Green manures (38 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Organic gardening? I’m a believer. There’s no greater waste of money or the earth’s finite resources than herbicides. It’s enough to bring out anybody’s inner Yorkshireman! However, beyond the rejection of pesticides and herbicides, and the concomitant emphasis on building soil fertility, I suppose I’m a bit of a heretic.

For example, I don’t think that a mega-field monoculture of organic carrots is much better the conventionally farmed alternative. I suspect organic farming on an industrial scale might be a contradictory endeavour: after all, once you factor in the tractor, the transport, the processing and the packaging, you might as well nuke the land with some other hydrocarbon-derived compound for good measure.

Predictably, I think all the synergies on offer in an organic system are best exploited in a small family farm. But even this bucolic bliss presents challenges to organic orthodoxy. For example, that sacred cow of the organic garden – the compost heap – is ousted by a nice, fat pig – or five.


Moreover – on a grander, theological scale – I confess I’m dubious about that ‘working with nature’ mantra. It feels like a suburban conceit to me. Round here, working with nature would be a bit like flying a kite in a tornado. I know my place.

Hitherto, I’ve always eyed green manures with similar scepticism. They only seem suited to the aforementioned, large-scale monoculture. Surely no self-respecting peasant is going to shell out £20 for field bean seed? Why not grow something edible and nitrogen fixing over winter, like Aquadulce broad beans instead? Two other candidates get the chop as well: phacelia and winter tares. These two, apparently, exude a germination inhibitor which hampers follow-on crops, particularly carrots and parsnips. Great! As if getting parnips to sprout wasn’t hard enough! Of the remaining green manures, a lot are brassicas. No sale: I only want edible brassicas complicating my rotation.

Recently, however, I think I’ve seen the light. I’ve a number of areas of pannage (ground dug over by pigs) or under plastic mulch which I’d like to bring into cultivation in spring. If I can preserve and enrich these with a covering of green manure, well… amen to that.

Finally, after scouring the sacred texts, I’ve found the green manures for me: a mixture of red clover with English rye grass. Buying enough seed to cover these areas certainly wasn’t cheap, but cost is a question for another time…