Creating a Sustainable Vegetable Grain Food Production System

Small scale grain growing

Rye and Spelt

Introduction

This is going to be a difficult design to write up, as it has evolved over time from a series of linked experiments into a quest to develop a way of producing all of the food needs for a person, from the smallest space possible, including all of the materials needed to maintain fertility. As such it doesn’t follow a conventional design process, but has grown organically. My intention is to describe the different stages that I went through, and the experiments.

Background

Throughout the design and implementation of the other parts of this project, I have continued to grow my own food, from my vegetable garden. Having read about all of the benefits of using perennials, and Forest Gardening, I expected to find a plethora of good permaculture designs for perennial food production systems, with lists of yields etc. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Nor could I find any designs that specifically set out to meet all of the food needs of the grower, or growers. This surprised me. You can find designs of people’s gardens, and allotments, but the basic question of ‘How am I going to feed myself?’ is not addressed. As noted in another design, my aim is to feed us. Not just the expensive bits because I haven’t got the space, not limiting myself with a dogmatic approach to growing, and not using a method that suits a particular lifestyle, or a leave alone approach, to fit in with attending festivals, or a busy social life. To me this is basic stuff, and I have to question why this hasn’t been done before. Are there no permaculturalists here in the United Kingdom, who have sat down and designed a system to feed themselves?

Without a permaculture pattern to work from I had to look further afield, and that research has led me to change the way that I grow things.

Establish Aim

Aim

The aim of this design is to create a system that will allow a person to grow all of their food, from the smallest space possible, whilst maintaining soil fertility with materials grown within that space .

The Reason Why

The underlying reasons for commencing this project are the ethical principles of permaculture. I have more than enough space to produce all of our food, and to maintain fertility without needing to condense it down. However not everybody does. We have almost four acres for two of us, which I’m sure is more than our share. Should we ever need to share that space with others, and I’m thinking of my large family here, we will need to be far more efficient with the space. Taking that further, the amount of good growing land per person, is likely to be considerably less than 2 acres, so a design that showed how to grow all of a person’s food on a much smaller space would be of benefit to lots of people. Finally, the less space that we consume to meet out needs, the more that can be left wild, for other creatures. The design therefore meets all three ethical principles. The use of less land to grow food is a reduction in consumption, will allow more people to be fed (people care), and leave more space for wild life (earth care).

Initial Analysis

I have been thinking this problem over for some time, and my conclusions were that to create a system that meets my aim, I needed to answer/solve the following problems.

  • What do I need to grow to meet my food needs?
  • What method(s) do I need to use?
  • How will I maintain soil fertility without bringing materials from outside of the system?
  • How much land will I need to do to use for the above?

My research project/experiment is designed to answer those questions.

Gather Information

Having failed to find the answers that I was looking for from within permaculture, I started a protracted period of research. I think that I read more than 60 books in a year, with most adding a small amount of useful information. The link that follows is a post that I wrote about that period. BOOKS. The post also describes what my aims were, and so is important to this design.

Some books were more influential than others. The ones that had the most influence on this project are.

  • The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe
  • Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden
  • How to Grow more Vegetables by John Jeavons
  • Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King
  • Growing Green by Jenny Hall and Iain Tollhurst
  • The Harmonious Wheatsmith by Mark Moodie and Graham Bell
  • The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

None of them had all of the answers that I was looking for, but each had a pattern that I could modify, and adapt, to create something that might meet my needs.

The Resilient Gardener

I wrote a review of this book which you can read by clicking on the link. Resilient Gardener. For me the key lesson/pattern that I took from this book was the need to grow staples. The review goes into more detail, but Carol lists five crops to grow for resilience. Duck (eggs), potatoes, corn, squash, and beans. (As a celiac she cannot eat grains). As well as meeting food needs, all of these can be stored over Winter with little work other than drying. This links in to the question ‘What do I need to grow?’

Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden

I read this book as it was the source of so much of the good bits in The Resilient Gardener.  I reviewed this book, and the review can be read by clicking on the Link. Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. There were a number of key lessons to be drawn from this book. The list of crops grown is smaller than The Resilient Gardener, but includes Sunflowers. There is as much emphasis on the preservation and storage of the crops, as there is on how to grow them. One thing that struck me was the much greater spacing between plants. Having thought about it this must be a way of growing crops in land with a lower fertility and rainfall. I’ll explain. Corn is a very heavy feeder. If you were to plant corn at 12 inch spacings, each plant would only have the equivalent of a column 1 sq foot across, down to the limits of it’s roots, to obtain food and water from. At a 24 inch spacing, the roots have 4 sq feet and downwards to forage in, which is four times as much. Theoretically those plants could be grown in a soil with 1/4 of the nutrients and rainfall of the first group. This might have an influence on the levels of fertility needed for this project.

How to Grow More Vegetables

I first read/looked at this book directly after my Permaculture Design Course, more than four years ago, when it was loaned to me by a friend. Filled with ‘No-Dig Zealotry’ I didn’t like the idea of double digging, and was put off by the extensive tables. I was persuaded to look at it again, as Carol Deppe claimed to use the tables in it frequently.

This book is key to the design/experiment as it is the only system that I have found that is willing to state how much land it takes to grow your own food, and grows it’s own composting materials within that space. The way that this is done is to divide the crops into three groups. The first is crops that provide high calories and high biomass. Broad (Fava) beans are an example of this group. The biomass from this group provides the bulk of the composting materials. The second group is high calorie crops. These provide more calories for a given space, but less compost materials. Potatoes are an example of this group. The third group is all of the rest. These are to provide variety, flavour, vitamins etc.

The key to the system for my purposes is the ratio of crops. In order to maintain fertility, 60% of the space needs to be devoted to the first group, 30% to the second, and 10% to the third. It is these ratios that help to make the system work,

Farmers of Forty Centuries

This book is referenced by lots of different sources, including Jeavons. The Biointensive system of Jeavons, is based on a French Intensive system, that is almost certainly drawn from the Asian systems described in this book. There is a lot of information in this book, but it’s contributions to this project are:

  • The realisation that it is possible to maintain fertility for thousands of years.
  • That like the Hidatsa Indians in Buffalo Bird Woman’s garden, these people, whose survival depended on what they grew, dug. They had access to all of the techniques that we have, but they dug, extensively. In fact they shaped the fields for each crop, often growing four crops in the same space each year.
  • That to produce food intensively requires intelligence, and hard graft.

I drew up a table of the books that I had read, and the areas that each had influenced, and this was the one that had contributed to the most subjects.

The One Straw Revolution/Harmonious Wheatsmith

I’ve grouped these two books together as they both tackle the same subject in similar ways. Both describe methods of growing grain permanently in the same space. In the case of Fukuoka, this is over a prolonged period of time suggesting that his method ‘at least’ maintained soil fertility. Bonfils did something similar, but due to differences in climate was only able to obtain one grain crop per year. I cannot say how many years this experiment was repeated.

With grain being such an important part of our diet, and two systems describing how to grow it without external inputs, and yet maintain fertility, this was always likely to contribute to the design.

Growing Green

I found a lot of useful information in this book, some of which contributed to this design.

  • Most nutrients are lost through leaching overwinter, and that this could be prevented by keeping plants permanently in fields/beds.
  • That I was adding far too much compost to my crops.
  • Use of Chicory to penetrate hard pans.
  • Good tables for green manure/intercropping.
  • The use of chipped branch wood for increasing fertility, as it contains an ideal ratio of nutrients and favours fungi over bacteria.

Other Sources

The SoilFoodWeb

I’ve used this as ‘catch all’ title for information on soil microbes. As a soil/compost Geek I have a decent understanding of how the soilfoodweb functions. This information would be vital for this design.

Rodale Institute

Whilst researching the fertility maintenance I came across these articles.

The first is the most recent, and although it suggests that tilling (digging/ploughing/rotavating) should be minimised, it is only one of a number of steps to take to improve mycorrhizal fungi.

FUNGI 1

The second article is earlier. There is slightly more emphasis on digging.

FUNGI2

The report suggests that the most important way to maintain a healthy population of mycorrhizal fungi is to keep a continuous plant cover, and that this is more important than whether you dig or not.

The importance of this was to make me less uncomfortable about digging as part of my system, and to investigate ways of keeping plant roots in the soil as permanently as I could manage.

Observations

I have been gardening for some time, and have noted that even when adding masses of compost to my vegetable beds at the end of the growing year, every four to six years the beds need to be loosened, as yields diminish. I normally do this to coincide with the potato section of a rotation, as I dig the beds quite deeply in order to avoid leaving tubers in the ground.

The best tilth that I have produced was after a green manure crop of buckwheat and crimson clover. The buckwheat was winter killed, and the crimson clover clung on after being attcked by voles, slugs, pigeons and rabbits, and even managed to flower the following Spring. The soil was excellent. It may not be possible to repeat for all crops, as many are harvested too late to allow a sowing of these crops, but others may be possible.

Analyse

If you read these books one after another, in a short space of time, you might, like me, start to see similarities and overlap. If you filter out some of the detail, and concentrate on the pattern of each system, you might also see a series of possibilities. I’ve listed the analysis according the questions that I identified earlier in the design. There is a lot of overlap here, so the breakdown is a little arbitrary, and the information could have been organised on a number of ways.

What to Grow?

The Resilient Gardener lists Corn, Beans, Squash, and Potatoes, Buffalo Bird Woman adds Sunflowers. These all have an American slant, and ignore our staples of Wheat (and other grains), roots, and beans (Broad/Fava). All of these staples are easy to preserve, and importantly, are already acceptable to most people.

In our (UK) climate, Corn (for flour), and Winter Squash for storage, are limited by the number of frost free days that we have. In my area we can only reliably work on 90 days frost free, although it is sometimes longer. Identifying varieties that do well under our conditions, and need less time to reach maturity, will be important. Luckily the Resilient Gardener lists many, and my own experience with squashes will help.

I described three groups of plants in the earlier paragraph about Jeavons. Looking at the list of plants that I have so far, and comparing them with those groups, it’s clear that many of the plants here fall into the high calories/high biomass group, or at least could do.

The high calorie high biomass plants that Jeavons lists are:

  • Grains. Wheat, cereal rye,oats, barley, corn etc.
  • Broad (Fava) beans grown for dried beans and biomass.
  • Sunflowers.
  • Hazels, and grapes (for raisins)

Potatoes are the only representative in the high calorie group, so I will need to select more plants to give me a wider range of foods.

Squash and most types of bean fall into the third ‘other’ category. One that I’m keen to add is Soybean. My interest initially was reading that growing soy before a crop of potatoes reduces the incidence of scab in the crop. We suffer from potato scab, so it makes sense to give the soybeans a try. I also noted that in Farmers of 4K they used soy as an intercrop as it is a Nitrogen fixer, and that bees can obtain nectar and pollen from the plant.

What Method Do I use?

The Bio Intensive system, of 60/30/10 seems like a good starting point for a ratio of plants, and one that links with the fertility paragraph below.

Jeavons may grow his grains conventionally, but Fukuoka and Bonfils grew theirs with an understory of clover, and without digging. Therefore it may be possible to use a Fukuoka/Bonfils type of grain growing system, to meet a high proportion of our calorie needs, maintain soil fertility where they are grown, and provide composting materials to increase fertility in other parts of a system. (In Farmers of Forty Centuries the Chinese grew a green manure crop on an acre, left the roots in situ to feed the next crop, and composted the above ground portion to feed 2-3 acres).

By using the same ratio 60/30/10 as Jeavons as a start point, it should allow me to observe and interact with the results, and adjust the plants accordingly. In effect this would be taking the pattern of Jeavons, and combining it with the pattern of Bonfils, to create a hybrid system.

How do I maintain soil fertility?

I intend to do slightly more explaining than I normally would in this section, for anybody who doesn’t already understand what I’m writing about. (There is quite a lot of rubbish written about soil fertility, and I hope that I’m not adding to that here).

Soil Microbes

The key to soil fertility are the soil microbes. They decompose organic matter, and their bodies act as ‘tin cans’ of food for plants, which cannot feed on the organic materials themselves. Nor can plants open the ‘cans’ themselves, that is the job of the ‘microvores’ (microscopic carnivores). The primary decomposers are bacteria and fungi. These are eaten by predators, principally protozoa and nematodes. The bacteria and fungi have a higher Nitrogen ratio than the microvores need, and so they excrete the surplus. This is in a form favoured by plants, which can use it as food. The surplus is also used by other decomposers, which helps to prevent these soluble nutrients from being lost. Plants actively ‘farm’ these primary decomposers by secreting a significant proportion of their carbohydrate production from their roots, with some from the leaves as well. These simple carbohydrates help provide the energy for the decomposers, who are then eaten by the microvores, releasing food for plants right in the root zone (rhizosphere).

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Of particular importance are mycorrhizal fungi. these form an association with plant roots, obtaining sugars  from the plant, and actively delivering water and minerals to the plant. Note that the same network of fungi can be linked to many plants, of different species, transporting surpluses from one to another. It is the minerals that I am most concerned with, as there is bound to be some loss of minerals with any system, and the ability for those to be replaced by fungi, from the subsoil. One of the key minerals is phosphorous. This is often deficient in agricultural soils, yet my reading suggests that it is present in abundance in most  subsoils, but not available to plants. Mycorrhizal fungi dissolve mineral phosphorous using enzymes, and feed these to their host plants. One of the ways to help the establishment of these fungi is to keep phosphorous levels low, so that the plants ‘need’ the fungi.

My research listed above notes that one of the key ways to maintain good levels of mycorrhizal fungi is to keep plant roots in the soil at all times, or to plant into space recently vacated as quickly as possible. This will need to be incorporated into my system.

Of the clovers, red and Crimson were noted to have the strongest fungal association, so would be used as first choice where possible.

Organic Material

To feed the soil microbes I need to add organic matter to the soil. This can be in the form of raw materials, or compost. There are some areas that are sometimes overlooked when considering organic matter.

The first is that the below ground growth is normally about equal to the above ground growth. So by leaving roots to decompose in place, half of the organic material made by the plant is returned to the soil, and will decompose to keep open channels for air and water. The modern trend to use shorter varieties of plant means that there is a significant loss of potential organic materials, doubled when you consider the below ground component. So I will need to use taller varieties of plants, especially the high biomass plants like grains and Broad beans. Jeavons describes the root mass produced by a single cereal rye plant. ‘It has been estimated that 1 cereal rye plant in good soil grows 3 miles of hairs a day, 387 miles of roots in a season, and 6,603 miles of root hairs each season’. Broad beans are likely to play a large role in soil fertility. Not only do they contribute to the high biomass, but they also fix Nitrogen. Identifying tall varieties will be important.

Another fact is that when you cut, trim, or defoliate a plant, it sheds roots in order to balance the above and below ground growth. So mowing a green manure crop gives a double hit of organic matter, on the surface and below ground. The loss of root mass is described in this article DEFOLIATION. When a Nitrogen fixer is defoliated there is also a loss of Nitrogen to the soil, which is then available for other plants to use. This is described in this abstact NITROGEN.

Whilst a commercial farm may need to calculate what minerals are being lost through removing a crop from a field, that is less important in a system like mine. If you take a grain crop like wheat, especially a tall variety, most of the biomass is made of Carbon dioxide, water and Nitrogen, all of which the plant has obtained for free. Even the grain is composed predominently of these. So with the straw being returned to the soil, there is a small loss of minerals with the grain, which can be further reduced by returning humanure into the system, or catching the nutrients in another form. This will also need to be taken into account in this design. Harvesting reeds from a wetland system, or using humanure in a wormery, and then returning the vermicompost to the soil are both possibilities.

With a healthy population of mycorrhizal fungi mining the subsoil for minerals, the need for additional inputs should be minimal. One potential source would be wood ash from our fire. The majority of minerals present in the wood remain in the ash, and so it should be possible to use this to replace any mineral losses. This process is described in the scientific paper viewable from this link WOOD ASH. This is an example of linking the outputs of one system, with the inputs of another.

My own fertility needs will be lower than most as I garden on a clay soil. Clay naturally has high levels of minerals, and a high Cation Exchange Capacity, making it easy for plants to access them. The clay also combines with organic matter to form a really stable clay/humus compound.

How much land will it take to grow my own food?

It is impossible to accurately predict the answer to this question, with so many variables. I suspect that it will only be able to answer this question once I have developed my own system.

Design

What Do I Grow?

Probably the easiest part of the design to do. By combining the results of the analysis above, with what we already grow and eat, I came up with a list of the major components of my prospective system. These are listed in the table below.

Plant Table

Table of Plants selected

I haven’t included the minor plants/salads/herbs, as these are pretty simple to slot in anywhere there is space. Please note that I haven’t tried to create a perfect diet. Jeavons includes tables that give yields, and calories for individual crops, and I will be using these to help me to grow all of the calories that I need. I have never ‘designed’ my diet, and eat pretty well what I like, or have available. I see no reason to change that.

How to Grow them and Maintain Soil Fertility?

As I worked through the detail of the design(s), it became clear that the two earlier questions were linked, and should be treated as one.

At the basic level, the 60/30/10 Bio intensive ratio of plant groups was aimed at producing enough biomass to maintain soil fertility. The high biomass crops were also food producers, which fits neatly with the permaculture principle of every element should perform more than one function. However in the bio intensive system the grains are grown without a clover intercrop, which may work out as less efficient. So I decided that I would try to grow grains for the system using the Bonfils method, as described in ‘The Harmonious Wheatsmith’. This became the first of my experiments, which I have called Bonfils Plus below. This gave me a number of problems to solve:

Organic Matter/Compost

In the biointensive system, the biomass is taken away and composted, along with soil from the first ‘spit’ from double digging of a bed. This compost is used across the whole system. This contrasts with the Bonfils method, where the straw is left in place to feed the next crop. In Farmers of 4K the Chinese would grow a green manure crop on 1 acre, then harvest the top growth for composting. The roots left behind would feed the original space, and the composted material used to feed another two acres. Whilst modern varieties of wheat have been developed to ‘respond’ to the addition of Nitrogen fertilisers, older varieties were capable of yielding on a much lower levels of fertility. There could be a potential problem with leaving all of the organic matter in place, as the increased fertility (especially Nitrogen) might be too great for the older wheat varieties. Options therefore include:

  • Keep a dedicated area for the production of grains, removing the straw for composting, or to add directly to the remainder of the system.
  • Return the straw to the grain beds, and rotate the beds to ‘cash in’ some of the fertility by growing high demand crops like corn or potatoes. The beds would eventually return to grains to build fertility again.
  • Return a small proportion of the straw to the grain beds, and use the remainder for fertility building in the rest of the system.

Without any proven figures to work from, I decided to carry out a series of experiments.

Experiment One. Bonfils Plus

Having decided on a method for growing the grain component of my system, I also felt that there was scope to ‘push’ the productivity of this method in terms of yield, and biomass produced. My first Polyculture Post describes some of the thinking behind that, a bit about the Bonfils method, and links to where you can find out more about it. Reading all of the posts below will explain the what the experiment is all about, and how it is progressing.

Rye, Broad Bean, White Clover, and Chicory polyculture

Rye, Broad Bean, White Clover, and Chicory polyculture

These are the series of posts that discuss the progress of this experiment.

Polyculture Update June 2011

Polyculture Experiment August 2011

Polyculture Update September 2011

Polyculture Pictures October 2011

Polyculture Update May 2012

Polyculture Update July 2012

It is currently mid July 2012, and the first of the grains are almost ready to harvest. The first batch of Spelt for this year has sprouted, and will be planted out shortly. All of that sounds wonderful, but part of the way through the experiment I discovered that nobody in this country has made the Bonfils method work. If I had known that at the outset, I would have kept the experiment to just seeing if I could make it successful. Plain Bonfils and not Bonfils Plus.

Experiment Two. Creating a tall, Winter Hardy Broad Bean

I identified Broad Beans as being one of the key elements to this design/experiment early on. As well as providing a significant amount of biomass, they fix Nitrogen, provide bee forage, and yield a high protein food, that can be stored without much preparation. I wanted to use the beans as an addition to the grain growing beds, working on the principle that as a Nitrogen fixer they were unlikely to significantly reduce the grain yield. One problem to overcome was height. The annual Rye and Spelt were going to be 5 feet + tall, so would shade out a short bean. Autumn planting would be more beneficial, as it would exploit the extra light created when the previous year’s grain crop was harvested, and allow the beans to grow alongside the new grains. My initial research didn’t find a tall enough, Winter Hardy Bean. The tallest Spring Variety that I located was Bunyard’s Exhibition, which grows to almost 1.5 meters. When I looked at a variety of suppliers, most described it as a Spring planted Bean, but some listed it as an Autumn sown variety. My conclusion was that it was borderline hardy, probably not tough enough for the majority of plants to survive here on the colder east coast. So I thought that I would create my own.

Bean Echinacea and chicory polyculture in raised bed

Bean Echinacea and chicory polyculture in raised bed

I had the option of growing a hardy variety, and selecting the tallest specimens, but felt that this would be too slow. So I went with a ‘tough love’ approach, and chose to sow an abundance of Bunyard’s Exhibition. I would then save seed from any that survived the Winter, and sow again. I hoped to quickly increase the proportion of survivors, until I had my own strain of tall, Winter hardy bean.

Experiment Three. Perennial Bonfils

Polyculture of perennial rye

Polyculture of perennial rye

In October of last year (2011), I was lucky enough to obtain some perennial cereal rye seeds. These were bred by Tim Peters of Oregon, and came from the USA. Their arrival created another avenue to explore, the possibility of using perennial grains instead of, or as well as, annual grains. At the time I had no references to tell me about spacings, yields, etc. so decided to set up a further experiment. What little I could find suggested that the life of the plants would be up to six years in soils of low fertility, and four years in more fertile soils. My clay soil is fertile, so I could only bank on four years. This would fit in well with my anticipated rotation of four years grains/fertility building, followed by two years of vegetables.

Without references, I decided to stick to the standard Bonfils spacing of 60 cm (24 ins). Without the need to plant the next years grain crop in the gaps as would happen with the standard method, there would be space to grow other crops. My preference was to utilise more of the high biomass group, either alternative grains (Amaranth, Quinoa, Millett), beans, or corn. A Nitrogen fixing ground cover is also possible, and will be trialled. The post below describes my thoughts at the time.

Creating a Permanent Agriculture

This became my third experiment, and is an example of the permaculture principle creatively use and respond to change.

Experiment Four. Soybeans and Innoculum

Soybeans

Soybean experiment

I was interested in growing soybeans as part of my system, but could find little evidence of it being grown successfully here in the UK. My research did uncover the possibility that growing soy before potatoes would reduce scab. It also showed that our soils do not have the right species of Nitrogen fixing bacteria to associate with sobeans. Fortunately I was able to obtain some innoculant from America, but the innoculant was only viable for a year. Whilst that may just be a sales ploy, I also needed a way to produce my own, at least until all of the beds had grown soybeans, after which the bacteria would be present in the soils. I sprouted soybeans, before adding innoculant and growing them in modules. The modules allow me to extend the growing season, and to check whether the innoculant has been effective. Any beans that didn’t show root nodulation were given another sprinkling of innoculant. These plants are now growing in the beds which are due to grow potatoes next year.

To produce the innoculant I decided to try and adapt a technique for producing mycorrhizal fungi. The system is described in this link Mycorrhizal Fungi . For my system, I wanted to increase nodulation as much as possible to maximise the amount of bacteria in the growing media. To do this I planted three innoculated soy plants into two large containers containing a tomato plant. By leaving the plants unfed, I would reduce the fertility in the container, which I hoped would favour the Nitrogen fixing bacteria, increasing their number. There was no particular reason for choosing tomatoes, I just happenned to have some that needed to go into pots at the time.

After harvest, the containers would be stored dry (ish), and the compost used to grow the next generation of soy plants, including another batch of containerised plants. By using modules again, I would be able to monitor how successful the process will be, and modify the process. This is an example of the principle apply self-regulation and accept feedback.

Intercropping/Green Manures

The use of Green manures and intercropping will be key to maintaining fertility, including a healthy population of mycorrhizal fungi. The table of crops above shows the likely intercrops/green manures, but there will still problems to solve. For now the solutions can wait, as until I have assessed how successful the fertility building element is, I cannot be sure how many years of vegetables will be possible following the grains. The link below is to a post where I discuss some of the possibilities

Green Manures and Intercropping

Leaving this to be decided later is an example of the permaculture design method design by increments. The use of green manures and intercrops is an example of the principle use and value renewable resources and services.

One of the areas that I am keen to test is the clover undercrop for the grains. The most sensible choice would be Wild White Clover, which is low growing, and good bee forage. However, the best choice for Nitrogen fixing, and fungal association would be Red Clover. The red clover is not so good for honeybees as the tubes are too long for them to access the nectar. That changes if the plants are cut back hard, as the regrowth flowers are slightly smaller. As the clover has to be weakened prior to planting the next grain crop, this gives me the opportunity to cut the clover, providing better bee forage, and gaining a considerable boost of Nitrogen and organic matter. A good example of every element should perform more than one function.

Fukuoka used flooding to weaken clover before planting into it. I would like to use chickens to graze it. This adds another function to the system, and means that the chickens will be working for me. By harvesting their manure and returning it to the system, I can use them to turn plants into fertiliser, and obtain a yield of eggs. I have read that chickens are capable of destroying grain plants, even when well established. To check this, I have planted surplus perennial rye seedlings in the Chicken Scavenging area, to see how it copes with the attentions of the chooks. This is an example of the permaculture principle Observe and Interact and is an experiment within an experiment. The resilience of the rye will help me to design the disturbance that I need to create in order to help establish crops planted directly into the ground cover layer. I suspect that grains with an understory will be harder to dig up and destroy than those without one.

Implement/Maintain

Implementation of all of the experiments began in Summer of 2011, with the progress recorded on my blog. Rather than repeat all of that information, you can read it by clicking on the ‘Experiments Category’. This is an example of catch and store energy. (In this case the work that I have already done on this blog). If you read the posts listed earlier you will have already seen most of this.

The experiments will continue, utilising extra space, in order to test my ideas, and see if the tweaks to the biointensive system are an improvement.

Evaluate/Tweak

Bonfils Plus

The annual rye went to seed really early, suggesting that it isn’t a true Winter hardy variety. The decision to sow a later batch in August worked really well. This would allow a sowing after harvesting the previous grain crop, which in turn would allow the use of an intercrop. The use of modules/soil blocks (see below) would allow that intercrop to be harvested as late as September, increasing the range of plants to choose from.

The chicory understory was sown too thick, and I didn’t thin it out adequately. It doesn’t appear to have affected the grain yield, but is now flowering, and will make harvesting of the grain crop more difficult. I observed pigeons really hammering the chicory which suggested that it has a potential value as a chicken food source. It is also useful as an anti worm plant. This links to my need to provide chicken food. It may be possible to run the chickens over the grain areas, once the grains are tall/robust enough not to be destroyed, in order to eat the chicory and clover understory. This needs to be tested to prove/disprove my thoughts. It may be possible to do this in a space without other autumn sown plants, and just prior to the planting of Summer crops like corn, squash. To make best use of this, the chicken area needs to be adjacent to the grain production, and the area needs to be easily divisible. It may be that the whole area would need to be divided into blocks, and rotated that way, rather than a continuous rotation? This is an example of the principle observe and interact, and the design method design by analysis (linking outputs and inputs). (Note that I have been feeding chicory to my chickens since then, and they love it.)

Spelt Bonfils

Spelt. May 2012, grown using the Bonfils method

Spelt Bonfils

Spelt July 2012

Heavy wind and rain has caused the rye plants to lodge (fall over/lean).

Bonfils rye

Bonfils rye lodged

This may be a result of the soil being too fertile, as alluded to earlier in the design process. I hope to avoid this later in the experiment by using the grains at the end of a period of growing vegetables, leading to a draw down of nutrients. In the mean time, the lodging means that I am unable to plant next year’s grain, until this years has been harvested. I am therefore using modules to grow the Spelt. This has highlighted a possibility created by the type of rye that I am growing. As mentioned above, the Rye needs to be sown later, and August worked well last year. The spelt has to be sown in Late June/early July. The first crop of Rye is almost ready for harvesting now (mid July 2012. If the spelt is sown in modules at the right time, it can be planted out into the beds from which the rye is harvested in late July. The spelt should be ready for harvesting in mid August, which is about the time that the rye needs to be sown. This gives a sensible rye-spelt-rye-spelt planting scheme.

My first sowing of rye had an interplant of Bladder Senna. This would work with a permanent grain area, but would interfere with a more conventional rotation. I intend to replant it outside of the vegetable growing area, possibly in with the chickens.

Broad Beans

Bean Breeding

Bean Breeding Experiment

The broad beans were sown a little early, and were damaged by high winds during Autumn 2011. They were then hit by temperatures of -18 centigrade, and have been ‘slugged’ during the wettest Summer that I can remember. Less than 10% have survived, but these really are the toughest of the tough. Provided that they can resist the onslaught of chocolate spot, I should have enough to replant. I am really excited to see how these perform, and whether their survival was random, or the result of a slight genetic disposition to cold hardiness.

I cannot guarantee the purity of any seed, as we have a lot of Field Beans growing locally, and there may have been an element of cross pollination.

Perennial Bonfils

The seeds arrived late in the year, and I was hesitant to plant them out into a hostile, slug infested environment. In the end I removed the straw mulch from the paths, to reduce slug numbers, which worked. The late planting meant that the growth of the plants was held back, and some started to produce flowering stalks early, with very few stalks (tillers). I had no idea whether I could cut the plants back to delay flowering, and increase tillering, so left them alone. The early heads do not appear to have produced any grains, but the plants have thickened up, produced more tillers, and seem to be producing grain. That’s a relief as I may not be able to get more seed.

Vegetable Grain Polyculture

Vegetable Grain Polyculture

perennial rye Bonfils

Polyculture with perennial rye

I would like to see if the plants can be propagated by division. This would be a really good way of increasing numbers, and make it easy to spread these plants around.

I have planted some of the Perennial Rye into the Chicken Scavenging are, and am curious to see how they will perform when the grass grows around them. It may be that they are suitable to use in a pasture cropping system.

After this experiment commenced, I read Martin Crawford’s ‘Perennial Vegetable’ book. In it he quotes a 12 inch (30 cm) spacing for the perennial grains. This is half of the Bonfils spacing, and would allow the planting of four times as many grain plants. Such a tight planting would not allow an intercrop, but would still enable me to use a clover groundcover. I’m not sure whether to try and divide some of the grain plants, and create a more densely planted bed, and compare the yields. As some plants would be better established it may be difficult to get a true comparison.

Perennial rye bonfils

perennial Bonfils polyculture

This is another experiment which excites me. If these plants are as almost productive as their annual counterparts, it will make a significant contribution to the overall make up of my food production system.

Soybeans and Innoculum

  1. soybean experiment

    Soybean experiment

It is too early to evaluate this experiment, but the plants are doing well.

One potential problem with the innoculum pots is blight. Growing the beans with tomatoes means that if the tomatoes succumb to blight, I may then be adding blight spores to ground that will grow potatoes the following year. I will use another plant in future, from a family other than solanacae, or keep the planting restricted to soy.

Growing Soybean innoculant

Growing Soybean innoculant

Intercropping and Green Manures

Despite writing above that this element will have to wait, I have continued to use different combinations with my vegetables. My aim is just to see which grow well in my conditions, and to leave the specific combinations until I have a better idea of how the system will perform. I am particularly interested in seeing whether or not it is possible to grow onions/leeks in a bed of white clover. Some sources suggest that it is possible, but commercial growers say that there is too much competition from the clover. I feel another experiment coming on.

Overall Evaluation Summary

There is a lot of experimentation going on here, and I have not yet ‘finished’ with this project. Each new discovery leads to a cascade of new processes. It has deepened my knowledge, which is a useful yield in it’s own right.

I am excited by this project. It has the potential to be really important, but more importantly it is keeping my mind stimulated as well as keeping my body active. If it had started as a single project from the outset, some of the planting schemes would have been more simple. The revelation that nobody had been able to harvest grain from a Bonfils system in this country, despite being promoted as an alternative to conventional grain production, would have had a similar affect.

Whether this series of experiments will develop into a full food production system, or not, the research value is likely to be great. Growing grains with an undercrop on a small scale, the growing of perennial grains, the growing of soybeans and the  production of innoculant, a hardy strain of tall broad bean, and the integration of chickens into the system, will all be useful areas of research for other permaculturalists. I hope that it will lead to a pulse of experimentation from other growers, and that we can collaborate in this research.

Second Evaluation September 2012

I harvested rye and spelt prior to attending the Permaculture Association Convergence in late August. The rye was ready, but the spelt was harvested early as it was being rapidly eaten by rodents and birds. This has resulted in a much lower germination rate for the current year’s plantings.

I blogged about the harvest in a post called Polyculture Update and Small Scale Grain Harvested.

The perennial rye and wheat have been underwhelming, and I am going to take them out of the system, and concentrate on the annuals.

I have been given some old longstraw wheat to trial (Squareheads master), which is currently sitting in modules, waiting to for me to get their beds ready.

I have started to plant at a 12 inch/30 cm spacing, as part of a comparison of the Bonfils method against SCI wheat growing. A full trial design is underway, and I hope to have it published by November 2012.

Third Evaluation November 2012.

The trial design mentioned in the last paragraph has been finished and is called Sustainable Grains. It will be August 2013 before the results of this year’s plantings can be evaluated.

The soy beans grown in pots produced beans which I am drying for seed. The pots themselves are in a shed, waiting to see if the compost in it will successfully innoculate next year’s soy.

Germination of my broad beans has been 99%. Sadly this Autumn’s plantings have attracted the attention of rats, and I have lost about a quarter of them. Iam germinating more, and will grow them in modules in the hope that the larger plants might survive. The rats are only after the seed leaves, but they damage the whole plant getting at them.

4 thoughts on “Creating a Sustainable Vegetable Grain Food Production System

  1. Dave B

    Fantastic work. I am looking at doing some bonfills stuff, mostly with wheat, so this is very interesting. One thing I noticed is you dont seem to have mentioned jerusalem artichokes (in my brief read) , one of the finest green manures/food/ fodder crops around.

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Dave
      Thanks for the comment. Good Luck with the Bonfils stuff. it’s fascinating to do.
      We don’t eat Jeruslaem Artichokes, so I don’t use them in the garden any more. Agree with your thoughts though.
      Deano

      Reply
  2. annisveggies

    Hi Deano

    This is really fascinating stuff. I will come back and read it properly another day as tis late now and I have just looked at the intro / background.

    I am very nearly obsessed with how to feed oneself in practical terms. I know I can’t do that in my small garden, but I am trying to consider how to include different food groups and nutritional needs. My musings are not in any way as systematic as yours, but they are continuously rumbling around in my head.

    Ten years or so ago I trained in nutritional therapy and it is my nutritional knowledge that is saying all the time that we cannot rely on just growing the types of foods normally grown in back gardens and allotments. We need proteins, fats / oils and also need bulk sources of sufficient carbohydrate. Most fruits and veggies (whether traditional annuals or unusual perennials) are needed in the diet for minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients and fibre. All absolutely essential but far from the whole story. So my musings are taking me towards grains (carbohydrates and some proteins), mushrooms (lots of protein and many interesting medicinally active compounds), seeds (for fats / essential fatty acids) and fish. Although some of these are not practical for me to investigate at present I am trying to ascertain in general terms the relative proportions of growing space required for crops for particular functions in order to raise them in roughly the proportions required in the diet.

    Keep up the good work!

    Anni

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Anni
      I’m still at the nuts and bolts stage. Will it work? What are the yields?etc. I intend to start at with loooking at calories first, will it provide enough energy, and then dig deeper into it’s overall nutritional value. It would be really useful to have people who know a bit about that contributing in some way.
      I’m hoping to enlist a few more experimenters at the Convergence next weekend, which would speed things up a bit.
      The tables in jeavons’ book are a good start point for yields, as they are based on regular sized beds (100 sq ft). Whilst the yields quoted there may be higher than we can achieve here, they give a start point to work from.
      Enjoy the rest of the post when you read it
      Deano

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *