I spent five days in April 2014 with Deano and his wife Margaret at their home in Lincolnshire. They were generous with their food and their knowledge, and I learnt a lot about Deano's methods, perspectives and philosophies. The work was weeding and veg bed preparation but the benefit to me was the hours spent in conversation while methodically and meditatively working our way through the patches on site that had become overlooked in recent weeks due to the amount of work to be done about his smallholding. His passion is soil, and his thirst for knowledge is leading him back to college. The motivation is to have access to equipment to continue to analyse the soil he is working so hard on to improve.
The ultimate goal is to produce food that maintains and improves the health of those that eat it. Deano has been inspired by tales of tribes such as the Hunza people of Pakistan, who live long, healthy lives. There are claims (written about here and here) that this is down to good diet and simple lifestyles, and the belief is that this is emphasised by the mineral content in the water that they drink and present in the soils in which they grow food, emanating from the Himalayan glacial valleys that provide the stunning backdrop to their homes. There is a balancing argument however - see this indepth article disputing the health claims of the Hunza. Nevertheless Deano's research has lead him to conclude that eating a good, mainly vegetarian diet is not enough, otherwise the general health of the principally vegetarian and organic diets of the populations of the Western worlds would be significantly better than it actually is. What's lacking in these diets is trace elements and minerals in the soil that are taken up by vegetables and water that we need to complete a balanced, healthy diet. This is because they have been depleted from our soils by decades of horticulture and not replaced. Organic systems do not necessarily address this, and Deano's mission is to research methods and techniques which restore the mineral health of soils, and he writes about them and many other subjects on his blog, this article in particular focussing on emulating the 'glacial milk' found in the Hunza populated areas. Whilst I was there we started off a compost tea, a complex mix of among others harvested rain water, compost, nettles, molasses and of course rockdust, driven by aeration pumps to bubble away slowly for several days. A specific recipe can be found in this blog article. He was planning to use it the following weekend at an open day he was hosting that formed part of the 2014 International Permaculture Day.
I was inspired by his willingness to experiment and take on ideas and suggestions. An example is that whilst weeding we noticed how much easier, quicker and therefore more efficient it was to weed areas that had been treated with rock phosphate, one of Deano's rockdust sources. His theory was that the application broke up the soil into a finer crumb. The untreated paths however had become very weedy and it took and age to clear. Deano actually likes wedding and does not mind the job, as it gets him up close to his soils to get a really good look at what is going on. But he does wish it could go quicker. My suggestion that we additionally treated the paths with the rockdust so that future weeding could be done faster was met with immediate enthusiasm, and an action the following day to line all the paths - see the slideshow picture for the strange looking result. I look forward to hearing from Deano as to whether the experiment was successful.
Deano took a very different approach to the subject of providing a sustainable system for providing food for chickens. The classic design, more commonly know as chicken forage, involves planting food that chickens might like to eat. Deano grows bugs and insects by encouraging the conditions in which they will flourish and calls it chicken scavenging. Based on research into jungle fowl and their habitats, instead of planting for food, he plants specific trees that will produce lots of leaf litter and therefore house lots of insects. He choose varieties that drop their leaves at different types of year to maintain a year round supply. Examples are oak, sweet chestnut, Italian alder and bamboo He does other things too to increase insect population, such as creating log piles and planting yarrow. He also hones in on the idea of chickens eating food that humans would not, and therefore don't compete for the same resources. So again instead of growing the plant food in the chicken enclosure, he throws over weeds collected from other areas. The premise is that that chickens will be hungry for these scraps if this type of food is not always available, and therefore waste from one related system becomes an input into the chicken scavenge. You can read one of a number of blog articles here and the full permaculture design here.
The explanation of the design of Deano's smallholding evolved over the days I spent with him, but what struck me was a repeating pattern, on different scales, that ran throughout the design of the smallholding as a whole and its individual components. The pattern was capital U-shapes, with the open end of the U always facing south. The idea behind the pattern is that it creates beneficial microclimates in the centre of the U to grow food that needs warmth and shelter in a glade style environment. Around the edges of the U glades, windbreak type plants, nitrogen fixers and plants that tolerate harsher environments are grown to feed, embrace and shelter the specially selected plants for the middle. The entire site fits this overall pattern, being long and thin and bordered with an old hedge that has grown into trees, providing the outer U. But the pattern is most evident in the forest garden, U shaped in itself and containing a series of U glades within it. The diagram opposite is taken from Deano's design, which you can read here.
This pattern was repeated in his fuel design and chicken scavenge. While we walked through the fuel trees, Deano pointed out another acute observation that would be a benefit that the pattern would produce. We looked at the trees that were planted on nearest the border - the mature trees and compared them to those planted in the centre of the smallholding at the same time. Those planted near the border were doing far better - visibly taller and stronger, and Deano's theory is that there will be more mycorrhizal fungi here near the existing trees, which promotes greater levels of soil life and health. He mentions it as a possibility in this blog written some time ago, but when we discussed it he was more convinced. The implication for the pattern is that mycorrhizal activity will creep in from the edges of the U glade to the middle, and the glades themselves would benefit from the surrounding hedges.
Other highlights of my trip was seeing the many ingenious techniques Deano has implemented over the years in addition to
those discussed above. He put swales into his forest garden to manage water, but additionally created a dryer environment on the down slope ridge, which he then took advantage of to grow sea buckthorn, which favours these conditions. There is a picture is the slideshow of a very large cloche, one of several made from a wire cage and bubblewrap salavaged from posted material. These are moved easily around his site giving protection to plants such as squash whilst developing. The nettles, which there are many, are managed by scythe, which is arguably faster than using a strimmer and does not require fuel to power it. It is said that scythed nettles also provides a better overwintering habitat for ladybirds and lacewings than strimmed nettles.
This was a fascinating visit, and I hope I contributed in my hours of weeding as much as I learned in conversation with Deano and in seeing his systems. Deano loves having visitors, and due to the amount of time it takes to show people round, he prefers groups to individuals, and regular hosts tours, so check his website for details of the next one. I learnt so much here about permaculture, soil health food growing and chicken keeping, that I have spent six months digesting it while putting together this blog! Thanks Deano.