Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Harvest Monday and Wonderful Woodchip

I missed last week's Harvest Monday because I was away for a couple of days at the beginning of the week....more on that later. In the meantime we've been having all sorts of diverse weather, including absolutely masses of snow last week...I popped to the plot this afternoon and was pleased to see the broad beans survived  (the snow mostly melted away in Norwich a couple of days ago when we had a day of rainfall). They look a bit flopped over from the weight of the snow, but I think most of them will be ok.

In terms of harvests and using up stored crops, I made a big curry thing with the last of my sweet dumpling squashes (below). They were still in good condition and could've kept for longer but it felt like the right time for them. Their flavour is very sweet and the skins can be left on too, which is handy as it involves less cutting, and also means there's more to eat. I still have three squashes left, all the cream coloured acorn style, which again are still in good condition but I'll use them up sooner rather than later.

We've continued to use up goodies from the freezer...I have several bags of sweetcorn which are great to add into different meals, adding a 'pop' of texture and sweetness. I'm growing the same variety this year - Sativa early. This pasta meal also included some kale from the allotment. I harvested a load more today actually...fortunately the enviromesh covers protected them from pigeon damage. I had a wander along the main path through the allotment site after I'd finished today and saw kale plants on other plots completely decimated...such a shame.

Before the big freeze last week, I picked a nice selection of rocket from the lean-to greenhouse for our sarnies. Over the course of the cold week, the plants looked very droopy and sorry for themselves, with very low daytime and nighttime temperatures. I thought there might be some casualties but actually most of them have recovered, so that's good news.

As we couldn't really pick any fresh leaves last week, we focussed on home-sprouted beans and lentils, enjoyed several times on open sandwiches, to use up homegrown/made beetroot hummus which I'd thawed from the freezer. Last time I got a jar out we didn't use it up fast enough and it went mouldy so I didn't want to waste any this time.

The weekend before the freeze, it was time to start sowing things...exciting! As these stay indoors for a while I wasn't too worried about it being cold outdoors, and they live on top of a set of drawers near the radiator so they get extra heat from that. I also wrap them in bubble wrap (over and under the trays) for extra insulation which then gives a warm enough temperature for tomatoes and peppers etc to germinate.

So Jan helped with this, which was great...much less fiddly than just me on my own. We sowed tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines and onions. We're not bothering with chilli peppers as I have four plants that have over-wintered indoors, one even has some flowers on it at the moment. I had to move them away from the windowsill to make way for the trays of seeds though so I hope they're not too grumpy. The tomatoes and onions have already started germinating though, so that's a good sign.

My seed order has started arriving, hooray. It's coming in dribs and drabs for some reason. I'm hoping the onion sets and early potatoes arrive soon as I usually plant these out at the end of March. I'm trying a new variety of maincrop potato this year called Linda, and have put the seed potatoes in the lean-to to chit.

So last week I went to a seminar at Tolhurst Organics (near Reading) with a couple of friends from Norwich. Luckily we made it there and back safely in the snowy conditions, so a big thanks to Joel for his careful driving. Joel is setting up an organic market garden just outside Peterborough to supply salad and veg for a new farm shop which has just opened...you can follow his journey on Instagram under @RodkersJourneys or Facebook at The Market Garden at Harvest Barn Shop.

The seminar was titled Wonderful Woodchip and organised by the Organic Research Centre. Wow it was a great day, the main crux being how to obtain, produce and use woodchip. Tolly (Iain Tolhurst) has been honing the use of woodchip on his organic farm over the last few years. The farm is stock-free (no animal inputs) and uses a combination of green manures and woodchip to improve the soil structure / life etc. The woodchip adds carbon to the soil and improves its microbial / fungal health. 

The majority of the woodchip at Tolly's is brought in by a tree surgeon, to whom the woodchip is a waste product.

Composted woodchip has many uses...if left to compost for long enough it is even fine enough to use as a medium for raising seedlings. In the photo below, the woodchip in the large sack has taken two years to break down into a soil-like medium. Whereas most bought seed composts will be relatively sterile, the composted woodchip is full of life.

The large bits are sieved out and vermiculite (to aid drainage) is added (1:4 vermiculite:compost I think). 

Very healthy seedlings. Interestingly they have tested composted woodchip from different species and by the time it is composted there is very little variation in its make up. It was suggested that it's best to not just have solely conifer species, and to mix them with others. Also, don't use walnut or larch (I forget the reason!).

In the polytunnels uncomposted woodchip is added to the paths as a thick mulch, which breaks down over time. The chip acts to both suppress weed growth and improve the soil as it breaks down. The roots from plants in the beds grow out into the paths and benefit from the improved fungal conditions in the paths. Composted chip is also added onto the beds themselves.

Here's a relatively fresh pile of chip recently delivered by the tree surgeon. Tolly highlighted the importance of knowing what is coming onto the farm (e.g. As mentioned above, walnut and larch are not wanted). 

Tolly composts the woodchip in rows (oldest at the end) but it can be done in piles if that's all the space you have. Turning it speeds up the composting time...his takes about a year but could be speeded up if he turned it more. Also it's quicker if you're composting on the same area as previously compost has been made, because the beneficial soil organisms are already in situ.

Here's some of the older chip, really starting to break down. Tolly also adds in some vegetative matter produced on the farm (e.g. Stored potatoes and squashes that are past their best). My iPad memory was full at this point so the rest of the photos from the day are on my camera and difficult to get off, but we went on to look at the field-scale crops where a seven year rotation incorporates green manures, with the composted woodchip being added to the soil surface after the green manures have been growing. 

So that's a brief run down of the seminar. We also learned about setting up hedgerow management plans for your land (for example to identify different wood chip sources), which was interesting....I used to do a lot of practical habitat management and it was great to touch on this subject again, combined with food growing objectives. Oh and I haven't even mentioned ramial woodchip (produced from branches), or agroforestry but I'll leave it there for now.

I'll finish with a snowy shot of the garden. We made sure to put out extra food and fresh water each day for the birds, which encouraged a few new visitors as well as the regulars.

Thanks for reading, I'm linking in a day late to Harvest Monday, kindly hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.


  1. The council parks department bring us loads of wood chip as often s we want it. We use it on top of weed control fabric but after a season it is put into the soil as we move the fabric around.

  2. That sounds like a good system Sue. Unfortunately the vehicular access onto our site isn't very good so we can't do anything like that.

  3. I love the Sweet Dumpling squashes but last year I only got one. Hopefully they will do better this time. And it's so good to hear about using the woodchips. They get a bad rap sometimes but as you say they are such a good addition to the soil. Leaf mold is too, and I wish we had more trees here to make more leaves. Nature's fertilizer for sure!

    1. Good luck with your sweet dumplings this year Dave.
      Yes definitely, woodchip gets a bad rap sometimes, I think mainly if people dig in uncomposted chippings there can be issues. But if they're well-composted and used as a mulch rather than dug in, or used on paths, under fruit bushes etc it should be fine.

  4. Tolhurst organics is not far from us at all... we are in Reading!!! I am totally sold on woodchip rotted down as a soil additive too. We have masses of it currently and it is amazing!

    1. Hi Kathy, ah how lovely to be so close to Tolhurst Organics. I saw the veg bags being made-up the next day and the leeks were amazing. It seems like a nice team working there too. Oh and all the red kites flying around were very cool.
      Ooh and lucky you on having lots of woodchip, I need to work out how to get some for the plot, the problem is poor vehicular access to the site..