Friday, September 24, 2010

Experiments in building soil - chicken / legume guild

Rough site map, rich soil in the SouthEast Corner only

When we bought our place it was high maintenance.  Things needed pruning, mowing, watering, fertilising or weeding weekly and if you didn't stay on top of it, things got out of control.  And it did get out of control for a while.  Mr Jones had to quit his job to find the 2 days a week to maintain the place.  This was way too stressful, too much like hard work and producing too little yield. So we let things go a bit to see what nature would do if you weren't constantly fighting with her.

Some things worked, but some got even more out of control.  The north east part of the site is the driest area with the poorest soil, and is also the animals' favourite area.  They really liked our newly established lawn and decided to dig it up and turn the area into a dust bowl.

Out the front (north side), we ripped out a lot of the high maintenance plants (rambling roses), covered the ground with wet newspaper and tee tree mulch to build up the soil and keep the weeds down.  This helped a lot, and now we've got lots of soil critters improving our soil for us, but with spring setting in, the weeds are back and prolific.

So the big question - how to turn the animal and weed problems into opportunities?

Coming into season
Dad's remedy - broad beans

Legumes are wonderful things.  They take nitrogen out of the air and put it into nodules on their roots while also producing a crop.  When they die off  or are pruned the nitrogen is left behind in the soil.

So in the front yard we planted broad beans and peas.  We've already had a good yield from the snowpeas while they're busily competing with the weeds and fixing our soil  The broad beans have been prolific and are now starting to give us a yield as well.

I was never a fan of broad beans (used to have them thrown at me / shoved down my throat as a kid), but we're giving them a go again (recipes appreciated).  The great thing about broad beans is you can buy a huge bag of seeds from the health food shop for less than two bucks, and they grow like crazy.
Hedgerow, shade, moisture, weed control.

We deliberately over planted the broad beans, and have pulled out a number of the plants once they got to 2-3 feet in height.  These go into the animals favourite area, providing a ground cover to keep the moisture in the soil while the chooks turn them slowly into organic matter.  So for 2 bucks and about 30 minutes of effort over the last couple of months, our dust problem is reduced and our soil is being improved in both plots.

Has bean - white nodules are nitrogen goodness.

Our chickens love weeds, particularly when they're starting to  produce seed.  We were putting these into the compost, but if you don't get your compost hot enough then you perpetuate the weed cycle, and our compost area is in an area where the soil is rich anyway which means carting it.  Besides, who really wants to have to turn compost every week?

Again, the solution, pull out the weeds, throw them into the chicken's favourite area and they'll keep the dust down and become food for the chooks.  If a few survive to stabilise the area, and be a pioneer for other plants, then that's just fine with us.

Yum, fresh produce in the dust bowl.
So this method solves a few problems, and gets plants and animals doing more of the work so we can get back in the hammock to hatch more clever plans on how to get nature working on our side

There's always a way to improve the system and make it more productive with less work required.  For us, this was a simple way to tweak the system and turn problems into opportunities with almost no incremental effort.
Change direction and nature starts working for you.

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