“Going Organic” is not just a question of changing a brand of fertilizer or giving them up altogether. It means a change of attitude: getting away from the idea that every small creature is a pest, every plant out of place is a weed, and that the solution to every problem is a spray.
Organic farming has a longer history than most people appreciate. In fact it incorporates methods which have only relatively recently been abandoned in farming terms. It is not a “return to the good old days” purely for the sake of it, it is very much using some of the ‘traditional’ approaches and backing them up with scientific methods and determining the reasons why some of the old practices were so effective. Then taking these principles developing them and working in a modern system where one knows why something works not just that it seems to work.
Organic farming is healthier. That includes the food that we eat and serve here, but also for the produce and preserves that we make and market.
Put simply, organic food contains more of the good stuff we need, and less of the bad stuff that we don't need.
Research comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables reveals a strong trend toward higher levels in organic produce. Apart from the vitamins and minerals plant foods contain thousands of other compounds, many of which are powerful antioxidants in our diet, helping to slow ageing, prevent cancers and more. These ‘phytonutrients’ are 10-50% higher in organic crops.
Pesticide residues are rarely found on organic food. In contrast, pesticides are found on one in three non-organic foods tested each year, and multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon. Pesticide safety is tested for individual compounds, but we know very little about the 'cocktail effect' of multiple residues. Some research suggests that they may be hundreds of times more toxic than the same compounds individually.
We all know the importance of getting our five-a-day, but eating five organic fruit and vegetables a day is even better. A non-organic apple can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different chemicals, many of which cannot simply be washed off. The latest UK Government tests, carried out in 2005, found pesticides in 80% of non-organic apple samples. Those things cover only the effects on the foods, we are also concerned about the environment as a whole, and that indeed is the organic principle - the environment as a whole.
We do not use any pesticides or other chemicals. A healthy plant will have its own resistance and will seldom be attacked by pests. More of that and the Integrated Pest Management practice a bit later.
Our ‘system’ really revolves around one principle: look after the soil.
If the soil is of good quality in terms of nutrient and mineral content, texture, moisture and other requirements then the plants can develop optimally and provide us with the top quality foods.
The soil on the farm, or at least that part where we are growing crops at present, is derived from underlying ancient granitic rocks. It thus has quite a high sand content, though not too far down the clay component increases. There was little organic content in the soil when we started, and that was very much our first priority. It remains a high priority now, even though the soil has improved.
We add organic nutrients in two processes:
1. We make our own compost.
A weekly task, taking part of our kitchen waste, most of our garden waste, grass cut from the fields, mulching and a couple of bags a week of horse manure from a friendly local riding stables.
This gets added to the soil where we plant the crops 50/50 with the original soil, then at the rate of a wheelbarrow per square metre every time we plant a new crop.
The compost heaps are specially built to allow and encourage aerobic decomposition of the materials. This at no stage then becomes a source of bad smells or an attractant for flies. This is possibly the most crucial part of the composting process; compost pits and too much standing water encourage anaerobic bacteria and the consequent ‘rotten’ smells. The heap is built in layers of ‘greens’ - kitchen waste, grass cuttings, to which is added leaves of comfrey which speeds up the process, ‘browns’ - garden waste, leaves, bulk dry material including paper and cardboard, and horse manure all wetted down with water.
The heap is turned every couple of weeks depending upon its progress and the temperature is monitored. It is kept covered with straw to act as a mulch to prevent drying out and impeding the composting process.
2. We farm worms, worm pooh is good!
By that we mean that worm casting also known as vermicompost is one of the best known natural fertilisers and soil conditioners. We put suitable kitchen waste – not citric fruits or onions and chillies – into our worm-farm containers and each week sieve out enough vermicompost to use as an individual plant fertilizer and also as part of the base medium for our seeds. A certain number of worms are introduced back into the soil by this means, which also beneficiates the soil directly.
They convert plant material into vermicompost or humate that is beneficial to the soil. This in turn increases the fertility of the soil as the earthworm castings can contain up to 30% more phosphate and up to 15% more potash than the surrounding soil. The movement and tunnelling by the different species of earthworms through the soil allows oxygen into the soil and prevent compaction. The increased oxygen is to the benefit of all micro-organisms in the soil. Earthworms carry beneficial microorganism in their digestive duct and can increase the concentration up to 1000 times in the castings. They also maintain the balance between the different microbes and prevent any harmful ones from breeding to harmful levels.
Earthworms increase and make the 3 major plant hormones available to plants, which can help to increase root growth in 6 weeks time by 60% and flower forming by 20%.
We seldom have any problems with insect pests, but if we do a quick, though definitely smelly, solution is to steep garlic, tansy and khakibos with pyrethrum, marigolds or chilli (use sparingly) to make an evil smelling fluid which can then be diluted and sprayed onto any heavy infestation. We have only had to use this a couple of times when we were still trying to get the soil balance correct and some of our tomatoes were not too healthy.
A major aid in this balancing process is the crop rotation.
We never plant the same crop twice running in the same place. We use beans as an intercrop both because we eat them and because they are leguminous and add to the nitrogen content of the soil.
We use mulch as a major aid in the reduction in water use in all our crop areas, we use hay derived from the farm open grassland or from vetifer which we grow specifically both for this and as a protection around the crop areas as it reduces soil erosion by water and wind (we also use lemon grass for this too, and it has the benefit of making a really super lemon tea too).
Our irrigation is designed to reduce losses by evaporation as much as possible, as well as to present the water at the place it is most required that is at the level of the root system of each plant. Thus the only time we water on surface is for the first few days after seedlings have been planted out or that direct planted seedlings have emerged. Water loss is also minimised by not allowing the soil around the plants to be exposed. This can be done by merely cutting down weeds, not spraying and killing them or pulling them out, or as we are trying, planting a ground cover that is not too invasive. We are using Dichondra as it seems not to require much watering and reduces the soil temperature around the plant areas.
The retention of weeds and ‘natural’ vegetation around arable areas is an important aspect of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). This provides a haven for the predators that will naturally reduce the numbers of insect pests. We also plant herbs that attract bees and other nectar feeders in between areas of crops.
The ‘hedges’ we plant using the vetifer, lemon grass and such bushy herbs as sage also encourage the birds, and these are an integral part of our pest control, we permanently have pairs of Kurrichane and Groundscraper Thrushes, Black Flycatchers and various Robin-Chats in the garden, and very few snails or other common pests survive long. The Weavers (Village and Spectacled mainly) strip the leaves of the lemon grass to make their nests, and I wonder if the citrus smell reduces pests in their homes as it does for us. On the other hand, Speckled Mouse birds can reduce an amazing area of newly sprouted beans or spinach to stalks in very short time. However they do not like going under shade cloth that is within 50cm or so of the ground, whereas the Thrushes have no problem with this and we have frames that we move where required. Another way to keep birds away is with a ‘mobile’ of CDs hanging from a rotating frame, these turn and flash in the sun and can be very effective, perhaps too much so in that the ‘good’ birds are scared too, so we have moved away from those, preferring a reduced loss to the Mousebirds over the scaring away of all birds.
We often have Burchell’s Coucal prowling through the Lemon grass and the Brown-hooded Kingfisher often uses the overhanging branches of nearby trees to assist us in pest removal. Very Integrated!
In summary there are a few do’s and don’ts that we practice:
- Manage the whole farm in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible.
- Use crop rotation for our vegetables. This makes better use of the soil’s fertility and helps prevent the build-up of pests and disease.
- Recycle all organic waste in the kitchen and on the farm through compost heaps
to maintain healthy soil.
- Provide suitable feeding areas by growing a mixture of plants, to attract the birds and insects away from sensitive crops. Leaves on the ground that are not causing a nuisance are left to provide useful habitats.
- Grow flowering herbs and plants so that useful creatures have a source of pollen and nectar to supply energy for egg-laying.
- Get to know the useful pest-controlling creatures. They do a valuable job that often goes unrecognized.
- Create habitats for wildlife – bird boxes, a pond or a heap of wood will shelter wildlife, helping pest control.
- Apply bulky organic materials like compost, hay, leaf mould and manure to the soil to improve its structure.
- Feed the earthworms with organic materials and manure so that they in turn can provide plants with a safe and suitable growing medium with a balanced food supply.
- Keep soil mulched with organic material to improve the soil structure and keep weeds under control.
- Use hand weed and hoeing to keep weeds under control.
- Resort to chemical methods on non-crop plants. The whole environment is important.
- Assume creatures are pests. They may be harmless or even beneficial.
- Tidy-up every area of the organic area; excessive neatness can drive away garden friends.
- Grow the same vegetables in exactly the same place every rotation. This can lead to a build-up of persistent soil pests and diseases that are difficult to control.
- Use chemical fertilizers, make your own, excess chemical fertilizers are a major contaminant of ground water and rivers.
- Over till the ground, it exposes the micro-organisms and depletes the organic content, just introduce the compost to the top few centimeters and mulch immediately
- Use snail bait or other edible poisons, it will kill the birds that eat it, Hoopoes are particularly vulnerable.
- Use rat poison, it will accumulate in the raptors you should attract and eventually poison them. Rather encourage owls by placing owl boxes around the area, and not evicting them if they are nesting.
Definitions too can be misleading.
The definitions we adhere to, as much as possible, are:-
Organic refers to material that does not contain any synthetic substances or chemicals and natural refers to something that is "existing in or formed by nature, not artificial". The word “organic itself means, simply, “of living origin”, but when applied to farming it describes a whole eco system – a dynamic system of forces that work in balance with each other and in harmony with nature’s cycles. Some farmers object to the term organic, as being no longer meaningful because it has been co-opted by those who want to make the label commercially available. Whatever your opinion, it is clear that sustainable practices for building healthy soil and growing healthy food are beneficial.
“Going Organic” is designed to encourage nature to do its best, only intervening if absolutely necessary:-
• minimizing our impact on the wider environment by avoiding the use of materials from non-renewable resources,
• recycling where possible, especially organic matter, e.g. kitchen waste, fallen leaves or fruit, etc.
“Feed the soil not the plants”: A healthy, fertile soil with good structure and a thriving population of living creatures is the basis of all effective organic growing. This ensures healthy plant growth and healthy plants are always less susceptible to attack. If arable lands require regular inputs of artificial fertilizer or pesticides, this implies that the plants are growing in a situation that does not suit them. Inevitably, nature cannot keep every pest and disease under control but there are many organic techniques for protecting plants.
At Aloe Ridge we are establishing an ecosystem that operates in nature’s favour:
• soil with organic sufficient matter to drain well and retain water to prevent run-off,
• soil nutrient levels that support healthy plant growth, earthworms, insect eating birds and predatory insects.
When the cells in the organism are given nourishment that they need to function, they will do so optimally.
At Aloe Ridge farm we strive to supply all the soil’s essential nutrient for balanced growth, from organic matter for compost, to micronutrients for healthy plants.
We try to:-
• encourage a healthy diversity of organisms, especially earthworms
• minimize tilling depth to preserve the soil organisms
• use compost and composted manure to build a productive soil
• use raised beds and avoid soil compaction
• rotate and intercrop our crops
• sow cover crops to help retain soil moisture, improve soil texture and increase organic matter; legumes are also used to return nitrogen to the soil.
• water from below using an irrigation system that helps to reduce evaporative loss.
• mulch to prevent soil drying out and weed growth.