Author Topic: Breeding on the Downs  (Read 1168 times)

triffid

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Breeding on the Downs
« on: 2019-06-24, 09:52:17 AM »
Since May Iíve commenced tenancy of half an acre of chalk downland. My mandate is to breed locally adapted food crops and aid in the conservation of endangered heritage varieties.

The site requires a lot of work. Left unmanaged for around 4 years, the nettles are taller than me and their rhizomes have formed an near-impenetrable web.

Iíve attempted to mow and cover with weed-suppressant membrane with little success. The most labour-intensive method seems to have the greatest effect - hack away at the ground with various mattocks and hoes, pulling up the rhizomes by hand. Three weeks of heavy rain and sunshine and nothing has returned, and very few weed seedlings have sprouted, so I shall continue.

The wildlife is diverse and abundant. Iíve encountered slow-worms, damselflies, thick-legged flower beetles, shrews, orchids, rabbits, foxes, and many, many spiders. They scurry away in a wave for every step I take. Found plenty of evidence of moles, and sighted buzzards and kestrels. Some earthworms, but less than I was anticipating. There are plenty more species reported in the area, and to the south of the site is an excellent butterfly meadow.

Circumstances have prevented planting of many planned crops this season.
Only a pair of pumpkins and a few summer squash have survived the recent slugpocalypse. Growth is slow so I believe the majority of available nitrogen has been sapped by the nettles. These will have to be composted carefully. As patches of ground are cleared Iíll sow a cover of sainfoin and bee pasture and focus on cultivation in autumn and next spring.

Off-site Iíve begun work on peas, tomatoes, broad beans and Phaseolus.
Olaf very kindly sent me a big bag Magic Manna corn that I had intended to grow this year. I think it may be too late but Iíll plant a small block to see how they get on in this environment.

Plenty more to share and discuss; will keep this updated.

Edit: Added photos from May 3rd. Had done a little strimming at this point. Everything is a lot bigger now.
« Last Edit: 2019-06-25, 02:41:06 PM by triffid »
Zone 9a - brown calcareous earth, high natural fertility base-rich loam - coastal maritime climate

Diane Whitehead

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #1 on: 2019-06-25, 01:09:21 PM »
How about borrowing a goat or two?
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
cool mediterranean climate  warm dry summers, mild wet winters,  70 cm rain,   sandy soil

Richard Watson

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #2 on: 2019-06-25, 01:46:52 PM »
So whats the PH of those chalk soils
Changeable climate manly during winter & spring - 500mm average yearly rainfall. 20 years of soil improvements plus sub soil top soil reversal means my garden beds are about half metre deep. Below that is 100's of metres of alluvial shingle

triffid

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #3 on: 2019-06-25, 02:45:30 PM »
@Diane I had considered it. Pigs too, for the roots. Will goats eat stinging nettles?

@Richard I'd guess around 8. There's a good layer of topsoil, with little pieces of chalk dotted all over the place.
Zone 9a - brown calcareous earth, high natural fertility base-rich loam - coastal maritime climate

Diane Whitehead

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #4 on: 2019-06-25, 02:57:19 PM »
My soil was never rich enough to support stinging nettles, so I don't know.  My goats were happy to eat almost anything -
they weren't as picky as the deer that now visit.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
cool mediterranean climate  warm dry summers, mild wet winters,  70 cm rain,   sandy soil

Richard Watson

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #5 on: 2019-06-25, 03:09:12 PM »
The only thing my lawn mower/ goat wont eat is garlic tops.
Changeable climate manly during winter & spring - 500mm average yearly rainfall. 20 years of soil improvements plus sub soil top soil reversal means my garden beds are about half metre deep. Below that is 100's of metres of alluvial shingle

triffid

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #6 on: 2019-07-01, 12:05:41 PM »
Here's a slow-worm we uncovered in early May.
Zone 9a - brown calcareous earth, high natural fertility base-rich loam - coastal maritime climate

Richard Watson

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #7 on: 2019-07-01, 01:52:26 PM »
good size worm
Changeable climate manly during winter & spring - 500mm average yearly rainfall. 20 years of soil improvements plus sub soil top soil reversal means my garden beds are about half metre deep. Below that is 100's of metres of alluvial shingle

galina

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #8 on: 2019-07-04, 04:56:54 AM »
You have a lot of work ahead of you.  8 is quite alkaline and a problem for many crops, because with the alkalinity comes a difficulty for plants to take up nutrients.  Even if you add nutrients, the plants cannot make full use of them.  You will need a lot of compost to change that.  Maybe check the ph again.

Do you have a large water butt that you can throw the nettles in, add water, leave to steep and get liquid fertiliser out?  Nettles are very good stuff for that and the well decomposed roots that have sat in water for weeks make a great soil improver too after a season in the butt.  I have a comfrey and nettle blue water butt with a tap to get the liquid fertiliser out. 

I wish you well for the project.  Nice to see the slow worm.  Will watch your progress with interest. 

You are probably well aware what will grow on alkaline soil, but here is a handy list.  https://harvesttotable.com/vegetable-crop-soil-ph-tolerances/
Central England, cool, maritime (ish), cloudy, often dry, but recent weather unpredictable

triffid

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Re: Breeding on the Downs
« Reply #9 on: 2019-07-04, 09:06:51 AM »
I haven't yet measured the pH. 8 was purely a guess based on the bits of chalk that turn up when dug. The site has a fruit cage with a number of raspberry bushes that have cropped very heavily, plus my few beans and tomatoes are doing well, so the soil may be around neutral. There appears to be a decent amount of humus (and visible mycorrhizae around the trees) so perhaps this mitigates the effect of underlying chalk.

At home our potted plants do suffer the negative effects of hard water. I haven't seen any characteristic high-pH deficiencies like intravenal chlorosis on site, so the soil may be well buffered. In any event, haven't got any cranberry breeding projects planned  ;)

Nettle and comfrey teas are on the agenda. There are piles of mown weeds and grass tufts everywhere that are now too dry to compost. Hopefully this changes when we get a water source piped in next week.

I'll be using this humification agent in the piles https://www.soilfixer.co.uk/Compost-Humification-Agent-Activator

So far I've added it to comfrey and broad bean scraps in the worm bin and it appears to be working. Break-down is much faster and the output has that jelly-like consistency.

If I can replicate this on site and get mounds of moisture-retentive humus I will be chuffed. Right now the soil has extremely good drainage.
Zone 9a - brown calcareous earth, high natural fertility base-rich loam - coastal maritime climate