Ten years of vegan organic horticulture at Growing With Grace

By Cara Whelan (grower at Growing With Grace)

At Growing with Grace we run a veg box scheme and farm shop, and grow in five large greenhouses on a site of three acres just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park in the UK. The business has been here for just over ten years and is currently registered as a community cooperative employing nine people, mainly part time. We are registered both as organic and as stockfree, and supply just over 200 people each week.

We grow as much of our own produce as we can, using mainly hand tools and few inputs. The range last year included over 50 varieties, everything from beautiful pink aubergines to French beans and salads. The growing team comprises one full time grower with help from other staff, local volunteers or WWOOFers depending on the time of year. That is not a huge team for a site of this size and we have our work cut out. One thing we do benefit from is excellent soil, but this is no coincidence and it was not always the case.

Early days

When Neil Marshall and the Quaker founders of the cooperative came to the site, over ten years ago, the glasshouses had been in use for a commercial non organic plant nursery. The plants were raised on tables, so the soil itself had not had anything growing in it since the glasshouses were built over the pasture. Machinery such as forklifts had run up and down for several years, potentially compacting the soil. What was worse, the glasshouses had lain empty for a year. With the windows closed, the temperature would have reached well above 50°C in summer, as was evidenced by melted plastic found lying about, and the crust of mineral salts on the soil surface. Under the black plastic mulch the soil was unlikely to have had much left alive in it, possibly a little organic matter. What pesticides and compaction hadn’t killed off, drought, soaring temperatures and increased salinity certainly had. Soil regeneration was high on the agenda for the team.

A living soil

The stockfree organic standards, as detailed in Growing Green – Organic Techniques for a Sustainable Future (by Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst), offer two techniques for maintaining soil fertility: green manuring and the addition of organic amendments. The organic amendment is often green waste compost, but organic plant-derived liquid feed such as seaweed extract may also have its place.

In the spirit of the founders of the Soil Association, and of the stockfree organic movement promoted by the Vegan Organic Network, the cooperative growers wanted, as far as possible, to create a closed loop – returning to the soil what they took out, and to create really healthy, living soil which would in turn bring forth healthy plants and healthy people.

Of course, as most of what a farm grows is sold off-farm, and we don’t have the means to collect our customers’ vegetable peelings (or indeed toilet contents! – currently not permitted by organic standards on the certified growing area) it is impractical to close the loop perfectly. As growers we must therefore return to the soil the same amount (or more!) of nutrient and organic matter as we take out, obtaining it from as environmentally responsible sources as we can.

Organic growers have tended to rely on animal products to achieve this, and farmyard manure, horse muck and so on do contain high levels of nutrients and organic matter. The problem the team faced was not only how to maintain ongoing fertility but how to bring the soil back to life with the millions of fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other arthropods which comprise a living soil. Muck alone, even if considered, would not achieve this.

The team’s first step was to break up the soil, sow green manures, water it and then see what happened. The first few crops after this were plagued with slugs, and the team weren’t happy about organic matter and living organisms not increasing quickly enough.

A talk at an organic conference gave them inspiration: Growing With Grace would be able to make the hundreds of tonnes of compost they needed using local garden waste which was readily available. After much planning, and a few grants, the Growing With Grace composting enterprise was born. Green waste, in this case collected from householders by the council, was chipped and shredded first, mixing the wet and the dry, and making the heaps easier to manage. The chipped green waste was laid out in windrows, compost heaps about 1.5m across and several metres long. A turning machine can run along each of these rows and turn the compost. It is the mixing of the woody and leafy matter, combined with the turning, which creates the ideal environment for a high level of bacterial activity.

The system is labour intensive and requires special machinery, particularly if you want to do it on any scale. Soon the cooperative was producing ten tonnes of compost every week. Over the course of the project Growing With Grace produced over 1,500 tonnes of compost, which was used on our site and sold to local gardeners.

The team applied mulches, in much greater quantities than the minimum required, to replace lost nutrients, and the beds became raised beds. Generous helpings of six inches or more of green waste compost were applied to most of the 2500 ft length of beds on our three acre site, over the three years that the composting enterprise operated.

The end of the composting enterprise

Three years ago we found that the income from compost sales wasn’t covering the cost of maintaining machinery and employing composting workers. This wasn’t helped by the local council reducing the amount of waste they brought us, meaning we were making small batches for which they paid us less. In 2014 we took the decision to cease windrow composting. This left us with the need to come up with a new plan for on-farm waste management, propagation media and fertility maintenance.

On-farm green waste management

Of course no organic farm would be complete without a compost heap. I now maintain a two bay cold heap system and this is adequate for green waste. It is somewhat bigger than a home heap, getting up to three to six cubic meters at times, and needs turning with our small tractor, before sinking down again quickly as the green stuff breaks down and the water evaporates. Though this is a cold heap system I have known these easily get up to 50°C when freshly stacked. Our cold heaps are not perfect and we aim to keep improving the way we do them.

Propagation

When it comes to propagation compost it is worth getting the very best you can, this is the food for our babies and we want them to have the best possible start in life. To my constant surprise panellists on Gardeners’ Question Time still recommend peat, which is even permitted under organic standards. Peat is vegan too of course, but I expect most VON members would avoid it because of the unsustainable sourcing and the damage to valuable and rare habitats that peat extraction causes. I was not prepared to use peat.

My own two year old sieved compost contained too many weed seeds for use in propagation, so this year I tried Fertile Fibre’s vegan potting mix with varied results. The coir base holds water very well and is easy to handle, but the added nutrients may be in a very soluble state – any excess of water and you run a high risk of damping off, and yellowing, nitrogen deficient plants. However, if you are confident that all of your team are expert with the watering then you could certainly give this a try. Next year I may try Moorland Gold, or give the Fertile Fibre mix another go and supervise my propagation house better.

Fertility management

So much for propagation, what about the maintenance of nutrients in our beds? It is hard to quantify but, judging by the health of plants and soil over the last two years, I believe that it would be possible to continue growing here without adding nutrients for several years, because of the store of organic matter which has been laid down.

However, that is not a responsible risk to be taking. We should always be aiming to replace nutrients taken out when we remove a crop, preferably in the form of composted or fresh and incorporated plant matter. For extra sustainability points this should, as far as possible, be farm generated fertility. There are three possibilities and we are using all three: addition of green waste compost to the beds, green manures and liquid feeds.

Green waste compost mulching

It was not hard to find local green waste compost for sale. So many local authorities have their own composting sites now, and many are achieving basic quality standards and retailing to the public (or, if you are a community group, sometimes giving it away). If you are organic you need to ensure they have a BSI PAS 100 basic quality standard, which is quite common, and check that they are only composting green waste, not food waste which could contain animal products.

In planning the application of compost within the rotation there are two main considerations: first, when is fertility needed? – and second, can we benefit from the weed suppressing benefits of a mulch? To gain the benefit of the weed suppression, compost should be added to a depth of two inches, ideally before a crop which needs low weed levels such as onions or salads.

Over the coming years I plan to vary my approach, sometimes using a weed suppressive layer of compost and at others making a thinner top up application before a hungry crop such as tomatoes. For fertility maintenance Growing Green recommends one wheelbarrow per 10 square metres every other year – this can be changed to two and a half barrows every five years in a five year rotation, with the application going down as a weed suppressive mulch. Though buying in compost is a cost, the cost of compost is far smaller than the cost of seed and just as important.

Green manures

Generally the high rent and maintenance costs of glasshouse horticulture means that the houses need to be in production all year round – and leaving space in the rotation for a green manure is out of the question economically speaking. However we do use green manures in two ways – undersowing and medicinal. We have been undersowing winter squash with red clover, which is one of the easier techniques. You gain the nitrogen fixing benefits of the clover whilst gaining an income from the winter squash.

Medicinal green manures can solve a persistent soil problem such as a hardpan or even a disease. In one greenhouse, where we suspect a hardpan in the soil, we will sow the deepest rooting green manures – lucerne, perhaps combined with chicory, next spring. Lucerne is the highest nitrogen fixer of the common green manures. For good results we will need to allow an entire season for the roots to grow, and lose the cropping potential of that house for one year. With the space previously used for compost production now being used for crops we can afford to take one house out of production. An advantage of ceasing the windrow composting!

Liquid feeds

We make liquid feed from the comfrey and nettle patches on the farm. I would strongly advise using dry fermentation over the rotting infusion method, as the former smells a good deal less. This can be mixed or used separately, diluted appropriately with water and watered onto seedlings in the propagation house.

Getting the feed onto a long row of crops is a challenge without an irrigation linked feed doser, hand watering a half acre to apply feed not really being practical. I have experimented by walking between rows, pouring a trickle of undiluted comfrey liquid onto the plastic mulch directly before switching on overhead irrigation.

Over time our fertility strategies have changed, with the changing needs of the soil and the changing economic environment. The composting enterprise here has left us a legacy of excellent raised beds, with healthy living soil full of organic matter. In the future we need to maintain this fertility with judicious applications of compost and use of green manures where appropriate. Additional liquid feeds may be used from time to time for hungry plants, particularly as making them uses a freely available resource from the farm.

There is a lot of potential for low cost, highly efficient and highly ecological ways of improving fertility, which we could research and implement in future. We are interested in looking into the potential of aerated compost tea, or applying homemade comfrey liquid via the irrigation. There may even be potential to construct windrows again, perhaps in winter on a once per year basis. If cleverly located, a windrow inside the greenhouse could help to keep winter spinach or salads a little warmer. All of these ideas are things we can consider in the future but, for now, it is good to know we have a sustainable plan to care for our soil.

If you are interested in finding out more you can find us on World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. We welcome residential volunteers (WWOOFers) during the summer months, and day volunteers every Thursday from 10am. And please do follow us on Facebook.

“True fertility is the potential of the soil, or a seed, or a person or any species to be able to continue to create and produce on their own terms without external coercion; without external inputs … fertility to me is about the continuity of life.” Vandana Shiva – Symphony of the Soil

“For best quality and best growth, vegetables require the richest soils of all farm crops. And that richness has to be real. Not stimulants, but what British farmers so aptly call a ‘soil in good heart’. Organic matter is the key to ‘heart’ in the soil.” Eliot Coleman – The New Organic Grower

Growing with Grace www.growingwithgrace.org.uk. See also www.veganorganic.net/growing-with-grace-challenges (2012) which mentions the traditional Mongolian yurt (used as a meeting room in the summer) that VON provided.

VON’s 40-minute DVD of Growing With Grace, made around that time, is available from our shop www.veganorganic.net/shop or you can watch it for free on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDYpxiE933E.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 36 (Winter 2015/16), p24.