Looking Back, and Forward.

A short while ago, I posted about the books that I’ve read this year, Reading List, and I’ve written two posts about the direction that I’m taking to become more self reliant, here at the Sustainable Smallholding. Creating a Permanent Agriculture, and 2012 Plans, Experiments, and Direction, both look at where I’m heading.What I wanted to do was expand on the same theme, and add a bit more detail.

The catalyst for this post was the understanding of how much has changed this year. I’m moving away from no dig gardening, to digging, and double digging, once in a complete rotation. I am concentrating much more on ‘staple’ foods, and less on interesting, or unusual vegetables, and despite being passionate about trees, and Forest Gardening, I recently found myself wondering if perhaps I should have left a bit more room for growing grains.

The Influences

Whilst preparing this post, and yes, I do prepare this stuff, I did a little table of the books that have influenced me the most, and all of the different areas that have been influnced. The two books that have led to the biggest changes are ‘The Resilient Gardener‘ (Carol Deppe),and ‘How to Grow More Vegetables‘ (John Jeavons), but the book that has influnced the most areas is ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries‘ (FH King). What I’ve found is that reading it again, after a gap of four years, my own knowledge has increased, and that has allowed me to gain more from it the second time around. An example of that is growing wheat on a small scale, using the Bonfils method. Now that I understand the method, I recognised references to an almost identical method quoted in the book. The similarity would have been lost on me four years ago. The same with composting techniques. I may have completely overlooked the methods referred to, without a better understanding of beneficial micro organisms, Bokashi, and other anaerobic ways of ‘fermenting’ plant materials. Now, I’m looking at ways that I can do something similar here at the Sustainable Smallholding.


In many ways ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’ has been the final confirmation of a series of thoughts that had yet to solidify into a plan of action. Take digging as an example. It was becoming clear to me that I had too much compost, and that just mulching over Winter was not keeping the vegetable beds open enough for good plant growth. Jeavons and Deppe both dig, which should have been good enough for me, but I was still trying to keep to a no dig system, as a preference. A whole series of little nudges have moved me towards digging, and overwintering with plant cover. The first was re reading an article about humus production. The Luebke Method, is a way of making high quality compost. One of the key parts is the incorporation of clay to create a more stable humus. Two things struck me. One was the need to add soil to my compost heaps, and the other was the thought that incorporating the compost into the soil, rather than adding it as a layer/mulch, would encourage the formation of a more stable humus. For the permaculturalists amongst you, think in terms of edge. Adding compost as a mulch give a much smaller amount of ‘edge’ with the the soil, than can be achieved by mixing the two up. Another nudge has been the difference in performance of plants grown in beds that have been moved (dug) than those that haven’t.

I have been aware of the importance of mycorrhizal Fungi for some time, and have been led to believe that soil disturbance is a significant factor in reducing the levels of soil fungi. This has been contradicted by the Rodale Institute, which says that the impact of soil disturbance is minimal, and that the most significant factor in maintaining a high level of mycorrhizal fungi is maintaining all year round plant cover. So digging is less important than overwintering crops. I still have some work to do in identifying all of the permutations that I will need in order to keep a permanent plant cover, for all of the various crops that I will be growing.

The final decider was the level of productivity described in ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries‘. Here one reference was to a farmer working 2.5 acres which supported his family of twelve, a cow, a donkey, and two pigs. The people here were dealing with extremely high population densities a century before us, and the intensive farming methods that they developed are likely to be those that we will need ourselves. The third ethical principle of permaculture is to reduce consumption, and redistribute surplus. To me that includes reducing our individual consumption of Land, and the most effective way of doing that seems to be with intensive use of land on a small scale. It may not fit with modern living in industrialised society, and conflicts with the dogma of no dig, raised beds, and mulch. It has actually been quite liberating, as I can now resculpt each bed to the width that suits the crop, as opposed to making the crop fit a standard bed size. One example has been potatoes. My beds are 5 feet wide, which is too wide for spuds. Two rows in a single bed do not work, as I cannot weed down the center. Two five foot beds can now become three three foot beds, with paths, which suits better. If the center bed holds the earlies, they will come out before the outer beds fill in all of the space, increasing the amount of light available. Light is energy. Easy.

What to Grow

Probably the biggest change has been the focus on growing staples, able to be stored over winter. The start of this was ‘The Resilient Gardener‘. Not only did it highlight the need to grow energy dense food, but also taught me a lot about seed saving, plant breeding, and just thinking things through. Here in the UK, almost all corn is grown to eat green, or sweet, but growing it for grinding into meal, for cooking, is probably far more beneficial. The different types of corn, flour, dent, and flint, were unkown to me, as were the different uses of them. The same for drying squash. The five staples grown by Carol Deppe may have been six, if she was able to eat grains.

Growing Grains In a Polyculture

My own decision to grow grains came from a number of different sources. I was familiar with the Bonfils method of small scale wheat growing, as I had tinkered with it back in 2009, without really checking out all of the details. A more in depth reading of Jeavons, gave me yet another ‘Eureka’ moment. In ‘How to Grow More Vegetables‘, he says that about 60% of your growing space needs to be devoted to crops that produce a high yield of energy, and a high yield of compostable material, for a given area. Most of the crops listed were grains. Having just read ‘The Harmonious Wheatsmith‘ by Mark Moodie, and Graham Bell, it seemed logical to use that less labour intensive method of growing wheat, to replace the standard method. That led me to wonder what other crops could be included in a wheat/clover polyculture, and a series of experiments, which I would probably delayed if I had known that the method has not been proven in this country (UK). Luckily, there is a precedent for the combined grain/legume polycultures that I’m looking at. Again, it was ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries‘ that suggested the value of this type of experiment. In the book, King frequently describes the practise of growing a pattern of two rows of a grain, or maize, then a row of Soya beans, and repeated. Broad (Fava) beans are the legume that is best adapted to my climate, so seems to fit best into a grain polyculture. I’m also going to grow soaya beans. Mainly for their reported ability to kill the cause of scab in potatoes, which will follow the end of the grain part of my new rotation. Again this is a new crop, for which I need to obtain some soya innoculant, but one which fits in with my new variant of what is essentially an old technique.

Perennial Grains

Another development came after a conversation with my mate Alex. We were talking about Sepp Holzer, and his perennial rye, and I later did some research, and found perennial rye, and wheat, grown by plant breeder Tim Peters, which I subsequently bought.

Perennial wheat and Rye

Perennial Grain Seedlings

The picture above shows seedlings of perennial rye, and wheat, growing in a cold greenhouse. That below is a better view of the perennial rye.

perennial rye

perennial rye

The perennial rye adds another layer of usefulness to a grain growing polyculture. With annual grains grown in the Bonfils way, plants are spaced two feet (60 cm) apart, planted midsummer, and harvested late the following summer, taking up space for more than a year. Before harvesting, the next year’s seed is planted in the gaps between the widely spaced, older plants. By using a perennial grain, those gaps are available to other plants. Legumes, squashes, and potentially alternative grains,  are all possible additions to a the grain polyculture. Summer planted transplants would be ideal. Many would not ripen until after the grains were harvested, leading to an increase in sunlight. A great use of ‘succession’, another permaculture principle.

Until I’ve grown them out, I don’t know what the ideal spacing for these plants are, but it’s another interesting twist to play with.

In order to incorporate these new grain polyculture experiments into my normal vegetable growing, I’m having to extend the growing space. This is also likely to give me some problems to solve. The best way of using this new space is for grain growing, as it’s relatively low in fertility compared to the vegetable beds. Sadly, there are some perennial weeds to remove, which will be easier with an annual crop, as it can be repeated over a couple of years, until all of the root has gone. If I use the perennial grains, I will be unabe to remove stuff like Couch Grass, which is present, until the grains are replaced. Potatoes are a good ground clearer, but newly converted grass is prone to wireworm, which will damage the storing potential of tubers. Mustard is a good crop for clearing wireworm, but will not have enough time to do so, before the potatoes need to be planted. I can use an annual grain, but don’t have any areas with low fertility for growing the perennial grains. I’m almost tempted to remove the topsoil from some of the beds, mix in some sand, and use this for the perennial grains. Potentially, I can grow the perennial grains as annuals, saving seed, and replanting, but this will not give me the oportunity to compare the yields of the first year, with subsequent years.

All in all, it is an exciting year ahead, assuming that I can fit the extra work in without something else suffering. That remains to be seen.

Wishing you the best at this time of year


4 thoughts on “Looking Back, and Forward.

  1. annisveggies

    Like you say – plenty to think about. I agree about the need to focus on staples and will probably be reading Carol Deppe soon, but have never heard of the farmers of 40 centuries book. Will follow it all with interest.
    Best wishes

    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Anni
      Any news on your book? Farmers of Forty Centuries is one of th best books that I’ve read, but what you get from it is determined by what you already know. Otherwise, references to a technique, or practise, don’t connect. The people that FH King was writing about, had already reached a high population density, and developed their own way of maximising productivity from a small space, without loss of fertility. The had access to composting, green manures, cover crops, etc. stuff which we are only now taking on board. Next purchase for me is a copy with pictures, as the author constantly refers to his illustrations, which I couldn’t see.
      Wishing you well

  2. Louise

    Hi Deano
    Merry Chrstmas. I wanted to take this opportunity to say how much I enjoy reading your blog, especially the experiments which are all things I’d like to do but know that I’m not sytematic enough – I’m learning to work with nature – in this case my nature! Of course your climate is quite different, I live on a hillside in North Wales, but otherwise with a similar set up. I’ve been interested in reading reviews of Carol Deppe’s book, but am waiting for a review from somebody that suggests some different crops for the UK. Sweetcorn and french type beans don’t do well at all here. I find I get more beans for drying from runner beans that have got too big, plus of course the fresh green beans, than when I’ve tried to grow three times as many french type beans just for drying. I’m aiming now for broad beans, peas and runner beans for beans, but not sure what a good alternative to corn would be. I’m interested in how your experiments with grains work out.
    what you wrote about digging is interesting too. I really struggle with nettles, docks and creeping buttercups in the no dig beds. I’m thinking of fixing something up so we can use the chickens to clear the beds, andf perhaps I’ll do as you do and dig one bed a year.
    Keep up the good work

    1. Deano Post author

      Thank You Louise
      Having just eaten a Broad Bean Curry, I think that going back to a crop that has grown here for centuries makes a lot of sense. For sweetcorn, try a variety that takes less time to mature. Some of Carol Deppe’s suggestions take 3 – 4 weeks less to mature.
      Chickens will do a lot of the work for you, but the deep rooting stuff is our job. No dig is a good approach as long as it doesn’t become a straight-jacket. Whatever works for you is probably the right approach. I’ve always believed that too much digging reduces beneficial fungi, but it looks like the key to maintaining mycorrhizal fungi are overwintered plants.
      Wishing you well for Christmas, and thank you for reading what I write.


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