Tag Archives: seeds

UK Permaculture Convergence 2014

I will be attending the UK Permaculture Convergence 2014, where I will be giving a talk about my work on grain polycultures. The Permaculture Association organises a convergence every two years. The 2012 convergence was the first that I attended, and I spoke about grain growing there too. I have found the two year gap between convergences is really interesting, as it highlights how much has changed in the two year period, a fact that might not have been so marked with an annual event. Those changes will be reflected in the content of my talk.

My 2014 Convergence Workshop

In 2012 my workshop reflected where I was at the time with my Small Scale Grain Growing. Things have changed markedly since then. I have successfully added soybeans and edible lupins to the crops grown, and this year I am growing rice, teff, proso millet, foxtail millet, grain sorghum, grain amaranth, and lentils to see how they perform. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference is by the work that I was doing today. Having harvested my wheat, spelt, and rye last week, I was preparing one of those beds for sowing the next crop combination. In this case a second flint corn, to be intercropped with winter wheat, sweet clover, and persian clover. In October the corn will be replaced by broad (fava) beans, and it has been planted at a spacing that will suit the beans. I am looking to use this type of intercropping and follow on cropping to maximise the amount of root exudates produced by the plants, along with the biomass, in order to build soil fertility at the same time as providing food. The adjacent bed is growing grain sorghum, intercropped with grain amaranth, and some white clover and red orach volunteers. I am trying a cowpea interplanting with this combination, to be sown tomorrow, after germinating indoors since Sunday.

To get to these beds I had to walk past a bed with a lentil, soybean, and teff polyculture planting at one end of a bed that included two types of oats, a barley, and a second lentil variety at the other. All very different from the wheat/clover/bean combinations of two years ago.

Workshop Details

My workshop is officially called ‘Designing Grain Polycultures for Food, Fertility, and Fun’ and for the promotional ‘blurb’ I’ve described it as:

‘How complex mixtures of grains,  pseudograins,  and legumes can be grown to feed us and our soils. The talk will include details of the full range of crops that I am growing, including uncommon grains, and legumes, how they effect the fertility of the soil, and how they can be used in multi-species mixtures to meet specific needs.’
What I hope to do is weave together strands of food production, soil fertility, and good design, as well as having a giggle at the same time.

Convergence Highlights

Whilst I’d love my workshop to be the highlight of everybody’s UK Permaculture Convergence 2014, the reality is that there are a lot of good things going on over the course of the weekend. What I enjoyed most about the 2012 convergence was the opportunity to meet in person many of the people that I had been communicating with digitally for the previous year. For Diploma apprentices there is an annual Diploma Gathering, held November/Deacember each year, and there are now more regional gatherings being organised, but this is the ‘biggie’, and a real opportunity to start embedding yourself deeper into the wider network. I am fortunate to enough to be on the panel for Jan Martin’s Diploma Accreditation, which will be held at the convergence. For anybody who wants a chance to find out more the diploma, this is a great chance to listen to somebody explain what it was like for them. You can find out more about Jan’s Diploma on her blog, ‘The Snail of Happiness‘.

Good food, good company, bar, workshops, Diploma presentation, Ceilidh, time and space to chat. What isn’t there to like about a weekend away with like-minded people?

International Permaculture Convergence UK 2015

The UK is hosting the International Permaculture Convergence in 2015, and we will be hosting hundreds of permaculturalists from around the world. The UK Permaculture Conference 2014 is being held at Gilwell Park, which is the same venue as has been chosen for IPC UK 2015. Not only does this give the IPC planners a chance to test out the venue, but it also gives us a chance to get a feel for what it will be like next year. Funds raised from the 2014 Convergence will help pay for the IPC in 2015, so the more people who attend, the easier it will be to fund the IPC, and the more cash will be left over to help funf IPC 2017, which will be in India.

UK Permaculture Convergence 2014 Details

The UK Permaculture Convergence 2014 will beheld at Gilwell Park from the 12th to 14th September. Details and booking information can be found here. The convergence is open to non-members of the Permaculture Association for the first time this year, but the cost for non members is more than the cost of a year’s membership and the price for association members. So it makes sense to join.

Hope to see some of you there




Making a Hotbed in my Polytunnel

I have been intrigued by the idea of a hotbed for years, but the trigger for this project was reading ‘Hot Beds’ by Jack First. This book is a great little resource, packed full of information on how to make a hotbed, and what to grow in one once made. Having put up a decent sized polytunnel (hoop house) last Summer, I’ve been waiting for the right time to build a hotbed. According to Jack, the right time for a full depth bed is the end of January, so that’s what I have done. This post contains lots of pictures of the hotbed, along with some text. However the construction for an outdoor bed is a little different, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you probably need the book.


Hotbed Basics

A hotbed uses the heat from decomposing organic matter to raise the temperature of soil in an enclosed space, in order to extend the growing season. One reason for that is that by the time that the last frost has passsed, so have a lot of days with long day length. For example our last safe frost date is normally the first week in June. That is only 2 weeks before the Summer solstice, after which daylength starts to shorten again. By provided a warm and sheltered environment for growing crops, a hotbed will let me make use of that additional sunlight.

Hotbed Construction

Jack recommends a hotbed size of about 6 ft x 6ft (180 cm x 180 cm), to provide a growing space of about 4ft x 4ft. The growing space has it’s own frame partly buried in the hotbed, with the extra space all round helping to prevent heat loss. The depth of the hotbed determines how early to start building it. 2 ft -2 ft 6 ins (60 – 75 cm) of horse manure, and wet stable bedding (straw) is supposed to maintain warmth through until the weather is warm enough.

There is a good picture of how a hotbed could be made on the page link below, about half way down the page. Spring gardening Tips.

My Hotbed

The central bed in my polytunnel is 5 ft wide, made 18 inches tall with timber planks. The bed runs North to South, so I decided to make the hotbed at the Southern (entrance) end, to get the most from the low, early season sun. That section of the bed had settled since the Summer, and was about 6 inches below the level of the planks, so I decided to remove another 6 inches of soil, and then build a 2 ft deep hotbed, by adding another 2 planks. This would give me an overall bed size of 6 ft x 5 ft, 2 ft deep. The two pictures below show the bed just before all of the soil had been removed.

hotbed construction

Preparing the hotbed





The soil that I removed filled 8 dustbins, I knew that I would need about 2/3rd of the soil to put on top of the manure and straw mix. This gives a good growing medium for seeds. The remainder will be used as the base for my seed and potting mix.

hotbed preparation

Hotbed construction

After the soil had been removed, I built up the hotbed in layers. My horse manure is given to me without bedding, so I alternated a layer of manure with a layer of poultry bedding. The bedding that I use is shredded Miscanthus. Shredding exposes more surface area to microbes which could lead to the bed heating up, and cooling down too quickly. The decomposition in a normal bed is slowed by compacting the materials. This restricts oxygen, which reduces microbial activity, and therefore slows everything down. To try and slow the process down further, I added a little more bedding than I would have done with undamaged straw, and made sure that the layers were well compacted. I’ll monitor the temperature this year to see how successful that is.

layers in a hotbed

building up the hotbed in layers


The picture above shows the first layer in place. As the bedding was dry, I watered it, and added urine, seaweed, comfrey concentrate, and the liquid from my wormeries. These additions were to improve the overall nutrient availability, and to add some extra nitrogen. This isn’t something from the hotbed book, but seemed like a good idea. However the extra nitrogen may speed the decomposition up, and make it too quick. I’ll have to monitor that. The picture below shows the hotbed after an extra 12 inches of planking had been added. The lower plank is full length, and the top one is only the length of the hotbed. I did it this way as I always have a surplus of compost, and so I have decided to raise the whole of this bed ( 40 ft x 5ft) by another 6 inches. I’ll stagger this, building a new hotbed each year, moving back along the bed.

hotbed building

Adding another layer to the hotbed

The picture above shows the hotbed before the additional planks were added, whereas the one below shows it after all of the timber was in place. If you look carefully at the the picture below, you can see the three levels of timber. The short plank for the top layer, which steps down to a long plank added to the existing bed. Beyond that the bed sides drop again to the original level.

(The black corrugated bitumen is there to prevent a passionflower from being buried by the manure/straw mix. The material should shrink by around a half, so the bitumen can be removed when the hotbed is taken apart.)

hotbed construction

More layers in the hotbed


The change in levels can be seen better in the next picture, taken from the opposite direction.


polytunnel bed

Three levels in a hotbed

The plank to the left of the plants has been added to raise the height of the whole bed, and there is a short plank raising the height of the hotbed still further.

building a hotbed

Last layer in place

The picture above shows the last but one layer of the straw and manure mix in place. Originally I had intended to build the hotbed the full 2 ft deep, and then add a 4 inch layer of growing medium. The depth of the hotbed determines how long it will remain warm for. 2 ft roughly equates to three months of warmth outdoors. However I started to run short of horse manure. As I’m building the hotbed inside a polytunnel, I’m happy for the bed to cool down slightly quicker, as the protection given by the polytunnel should compensate for that.

hotbed finishing touches

Adding soil to the hotbed

The picture above shows the compacted top of the manure and straw mix on the left, and the 4 inch layer of soil that I added on the right. The soil is from the stuff that I removed at the beginning, but sieved. I put the larger lumps at the bottom, and the finer soil on top. Both can be seen in the picture. The sieved soil should give me a better medium for seed sowing.

Hotbed Finished

Hotbed built

Hotbed finished

The picture above shows the finished bed. The round disc is the top of a compost thermometer, which is measuring the temperature in the bottom half of the hotbed (18 inches below the surface). I have two plastic cold frames that were too flimsy for outdoor use. These will sit in the center of the hotbed, and will help to create a warm and protected environment for my early vegetables. The mild Winter (so far), and generous growing of salads late last year, has meant that  I already have a surplus of early salad. So I’m going to try growing some tender plants, French beans, and sweet peppers, as well as some extra spinach and rocket (aragula).

Monitoring Hotbed Temperature

compost thermometer

Compost Thermometer

When first built, less than a week ago, the temperature was 11 C, roughly 6 degrees above the ambient temperature at the time. The temperature has since climbed to 18 C. I now need to monitor the temperature change. Planting or sowing starts once the temperature steadies, or starts to decline. In order to get a head start, I have sown some of my first batch of plants in modules, in a propagator.

seed propagator

Seeds in electric propagator

Once the hotbed is ready for planting I’ll post an update.



Growing Rice in the UK?

In 2014 I’m goint to try growing rice in the UK, and the following post describes why, and how I’m going to do it. I’m sure that it has been tried by somebody, somewhere, but I have no idea if anybody has made it work yet. It’s not something that I’ve ever come across before, and my only thoughts up until recently has been the possibility of growing wild rice. That changed when I read The Resilient Farm and Homestead, by Ben Falk, who is one of a number of people growing rice in Vermont, USA. Using rice from Hokkaido, the northernmost Island in Japan, growers in vermont are harvesting marketable quantities of rice. I immediately decided that I wanted to give I a try. So another project has been germinated, or hatched.

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Small Scale Grain Growing Update 2012/2013 Season

My small scale grain growing experiment has reached the end of year two, having grown and harvested, rye, spelt, and wheat. I’m almost ready to start sowing the grains for year three, and thought that I would record my results and observations here.


rye and spelt

Small scale grain growing results

This is the rye and spelt before harvesting. The rye was even more impressive than last year with most of the grain over six feet in height, and some reaching 8 feet tall. I started harvesting a little before I thought that the grain was ripe as I was experiencing a lot of bird predation. I had pigeons eating the spelt, and smaller birds eating the rye.

small scale grain growing problems

Damage to spelt from pigeons

The picture above shows some of the evidence. The pigeons land on top of a bundle of grain, forcing it towards the ground where they can get to it more easily. Once down it then becomes easier for rats and mice to get at it too.

I was a bit concerned that with harvesting it a bit early germination may be reduced, but I was preparing the beds for sowing today, and there was grain sprouting where some had been missed by the birds.

measuring yields for small scale grain growing systems

My High Tech Yield Measuring system

This is my High Tech measuring system to get a rough idea of yields. I simply stuff the grain into  the rubbish bin until I cannot get any more in, and then tie it up into a bundle. Not that scientific, as it only measures the straw, but ti gives me a rough comparison between different crops and systems. That’s not too much of an issue for me, as the straw is as important to me as the grain is. it will be used as poultry bedding, and then returned to the growing area to help build fertility. Were I more concerned with money, the rye straw is perfect for making skeps, for which beekeepers pay a lot of money. The picture also gives you an idea of just how tall these grains are compared to the modern ‘vertically challenged’ grains grown conventionally.

Small Scale Grain Growing yields

It’s difficult to describe or assess what your yields will be when you are growing grains on a small scale, so I thought that |I’d show you my yields in pictures.


harvested bed of spelt

A 100 Sq foot bed

The picture above shows a bed of 100 sq feet (4 ft x 25 ft). (In theory this bed would be 5 ft wide, but the high nature of the bed won’t allow planting all the way across). This is the standard size bed for the Grow Bio-intensive system. it’s also the right size to allow comparisons between fertilizer applications (grams per 100 sq ft bed is roughly equivalent to lbs per acre). The picture below shows the yield of spelt taken from it.

small scale grain growing yield

The yield of spelt taken from a 100sq ft bed

The 100sq ft bed produced four ‘stuffed bin’ sized bundles, which is pretty cool. Once these have been threshed and winnowed, I’ll start to get an idea of how much grain i get from each bundle, which will be much more useful.

The overall yield from this year’s grain growing was 30 of these bundles, with roughly equal amounts of each of the three grains.

Comparing Yields

The only direct comparison that I did was two roughly equal sized beds of wheat. In one the wheat was was spaced at 12 inches apart, and in the other the rows remained 12 inches apart, but the grain was only six inches apart within the rows. of the two, the smaller spacing yielded fractionally more than the wider spacing. 3 1/4 bundles as opposed to 3 for the 12 inch spaced grains.This used twice as much seed, and was harder to weed, but seemed to resist lodging better. The recommended spacing for the System of Wheat Intensification method is 8 inches, and perhaps the results of this comparison bear that out. The difference in yield for such a small plot is not significant, but it will be interesting to repeat this a few times to see if the difference remains over a number of years.


One of the benefits of small scale grain growing is the ability to observe closely what is going in with each grain. On a huge scale you can only look at little patches of the whole picture, whereas I get to see everything in great detail.


Ergot is a problem in chemical free rye, but I only found one infected grain. Earlier in the season when the weather was damp it looked as if more were infected, but the grain seems to have fought it off on it’s own. There were tiny patches of black on the very ends of a couple of grains, but the grains themselves were healthy. The weather may have helped, but it’s reassuring to see a strong, healthy rye plant.


There was very little weed amongst the grains themselves. The picture below shows one of the rye beds after harvest, and you can see for yourself how clean it is.

harvested rye

weed free rye stubble

The next picture shows a bed of spelt after harvest. can you spot the difference?

spelt harvested from a small scale bed

Stubble remaining after harvesting spelt

Well I hope that you can see a lot more green in the second picture. Both of these crops were module sown, and I added some wild white clover to the modules. On planting out, both crops had a small amount of white clover around the base of each plant. As you can see from the pictures. This clover has grown reasonably well with the spelt, but very little has survived with the rye. Some of this may be due to the extra shade cast by the rye, which was taller. Another possibility is that the rye is a bit allelopathic, chemically suppressing it’s rivals. If that’s true it could be really useful to help combat spring germinating weeds, possibly in an organic vegetable system. That’s in addition to the yield of grain, masses of straw for fertility building, a massive root system, and a late sown crop to help mop up Nitrogen after the harvest of an earlier crop. Not a bad set of reasons to incorporate small scale grain growing into your own system. To test the allelopathy I’m going to swap the crops grown on these two beds this year.

Growing Grains in 2013/2014

The next year’s small scale grain growing experiments are similar. The single wheat variety will be replaced by a mixture of six winter wheats, grown as part of the Permaculture Association’s ‘Sustainable Grain’ project. This is a research project to develop a sustainable, small scale grain growing system. Now that I have a good supply of grain and seed, I will grow less of the rye and spelt this year. Sowing just enough to maintain a fresh supply of seed. I want to grow out some Rivet Wheat that I was given, mainly to see what it looks like, but also to keep the seed fresh. I have to read up in chemical free methods to clean the seed from Bunt. I was told that coating in mustard powder, or dried milk works, but I’d like to look into that over the next few days before deciding whether to risk using this seed or not. I also have two different varieties of oats to grow next spring. One variety is Naked Oats, and the other Black Oats. The Black Oats may also have some allelopathy so could be potentially useful. Although oats are normally a spring sown crop here, the Black oats are supposed to be really tough, so I might broadcast sow a small bed soon to see how much survives. Even if none does, it will suppress weeds first, mop up nitrogen, and then winter kill. acting as a non hardy green manure crop. There is a lot that you can do with this small scale grain growing, and I intend to try as much as I can.

All of the best




Sowing Seeds and Compost

Like many people here in the UK I’ve been sowing seeds. I give myself extra work by growing almost all of my early plants in  modules. This keeps my plants away from slugs, voles, birds, and the worst of the weather, and allows me to give the optimum tmperature for germination using electric propagators. In fact if I had been sowing seeds outside this Spring I’m not sure how many would have made it. As well as needing a bit more work, sowing seeds in  modules, rather than sowing them directly in the ground, creates the need for a suitable growing medium. I had read a book which suggested that mixing dried cow manure and river sand makes a good seed sowing compost, but I don’t have either to hand. In the past I have relied on bought in ‘multi purpose’, sieved and mixed with sand, but with the volume of seedlings that I grow, and the trees and shrubs in pots, this is expensive, not particularly ‘green’, and may in fact be responsible for creating some of the disease problems that seedlings suffer from. This year I have made some changes to the way that I go about sowing seeds.

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