Leewood, the place I am lucky to be at right now, is more than magic glamping. After Nick attended last November’s Permaculture Course at High Heathercombe, she and Ryan decided to transform a relatively small patch of pasture into a land-regeneration food-production project.
Using what they had at hand, they built up soil with the principle of “No Dig”—nicely explained by the undug Queen and King—which could not be simpler… Don’t dig. Add material, yes. But no digging. This has the advantage that matter accumulates in a natural way, allowing a network of fungi and roots, worms, bacteria, and all sorts of organisms to stabilize the soil and keep it aereated. Having an established soil network means that plants have immediate access to bioavailable nutrients.
To start the beds, as the soils were rather weedy, acid, silty, and nutrient-poor, Nick and Ryan built their own version of raised hügel beds: they piled up a lot of wood, then added layers of horse manure and soil they dug out to widen the road. The already rotting wood acts as a slow-release battery of nutrients that will feed the beds over years to come, and at the same time gives them large-scale structure. The horse manure gives the soils a quick start. And earthworms simply love it. The added soil serves mainly as a vehicle for the manure, and adds minerals and more structure. Then they covered the beds with black tarps—that should weaken the weeds and keep the added materials warm, accelerating decomposition. Basically, they just went mulch-crazy.
The first time I saw the garden was mid-June. And boy did my mandible muscles ached from open-mouthed gawking! More than a very young Forest Garden, it looked like a full-blown Food Jungle. Borage reaching my shoulder, tree-cabbages and kalettes (a hybrid between brussel sprouts and kale) to hide under, side by side with fava beans, peas and still small trees and shrubs. And when I stopped to look at the beds in detail, well, the diversity was mindboggling… rainbow chards, cabbages, oca, amaranth, quinoa, spinach, the then still small nasturtiums, beetroots, comfrey… and lots of herbs: at least five different mint varieties, mugwort, yarrow, sage, st. John’s wort, etc.
And the little glass house was already packed with chilies, basil, exotic herbs, and a good half dozen varieties of squash. Soon after, we prepared a new bed by covering the grass with cardboard and adding a thick layer of well-matured horse manure, and mulching it with borage leaves and the always available grass clippings from the neighbouring plot. There we planted some of the squash. This we did along a few of the beds, making sure the plants had a LOT of nutrients. And they just took over…
As in any proper forest garden, there is a natural succession of plants, and a layering, both in space and in time. As some plants fruit and are either harvested or lose their leaves, other, slower ones, are developing underneath, and take over in a seemingly seamless manner. That is one delight of being at Leewood: one never knows what new wonder awaits to be discovered. Such as the potatoes… suddenly, there was a small sea of these beautiful plants, helped by the rich soil and the borage and comfrey (both widely used as natural soil-builders). Between the numerous perennials (a key feature of forest gardens) there is plenty of space for annual crops.
The garden is a big experiment, where plant combinations, mulching and succession are tried. A successful experiment, if you ask me! Something in this soil makes most things grow like mad. Soon I became a borage-pruning expert, as the prolific plants (usually “not a large plant“, as Nick also thought) were shading the developing crops. The fava beans and the peas (both planted late winter) were not only enormous, but came in huge numbers (and were mostly eaten raw, often standing by the plants).
As soon as there is some bare soil (be it due to harvesting or weeding), some type of mulch is applied. In line with keeping energy use very low, and reducing—or using—waste, either grass clippings, composted weeds or wood chips are generously applied. This keeps the soil moist, and continues adding nutrients and structure, while supressing the weeds.
Different plants thrive in different conditions. Using available fences or walls, or adding vertical structures to the beds increases the microclimate diversity and allows for a more efficient use of space.
And so on and so on… The gist of the story is: No-Dig works amazingly. A lot of biomass and biodiversity can be grown in a relatively small area, provided that the soil is healthy and rich. And the soil can be regenerated. In a couple of months, if one has the right materials to start with.
Polycultures have many advantages, look beautiful, and are very good for beneficial insects. And, very importantly, contribute to soil regeneration. Nature is mostly composed of polycultures. It brings resilience. And cute furry animals on your arm…