweet melon and gooseberries. Lastly we plant the Plecanthrus which provides ground cover and protects edge. It also deters insects. And then it’s time for the sprinklers to go on!

Plating basil

Planting parsley

Double dig gardening bed

Next up was the double dig gardening bed. Definitely the more difficult of the gardening methods, the double dig is a practice that gardeners have been using for millennia to increase their crop yields.

However, its considered to be invasive to the earth, thus we do it with integrity and only once every five years.

Why double dig instead of using the no dig gardening method?

Hazel tells us that the double dig is used specifically when there’s rock under your garden bed. Otherwise you could use chickens (See below) or the far easier no-dig method.

However the double dig is generally used for root crops like carrots, beets and potatoes which need deep, loose soil to grow. It’s also particularly worthwhile when your soil is dense or compacted. Double digging aerates the soil and allows plants to grow better, because they have room for their roots, and improved drainage.

Steps to creating a double dig gardening bed

1. First and foremost, we lay out a plank on which to stand while digging, which ensures the soil doesn’t become too compacted.

2. We all start digging out the weeds and remove any snails (which we’ll use to feed the chickens).

Weeding the double dig gardening bed

3. We cover the bed with compost and then mark out at the end of the bed, a trench about 1-foot-wide by 1-foot-deep across the full width of the garden bed. First to try, is Ervert, who digs down twice as deep as the depth of a garden spade (between 30-50 cm down), which creates conditions under which plant roots thrive.
Laying compost on double dig bed double dig trench

4. Throwing the removed soil into the wheelbarrow, we aerate the soil in the trench by loosening it with a garden fork. We pluck out any loose stones.

5. Then we dig another trench the same as the first one (same depth) but this time we turf the removed (top) soil into the first trench we’d dug (upside down). The compost is now at the bottom.


6. This process continues (with the guys taking turns and the girls watching in a helpful manner) until the last trench is reached.

7. Then we replace its soil with the soil you dug from the first trench and placed into the wheelbarrow.

8. Lastly, we water it and cover the bed with mulch such as straw or cut grass to protect the exposed minerals.

My opinion – it’s a labour-intensive process that I would not be keen to do. But seeing as you only do it once every five years, it’s definitely a viable option. Slightly sunburnt and (for some of us) fitter than before, it’s time to learn how to make a compost heap.

Making compost

Composting is the process of breaking down organic materials into humus, which plants need to thrive. It feeds the millions of micro-organisms that give us compost in return.

We learnt that you can heat approximately one geyser full of water in a compost heap!

But first we broke up into teams to find dynamic accumulators – plants which have some ingredient which activates compost, for example nettles, pansy, comfrey, Nasturtium, yarrow and Borage.

A diversity of plants

A bag full of dynamic accumulators for compost

Hazel advised us that a compost heap can be as long as you want but always limit its height and width to 1.5 to 2 metres to avoid compaction. A minimum size of 1m in each dimension is needed for heating to occur.

After creating our layered heap, alternating between carbon (brown or yellow, dry and bulky) and nitrogen (green, moist and often sloppy), we poke holes into it with a garden fork to aerate it and then water it liberally.

Lastly, we cover it with a piece of carpet. We’re told to come back and check it in a few days and if necessary to add water when we turn the pile.

Visit my page on making compost to find out more about the easiest way to make compost.

After absorbing so much knowledge about soil, garden beds and composting, it’s amazing that we managed any more for the day, but a PDC is, as warned, intensive.

Our next stop on our journey into the wonders of nature occurred when we went to visit Hazel’s Mandala garden. I’m not going to go into too much detail about Mandala’s here as we discuss this in the PDC Blog: Day 5 entry.

The chicken tractor method

The chickens watch us with intent as we entered the garden, hoping we’ll feed them some fresh greens from the garden. We stand in a circle, as Hazel explains that chickens can change organic matter into humus.

Our PDC group learns the chicken tractor method

It's the easiest method of preparing a garden bed as chickens will work all day for you and what’s more, they enjoy doing it!

The process is simple, put the chicken coop on the ground, provide water and then let the chickens in, allowing them to find food for themselves.

As the garden is abundant in greens, corn, various herbs and dynamic accumulators such as yarrow, they have a rich and varied diet.

After about a week, you cover the bed with mulch, which the chickens scratch through for insects and seeds while spreading manure and cultivating the ground.

Chicken tractor method

You can throw all your kitchen scraps, manure, extra compost, grass cuttings, weeds and snails into the coop every few days. What’s more, emptying out all your barbeque ash into the domes gives the chickens a chance to dust bath and prevents parasites such as lice and ticks.

After a week has passed, you can supplement the chickens feed with a handful of crushed sweet corn twice a day, which ensures they scratch and churn the area even more.

After a fortnight when the site has literally been picked clean, you move the dome to the next site (the process begins again), and your bed is ready for planting with seeds/seedlings.

But is it humane?

Yes, Hazels tells us that she worked with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) who certified the system as humane. It meets a chicken’s needs for food, entertainment, shelter, water and dust bathing.

After learning so much in such a short time, I breathed a sigh of relief when we took a break for lunch, a chickpea salad, romaine lettuce wraps, a lentil oven bake and roti’s. But first we stop to admire nature's glory in the abundance of ladybugs below.

An abundance of ladybugs on yellow plant

An afternoon of games

Our afternoon session began again with a game where we each picked a card portraying a picture, which visually demonstrates each of the permaculture principles. We then had to pick the correct card which explains the picture.

Permaculture Principle cards

The farm’s Labrador, Jonty, was not impressed with us disrupting his leisurely nap on the carpet. Seeing as we hadn’t covered these principles yet (and some do overlap), mass confusion ensued as we struggled to match our pictures to our principles.

Black Labrador stretching

Fortunately, the following game was a little easier to cope with, as we revisited our childhood with the task of forming a ball of clay. Once we’d moulded it into a ball we passed our balls around and had to find it again after it went around the group.

Just feeling the differences in energy of each ball was an eye-opening experience as each varied according to temperature, density and weight. Mine was ice-cold (cold-hands, warm heart?), so I had no problem finding it again.

After being assigned a permaculture principle each, we then were told to create something which reflected the appropriate principle. Then we had to place each ball in the centre according its relative importance.

Working with clay

My principle for the course, was energy cycling, something which I soon grew to fully understand. My clay ball was moulded into what loosely resembled a recycling bin, while other attempts were far more artistic!

And then, as the day was about soil, we were treated to a delicious meal of root veg including potato, butternut, beetroot and the now obligatory big salad.

Go to PDC Blog: Day 4

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