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Bettie is the brave soul who took us on for our first proper paid job, which was to start her veggie patch for her using permaculture methods as far as possible. We went for the client interview at the end of November, and got to work a few days into December.

Trees were trimmed, and the patch was cleared of rocks and accumulated waste material. We brought in a bakkie-load of manure, mixed it in to the original soil, and covered that with a nice layer of good compost. Some shade-cloth was put up on one side of the patch in order to minimise the wind that blows up from the valley behind the house.

A watering dripper-system was rigged up (the biggest cost), though it must be said here that the rate at which the 5000 litre water-tank empties, rendering the watering system obsolete, makes one wonder if the expense of the pump is justified. If it rained consistently, providing a frequently full tank, then the answer would be yes. But with SA’s dry climate, reliance on mains is inevitable, as has been the case in Bettie’s garden. If one were in the UK, however…

A variety of veggies are planted in the garden and all seem to be doing very well. I wondered if the garden would get enough light, considering that it is in between fairly high walls, but this has not been a problem. Wind was also a concern, but it too has not been a problem. The only real issue so far encountered has been furry white aphids, which are being dealt with by… you guessed it, picking them one at a time, squishing them, and wiping the leaves of the plants clean with water.

The first few pictures were taken in the first week of our work there – around about 6 December. The final 2 pictures were taken on January 22nd. This should provide some indication of how quickly things grow here at the height of the summer season.

A note on deviation from permaculture methods: it is preferable not to dig wherever and whenever possible. Ideally, one would simply add layers of organic material and compost to the ground and plant in that, thereby not disturbing the organisms in the original layer of soil. However, sometimes this is not possible if one wants a job done fairly quickly. In situations other than this one, we have gone with both methods – digging and no digging – and we have had good success with both methods. This is not to endorse digging, but rather to remind us that it has its place.

Besides, when we went for the ‘client interview’, the patch had already been dug and tilled, so we didn’t have much of a choice. Had it not been dug up, we would probably have layered cardboard over the ground in the desired shape of the beds, put aged-manure on top of the cardboard, and added a layer of good organic compost.

However, it seems that the area designated for the garden patch had scattered ‘debris’ from previous use for a vegetable patch; the presence of rocks and some litter would probably have forced a thorough digging-over anyway.

Seeing the results, one has to wonder just how much it matters – i.e. to dig or not to dig. By adding the layer of manure, and then the layer of compost, one gradually adds much more fertility to the soil over time than one takes away by digging. If one avoids digging, however, the micro-organisms present in the soil give plants an immediate advantage; these micro-organisms are damaged when the soil is dug up. So ideally, don’t dig; just add. Dig when necessary, but realise that the soil will initially be depleted of micro-organisms, which will return over time.

Finally, what is definitely missing from the final two pictures is a layer of mulch to seal in the moisture, preventing drying out from the direct sunlight. That’s the next step!