Blogs >> College garden update from Joanna Wright

College garden update from Joanna Wright

Digging our no-dig garden, and other growing updates from Schumacher College.

Joanna Wright

When she arrived a year ago, Schumacher College Lead Gardener Jane Gleason tells me, the Upper Field looked very different, just two small polytunnels and former pasture. Now, there is much more growing in the College gardens — in particular, the gardens themselves!

I wish I could tell the story of the Upper Field transformations from the perspective of an earthworm. Their strong, soft bodies are exquisitely sensitive to belowground worlds of which I am only shallowly aware. Our actions in the garden are constantly affecting and affected by their powerful, hidden movements. In fact, those movements, small as they are individually, are of great geological significance. Darwin, observing worms closely in his own garden, wrote, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played as important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly, organised creatures.” (Quoted in “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms” by Amy Stewart, p.1)

The Upper Field aboveground world has seen many changes recently. A third polytunnel was put up as part of a community day with the help of staff, students, volunteers, and friends of the college. A pond (now home to growing tadpoles!) and compost bays were installed last spring and summer. A border of autumn olive shrubs are growing into a windbreak to protect the exposed site from winter’s gales. (The berries are also said to be delicious. I have yet to try one.) This year’s Sustainable Horticulture students planted a variety of pear trees. Fernanda Vidal, a Master’s student in the Economics for Transition program, initiated the planting of six apple trees in honour of her sister’s birthday, a way of celebrating while being far away from her family in Brazil.

With the help of Jane, Eloise (wwoofer), and other volunteers, I had the opportunity to design and build a “hot bed” in February, inspired by a presentation from Charles Dowding at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Our hotbed comprises a layered manure-straw compost pile, with six inches of soil on top, covered by a cloche. The soil is warmed from below by the decomposition process, and protected from frost, wind, and heavy rains by the cloche above. In this cozy nursery, seedlings can get an early start, making the most of the lengthening hours of daylight despite lingering wintry conditions. Making and attending to it — particularly in the strong winds we had in February — gave us lots of ideas for improvements to the design. We also learned that the compost used on top is very weedy. (For a while, the hotbed looked like it was growing more weeds than crops.) Now we know, when spreading that compost on other beds, to let the weeds germinate and lightly hoe the bed clear of them before planting. We sowed when the soil temperature peaked at 25 degrees Celsius, three days after building it, after which it declined gradually to 18-20 degrees Celsius and hovered there for the next several weeks. Meanwhile, ground temperature outside was around 10 degrees. (Temperatures would have been higher in the hot bed, if we had been able to use fresh manure, which goes through a hotter decomposition phase first and then a longer, cooler phase. The manure we had on hand was aged a couple of months.)

Despite plenty of room for improvements, the hotbox worked fairly well. Kale, onions and leeks are almost ready for transplanting, bright beetroot cotyledons and feathery carrots are have emerged, and a few handfuls of pea shoots and radishes have already made it to our dinner table. All in all, a good learning process, and a project I look forward to tweaking and adapting in future contexts.

As part of our last community meeting, staff, students, and volunteers came out to the garden to build a hugelkultur bed. (Hugelkultur is a technique where woody debris, manure, and soil are layered to create a growing environment in which water and nutrients stored in decaying twigs and branches are released slowly, nurturing plants with minimal need for additional fertilizer or irrigation.) After an hour or so of effort, we had the foundation for the bed finished and sat down for our meeting, minds and bodies refreshed, and the group energized by a sense of collective accomplishment. (A good way to begin a community meeting!) Garden volunteers and Level II Horticulture students finished the job off over the course of the next few days. Little radish and lettuce shoots are now poking their heads up through the straw that was laid to protect the bare surface of soil.

And — perhaps the main event of this season — a beautiful circular vegetable garden is taking shape at the center of all of this! Turning the large patch of grass into a new area for growing food has been a multi-stage process, shaped by a variety of factors — available time and resources, weather, an aim to support the integrity of the soil ecosystem, to name a few. It was lightly plowed last spring, sheet mulched, and sown with a cover crop of clover and phacelia which grew through the summer and fall. December was quite dry, allowing us to turn the soil shovelful by shovelful, integrating the cover crop foliage and further loosening and aerating in preparation for shaping the beds. We’ve just finished the long but rewarding labor of digging out the pathways and adding that soil to the beds, so as not to waste it by leaving it to be trampled on. This left us with the very positive dilemma of too much good soil, allowing us to expand some of the peripheral beds — even more growing space than was in the original design. In other parts of the field, the soil is quite heavy and sticky, but here it is lighter, drier, and streaked with black humus.
We’ve found many, many worms as we’ve dug out pathways and shaped beds. Some are fat and reddish pink, others more slender, and occasionally I spot a little, dark green one. Watching them during this digging process has piqued my curiosity… I have a lot to learn about them, and from them.

I wonder what this year’s changes are like for the worms? Have they encountered the wet, rocky pond edge, the warmth beneath the polytunnels, the searching roots of young fruit trees, the smells and textures of various compost heaps? I’d like to think they have a more diverse, interesting, generative home ground than they had before. A bit less peaceful, perhaps, with our recent tromping around and moving soil this way and that. But there will be less disturbance now that the circular garden has taken shape. Jane Pickard (head of Ecological Horticulture at Schumacher) has plans for the circular garden which draw strongly from Emilia Hazelip’s “synergistic agriculture,’ an adaptation for temperate climates of Manusoba Fukuoka’s ‘Natural Farming’ methods. Hazelip’s approach includes year-round polyculture and mulching to build soil structure and fertility while minimizing disturbance. I’m looking forward to learning more about these principles in action this season, through experience and observation of how they take shape in our specific context.

Schumacher College begins this growing season with significantly greater capacity, in terms of garden spaces and people power, for growing its own food, one simple but profoundly important way of walking the talk of sustainable livelihood. Thank you to all those who have participated in the life of the garden with your hardworking hands, inquisitive minds, and caring hearts. And to unsung heroes like the earthworms, perhaps the deepest gratitude of all.


This blog was originally published in Joanna’s own blog we thank her for sharing it with us.


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