We’ve spent the last week or so frenziedly working on turning a chunk of our former pigpen into a vegetable patch. The pigs did an incredible job of removing the thick, meadow-like layer of turf from their pen. They also (with ample help from weeks of heavy rain) turned the earth underneath into thick, squelching mud covered in large puddles of standing water.
We’re not sure if this is the pigs’ doing, actually. Our area has heavy clay soil, and if you dig down a foot or so you’ll hit a layer of solid orange clay. So drainage isn’t exactly great to start with, and it may be that the turf was absorbing the rain before the pigs went in. Maybe if we’d taken off the turf by hand the same thing would have happened. However, looking at the earth in the pigpen, it seems the pigs may have destroyed the soil structure and mixed the clay into it, making a bad situation worse. Either way, our hope that the pigs would effectively rotavate the land for free were dashed.
So last weekend, we got our spades and a rotavator (the latter courtesy of Becky’s dad Mark) out and set to work fixing the situation. We wanted to do two things: improve the drainage, and break up the surface to increase evaporation. Both would help to dry the patch out.
I had already attempted to do a little of both on an earlier weekend. I had decided that with the soil so waterlogged it would be very difficult to dig over, but that I could perhaps drain some of the larger puddles by digging channels for the water to run off into. This was almost entirely unsuccessful; the water ran off but then when it rained the puddles filled up again and so did the channels I had dug. Nevertheless on my dad’s advice (we make a lot of use of paternal input, as both our fathers are keen gardeners), and with his help, we dug a ditch about a spades width and depth, on all sides of the plot, which together with a larger channel linking the ditch to the biggest puddle got rid of most of the standing water.
Stage two was rotavation. Frankly we weren’t sure this was going to work at all. The earth was so muddy that we feared it would just clog up the rotavator. But in fact the machine cut through the earth quite nicely, albeit mostly churning up the top couple of inches rather than getting deeper than that.
As an aside to this: rotavation is hard work. The machine is constantly trying to pull forward, its blades acting like a wheel to drag it along. To get it to tear up the earth instead, you have to pull back hard, yanking the spinning blades into the soil. We took it in shifts to avoid anyone getting too knackered.
With both jobs done, the plot started to look like real cultivated earth instead of the mudpit it had become. We’ve started improving the soil with manure from our neighbours’ horses, which will no doubt help move things along still further.
We had begun to fear that we wouldn’t be able to plant anything in it at all, but we now have three rows (14 feet each) of potatoes, two of garlic and shallots, and have started planting out peas and beans too. Below the first few inches the ground is still difficult to dig and it may yet turn out not to be hospitable enough for some of the vegetables we’ve planted, but for now we’re feeling optimistic.