Welcome to the first edition of the monthly gardening blog that will feature in Central Connect magazine in Portugal. The focus of this article and future articles will always lean towards the edible garden, known in portuguese as ‘A Horta’. To download your copy of the magazine, scroll to the bottom.
Preparing the garden for planting cover crops
To set ourselves up for success, we must ensure we are growing the right plants in suitable soil. So firstly, what is your soil? I suggest investing in getting a laboratory soil test analysis carried out on the primarily food-growing area on your property. Such tests cost from around €60 and are readily available in most regions in Portugal. Many gardeners do not explore the avenue of obtaining soil tests and applying appropriate soil amendments, but without doing so then how can we know if we have the optimal nutrients in our soil?
We can perceive our soils as healthy due to the texture, smell, micronutrients and critter life in our soil. The appearance of our plants can look luscious and appealing, but this does not ensure the soil is nutrient balanced and our plants nutrient dense. For instance, if our soils are low in calcium, the food we produce will be low in calcium and could lead to a calcium deficiency in our plants, our livestock and indeed our own body. If we depend on our own produce for the bulk of our nutritional intake, if we do not know the correct nutrient profile of our soil and we do not make the appropriate amendments we are missing an opportunity to optimise the health of our plants and ourselves. Its worth getting
Preparing poor soils for a future garden
In permaculture, we usually go for No-Dig gardens. In future articles, I will discuss how to prepare No-Dig gardens. Today we are going to talk about amending poor quality soils that lack some nutrients and have an undesirable PH level (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity level of soil). When you arrange a soil test it provides you with a range of information that is exceptionally helpful; including soil type, nutrient levels, PH and Caton Exchange Capacity (CEC; a measure of how well soil can hold onto nutrients).
For poor soils that are weed-heavy, one option is to implement an extensive initial soil amendment to improve soil fertility (a bit like boot camp for soils!) and thereafter transition to the no dig method for continued soil fertility improvement.
How to plant the cover crop
- Cut the grass and weeds and leave them in situ to break down thus a simple way to add organic material to the soil. You can use a strimmer for a small garden or a tractor for a larger area.
- Dig over all the soil where you wish to establish a future edible garden or food forest area . You can do this with a rotavator for a small garden or even by hand or in larger areas utilise a tractor. This will break up the soil, combine the organic matter and prepare the soil for any amendments and future plantings.
- Adjust PH of the soil. Amendments can be added to improve the soil. For example, adding Agriculture Lime (ensuring it is labelled “Biological”) to stabilise the PH of acidic soils. In this example you do need to calculate the correct quantity of lime to add based on your existing PH levels
- Add organic material. Usually compost is the organic answer to many of the soil challenges we face in the garden. Our gardens benefit from lots of compost. So replace your gym membership, flex your muscles and getting turning good old compost piles to add into the soil. One method I have used for the summer garden is to cover the area with a layer of aged organic sheep manure with biochar, then a layer of high-quality compost followed by a layer of worm castings.
- Dig over the soil again to mix the organic material into the soil
- Plant cover crops. Cover crops are plants that help build soil. Plant annual cover crops in your veggie plot so they improve the soil whilst keeping less beneficial invasive species in check. For example, in one area I planted red clover, lupins, and field beans (all add nitrogen to the soil). I also planted another area with a pre-mix of perennial pasture grasses to grow straw for mulching the garden beds this year.
- Cover with mulch. After seeding, cover your whole area with a thin layer of seed free hay or straw. The mulch will protect your soil from the sun and also decompose into the soil, adding yet more organic matter to the soil
- Cut the cover crops. We can keep cutting these cover crops back through Spring when they are in their growth cycle, a practice known as “chop and drop” which, again, will add more organic matter to decompose and build the soil. We want to avoid letting these cover crops go to flower or go to seed as this can then deplete the soil's nutrient reserves which is counter to what we wish to achieve.
- Prepare beds. From March we can prepare the beds for Summer planting. But first, we need a design. A design is based on our needs, abilities, and availability. A design should have an implementation and maintenance plan. It should also have a material list. Next month we will talk about design.
My video on how to plant cover crops