Friday, 11 November 2016

How much Comfrey can you grow on 13m2 ? - Comfrey Trial Results Year 1

Inspired by the work of Lawrence D Hills (1911–1991) who undertook extensive research on comfrey during his lifetime,  we decided to start some comfrey trials of our own to see just how much biomass these plants can produce for us, how well they fertilise our crops, how attractive they are for garden wildlife and whether they have a beneficial impact on the soil.

We sought to do this by planting out a test bed and measuring the weight of each cut we took. The biomass was then processed to make a liquid concentrate that was applied to our market garden crops. During the season we casually observed invertebrate activity in the patch and also during cutting times and finally each year after the cuts are complete we send a soil sample from the patch off to the lab for analysis of pH N,P and K to compare with a base sample taken before we established the patch.

We also record all inputs of mulch, ash, compost and water applied to the bed.

If you would like to learn more about comfrey and why it's considered such a great plant by many people take a look at our previous post Comfrey - BELIEVE the HYPE!. To find out the results from this year's trials read on.


Comfrey Patch Overview 


The comfrey beds are located in the red box in the above image of our Polyculture Market Garden in Shipka, Bulgaria

Location - Our Market Garden, Shipka, Bulgaria
Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 565 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates: 42.71259, 25.32575

Species/Cultivar - Symphytum x uplandicum 'Bocking 14'
Test Bed Area - 13 m2
Bed Dimensions - 10 m x 1.3 m 
Total Plants - 42
Approx. planting spacing - 60-70 cm


Graphical Representation of the Comfrey Trial Patch 

Background 


The patch was prepared in the spring of 2015. Two 13m2 beds were allocated to the comfrey but only 1 bed was used to take records. For instructions how to set up a comfrey patch see our previous article here

Following taking a soil sample from the area we dug over the plot, removing weeds and added 20 L of mature compost per m length of bed (200L) and 70g of wood ash per m length (700g). We planted out the beds using divided crowns of larger plants and left them to grow without disturbance for the entire season. We also broadcast approx. 1.5 g per m2 of Trifolium repens onto the pathways between the beds.


Planting Material - It's easy to plant out with crown divisions or root cuttings in the spring when the soil has warmed. A crown division can be obtained from simply putting a spade through the center of a mature comfrey plant and transplanting the divided sections. For our patch I divided 2 yr old plants into quarters, sometimes sixths, and these established very well in the first year. We did not harvest the leaf biomass in the first year in order to allow a deep root system to develop. However if you use large divisions you can start harvesting in July.

Plants in the 2nd month after planting in 2015
We took a soil sample in the area before preparing the beds in March 2015 the results of which you can find below and a further sample in November of 2016 . Both samples were sent to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. It's interesting to see general improvements in the bed soil fertility despite the removal of the biomass from the bed.

Soil Analysis Results from March 2015

Soil Analysis Results from November 2016


Management  


Irrigating - Irrigation was applied to the beds every 10-14 days without rain which this season was from mid June - mid October - almost 15 weeks without a significant rainfall.  We use flood irrigation diverted into the paths from mountain stream. I'd estimate 30 L per m length each week without rainfall would be sufficient.

Kata and Ute cutting the patch
Cutting -  We cut the Comfrey four times this season (see below for dates and weights). The comfrey is cut to approx 5 cm from the ground using a sickle, shaken out so all of the wildlife drops out and weighed immediately.

Kata, Natasha and Ute cutting and weighing 

Mowing -
After the cut the pathways and surrounding paths are mown and the trimmngs are applied more or less evenly to the surface of the bed.

Preparing Liquid Fert - The fresh material is stuffed into a 200 L barrel with stones on the top to compress the material and left to decompose for a few weeks. The result is a black smelly slurry that can be sieved off to leave a quantity of dark brown liquid. The liquid can then be diluted from 1-15 to 1-20 and applied to crops. The largest cut we made from 13m2 bed just about fit into the 200 L barrel.  

Comfrey Patch - before and after cut and path mowing 

Regrowth 23 days after the first cut 

We left the plants to flower for 7 -10 days before each cut, seeing as the bees were so into the flowers. This probably resulted in lower yields and next year we intend to cut before flowering and plant extra plants nearby solely for the bees and other pollinating insects

Comfrey 'Becking 14' before the first cut in April 



Results


From the 13 m2 patch we harvested a total of 96.92 kg of comfrey leaves. This was obtained from four cuts.





Fertility Inputs 


Following the initial input of 20 L of mature compost per m length of bed (200L) and 70g of wood ash per m length (700g) when we estbablished the bed in the spring of 2015,  during 2016 the only fertility inputs were the trimmings from the pathways between and around the beds.  We mowed this section four times (after each cut ) and each time emptied approx four 30 L mower bags of trimmings onto the comfrey bed totaling  480 L of trimmings.
  

Considerations


  • For higher yields the plants should be cut before flowering. We did not carry out this practice as the bees found the flowers so attractive.  
  • I believe we could also increase yields by applying urine fertiliser and we will experiment with this in the future. This would be particularly useful if growing the comfrey for animal fodder or mulch for perennial plants. 
Carpenter Bees one of many species of solitary bees that feed from the Comfrey flowers as well as Honey bees.

  • We used most of the comfrey for making a liquid fertilsier for our market garden crops. We produced 47 L of concentrate that can be mixed 1-15 with water . We applied the dilute at a rate of 500ml per plant  to tomato plants when setting fruit. The last batch we used for mulch and covered an area of 4 m2 with approx 11.5 kg of material. Comfrey can also be used to feed animals. Our rabbits and pigs both enjoy the fresh material and we use plants growing in our garden around the animal housing for this.  

Our pigs enjoying the Comfrey leaves


Joining the Trials 


If you would like to join the comfrey trials fill in your details below and we'll email you our record keeping templates. It will be great to have records from all over the world and see how well these plants grow in different climates.




Buying Comfrey


 Root cuttings and crowns come from our bio nursery and are  100% biologically grown - Click here for crowns and here for cuttings. 


20 Root Cuttings - €25.50 
50 Root Cuttings - €60 
100 Root Cuttings - €120 
500 Root Cuttings - €535 
1000 Root Cuttings - €950 

Price includes delivery via international courier service, recorded and tracked. Estimated delivery time is 5-9 days

Comfrey Crowns -  €3 per crown + delivery 



Crowns emerging in early spring 





Send an email to  balkanecologyproject@gmail.com with your order and we will get back to you the same day.



If you would like to get involved in our Polyculture studies and trials, registration for our market garden study 2017 is now open. click below for more info.

Permaculture Research 

For more on polyculture and permaculture research take a look at the good work being carried out by the  Permaculture International Research Network and for monthy news see  Permaculture Research Digest.


We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens, farms and orchards.


Forest Garden Plant Nursery - Permaculture Plant Nursery


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Polyculture Trials 2016 - Home Garden Records

For the previous three years we have been testing the practice of growing vegetables and herbs in polycultures (or what is known as guilds within permaculture circles). We have been using our home garden for these tests and recording the inputs and outputs from the growing seasons. Our aim is to discover whether or not growing in polycultures offers benefits over conventional methods of growing, and to see to what degree we can obtain good yields of nutrient dense food whilst providing habitat for garden wildlife.

Garden produce and wildlife 

What follows is a description of the garden layout and planting scheme, an overview of our cultivation practices, the results from year three of the study, our record keeping methods, and some notes and observations from this year.

If you would like to see a summary of  results from previous years click here.

Last year we started a scaled up version of this study looking at polyculture growing for a market garden. The results from year 2  will be coming soon. You can read more about that study here

The Polyculture Market Garden

Garden Overview   


Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 580 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates:42°42′N 25°23′E

The Polyculture beds on a mid spring morning

Garden Layout 


Garden area: 66.5m2
Cultivated beds area: 36m2
Paths: 30.5m2

 Path and Bed Layout 

The Polyculture Planting Scheme 


Below is a typical representation of the polyculture planting scheme within a bed.

Vegetable Guild/Polyculture


In 2016 the following plants were grown in the 6 beds (36m2)

11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Black Krim'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Tigerealla'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Mixed Saved Seed'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Rozova Magia'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Anna Russian'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Ukranian Purple'
66 x Basil - Ocimum basilcium 'Sweet Genovese'
27 x French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Cobra'
27 x French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Local'
2 x Courgette - Cucurbita pepo 'Black Beauty'
4 x Yellow Bush Scallops - Cucurbita pepo
6 x Butternut Squash - Cucurbita pepo 'Waltham Butternut'
4 x Swiss Chard - Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla ' Rainbow Chard '
4 x Sunflower - Helianthus annuus
12 x African Marigold - Tagetes erecta
12 x French Marigold - Tagetes patula
6 x Pot Marigold - Calendula officinalis

Polyculture Produce

The table below shows the floral species composition of each bed including the different cultivars and the dates that the plants were sown or planted. Beans, courgettes and winter squash were sown directly into the beds, tomatoes, basil, chard and marigolds were grown from seed indoors reared to approx 15 cm tall and  planted outside around mid spring. Sunflowers and pot marigolds are self seeded.

Other plants such as volunteer nasturtiums were also growing within the beds. The yield of these plants are not considered in these records. Also not included are the native wild plants that are encouraged to grow around the perimeter of each bed. Many of these plants provide excellent fodder for our chickens and rabbits as well as mulch material when chopped and dropped on the beds.





Polyculture Cultivation Practices 


In the early spring when the temperatures are warm enough for the chickens to be outside during the night, we place a 1 m x 3 m bottomless chicken coop with 8 - 10 hens inside onto one half of a bed. The chickens will live there for 3 or 4 days and each day we throw them in kitchen scraps, grain and weeds. The chickens relentlessly scratch among the soil and mulch picking off the eggs of slugs and larvae as well as pupae of various arthropods. They also forage for seeds in the soil and thereby reduce the emergence of undesirable plants in the bed. The chicken's scratching mixes up the organic matter we throw in daily and the birds contribute a valuable supply of droppings as they go.


The chicken run 1.3 x 3 m light frame bottomless coop 
After 3 or 4 days we move the chickens onto the next half of the bed and the process repeats. The area the chickens have just moved from is forked over, soaked well (or we wait for a rain) and usually 20 L of compost per 1.5 m length are applied i.e 80 L per bed). A 20 cm layer of Straw mulch (approx 3/4 of a bale) is then laid to cover the surface. The mulch provides good habitat for toads and lizards (in the spring, summer and autumn) which are well positioned to pick off any slugs that venture in for the young seedlings.

Common Toad clearing out the slugs before the plants go in

Once mulched the stakes for tomatoes and beans are put into position. Large reliable germinating seeds such as beans and squash are sown directly into the beds by pulling back the mulch, making a small nest adding 3 handfuls for potting mix (50% compost 50% river sand) and sowing the seeds directly into the mix. All other plants are reared in pots and planted into the beds when approx 15 cm tall and when the weather is suitable. Any weed plants that grow around the edge of the beds are cut back before they set seed and used as additional mulch throughout the year. Weeds growing within the bed are treated the same way. Note that weeds are not uprooted only cut to ground level. The roots are allowed to decay in the ground or left to regrow until they are again ready to "chop and drop".

Around July the vegetable and herb plants are all well established with little room for weeds to establish. The attention the beds require after July is mainly irrigating and harvesting until October.

The polyculture in the summer 

When the last of the harvest is out of the beds, the stakes are removed and if warm enough the chickens are brought in for another 3 or 4 days to pick through the vegetation. None of the plant material is removed from the beds.  What the chickens leave behind is cut into small pieces and applied to the surface as an overwinter mulch. In November garlic is planted in some of the beds. November sown garlic will normally mature in June, however we use the small bulbs that are not worth planting as main crop garlic and harvest them in March like spring onions before the chickens go on, providing a deliciously fresh treat in early spring.

Inferior Garlic bulbs planted 10 cm apart 5 rows per bed for a spring harvest 


Soil Analysis

 

Each spring and autumn we obtain a soil sample and send it to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. We can see from the samples rising levels of essential plant nutrients and check our pH levels are within the optimal range for vegetable production.

Mineral Analysis from 01.04.2016  





Mineral Analysis from 01.11.2016 





Year 3 Results in Summary


This year we harvested 168 kg of vegetables including tomatoes, basil, beans, garlic, winter & summer squash, chard and sunflower heads, a 51 kg decrease on last year's total.

The time spent on this garden, including propagating all the plants from seed, preparing the beds, tending the plants, irrigating and harvesting amounted to 57 hrs and 20 mins from March - October. We used 480 L less compost this season than last season.


Results: Inputs and Outputs  

Table summarizing input and outputs from October 31st 2015 - October 31st 2016



Garden Produce



All produce was weighed directly after harvest and unless otherwise stated, all of the produce recorded was in excellent condition and fit for market. Produce not fit for market was composted or fed to our animals and is not included in these records.

Record Keeping Methods 


The tasks were predominantly carried out by one person, either myself, my partner Sophie or one of our boys Dylan and Archie.  A timer is started just before the task starts and stopped when the task is complete. On a few occasions two people were working on tasks at the same time, namely erecting the stakes and planting the garlic. These occasions are recorded in the management sheet of the record keeping spreadsheet 2015 (in the "Notes" row).

In 2015 we established base times for garden tasks that are carried out each year and we extrapolate from this results for future records. Some tasks differ in quantity each year such as irrigation, mowing and harvesting and we account for these separately.

Irrigation 

Our irrigation system is unique to our garden in that we flood irrigate using a mountain stream, however I estimate the irrigation needs of the polyculture to be 20 L per m² i,e 120 L per bed or 720 L for the entire garden applied once a week in the absence of rain (normally July- September). The time taken to apply 120 L per bed is estimated at 10 minutes so that's 60 mins per irrigation session. This year we experienced a very dry summer with a period of 13 weeks without significant rain. During this period, irrigation was practiced once per week.


Mowing

The time for mowing is estimated to be 10 minutes. During dry seasons less mowing is required whereas during wet seasons more mowing is required. This year we mowed the pathways seven times.


Harvesting  

Harvesting times are recorded along with other garden tasks such as tying tomatoes and weeding. so we don't have a base for this task. For this year's results we used last year's figures, but it would actually be less as the total produced harvested is 51 kg less this year. A harvest base time is required for future records.

Notes and Observations from 2016 


  • Farm Ducks were free ranging in the garden from July - mid October and often foraging in the straw. This breed of duck (some type of mallard breed) caused little notable damage in the garden but probably made it less likely for toads and lizards to hunt in the straw. 
Ducks in the beds
  • The decrease in production this year may be attributed to the below: 
  1. We did not add the usual 480 L of compost this year as the soil results showed ample nutrients for vegetable production. 
  2. A cold and wet April and May meant that many squash and beans did not germinate. This resulted in less production from beans and squash than would be expected. Next year we will be growing these plants in starter trays and planting out when the weather conditions are favorable.  
  • The market value of the produce is estimated based on average market prices from the food coop Trustika.  It is not what we actually sold the food for, as much of the food from this garden was consumed by us or preserved. 
  • Our low expenses are attributable to the fact we grow our own plants from seed, make composts and sowing mediums, grow summer and autumn mulch and save seeds from plants that do not readily crossbreed such as tomatoes, basil, marigolds and beans. We also provide our own support materials (tomato stakes and bean poles). Time taken to make composts and harvest support stakes are not included in the records. 


Improvements for Future Studies 


Biodiversity Study 

It's our goal to build productive ecosystems that provide for a large diversity of organisms as well as us. We believe our gardens achieve this but currently have no way of quantifying/qualifying this. We'd like to develop a method of biodiversity measurement that can be used and believe that invertebrate diversity would be a great place to start. The Plants for Bugs experiment carried out by a team of entomologists at RHS Wisley would work well. During this study invertebrate samples were taken on five occasions throughout the year and recorded.  The samples are gathered using pitfall and baited refuge traps for ground fauna, and direct observation of flying insect visitors and those settled on the plants.

Our goal is to create garden ecosystems that are productive for man and for nature.
Photographs taken from the garden.by Paul Alfrey and Peter Alfrey.


We are currently seeking collaboration with entomologists that could assist us with this part of the study. If you or someone you know is interested in this please do get in touch.

Sharing, Feedback and Collaboration 


We have our record keeping spreadsheets on Google Drive. These spreadsheets include all of the data entries and task descriptions. You can find the spreadsheet here. (note there are multiple sheets that can be accessed from the blue tabs running along the top of the sheet). 

You are welcome to a copy of the spreadsheet format that you can use for your own purposes. Just drop us an email or leave a comment below with your contact details and we will send it over to you. 


If you would like to get involved in our Polyculture studies, registration for our market garden study 2017 is now open. click below for more info.





Permaculture Research



We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens, farms and orchards.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thank you to everyone that participated in 2016 Polyculture Market Garden Study

It's the end of the second year of our Polyculture Market Garden Study marked by the end of season soil sampling, picking green tomatoes, mulching the crop residues and packing the tomato and bean supports away (leaving some for the birds to perch on over the coming winter). Once we get the soil samples back from the lab. and finish writing it up we'll be posting the results here on the blog.

See here for the results of our polyculture studies from 2014 - 2016


Packing away supports and last harvests

We'd like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped with the study this year.

Peter Alfrey, Natasha Barbier, Jack Carlowe, Alexandre Duclouet, Susan Eggers, Johannes Heuschkel, Sandra Koljackova and her 2 beautiful daughters,  Biljana Kostovska,  Pauline Lousteau, Tadeo Melvin, Ala Pekalska, Kata Prodanov, Jan and Keith Roberts, Dimo Stefanov from Wasteno Farm,  Ute Villavicencio, Marika Wanklyn and Charlotte Wrist Kirk.  

Polyculture Study Crew 2016

Looking forward to next year already! Registration for 2017 is now open. If you'd like to join us you can find out more here.