Tag Archives: woodland trust

April 2018
The necessity of cultivating soil

April has been another busy month for Heb Veg, with works on all four polycrubs being completed, and a thousand trees planted courtesy of a grant from the Woodland Trust.

With these jobs finished, we have been able to move on to seeding. We have had to first cultivate the soil which has previously been left as a bare croft. Cultivating is an essential fundamental that is quite straightforward: breaking up and loosening the soil in a planting patch. As with many things, there is often more to it than is first apparent, and this leads to some basic questions: Why do we cultivate?  How should we cultivate?  When should we cultivate?  Not to mention the distinction; what is the difference between cultivating and tilling?

Cultivating amounts to essentially two things: eliminating weeds from the plot and breaking up the soil to optimize the retention of nutrients and water. Nature takes its toll on the soil as the elements actively dry it into a crust. Cultivating breaks up the crusty soil surface allowing for a much easier penetration of water and nutrients deep into the soil where plant roots can gain access to them.

While almost everyone knows the importance of watering, it is also essential that air is able to penetrate the surface in order to benefit the micro-organisms in the soil that perform the various important tasks of improving the soil and creating nutrients for plants.

Cultivating the earth also makes it easier for newly germinated seeds to sprout through the surface of the soil.

While cultivating can also bring some weed seeds to the soil surface to germinate, cultivating will also draw up and expose these young weed sprouts, leaving them to die when left exposed on the soil surface. This also actively interrupts the germination of weed seeds in general. As weeds are systematically removed it decreases competition for water and nutrients, leaving everything for your plants to feed to their heart’s content.

Cultivating improves moisture penetration and thus helps with water retention. As more water is retained there is obviously a reduced need for supplemental watering. Last but not least, a cultivated plot with minimal weeds looks attractive and fresh.

In order to cultivate, the soil must only be loosened a couple of inches deep. If you dig too deeply you will only encourage the surface to dry out faster.

When cultivating, care must be taken to not disturb plant roots, which will cause damage to your plants. Working between the rows and not getting too close to your plants will prevent damaging roots and the plants attached to them.

Only surface cultivate when necessary. If you can easily observe that the soil surface has crusted over and that weeds are sprouting and on the offensive, it is time to shallow cultivate.

Do not cultivate when the soil is wet. By doing this you will risk further compaction. The soil should be dry.  In fact, err on the side of more dry than moist.  If it seems too moist it probably is.

Before you lay down seed is also a good time to cultivate. If working with small fine seeds they will have an easier time sprouting and thriving in cultivated soil.

Similarly, it is good to cultivate before planting flowers and vegetables.

Whenever you top dress the soil by applying compost or organic fertilizers, shallow cultivate to loosen the top crust of soil for integration of added nutrients and to reduce runoff from rain. This will also kick-start a process that earthworms and micro-organisms can complete by doing the work of fully integrating the nutrients deep into the soil.

Tilling is actually a form of deep cultivation that is necessary when preparing a new bed or when adding large amounts of organic material. Tilling will cultivate the soil 8-10 inches deep, perhaps even more if you are creating a new bed in an area where the soil is very poor. You can also till at a more shallow level of 4-8 inches when mixing soil amendments into your bed(s). This is ideally done at the end of the growing season. Autumn or fall tilling also provides the opportunity to supplement the soil with rough organic amendments that decompose slowly prior over the winter.  This is a near-perfect feeding situation for plants going into the next season. This is not recommended however unless your plan is to add substantial amounts of organic amendments to improve the soil. Some crofters do not like to disturb the natural work of micro-organisms and earthworms, other than when they are preparing a new bed. Digging in to the soil every few years in autumn can be done to a rather shallow depth, allowing nature to do most of the work.  Once spring rolls around, till as normal when preparing to plant.

Most of the reasons for tilling are similar to those for cultivating with some differences. Soil tends to become compacted over the years due to rain, foot traffic, etc. Air pockets that are created by the deep loosening of soil facilitate air and water penetration for plants to use. Air penetration is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks creating nutrients for the plants (as noted above with cultivation). Loosened soil makes it much easier for roots and root vegetables to spread out throughout the soil. This is very important if you have clay soil.  Tilling is also useful when turning over a previous crop after the season.

While not all horticulturalists agree about the necessity, frequency and depth of cultivating and tilling, all of the above practices are generally accepted and widely used. Much has been written about no-till methods, employing the theory that soil should be disturbed as little as possible.  While this may be important in acreage farms focused on reducing erosion, it may not be practical for smaller croft holders without the proper equipment found on large farms.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

March 2018
Trees, Trees, Trees!

Staves mark out the density of saplings

Many years ago, I was fortunate to live and work for an extended period in Japan and lucky enough to be invited to join a traditional jujitsu dojo. There, the old master told me a proverb that has remained with me to this day:

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

March has been an eventful month for Heb Veg with works continuing apace on the croft as we gear up for our first round of seeding at the end of April. The big news is that we have had some thousand trees arrive, courtesy of The Woodland Trust, and we are giving over nearly a third of the croft to planting them up. Given that our main focus is going to be the production of organic fruit and vegetables, it may seem strange to be giving up so much of our land. There are a number of reasons behind this decision and hopefully, they will help you consider the benefits of planting trees on your own plot.

The first reason is essentially a global one; trees help create a diverse ecosystem that helps provide habitat and food for birds and other animals. At school, we are often taught that our environment is a pyramid, with Man at the top. In truth, it is more of a circle with many animals and plants interdependent on each other and their surroundings.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gasses, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. It is estimated that approximately fifteen billion trees are cut down every year, and we should be doing everything we can to replace this number, if not more. Our thousand trees may not seem like much compared to fifteen billion, but it is a start, and it estimated that a single large tree can provide a day’s worth of oxygen for up to four people.

Forests are among the most important repositories of biological diversity. Together, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer very diverse habitats for plants, animals and micro-organisms. Biological diversity is the basis for a wide array of goods and services provided by forests. The variety of forest trees and shrubs play a vital role in the daily life of rural communities in many areas, as sources of wood and non-wood products, as contributors to soil and water conservation, and as repositories of aesthetic, ethical, cultural and religious values. Forest-based wildlife is a vital source of nutrition and has vital roles in ecology, such as pollination, seed dispersal and germination, and predation on potential pest species.

The Outer Hebrides used to be covered in the Ancient Hebridean Forest as late as some three hundred years ago, and this would have provided a habitat for a myriad of creatures, including insects that are crucial to pollinating fruit and vegetables. The Hebridean Ark project is being pioneered by the Horshader Community Development scheme in Shawbost and involves taking cuttings and seeds from surviving trees and growing 100,000 saplings to plant across Lewis and Harris in a bid to rewild a number of areas.

For all of the sound ecological and environmental reasons, there are good personal reasons to plant trees for those who wish to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Like many, our croft is both narrow and long, suffering from a prevailing south-westerly wind and zero shelterbelts. Windburn is a constant factor, and unprotected horticulture quickly withers because of this, with only couch-grass thriving.

Construction of the polycrubs continue

To address these issues, Danda Gillies helped us by taking a two-inch top scrape and form earthen bunds from the spoil. The bunds are up to 2m in height and have been formed so as to protect the saplings from the majority of the wind. This has had the added benefit of taking care of the couch grass, and all of the trees have come with staves and guards to protect against rabbits.

The trees have then been divided into two categories. The first category is those that form the outer perimeter. These trees are a mix of Alder and Grey and Eared Willow and are intended to break up the wind and protect the trees within their protective boundary.

The second category forms an inner section, and these are fruiting varieties. They include Blackthorn, Bird Cherry, Crab Apple, Dog Rose, and Elder. Although it will be many years before these year-old saplings bear fruit when they do they will provide a useful addition to the range of chutneys that we hope to produce.

However, the uses of trees do not end there. For many, there is a profound positive effect on reducing stress levels and a boost to mental wellbeing. In January 2018 researchers at King’s College London, assessed the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing. They found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing and that the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Similarly, The Guardian newspaper reported in March 2017 that Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in deprived but verdant areas were found to have a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Pregnant women also received a health boost from a greener environment, recording lower blood pressures and giving birth to larger babies.

In summary, planting trees on your croft have a myriad of benefits, from global pollution reduction, to promoting local biodiversity, and on to better mental wellbeing. And their fruit tastes good too.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

Trees as far as the eye can see… or it will be in 10yrs time