5 July 2021

The Three Ws

This week James, Petalon’s self-declared “Services Manager”, is guest writing on the blog.

I’ve often said that being a florist has more in common with being a builder than an artist. It’s a physical job. But if arranging flowers is hard labour, growing flowers is an endurance sport. Because of the amount of physical effort required to grow at the scale we do (not industrial, but a lot bigger than a garden!) we’re constantly looking at ways to be more efficient. Most of the things we’ve built on the farm are aimed at exactly this. Take the polytunnels, Brenda and Bertha. They’re expensive and tricky to set up, but once they’re there we’re better able to control the internal environment and this leads to a lot less upkeep on the stuff we grow in there. Grass seeds can’t invade the beds as easily, the paths are easily defined and the nice flat space it sits on is easier to maintain. That’s an obvious one, but there are plenty more ways in which we’ve tried to streamline the operation.

When people ask me what I’ve learnt about growing flowers over the last year my mind goes to three things – WeedsWater and Waste.

Weeding is the bane of so many growers’ lives. Libraries of books have been written on the subject, but one of the ways in which we try to stay ahead of them is with our bed construction. Many of you will know Charles Dowding, the sultan of “No-Dig” (if you don’t, he’s an excellent follow on Instagram). In the No-Dig method he advocates avoiding turning over the soil you grow on, so as not to disturb grass and weed seeds while still preserving the microorganisms and general life of the soil. To do this you use a degradable weed suppressant like cardboard to cover the ground, then add green waste on top (we get the stuff the good people of Cornwall put out in their caddies each week, after it has been processed). Combined with water this creates a grass and weed-free medium in which to plant which eventually combines with the main body of the soil. This method is designed primarily for people growing in their gardens, but the long, thin boxes that imported flowers arrive in are pretty perfectly suited to the task so we’ve built several kilometres of beds using this same method. This has been an arduous process. But now the beds are set up the idea is that we can add more and more green waste, natural fertiliser and our very own flower compost at the end of each season, slowly building up and up, feeding the field while still keeping that weed burden down. Short term pain, long term gain.

Even in the wet South West of England we still need to water our beds. Our field sits above the majority of our buildings so water reclamation isn’t easy. We also have the slight issue that our home is on the same water supply as the rest of the farm. You know when you’re in the shower and someone else wrecks your water pressure by washing the dishes? You can imagine how that translates to irrigating a few kilometres of growing beds. We’ve set up a 10,000 litre water tank at the top of the field which refills from the mains supply overnight. A 50mm pipe exits this and runs through/under the field teeing off at various points to feed the different areas. To give some context to those two numbers – a normal UK household uses around 300L of water in a day, so our tank could supply 33 households each day. A typical kitchen tap feed pipe is 15mm. That doesn’t sound a lot less than 50mm, but because the important measurement is volume the field pipe can accommodate about 14 times as much water flow as that kitchen tap. Long term our hope is to start filling the tank from our roof runoff, but that will involve a 500 metre long pumping system that I haven’t quite found the energy to flesh out yet.

In the circle of life as I learnt it from the Lion King all animals, even the mighty lion, eventually feed the earth and the animals around it. We’ve had a similar experience, but instead of a lion imagine our old crops, the parts of both our imported and home grown flowers that we condition away (end of stems, excess leaves etc), and even the weeds we pull out of our beds. 2 years ago we’d fill 3 commercial eurobins a week with this organic matter. These now go in to three enormous composting bays and break down over time to nice, fluffy, black compost which goes back in the beds. Not only does this mean we’re gradually building up the nutritional content of the field’s soil rather than diminishing it, but it also saves us A LOT of money on bin collections. I did the maths a few months back and worked out that the decomposition process of all of that organic matter decreases its volume to about 5% of its original size. This means that one of our compost bays, over time, can accommodate what would have filled 52 commercial eurobins in London. When you add to that the sense of smug satisfaction that we’re improving the soil rather than just taking from it the net result is a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Of course part of all this is a bit of psychological gamesmanship. The idea that some amount of work we do now will make it “easy” next year is probably pretty wishful, but anything that gives me the feeling that I’m getting one over on those bloody weeds is something I’ll grasp with both hands.

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