Organic Gardening- the natural no-dig way by Charles Dowding

This book is a superb introduction from Green Books to a tried and tested organic gardening technique perfected by Charles Dowding over 25 years of hands on experience.

A highly productive vegetable garden that involves no digging, written by a man with no formal horticultural training, and organic to boot? You may be permitted a certain cynicism.

However if that cynicism stops you from reading this book then you will have missed out on a treasure.

Charles Dowding is no armchair theorist, he produces weekly vegetable boxes, salad bags, supplies restaurants and runs courses all from an acre of intensively farmed land in Somerset.

His approach is classically organic in that it is soil centred- it is no coincidence that the leading organic body is called the Soil Association. A good soil structure is as important to a garden as a good foundation is to a building. Dowding argues that soil can be more harmed than helped through human digging. That doesn’t mean to say that the soil is not dug, just not by human hands. Back in 1828 Charles Darwin in his book, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation of their Habits”, noted that a healthy pasture has been 25 and 50 mm of topsoil added every year through the casts of earthworms. Dowding uses these natural workers to do his hard work, by adding 25-50 mm of well rotted manure or good compost to the surface of his plots- within three months this nutritious mulch is pulled into the body of the soil by the worms.

The second key to success is never ever walk on the soil, thus avoiding any opportunity to compact the soil- the worms ,with a good supply of nitrogen rich manure or compost, produce a light, crumbly humus rich soil, the perfect base for vegetables. Walking or applying weight to the surface compacts the soil, making it heavy and dense- difficult for roots to penetrate.

A raised bedding system is therefore ideal, beds no more than a metre wide with clear paths on either side allow for easy access, the fact that they are raised makes them less back stretching for planting and of course weeding. It also means that the system works for small urban gardens as well as those off us lucky enough to have large rural plots.

Like all organic soil orientated approaches careful crop rotation and judicious timing is very important- crop rotation helps ensure that the soil doesn’t get worn out as well as ensuring that pests particularly keen on one type of vegetable do not get embedded in a certain patch.

Pest and insects can be the bane of organic growers lives, this spring a cabbage of mine was demolished in a night by a horde of caterpillars. However judicious and timely intervention- getting down on hands and knees and examining every single leaf of each plant quickly led to caterpillar carnage which saved the crop- indeed the first victim burst back into life. Slugs are kept at bay by reducing their habitats anywhere near the vegetable plot, and by sneaking into the garden after night falls with a torch and murderous intentions.

Judicious planting timing is also very important- getting an early start by growing seedlings in cold frames and greenhouses means that the very vulnerable first weeks of a plants life are over before they are introduced into the garden. If a slug or snail does get to them then they will start on the fading outer leaves which they are more than welcome to anyway.

If the book stopped there with the basic principals it would be a good read. However Dowding goes onto to look at which vegetables should be planted when, and for me very helpfully what should then be planted in the plot after the first crop has been harvested.

Dowding’s approach is an intensive cultivation technique with plants grown close together- helps conserve moisture in summer, and leaves little space for weeds- and one plant rapidly following another so the beds are inconstant use. The output from a small garden can be enormous and all year round.

Don’t be fooled that no dig means no work but the rewards are well worth it. Of course clearing the land and making the beds in the first place is an endeavour in itself- but a once off endeavour.

This book is now my first port of call when I am looking for a gardening solution. As a beginner and non-scientist, I found his style easy to understand packed with useful tips and coherent in that it took me from an uninformed start to considering quite complicated seasonal planning without loosing the plot or throwing my hands up in confused despair. The results at the Domaine de Montrouch are looking promising- if the wild boar don’t decide they fancy a salad dinner one night.

Growing Organic Tomatoes

organic tomatoesNothing tastes quite like summer that a salad of freshly picked home grown organic tomatoes, sliced and sprinkled with basil and olive oil. A glass of chilled Corbieres Rose is a lovely companion, as are good friends to share them with.

This is not intended to be a definitive guide to growing organic tomatoes, more it is the summary of my experiences, what I have learnt works in my environment here in the Haut Corbieres.

Preparing to Plant Tomatoes

As with so many plants most of the work for organic tomatoes is in the preparation. Tomatoes are hungry chaps, and need a good 30 cm depth of rich soil, rich in vegetable matter and a good balance of minerals as well. They like a Ph level 6 -6.5. As the tropical plants they love a combination of warmth and humidity, so a sunny spot with easy access to water, ideally a drip by drip watering system that delivers the water direct to their roots. Also think about ground coverage, a rich mulch protects the soil underneath from the sun, reduces the water evaporation, and feeds the soil as it decays.

They also need space as they are vociferous creepers. There is a school of thought that tomatoes should be left to spread along the ground, as they would do naturally in the wild. I have seen some pretty amazing results from this technique but there are a couple of problems in my opinion with this method, firstly you need a lot of space, a luxury most people don’t have, secondly low lying plants can be susceptible to early blight, (Alternaria solani) which is a right royal pain, Although there are a couple of organic solutions it better to not have the problem in the first place. That is why I recommend training them up a structure. I use squiggly metal poles or reeds that I cut from the river bank-the latter have to be replaced every year. Growing against a fence or lattice can work well, particularly for large fruiting varieties like Beef Hearts, where you can support individual bunches.

Planting Tomatoes from seeds

Tomatoes can be easily grown from seeds, particularly if you have a sunny window sill, conservatory or greenhouse. Start planting in early Spring, if you are planting a lot of the same variety it is not a bad idea to stagger the planting, in an attempt to try and stagger the harvest, sometimes it works sometimes the later planted seeds catch up with their older siblings. Plant the seeds individually so you don’t have to separate them out later. Old loo roll centres are perfect, just cut them in half, you can plant them entirely as the cardboard will dissolve in wet soil, yogurt pots are about the right size as well.

Planting out Tomatoes

First a word of warning, don’t rush it. You may be eager to open that Rose and invite the neighbour round but tomatoes are very susceptible to frosts, they are tropical plants after all. Because we don’t heat our poly tunnel, and live at 400m altitude our tomatoes are always a bit later than our low land colleagues with their heated tunnels. However we never lack in clients, often folks who planted too early and have lost their first plants and are re buying. Wait until you are sure that the last frost is well and truly behind you before venturing out with the young tomatoes plants.

It is not a bad idea to harden them off a little before planting, take them outside and show them the sunshine for 4 or five days, bring them back in on an evening. This is particularly necessary for bought in plants, chances are they have been forced in a heated green house and will take a little time to get use to their new environment. If you have bought them off a grower direct have a chat with her or him and find out how they were raised. That is the great thing about buying direct, the grower can tell you about the plants history and their experience about what works and what doesn’t. You may spot a bit of bias in that last bit, but but hey, it is how we try and make our living.

Plant about 20-25 centimeters apart, with a similar distance between the rows. Plant them as deeply as you can, don’t worry about the bottom couple of sets of leaves, pinch them out- better to pinch them with you finger nails than cut them off, the wound are better sealed that way. The deeper the root ball is the better the foundation of the plant, and the less risk of them drying out.

As the heat and water take effect the plants should shoot up, do not worry of they do take a little time to get going, it takes a cople of weeks for them to get use to where they are, and just because they are not growing above the surface does not mean that they are no growing below the surface.

A note on watering.

Tomatoes are thirsty, but they drink slowly and continually, what they don’t like is change. You need to set a watering regime and stick to it. If you water by hand like I do, a morning watering around the base of the plant, giving each plant around 5 litres of water, is sufficient, in full Summer when the plant is starting to fruit I add an evening watering as well, I wait to the full heat of the day has passed, just before what we in France call the aperitif hour, and then reward myself with a drink on the terrace. As already stated a good ground covering mulch massively help reduce water loss as well as keeping the soil cooler in Summer and warmer in Spring. It also helps keep weeds down.

On going care for Tomato Plants

As previously stated tomatoes are hungry folks, a mid season composting round the base is always a good idea, a lovely nettle tea helps replace much needed NPK. I prefer these first two as they are cheaper than applying bought organic fertilisers, but if money is no object you can pop that on too. For me the ideal time is when the plant is starting to form fruit, that is when they needs a little boost.

Keep an eye on your plants, there are three major headaches to look out for.

  1. Early blight, Alternaria solani ,the low leaves develop brown spots with black rings around them. If you see that prune them out. And thrown them away, do not put them on your compost, it is a type of fungus that will infect your compost pile.

  2. Caterpillars, particularly tomato hornworms, the larva of a moth. Physical anialation is the best solution, it’s a messy job but it is either them or your tomatoes.

  3. Late Blight, Phytophthora infestans, can hit after a long wet period. This is a right horrible one, leaves brown off and the entire plant just collapses. The best solution is preventative, keep the plant well pruned so lots of light can get through and helping make sure that the plant stays dry. On that one, if you don’t have the luxury of a watering system, make sure that when you water the plant you water around the base of the plant and not on it’s leaves.

Pruning Tomatoes

Tomatoes once established, with the right heat, soil and water grows like crazy

Again various schools of thought in this one, there is the natural school that believes that the plant should be left to do it’s own funky thing, this gives you, with the right soil a huge bush, rich in foliage and, I find, light in fruit. I follow my grandfather’s advice on this one, he firmly believed that each tomato plant could give only so much fruit per plants, and to ask for more was just been greedy. A strong tomato plant, depending on variety, can give between 5 and 7 kilos of fruit in a season. That equates to between 5 and six bunches of tomatoes per plant. Each bunch needs light to help ripen but not too much. So with this objective in mind the plant should be pruned carefully and regularly. A tomato will try and push out side shoots from the V between every leaf branch, these should be pinched out with the fingers when tiny.

Pruning the foliage. Once the tomato plant has started growing I take out the bottom leaves to minimize the risk of early blight. Do not let any leaves touch the ground, I go one further and take off any leaves in the first 15 cm of the stem.

There will come that moment when the plant starts to flower, in indeterminate varieties this happens over a period of Summer rater that all at once like determinate varieties. I let seven bunches of flowers form. I only let six give fruit as I think that is the limit a plant can give, but I often find that one bunch does not set the fruit right, often the lowest flowers. The one that does not set gets the chop. Once the fruit has set and the tomatoes have grown to a decent size you may want to cut back a little of the foliage to allow the sun to get to the fruit, in my experience it is not really necessary. Too much sun during the ripening period can actually cause problems, the key issue is on keeping the humidity levels constant and keeping the essential nutrients topped up. This guide by Jeremy Dore How to Identify and Corect Tomatoe Nutient Deficencies on nutrient feeds to aid fruiting and prevent diseases is the best advice I have ever read and you could not want for better.

Companion Planting

Companion planting is a much loved organic horticultural method. The idea is that some plants benefit by being grown in association with others. Whether it be the nutrients that some plants set in the ground, the shade that one plant offers another, or the effects of the aroma of one plant in protecting it’s neigbour from insects or illnesses.

Tomatoes are sociable types, the shade they offer helps herbs that are quick to go to flower in the full sun develop into delicious bushes. To this end I always plant basil between my tomatoes, the aroma of the basil helps hold of insects, the shade of the Tomatoes slows down the flowering process of these delicate annuals, they have the same water needs, and of cause they taste delicious together. Tagetes, a variety of Marigolds, produce alpha-terthienyl , a chemical that helps prevent root-knot nematodes.

I also plant parsley and coriander, not for any benefit for the tomatoes but because they flower too quickly in Summer and the shade slows them down, some people say that borage is good to control root worm, I have no idea if this is true, I can not find any scientific evidence to back up this claim, but there is no harm in planting it in early Spring, chez nous it tends to grow early then disappear in full Summer. Planting comfrey; which can be trimed three to four time a year, you just leave the chopped leaves in place is a great sourcer of nitrogen and potash for the soil.

Last Note on Tomatoes

After you have spent a lovely Summer mulching away on fresh tomatoes, sipping Rose and solving the problems of the world with friends, it is time to say goodbye to your tomatoes. They need to be dug up, and the plants thrown away, not composted, this reduces the risk of disease being passed into the compost. The now empty patch needs a good cover of compost and mulch to replenish the nutrients and vegetable matter in the soil. Planting clover or mustard can help keep down weeds and can be strimmed to add their goodness to the soil.

If you look after the soil at the end of the season it is less work for next Spring, and it also means that you can avoid having to rotate crops. Crop rotation is a good idea for large scale production but the research is unclear whether it works on small scale vegetable gardens, better to work with the soil to produce the ideal growing medium for each type of vegetable across the patch than try to alter the soil type every year.

And then next year it starts all over again.

French Organic Market 2016

The French organic retail market has passed the 7 billion euro mark in 2016, according to the annual Agence bio, a clear 20% growth year on year compared to 2015.

The annual Baromètre Agence BIO / CSA survey indicates that nearly 9 out of 10 people, 89%, have bought an organic product in the last twelve months, with 69% buying organic products at least once a month, and a hard core of 15% who use organic products every day. This 15% is a huge 50% increase from the 19% in the same survey in 2015.

After a year of headlines about the on-going crisis in the French agricultural sector, and with avian flu gripping the country the Baromètre Agence BIO / CSA survey revealed that over 82% of the French think it is important to continue the development of the organic agriculture sector, and 83% of those surveyed saying that they have a high level of confidence in organic certified products.

When questioned about their understanding of general role of organic products and products. The strongest impact stated was environmental, with 92% believing that organic agriculture is better for the environment that industrial farming techniques, 89% believing that organic produce are more ‘natural’ than those that use synthetic chemicals, 88% saying that they think organic products are better for your health, with 80% believing that organic products guard their nutritional qualities better than industrial products, 70% agree that organic products simply taste better.

The general understanding of exactly the organic regulatory regime has also improved. 91% of those surveyed knew that Genetically Modified organisms are banned under organic regulations, and 71% were aware that colorants and artificial flavoring are also taboo. The fact that organic certification means followed strict procedures with at least one annual control by the certification body was also known to 82% of those questioned. 87% also were aware that organic rules ensure a higher decree of animal welfare and a better quality of animal feed.

Motivation of French Organic Consumers

When questioned about their motivation in buying organic as usual the belief that organic products are better for your health headed the list, 66%, good for the environment, 58%, better quality, tastes better, 56%, that organic products are safer/less likely to be contaminated, with 28% quoting animal welfare as their driving motivation.

What they buy

What people buy has not changes much year in year out, even while the French organic market grows. Fruit and vegetables continue as the largest category, followed by milk and it’s derivatives, yogurt, butter and cheese, organic eggs, and in fourth place general groceries such as pasta, rice, with meat coming in fifth. This is no real surprise as it also reflects those categories with the least organic premium in the lead, with the highest premium coming last. The strict organic rules in animal density and fodder regulations will always ensure that there remains a large price difference between, for example a cage raised, hormone fed chicken, and an organic, free range alternative.

Where they buy

The French organic retail market continues to be dominated by the large and medium sized retail operators. Specialist organic shops, while growing, we now have both a Bio Coop and a Vie Claire in little old Lezignan Corbieres, still are frequented by 31% of organic consumers as opposed to 80% who buy their organic produce from the big boys. Markets, 28%, and artisans such as organic bakers, 41% and farm gate sales, 18% play a small but important role.

Eating organic produce outside of the home has also seen a small explosion. Local government , mainly Departmental and Municipal, initiatives have seen a rapid growth in organic food being used in workplace canteens, schools and colleges, retirement homes and state and trade union run holiday camps.

The European Organic Market

According to research done by Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and the Agricultural Market Information Company (AMI) in association with IFOAM EU. The EU wide organic market in 2014 represented just over 26 billion euros, lead by Germany, France comes in second place ahead of the UK.

For the full IFOAM second edition of Organic in Europe: Prospects and Developments 2016. (PDF) can be downloaded free at http://www.ifoam-eu.org/sites/default/files/ifoameu_organic_in_europe_2016.pdf

For more information on the Baromètre Agence BIO / CSA survey you can see the headlines at http://www.agencebio.org/communiques-et-dossiers-de-presse

and download the entire report in PDF form here http://www.agencebio.org/sites/default/files/upload/AgoraBIO/dp_bio_barometre_val.pdf

Organic wine in France

organic wineWhen I first came across organic wine it was frankly a victory of conviction over taste to drink it, but now there are some organic wines that can hold their own against most mid market contenders.

The sector has grown massively in the last twenty years. The latest figures are that there are now 5,186 organic vineyards with a further 150 in conversion from industrial to organic in the first quarter of 2016.  With exports up 25% there has been a 10% increase in the total number of hectares under organic production between 2015 and 2016. Organic wine now represents 9% of the total French wine production, Amphore which organises a professional wine tasting awards every year just celebrated it’s twenty years anniversary this May, chief organiser Pierre Guigui says, “Twenty years ago there was 300 organic wine producers, now there is 16 times more.However at this rate it will be another two centuries before we convert all of the French wine industry.”

Is there such a thing as organic wine?

Now I have my issues with organic wine, I am not over sure a “pur et dur” organic wine exists in France. There are a few reasons for this doubt.

Firstly vineyards that have been used to produce industrial wine before have been saturated with pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers for decades. The short period of conversion to organic, while very painful for the owner does not in my opinion allow enough time for these chemicals to leach out.

Secondly the distance between an organic exploitation and an industrial one is actually quite small, simply three rows of vines. I drive through clouds of chemicals when I pass a sprayer, and here in the Corbieres we gave been known to have a bit of wind ever now again, chemicals like ideas know no borders.

So OK, you do what we did,  you find a bit of land that has not been worked for years and had no neighbours, then you can pass directly to organic status, superb no problems with spray, no underlying chemicals but you still have to obey the orders that arrive from the Prefecture when their are outbreaks of diseases, sometimes there are organic alternatives, sometimes not.

Those niggles aside however organic wine production is a vast improvement on industrial wine production, it’s concentration on biodiversity, soil management and purity of production has both huge environmental impact and lowers the headache factor of over indulgence. It also allows wine producers to benefit from slightly higher prices to compensate for the lower production level. The key factor however is to find the balance between quality and value for money, with lower buying power organic wine needs to not price itself out of the mid market.

Amphore Organic Wine Competition

Who owns the US organic market?

US organic mrketWhere the US corporations lead the rest of the world follows, the organic market is no different.

The US organic market is the world’s leading organic market, in 2013 Statista estimated it at 24, 347 million Euros, as opposed to Europe’s largest organic market Germany 7,550 million Euros (See http://www.statista.com/statistics/244375/revenue-of-organic-food-in-europe-and-the-united-states/) :

Organically certified food is in that premium food category loved by corporations, a niche market that is up to a point price insensitive. Organic buyers motivated primarily by perceived health benefits, and secondly by the environmental benefits of organic production allow corporations to increase their profit yields by paying a larger premium for organic. The major US food corporations have been quick to step in. The reality is that in the US, as in Europe, the majority of organic produce is not bought at farmers markets or direct from producers, they are just a side show, the real business is through major retailers.

Large food corporations are of a size that can negotiate with large retailers and the wider range of produce they can offer the more powerful negotiating hand they hold.

According to Dr. Phil Howard, an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State the first acquisition wave was between December 1997 and October 2002, this coincided with the launch and implementation of the US organic standards which regularised the rules for certified organic produce. A second wave started after 2012, 

Dr. Howard observes, “I expect more deals to occur, since organic foods sales continue to increase faster than sales of conventional foods, and corporations are flush with cash and/or access to cheap credit.”

Source: The Cornucopia Institute

French Organic market

The organic market in France is rising steadily, in 2013 it amounted to 4.38 billion euros up from 3.17 billion in 2012. (Source Agence bio) The UK organic market for 2014 in comparison is estimated by the Soil Association to be around 2.61 billion euros.

More importantly from my perspective is that the local organic producer numbers and the amount of land certified organic or in conversion is also increasing. At the end of 2014 1.12 millon hectares of agricultural land in France was certified organic or in transition to organic. In total that means 4.14% of all agricultural land is now under organic use.

Organic Land  France

Source Agence bio

The highest concentration of organic produce is here the South.

Midi-Pyrénées (145 409 ha),

Pays de la Loire(115 570 ha), OK not in the south I admit

Languedoc-Roussillon(100 789 ha),

Rhône-Alpes (96 331 ha)

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (93 184 ha).

Contrary to expectations wine does not lead the charge even here in the South, of the 1.12 million hectares of organic land just under 55,000 is vines compared to 193,000 hectares of cereals and dried vegetables.

Of the 26,466 organic farms 19% grow vines, 41% produce fruit and/or vegetables. 61% have pasture land, and only 7% have aromatic herbs.

Organic vs industrial farming by Department

Source Agence bio

If you read French the full facts abd figures are available at the Agence bio report http://www.agencebio.org/la-bio-en-france

The two maps used here are from the Agence bio report

THREE ORGANIC ALTERNATIVES TO HORMONE ROOTING POWDER

Plantstuff.co.uk-Wooden-Seed-Trays.jpg With Spring almost appearing its time to think about taking cuttings. Here at Montrouch we have a series of strong mother plants awaiting a hair cut, the Rosemary, Mint, Thyme are all looking suitably shaggy. The problem however is how to maximise the survival rate and to ensure strong growth. For chemical gardeners this isn’t a problem, a good hormone rooting powder does the job, organic growers however have to be a little more creative.

 

Organic growers don’t use hormone rooting powders for a couple of reasons, firstly the most important active ingredients are synthetic plant hormones, produced in chemical plants nor real plants, and secondly many contain fungicides to prevent infection which can damage plant growth and yield.

One of the most important active synthetic ingredients of hormone rooting powder is Indole-3-butyric acid, fortunately this nippily named plant hormone is also naturally present in weeping willows.

Willow Tea

A willow tea can be made using either the bark of a willow, or preferably, as it doesn’t harm future growth the free spring yellow branch shoots. There are a number of ways to make the tea but this is the one I find works best

Simply cut the shoots into 3 centimetre lengths in warm water for a good 48-72 hours, leave for a day and then dip your cuttings in the tea and plant. Put in the fridge the mixtue seems to last for three to four days.

Honey Tea

A Honey tea is also a great way to get cuttings to take off, take a spoon of organic honey, dissolve it in a cup of warm water, leave in a dark place until cool and then use as with the willow tea. I don’t quite know why this works, I think it probably has something to do with honey being a natural antiseptic, and preservative. I use it on those herbs I have had problems with disease wise and anecdotal evidence from last years shows it seems to reduce rust on my mint. Warm the tea is great for sore throats as well, particularly with a dash of lemon and a splash of whisky.

Give it a lick

Saliva, literally licking the cutting end before planting some says has similar effect as honey tea, probably because saliva is an antisceptic. Personally I haven’t tried this one on large enough a scale to make any reasonable comment. Do 1,000 rosemary cutting and you will have one dry mouth, let alone the burning from all those traces of essential oil.

There are a number of commercially produced organic rooting powders from large scale horticultural suppliers. Vitaxand Sinclair, but rather cough up hard cash why not have a go at making your own?

If you are lucky enough to live in France we have a French supplier, Frayssinet Nutrion, that produce a plantation soil called Orgasyl that has an organic rooting solution in the soil. We ahve had great results from using it for cuttings.

ORGANIC AND NATURAL SOLUTIONS FOR SNAIL AND SLUG CONTROL

Snails and slugs are the bane of organic gardeners, basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces and other tasty leaves can be destroyed in one night-and their is nothing more disheartening than seeing the heads of tray seedlings fall victim to the nocturnal slippery slimes. Without the use of expensive poisons there is no simple solutions, here are a few ideas that organic gardeners can try and hopefully find the right combination that works for you.

The first thing to point out is that there are no hippy dippy solutions, slugs and snails cannot co-exist with a herb and vegetable garden, not if you want anything to eat at the end of all your hard work. It’s simple, it’s a them or us situation. Yes there are solutions below that aim to discourage them but ultimately displacement or death are the only two options.
What I have tried to do is come up with a range of solutions, some more deadly than others, no one solution will work on it own. Also as usual I tend towards low cost solutions, primarily as I have little spare money they are my preferred option, and secondly I’m not sure that the more expensive solutions are any better.

Let’s start with the soft options.

Keep a clean garden, slugs and snails love decaying leaves- indeed that is their main diet not your plants. So remove pulled weeds, fallen leaves and the like and pop on the compost pile as you go. If you have the space position the compost pile a way from your vegetable and herb,a keep a wild garden space around it. The snails and slugs will love it, but so will their predators- hedgehogs, frogs and toads.

Barriers and distractions

These solutions are designed to either discourage the beasties from going near areas or to encourage them to go to alternative spots where they can be collected and disposed of- that is destroyed or moved a long long way away. If you like snails of course you could starved them and then roasted with garlic, butter and herbs. Good with freshly baked crispy bread and a strong red wine, so I’m told.

Copper. The ultimate snail stopper. For some reason a copper band acts like an electric fence for snails and slugs, it gives them a shock and they will not cross it. Copper unfortunately is rather expensive. If you have a small space you want to protect, like a growing table in a green house, and some old copper piping you could wrap the legs in it and that would work. Probably a good idea of to give the table a good scrub down first to make sure there are not any little devils, or their eggs, inside the fence. If you have a large area, and a lot of old copper piping then you would be better to keep reading and take the piping to a reputable scrap metal dealer- it’ll get a good price and pay for all your seeds for a few years.

Salt. Salt kills snails and slugs, they won’t cross a salt wall. Sadly salt also washes into the soil with rain and can have a very negative effect of the soil. It’s not really a very practical solutions. See more on salt in the Homicidal Maniac’s section below.

Seaweed. A salty mulch. If you have the chance to live near the sea seaweed is a perfect mulch. Pile it round your plants, ensuring a little circle round the base so the seaweed doesn’t touch the stem. It will slowly dry and/or compost down. A very effective and fertile solution that keeps the roots cool and damp in summer and builds up soil fertility. The organic gardeners dream.

Sawdust and wood shavings mulch. Have been shown to act as mild deterrents. My one point would be that sawdust from chainsaws or mechanical saws that use a a vegetable oil lubricant are fine, but an oil base lubricant saturates the wood dust and would not have a good impact on your soil.

Wood Ash. Make a ring of ash from the fire- again prone to being washed away by rain- can enrich your soil when used in moderation.

Crushed egg shell. Really a solution for the green house. Snails and slugs don’t like to cross dry egg shells. Loses its effectiveness if wet.

Coffee. You don’t see many snails in Starbucks. Coffee grounds around a plant may ward off snails and slugs, equally a coffee spray can help protect plants greenery from bugs as well. I haven’t tried this as all my coffee grounds get put in with the worm food and the coffee in me.

Combined with a deterrent strategy to keep them away from your plants it is a good idea to have a distraction solution, to help reduce their numbers.

Snails and slugs like damp dark environments, spending most of the daylight hours hidden away under stones, and under ground.

False Shelters. You can fool them to hide from the daylight somewhere you can find them, a plank of wood laid down near where you have damaged plants, or an up turned plant pot both work well. Simply check every morning and remove them. You will rapidly see their numbers reduced, but never eradicated. Some will never fall for this, always returning to their preferred sleeping spot.

Citrus Peel. Another alternative is to put something down that will actively attract snails and slugs, if you make freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice then the remaining peel shells are very attractive to snails. Once again place them next to places in the garden or vegetable plot where there are signs of infestation, a couple of hours after dark, or at sun rise in the morning check them out and remove the offenders.

Homicidal Maniac Solutions– my preferred option

After suffering repeated set backs at the jaws of snails and slugs, whole trays of basil seedlings stripped of their early leaves, young cucumber plants eaten back to their stems, lettuces reduced to stubs, I have little love for snails and the like. However for kinder and more gentle readers I would suggest collecting the snails and slugs and removing them a long, long way from your garden- a road side ditch would make an ideal dumping ground for captured beasts. If of course Mrs Jones from along the way always beats you in the village show vegetable competition you could sneak over late at night and pop them over her fence- but that would be mean.

A few words on killing slugs and snails, just standing on them or crushing them anyway is not very effective. Sure you kill them but you may not kill the eggs they are carrying. A better solution is to carry a bucket of either soapy or salty water and pop any found into it to drown, this kills both the beast and any eggs it may be bearing.

Home made beer traps. Snails and slugs love the malty sell of beer, yet alcohol is a poison for them, as indeed it is for us drunken in sufficient quantities. To make a simple trap, take a plastic bottle, a liter pop or mineral water bottle works well. Cut two ’doors’ about three or four centimeters from the base and fold back- see image.

Dig in place so the ’doors; fold out flat with the ground, fill the bottom with a cheap beer, not a non-alcoholic one. Check regularly and empty and refill as necessary.

Poultry If you keep chickens, ducks or geese another solution to greatly reduce the number of snails and bugs on your land is to rotate your poultry over sections of the garden not in use in winter, the birds will pick through the soil and eat any tasty bugs, and their droppings can add to the nutrition of the soil.

Hedgehogs, frogs, toads and birds.

All these eat snails, slugs and other bugs. Rather than write a thesis on ways to attract and support these wondrous animals and birds take a look at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s website which is packed with information, and themRoyal Society for the Protection of Birds site, equally informative.

Night Patrols with a flashlight will always be a key part to any gardeners life, however judicious use of a number of the ideas above will greatly reduce the damage done and increase the yield from your garden.

Suggestions for Patrolling The best time I find is the grey of pre-dawn after a damp night. Secondly slugs and snails are not fast movers and they tend to eat closes to where they hide out, if you find new damage you ralast rely have to cast about more then 2-3 feet from the plant to find the culprit. Follow the slime trail. Last but not least snails and slugs seem to love the cover we put out in the garden, probably because its close to dinner and get’s watered regularly- the underside of plant pots, seeding trays, garden furniture.

All the solutions above will help with reduce the number of predators eating your plants, none of them will eradicate them. Indeed you don’t really want them all gone, they are an important part of the eco-system and provide food for many other species.

Happy hunting.

ORGANIC GARDENING- THE NATURAL NO-DIG WAY BY CHARLES DOWDING

OrganicGardening-No_Dig.gif This book is a superb introduction from Green Books to a tried and tested organic gardening technique perfected by Charles Dowding over 25 years of hands on experience.

A highly productive vegetable garden that involves no digging, written by a man with no formal horticultural training, and organic to boot? You may be permitted a certain cynicism.

However if that cynicism stops you from reading this book then you will have missed out on a treasure.

Charles Dowding is no armchair theorist, he produces weekly vegetable boxes, salad bags, supplies restaurants and runs courses all from an acre of intensively farmed land in Somerset.

His approach is classically organic in that it is soil centred- it is no coincidence that the leading organic body is called the Soil Association. A good soil structure is as important to a garden as a good foundation is to a building. Dowding argues that soil can be more harmed than helped through human digging. That doesn’t mean to say that the soil is not dug, just not by human hands. Back in 1828 Charles Darwin in his book, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation of their Habits”, noted that a healthy pasture has been 25 and 50 mm of topsoil added every year through the casts of earthworms. Dowding uses these natural workers to do his hard work, by adding 25-50 mm of well rotted manure or good compost to the surface of his plots- within three months this nutritious mulch is pulled into the body of the soil by the worms.

The second key to success is never ever walk on the soil, thus avoiding any opportunity to compact the soil- the worms ,with a good supply of nitrogen rich manure or compost, produce a light, crumbly humus rich soil, the perfect base for vegetables. Walking or applying weight to the surface compacts the soil, making it heavy and dense- difficult for roots to penetrate.

A raised bedding system is therefore ideal, beds no more than a metre wide with clear paths on either side allow for easy access, the fact that they are raised makes them less back stretching for planting and of course weeding. It also means that the system works for small urban gardens as well as those off us lucky enough to have large rural plots.

Like all organic soil orientated approaches careful crop rotation and judicious timing is very important- crop rotation helps ensure that the soil doesn’t get worn out as well as ensuring that pests particularly keen on one type of vegetable do not get embedded in a certain patch.

Pest and insects can be the bane of organic growers lives, this spring a cabbage of mine was demolished in a night by a horde of caterpillars. However judicious and timely intervention- getting down on hands and knees and examining every single leaf of each plant quickly led to caterpillar carnage which saved the crop- indeed the first victim burst back into life. Slugs are kept at bay by reducing their habitats anywhere near the vegetable plot, and by sneaking into the garden after night falls with a torch and murderous intentions.

Judicious planting timing is also very important- getting an early start by growing seedlings in cold frames and greenhouses means that the very vulnerable first weeks of a plants life are over before they are introduced into the garden. If a slug or snail does get to them then they will start on the fading outer leaves which they are more than welcome to anyway.

If the book stopped there with the basic principals it would eb a good read. However Dowding goes onto to look at which vegetables should be planted when, and for me very helpfully what should then be planted in the plot after the first crop has been harvested.

Dowding’s approach is an intensive cultivation technique with plants grown close together- helps conserve moisture in summer, and leaves little space for weeds- and one plant rapidly following another so the beds are inconstant use. The output from a small garden can be enormous and all year round.

Don’t be fooled that no dig means no work but the rewards are well worth it. Of course clearing the land and making the beds in the first place is an endeavour in itself- but a once off endeavour.

This book is now my first port of call when I am looking for a gardening solution. As a beginner and non-scientist, I found his style easy to understand packed with useful tips and coherent in that it took me from an uninformed start to considering quite complicated seasonal planning without loosing the plot or throwing my hands up in confused despair. The results at the Domaine de Montrouch are looking promising- if the wild boar don’t decide they fancy a salad dinner one night.

I hope Charles sees this as a start of a writing career as I will be eagerly awaiting the next.

Click here to buy a copy of Charles Dowding’s Organic Gardening: a natural no dig approach