Tag Archives: soil

Guy’s Newsletter: poo, pandas & cystitis

Never mind the conservational emphasis placed on pandas and orangutans; we and they are all mere ephemeral surface dwellers whose biological significance is in providing a home for the bugs in our guts. The global biomass of bacteria is, after all, larger and more diverse than all plants and animals put together; we would never have emerged from the swamp without them and will be extinct in a blink if we ever manage to kill them all. Across the world, when the poo falls, that’s when the real action starts. Each gram of soil contains about 40 million bacteria of between 2000 and 1 million species, but no-one really knows what goes on down there. My point: incredible biological processes are happening under our feet and we’re almost completely ignorant of them. As with most forms of ignorance, the result tends at best to be fear and neglect of the potential benefits, and at worst often wanton destruction of the unknown (in this case, through modern farming’s chemicals and soil compaction), until someone figures out how to make money out of enlightenment.

Despite our best efforts to destroy our soils, we might be saved from a self induced post antibiotic world where TB, cystitis and gonorrhoea are untreatable by one of those millions of unidentified soil bacteria. Like the panda, no-one has worked out how to breed them in full public view; the standard agar dish doesn’t work for 99% of soil bacteria. However if grown in a kind of bacterial hotel submerged in the soil, one such bacteria, Teixobactin, produces a new type of antibiotic which, if it proves as effective and free of side effects as it seems to be in mice, could save us from some forms antibiotic resistance.

Alternatively you could follow a 9th century medical text and take equal quantities of ox gall, wine vinegar and garlic, pound it and stew at room temperature for nine days before straining; according to two women on Radio 4, the liquid kills 99.999% of Staphylococcus aureus, though they did counsel against trying it at home. Perhaps we had better hope for our soil to saves us from the brink…if we can save the soil first.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: where are the guardians of our soil?

April is a hectic month of change as planting gets underway in earnest all over the farm. Where last year’s crops are finished and the fields need a rest, we are sowing ‘leys’ to build fertility, and restore soil structure. After years of experimentation, my brother Oliver uses a mixture of triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), lupins, clovers (all nitrogen-fixing legumes), grasses and, more unusually, chicory. This bitter herb does well on our soils and seems to be favoured by the grazing dairy herd, but more importantly Oliver reckons it opens the soil structure and brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. By July, as the lupins and triticale fill their seed heads, he takes a cut of silage to feed the cows in winter; the understory of clover and grass are then free of competition to form a dense sward for the cows to graze. After three or four years of such restorative activity, the soil is ready for vegetables again.

The complexity of our farm with its mixture of annual and perennial crops and livestock is unquestionably good for the soil and wildlife, but it’s rapidly becoming an anomaly in modern agriculture. The norm is for soil to be subjected to repetitive monocropping on large farms which specialise in one enterprise, generally propped up by chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. After 30 years, with plenty of mistakes along the way, I feel confident that with each turn of the rotation our fields are improving and, while the commercial pressure is always towards simplicity and specialisation, we are getting better at managing the complexity. This is in stark contrast to most agriculture where the UN predicts that on average the world has just 60 years of crop growing capacity left, due to soil degradation.

Our system is far from perfect; the abiding weakness is the need to create a weed free seedbed for new crops to establish. The two poles of thinking are that you either spray or you plough; both are environmental catastrophes for soil flora and fauna, but ploughing is just a bit less flawed than the chemical alternative. As farmers we must learn to produce food while being better guardians of the fragile, much neglected soil that supports us all.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: worm love

It’s always good to start a new season and while we have respectable crops that will taste good, the plants are generally late, smaller and lack the vigour we expect at this time of year. As I walk the fields I’m not despondent but the grower in me is constantly asking, “why?”. The slow growth could be caused by low temperatures but I’m attributing the general lack of vigour to an ailing soil.

Organic farmers depend on the health of their soil, especially the communities of bacteria and fungi living around crop roots. Coupled with the activity of earthworms, these microbes are the stomach of the plant, breaking down organic matter to release the soluble nutrients our crops need to grow. There is also evidence that these symbiotic relationships help protect our crops from disease. Think about probiotics and the effect of antibiotics, a curry or too much beer on your gut and you’re getting the picture; no creature lives in isolation.

A healthy soil needs to breathe so its cavities (created largely by earthworm activity) must be open to allow the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. During last winter, the wettest in living memory, even our better drained soils were waterlogged for months. Suffocated like a patient struggling with pneumonia, many of the beneficial fungi and bacteria were replaced by species that thrive in anaerobic conditions. The soil takes on a foul sourness with the wrong microbes producing the wrong metabolites resulting in unhealthy plants.

It’s not a disaster; with drier conditions the good bugs will prevail, and I expect the later crops to be fine. However it has emphasised the importance of a living soil in time for the launch of our national earthworm survey, Riverford’s Big Worm Dig, designed with earthworm experts at the University of Central Lancashire. Children especially enjoy it so visit our website below for your free survey booklet.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: floods, sacrificed soil & scapegoats

I’m writing this in the Budongo Forest Reserve, central Uganda. Until now we’ve been travelling through a parched landscape, scarred by fires and deforestation. It’s been three months of drought, yet last night I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof, as it is green and lush here even at this driest time of year. The forest canopy and leaf litter protect the soil and provide the organic matter that enables it to absorb even the most intense rain, providing water to the trees above. The microclimate this creates seeds the rain that fell on my roof, while the drought continues in the surrounding land where farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.

Checking the news back home I see the debate starting on how we live with the weather we’ve created. Our farmers have not made the rain but we’ve caused some of the run-off and erosion that has contributed to the floods, mainly through poor agricultural practice. While many British farmers respect and indeed treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn sown cereals leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year. Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24% in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in government regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.

So how do we improve agricultural practice? In war-torn Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with the charity Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management. The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government.

Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters. Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: catch-up carrots & exceptional soups

The soil is fully charged with water (‘at field capacity’ is the technical term) and with rain falling almost constantly this week, the brown, swollen river is only just within its banks. It may still be warm but as we struggle in the mud, the summer of 2013 feels truly behind us.

All but the last ten acres of potatoes are safely in store along with the onions, beetroot and squash. After being held back by the dry summer, many of our co-op member’s carrots were still too small to harvest while the good soil conditions were with us. Thanks to the rain they have now bulked up, but we must hope for a dry spell to allow the mechanical harvesters to roll. These use two converging rubber belts to grip and lift the carrots, but we have perhaps three weeks before the carrot tops become too weak for this process to work. In the right conditions this machine is poetry in motion and at least 100 times faster than doing it by hand. Having to go back to kneeling and grovelling in the mud would be hard.

soups to rave about


I don’t often rave about the ‘ready to eat’ food we sell; it’s all top end stuff but our mission is (and always will be) to encourage you to cook for yourselves. Having said that, if you are feeling harassed or perhaps a little lazy, here is my plug for the soups my brother Ben makes. Just about everyone has been bowled over by the quality, and three scooped gold at this year’s Soil Association Organic Food Awards. The uncomfortable truth about most manufactured soups is that they are made with globally traded, pre-prepared frozen vegetables and then whizzed to a pulp to allow mechanical pumping into containers, all to keep their costs down. Ben’s are handmade with no compromise on ingredients and are in a different league; with their chunky texture they are more of a meal than a soup. It’s enough to make even the most fussy eater lazy. 

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: ‘blow-ins with attitude’

An ageing farmer recently confided that he hadn’t expected my father to see a second harvest when he took on Riverford Farm in 1952, what with his, “fancy cows, combine harvester, silage and new-fangled ways”. Two generations later this neighbour was willing to accept (slightly begrudgingly) that John Watson might have got a few things right.

steep learning curve

There is no doubt that he got a lot of things wrong though. Had he been able to merge his new ideas with some local knowledge and wisdom, life would have been a lot easier. Instead he spent 30 years on the verge of bankruptcy before the ratio of success to failure improved and things finally came good. It was easier for the second generation; we had imbibed some knowledge along with the milk from those cows and had the benefit of witnessing his cock-ups, but we are still regarded as ‘blow-ins with attitude’ by the hardcore locals.

learnings on our French farm

That is how I feel on our farm in France; after four harvests, only one year has as much as broken even. A wet start to 2013 sunk us before we were off the blocks. Since then we have been playing catch up and despite the valiant efforts of my staff and my monthly ‘blow-in’ visits, we haven’t made up for the drowned carrots, beetroot and courgettes. If I had my time again I would have put in drains and formed the land to serve them as most veg growers around here do. It looked brutal to move all that soil around, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in it now. Not that I am going to give up; I am as pig headed as my father and we have got used to the lovely early season veg that bridges our hungry gap so well. We will give it at least another year for the locals to laugh and the French Exchequer to suck some more blood from these English veins.

Back at home I hope you can see from your boxes that we’ve had a much better year. A perfect summer is merging into a perfect autumn that’s bountiful, flavoursome, mud free but not too dry; farming bliss. Long may it last.

Guy Watson


guy’s newsletter: worms, organics & eccentrics

As we enter Organic September, it is rewarding and a little reassuring to find that Charles Darwin and I are not alone in our obsession with earthworms. There is Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum (endearingly bonkers) who travels the globe looking for new species, Rachel Lovell (mildly eccentric on a good day) who with Emma’s expertise has organised Riverford’s Big Worm Dig citizen science project, and the many of you who have rummaged in your gardens for our survey. It has been great to see children swiftly overcome their squirmishness and to witness their enthusiasm for finding and identifying worms while getting a bit muddy in the process. If that’s got you interested, visit the Big Worm Dig website to get your survey pack as there’s still plenty of time to get involved. Indeed, worms are much easier to search for in damp soil, so autumn is a good time.

So why are we making so much fuss about these dumb, arguably dull (sorry Emma) workhorses of the underworld? Without their burying of organic matter, and constant mixing, aeration and drainage of the soil beneath us, life on this planet would be very hard for other species. This is especially so for farmers and even more so for organic farmers. In the absence of chemical fertilisers we need an active soil which recycles nutrients efficiently; worms are the first stage of this process and a great indicator of the general health of the soil.

Yet, as with bees, we are slaughtering our allies with toxic agrochemicals and brutish farming techniques. Organic farming, with its absence of pesticides and scorching fertilisers, alongside better management of organic matter (worm food) is probably better, but it pains me to think of the carnage caused by a plough or rotavator when we prepare a seedbed. Sadly, as with so many aspects of ecology, worms would be better off if we just went away. Maybe one day we will be smart enough to grow our food without such brutal interventions, but should I somehow find myself living the life of a worm, I’d chose an organic field any day.

Guy Watson

More than you needed to know about muck

The winters of my childhood were dominated by muck. 200 cows produce a lot of it and the dung pit always seemed to be spilling out into the yard, making shifting it a constant challenge. It might not sound idyllic but I enjoyed it, apart from the pig muck (that was just too stinky).

If you have ventured into the countryside recently, you might have noticed the smell (the muck is flying, the slurry gushing). With the soil dryer than it has been for 11 months, it is the ideal time for spreading manure. Some fling it, some dribble it, some inject it straight into the soil. The prevailing problem is that the stuff is produced from housed cattle in the winter, when the ground is normally too wet to spread it, and the dormant soil and crops cannot absorb it.

My innovative father would send it gushing down a trench, which followed the contour around the hill, to where his welly-clad children would create dams and breaches to allow it to trickle down the slope to feed the pasture. Later, with the arrival of better pumps, came the exploding bladder which slowly inflated with slurry, until every few minutes, unannounced, it would purge itself across the field. The smell was horrendous. The latest development in muck technology is the umbilical pipe: slurry is pumped from the yards down up to a mile of snaking pipe to a tractor fitted with low ground pressure tyres and a dribble bar. This zig-zags around the farm, spreading it evenly without the damage caused to the soil by huge tankers and spreaders – a massive improvement.

Cheap synthetic fertiliser can lead conventional farmers to view muck as something to get rid of, as cheaply as possible. Too much of it ended up polluting rivers, though farmers have cleaned up their act and this is now very rare. Organic farmers have always prized their muck. Recycling nutrients back into the soil, matching availability to crop root absorption with a minimum of loss to leaching or the atmosphere, is vital to our success. It’s a bit stinky sometimes, but we would be lost without it.

Guy Watson

Ed’s Farm Blog – Rooting for success

organic jerusalem artichokesOur parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes are harvested mechanically in the winter which is a problem with our heavy soil: the crop comes up encased in great clods of earth and even the toughest tractor can get bogged down. To ameliorate this, we rent some land near Exeter which has a much lighter, sandy soil, allowing more reliable access. It also helps reduce fanging in the parsnips (when the root forks into two) although most of this is caused by nematode damage to the root tip.

This week we brought in the last of the crop and early results are looking mixed at best. The parsnips were planted during a particularly dry spell (the soil playing against us on this occasion) and as a result were slow to establish and put on bulk, resulting in many undersized specimens. They subsequently suffered a carrot fly attack, and the damage caused allowed canker to get hold. All told, not so good. They are going through the grading process as I write and it will be a couple of weeks before we have an accurate picture of how we’ve done.

On the plus side, the Jerusalem artichokes look really good and are probably going to provide a heavier yield than expected, so the two crops should balance each other out – always assuming we can persuade you to accept a few more artichokes. It is a sorry fact that parsnips are generally preferred to the humble artichoke. Closer to home we are making steady progress through the purple sprouting broccoli: Rudolph, our earliest variety, is now finished and the Red Spear is nearly done too. Next on the horizon is Red Head which we will start on for the first time this week.

Penny’s Gardening Blog – Ground and Site Preparation

Penny's Gardening BlogIn My Gardening  Blog This Week

I will be covering ground preparation and tools and kit needed. As the weather has suddenly turned arctic and the ground is pretty frozen in many parts of the country there is really not a lot one can do in these conditions. No one in their right mind would willingly stomp forth into their garden brandishing fork in one hand and bag of manure under the other arm. I really feel for the field workers out there picking leeks and kale etc. Come rain or shine they just get on with the job. So I am going to introduce composting into the arena too. This is a massive subject so-introduction- I mean.

Ground and Site Preparation
Now is the time to choose a site in your garden, if you haven’t one already. I am a great fan of pinching some of your lawn, redesigning your garden so that you can have a go at growing. Lawns are great, yes, but take a lot of care and are not half as rewarding as producing flowers, veg and herbs for your table, in my opinion.

A decent amount of sun and light are needed to grow successfully. Good well drained ground is a bonus but you can do a lot to improve your soil and its make up by adding well rotted manure and your own compost made from veg and fruit peelings and waste from your garden. Weather permitting, now is a good time to get out there and dig out perennial weeds such as docks, dandelions, couch grass, buttercups and the like.  Spread some well rotted manure and any rotted compost from your own compost heaps and lightly dig in. Covering the ground with plastic sheeting or even cardboard will warm the ground slightly and stop weeds from germinating.

Recommended Kit

Fork, spade, hand trowel, hoe, watering can with rose, hose and bucket, plant labels and pencil, fleece, well rotted manure.

gardening blogComposting

To make compost you need to build up a good mix of nitrogen rich waste from your garden such as grass clippings, annual weeds and carbon rich materials such as newspaper, cardboard and bark. The smaller the material is chopped up or shredded, the faster it will decompose.  Fruit and veg peelings from your kitchen may be added but no cooked foods or proteins should be used as these attract vermin. Clippings from pruning can also be added but nothing too woody. Ash from fire places and woodstoves can also be added too. Turn the heap regularly as air is an important factor to encourage decomposition. Be careful not to add huge amounts o lawn clippings at once as you will end up with layers of slime.

There are lots of different compost bins available on the market and it really depends on the size of your garden/outside space as to what is suitable for you. Just make sure to place straight onto soil, no plastic is needed at base as its good to encourage the worms up out of the ground to work your compost for you.   If you only have a patio a wormery is perfect and takes up very little space. If you have a large

garden, building your own heaps out of wood (old pallets are ideal) is the way to go. Having two compost heaps side by side is best, as you can fill one up and leave to rot and then start building the second one.

Avoid putting in perennial weeds, especially bindweed, couch grass and ground elder.  Also avoid adding diseased materials and weed seed heads. These should be put in the dustbin. Make sure to add layers of different materials and water if looks too dry. Cover with old carpet or plastic. The level of the contents will drop as it rots. This process happens faster in the summer when it is warmer. It really depends on how you keep your heap as to the speed of decomposition. Over the spring/summer period you can produce good compost within four to six months. It’s a slower process over the autumn winter months. When ready add to your garden and lightly dig in. This will improve the make up of the soil and adding nutrients and fertility.

In My Next Gardening Blog

I will look at propagating from seed and suggesting some easy varieties to try.

Read the rest of Penny’s Gardening Blogs