Sunday, April 11, 2010

Permaculture Pasture Improvement: Part 1

If you’ve arrived on this page, having “Googled” or “Yahoo-ed” your way here having searched “permaculture pasture improvement”, prepare for a degree of disappointment because I don’t actually know very much about the subject; I wish I did.

Through growing experience, we’ve learnt that different breeds of pigs get involved with the land to varying degrees. Our Kunies grazed a lot; the Gloucester Old Spots rooted more but are known as orchard pigs in that they’ll eat what’s on the surface, such as windfall apples, before starting to root; but the Berkshires were true organic ploughshares, turning the whole of their paddock into a tribute to the Battle of the Somme.

We didn’t want to leave the earth bare over winter but the choice of groundcover to sow at the end of November is very limited; it’s certainly not the time to sow grass. Our farming neighbour Paul suggested oats. We were two weeks late and it didn’t get away (as his had done) but provided plenty of free food to wild birds and our roaming flock of chickens. We needed to re-sow with a good pasture mix and, as often, I did plenty of research on the Anglophone part of the Internet.

Although I’d already found an English supplier, I thought I really ought to make the effort to find the French equivalent. The Breton seeds should better suit Breton earth, I reasoned. Julien, who farms a dairy herd with his mother and is hoping to convert the farm over to organic beef when his mum retires, is becoming a bit of an expert in pasture. To cut a longer story short, he put me in contact with a German woman near Rennes who could supply (mostly organic) pasture seed mixtures.

With her advice I chose a suitable mix for our soil type and needs. It arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of a man-in-the-ubiquitous-white-van, all the way from … Germany ! Doh. Our ever-helpful pig-farming neighbour Paul lent me his elderly Massey Ferguson with a harrow attached. Although it took several passes, it only tilled the first four or five inches (100 – 125 mm) of the soil, so didn’t bring up subsoil and bury humus as huge modern ploughshares do.

I sowed the seed with a modern plastic seed spinner, walking up and down the field and then across. I passed the harrow once more, to turn the seed in, then returned the tractor. In a rather round-the-houses sort of way, Paul vaguely suggested that I roll the ground, pressing the seed into contact with the soil and leaving less on show for them pesky birds. That extra job made a late finish, largely ameliorated by a pint of English bitter beer. I shall report how the new grass fares.