World Soil Day & December at the allotment


Here is my path to the allotment. I’m a bit fixated on it, and have been snapping it at different seasons. I like the way colour has leached from the grasses.

The allotment looks bleak at this time of year, not improved by the fact that many of us are untidy allotmenteers. There’s all sorts of unsightly takataka lying about – things that might come in handy for something, sometime. I’m guilty of it myself, and of course when you take on a plot, you inherit your predecessor’s junk. I’m gradually whittling mine down.

There are also jobs I haven’t done – edging the beds, giving the paths a final mow while I had the chance. But I did sow my mustard at just the right time and now have an impressive crop.


I’m growing it both as a cover crop and a green manure. If we have a hard winter it will probably be frosted and die down by itself. For now it’s still growing, and if it survives till spring I’ll cut it down and probably just let it rot on the  soil surface. With green manures it is usual to dig them in before they flower. But I’m beginning to have second thoughts about digging, much as I enjoy wielding my grandfather’s sharp bladed spade.

For years I’ve known (vaguely) about No Dig Organic Gardening, just as I’ve long known that mulching crops produces sturdier, tastier produce that needs little watering. But it has taken a while for the penny to completely drop.

No dig cultivation is not simply about saving labour. It’s about protecting and nourishing the soil. And since today is World Soil Day, there can be no better moment to think about this totally essential, life protecting, life enhancing substance. If our soil is degraded and low in nutrients, then our food is not giving us the nutrition we need to stay strong and healthy. M.S. Swaminathan, India’s ‘Father of Green Revolution’ calls this ‘hidden hunger’.  Paradoxically, we suffer from it even in rich countries where we eat all day, and it contributes to (and some would say lies at the root of) much chronic disease.

Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger…Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision.

M.S. Swaminathan


All my gardening life I have tended towards the traditional notion that digging the soil well, weeding, and adding plentiful compost is a ‘good thing’. Yet after 8 years of digging, weeding and forking in compost on my allotment plot, I’m seeing only marginal improvements in the soil: i.e. it’s a little better than it was.

In dry weather the soil surface still turns brick-hard,  which in turn constricts plant growth, (and in some cases  ‘bonsais’ the plants) making then weak and susceptible to pests. I then have to do a massive amount of watering which is not ideal either; it discourages the plants from rooting deeply.

Also every time you slice through the soil with a spade you disturb the complex community of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes that support vibrant plant growth.

Better, then, to thickly pile shredded garden waste over the entire soil surface, and allow a microenvironment to establish underneath. The mulch gradually breaks down as all the matter is digested and re-digested, creating a nutrient rich, moisture retaining medium.

I now realize I need to cultivate a cohort of  jobbing domestic gardeners who will let me have their shredded garden waste rather than taking it to the recycling centre. In the meantime I decided on a little experiment.

Lacking the necessary quantities of gardeners and their shreddings, I spent three hours hours yesterday digging out my partially rotted compost bin, and spreading it several inches deep over four square metres of exposed soil. It was a messy process after days of downpours. But it’s amazing what lengths this writer will go to to avoid writing the novel.

The trouble is, rooting around in one’s compost heaps, turning stuff over, redistributing it, tends to be rather more satisfying than staring at the computer screen and straining one’s brain to dig out the right words.

I’ve also been making simple ‘silos’ out of chicken wire, to collect the leaves and so make leaf mould. This will take a year or two, but I might try and speed the process up next year by adding in some grass mowings. The resulting dark compost is just the stuff for seed sowing, so hopefully there will be some in  spring 2017.


And I’ve been busy in the polytunnel. The summer’s ludicrous tomato forest is long gone and the last of the fruit turned into soup, sauce and chilli tomato jam. Now all has been raked over and planted with winter salad stuff – Chinese mustard, chard, pak choi, purslane, perennial rocket, lamb’s lettuce, Russian kale. I also have some parsley in there, onions, garlic, leeks and a bucket each of carrots and Florence fennel. The fennel probably won’t grow much, but we can eat the feathery leaves.

And just in case we do have the promised hard winter, I already have the fleece ready to lay over the young plants. Last year was pretty mild, and I found that once I put fleece over everything, the plants continued to grow, if only a little. I also have two small water butts filled to the brim and stationed inside. Their presence is supposed to provide a slight increase in temperature within the polytunnel. They are also handy when the allotment water supply is switched off for the winter.

Meanwhile, out on the plot, there are still lots of crops to harvest – carrots, leeks, kale, small amounts of  perennial spinach, and cauliflowers. The Brussels sprouts, cabbages, purple sprouting and Romanesco broccoli are all coming along. The field beans have sprouted, likewise the overwintering Radar onions.


I know I am very lucky to have my allotment. But everyone can do some gardening, even if you only have a bucket. In fact a bucket is great for growing carrots. Lack of space need not be an obstacle. A single raised bed of one square metre, topped with layers of mulch can be intensively cultivated with leafy crops. And remember, there’s no need to dig it. Also mucking around close to soil is good for lifting the spirits. Scientists have discovered it gives off some kind of anti-depressant molecules.

All of which is to say:




copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

55 thoughts on “World Soil Day & December at the allotment

  1. You’re a lady after my own heart. I’m a dedicated gardener and advocate for native plantings (on the East Coast, USA). Your space is a precious sanctuary. I often tell people that leaves are liquid gold. I pile them on areas that I want to reduce to soil and eliminate grass. I compost them (as I see you do). You are correct to revere Mother Earth; she provides and we must return a form of allegiance, which is certainly not a universal concept.Great post.

    1. Hello, fellow cultivator Sally. It’s so good to know you are caring so fiercely for your corner of the earth. It needs all the love it can get. I’ve just read the shocking statistic that only 8% of the African continent is productive land. Of course good land has been shrinking there for decades,if not centuries – due to desertification, and climate change, both global and local, cutting down trees for fuel etc. We need to learn from what is happening there though, particularly as it’s happening before our very eyes.

      1. Indeed, I’ve found in recent months that my images and words are moving closer and closer to blend the confluence and interaction of nature and human nature. This path is where I am walking. I’d like to tell more of the story about the good, bad and the terrifying. We’ll see.

      2. I’m cheering you on then, Sally. Go for it. Such stories need to be told. We have to WAKE UP. But setting an example by DOING good stuff in the garden is also powerful.

  2. What a wonderful post. Referring to the last two is so true that being close to the soil is healing. about fifteen years ago when my daughter visited me in Wales, she arrived in a distressed manner – having just broken up with a serious beaux. Nothing I could say would help….and then I suggested that she go into my little cottage garden and prune back the lavender. After a couple of hours, she felt like a different person and her mood was completely lifted. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has her own allotment…and loves it.
    Going back to the beginning of your post. I love the pathway….and can imagine the sounds of the grasses moving when it’s very windy….like today. Many stories could be conjured up about that pathway.
    I love your ideas for protecting the soil and in turn producing much better crops…just wish I lived next door so I could eat some of the produce:) Janet.

    1. That’s a lovely story about your daughter. It’s reminded me too of some traditional indigenous South American wisdom, about everyone needing a garden. Of course not everyone can have their own, but at least most of us have access to a park, and often volunteers are required. Also I think it’s a pity you don’t live next door too 🙂

  3. All that vibrant green makes me green with envy. Beautiful allotment you have and a very lovely post too:-)

    1. Cheers, Cocoa. Our green-ness is very apparent this year. Because it’s been so mild so much is still growing, which is a bit unsettling. It should all be asleep by now 🙂

  4. Tish, what a blessing that allotment is to you and you to is as well. We live in a rental house now, with not space for a garden. However, I grow a few herbs and you’ve inspired me to try some container gardening next year.


    1. Container gardening is really worth a go, and it’s amazing how many container variety of seeds there are. I once grew some very slender juicy parsnips. Also garlic does well in a bucket or big pot.

  5. Wish I’d known this, about the digging, for multiple reasons, primarily I hate digging, don’t find any amount of therapy in it, just strain. But yes, sitting over the ground and picking at it, preening it, that feels good – perhaps lighten the spirit some, as you suggest here. Thanks for sharing Tish. “Ode to the Waning Light.” Nary a speck of green here in old Dublin now, unless it’s a rugby shirt for sale in a window. Think I’ll open a beer and put my socks on. Best, – Bill

      1. I have a cauliflower in the fridge so I just need some crème fraiche! Are you vegetarian then Tish? You certainly grow a lot of veg. 😀

  6. Tish – I really soaked up this post! And hear hear !! Need to come back again and read once more but truly a great post for soil day!
    I knew about soil depletion and the connection to poor health but that quote was cool! And side note – malabsorption is also at the root of much illness – many people are so loaded with candidiasis or other issues that impair their mucosa lining and impact digestion – and don’t even want to get started on the other build up many have w/ parasites – but years ago my mom used to tell me about the depleted soils and I shrugged her off – but now I know it is very true (why was I so obstinate?)
    Anyhow – my other favorite takeaway from this post is the no dig idea and I am coming back to digest that more.
    Have a great weekend Xxoo

    1. Hello there, Yvette. Glad this connected. And yes, I agree with all you say – basically gluten intolerance and all that adds up to – most likely due to new strains of wheat developed since the 1960s – high gluten and hard to digest. The Weston Price website has much more info this, if I remember rightly – and he was a dentist who observed how nutrition affected dental and other development. I think he reckoned the Dinka of East Africa had the most perfect dental presentation – totally in sync with their blood curdled milk diet.And also the Alpine Swiss. It’s fascinating that so many humans don’t think it matters what they eat. But it does!

      1. I will have to check on that Weston price site- and I have been Learning a lot about dental work and health too – and the parasite testing center in Arizona with dr omin has found that many of his sick patients were ill because of the dental toxins – not quite what you were noting with the dental point you made -but even more than mercury in the fillings there can be issues – like root canal bacteria and stuff – and I heard about the wheat changes too – it is all so interesting – but one of my favorite tips about “what to eat” came from an old 1990s book by Ann Louise – called “your body knows best” and she argues that the meat we eat and even the veggies should align with our blood type and we can look to our ancestors for tips on what our bodies need – and so that is why some of us do better with red meat and others with white- or very little meat –
        But I have also learned that so many folks are missing enzymes and have very little stomach acid – and their gut is all off from not having tha to help digest gluten and everything else – but oh my goodness about the corrupted foods and depleted soils and bad flora from antibiotics – whew – ok – time for me to have another read of this nice post –

  7. No digging. Oh what joy. Must have a go at this. The beans this year are crap – so far. It has been so dry they just haven’t got going a all.
    If i lay on loads of mulch I may have to fence off the veggies as the dogs do love to traipse everywhere …. and on occasion, dig.

      1. We bury as much compostable material as poss.
        There is a seal-able bucket behind the garage where we put all the peelings and what have yu. Once a week we empty it in the back garden and simply dig it into the soil.
        This is where most of our veg comes from. It just sprouts up.

      2. I think you have a climate advantage. But I can also see the problem with the dogs. If you didn’t dig it, I guess they might eat it. I used to dig loads of compost into my Nairobi garden, and the next time I looked the ground was back to being red cement and the termites had taken all the good stuff somewhere else.

      3. If left, the dogs do eat it and on occasion if not dug deep enough they will go digging and we find egg shells strewn all over the place and one or other dogs getting sick.
        It is the drought/late rains over here that is causing problems.
        Celeste went to the supermarket this morning and when she returned said there is a shortage of vegetables! How nuts is that? And the prices have gone haywire.
        We have a borehole which is a godsend, believe me.
        We really need some genuine Jo’burg Summer rain, though I fear it is still a few weeks away.

  8. Tish, that’s a bountiful allotment! And thanks for the lessons. You made me nostalgic for the wonderful vegetable gardens we cultivated on the plantations ages ago. Off to get myself a bucket! Do you think a bucket garden will survive 45C temperatures?

    PS: MS Swaminathan belongs to Tamilnadu. My last job was with his architect nephew!

    1. Good on you, Madhu. Drying out could be a problem with bucket gardening at that temp. Phew! But there are all sorts of things you can do to keep moisture in – a good mulch on top for one thing; drip irrigation using an upturned plastic bottle with a nozzle attached to control the flow. Good luck!

  9. Hi Tish. I love that first shot of the grasses and admire you for growing some of your own food. It’s so much healthier than eating commercial processed food. Your quote is wonderful too. 🙂

  10. that looks like a really great garden! I miss getting my hands in soil. Houseplants aren’t the same thing, they’re great, but not the same experience of growing

  11. This post is so close to my heart Tish and I agree whole heartedly about the no-dig way of gardening and have done it for a while in both NZ and Australia. Have you heard of the Perma-culture movement? It is based on no dig and as far as I know originated in Australia as our soils are very degraded over here. Your allotment looks so healthy, I know you love your compost I remember a previous post about your addiction to it… Your plants show how they appreciate your loving care, that is an amazing cauli. Well it has been a lovely wander through your varied and interesting posts Tish. Today it is raining (YES!!!) and I have had an excuse to spend time indoors. But now it is 5pm and time to pull on my wellies shrug into the raincoat to go feed the sheep, dogs, cat and check everything is ok for the night. Catch you again later. Oh and have a really lovely Christmas.

    1. Thank you, Pauline – and for all your lovely posts and comments this year. Wishing you all the best for 2016, and thinking of you with all your hard-working house-sitting. And indeed I have heard of Perma-culture but I need to find out more. Cheers to you and your gardening too.

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