The farm is divided into a large number of small plots. There’s a home garden – 0.1ha; a market garden – 300 sq. m; and another 2.5ha of land in plots scattered around Shipka Village. The plan is to amalgamate nearby plots into one bigger estate, which will be planted with experimental perennial varieties for larger scale operations. Paul started on this project around 9 years ago and runs it with his wife and 2 children, and usually with a further 3-4 volunteers.
Our mission is to produce affordable food, nutritious food, that increases biodiversity.
We are following the approach that people knew back then – before the Agricultural Revolution – and using new technology to make it easier. For example, using satellite data to document water flows and cold wind flows and deciding, on that basis, where to plant what.
Their main activity is the polyculture study, where volunteers help record information and test how the project’s approach compares with standard methods of cultivation. There’s also a plant nursery, with plants for sale.
“The actual gardening looks messy and semi-wild but behind it you have a lot of meticulous planning; if it’s not messy, you are missing some aspect of biodiversity – because you are trying to mimic the natural habitat. Nature’s ability to build incredibly diverse ecosystems with these plants arises over thousands of years. We are simply trying to mimic that process while getting a particular product out of it – our food. Ecological farming is actually a step forward.”
Not only does the family feed themselves, but there’s enough to provide for 10 families, so they also donate to food banks and supply produce to food box schemes. Finally, they run annual training courses on regenerating landscapes.
Description of the agro-ecological practice
In order to keep weeds under control in the garden, Paul uses a mixture of permaculture practices: raised beds; mulching; a ‘chicken tractor’; careful timing of planting to avoid competition among the crops they want to grow; and the use of hot compost. The crops they grow together are tomatoes, squashes and beans of different varieties.
Technical information on the agro-ecological practice
- The raised beds are made by digging out 15 cm of the soil from the pathways and putting the soil on the beds, creating paths between them;
- They have scaled up this basic raised bed system by using tractors, called ‘maunders’, that can build the beds;
- When the first frost comes in October/November, they remove the plants and stack them on the beds; the first frost starts the decomposition process (mid Oct); then the snow comes and the material decomposes further; it’s only when you get no snow and very cold weather that there is no soil activity;
- As the vegetation reduces, they move the chickens in; they pick up all the slug eggs, pests, and weed seeds. When the chickens are done, they fork the soil over;
- In November, they plant garlic, which secretes sulphur in the soil and repels certain types of nematode. It also has a fungicidal effect. As water drains through the soil in the winter, garlic stops the nutrients being washed out; and it provides good food because it’s resistant to the cold;
- When the garlic comes out in spring, they bring the chickens back for another 2-3 days on each bed successively, as a kind of clean-up;
- After the chickens go, they fork the beds but don’t turn them; they add compost – 20 L per metre; then add a very thick layer of straw;
- Then they plant the crops, the timing dependent on what they’re planting – eg. tomatoes around April – by making little nests; beans are sown directly into the soil; squash too;
- Any weeds growing around the edges are cut with a lawn mower. It’s not really necessary in the summer, as there’s not much growth, but in the spring you have to do it once a week. They trim the weeds before they seed and put the material directly on to the beds, so in effect the weeds, which are just more organic matter, become a resource;
- If they have weedy material, they build a hot compost pile (which can get up to 50-60 degrees); the heat destroys all the weed seeds and the pathogens, and you end up with a beautiful pile of micro-dense material which they spread around the garden.
Economical information on this practice
- Between June and September 2016, they harvested 80 kg of tomatoes from the 0.1 ha garden; in 2015, it was 108 kg of tomatoes;
- The results of the 2015 study are as follows: over the life of the study, a team of 4 people with little or no horticultural experience established the garden study area, propagated, tended and harvested over 800 plants, and produced 358 kg of food with a market value of approx. €5125. The operating costs for the garden worked out at approx. €325, and the capital costs (one-off initial costs) amounted to approx. €472, which should be spread over at least the next 4 years, as this is a multi-year study. The time taken to achieve this was 152 hrs over a 6-month period. Produce output per m2 was around 1.4 kg.
- More information here: http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.bg/2015/12/the-polyculture-market-garden-study.html
The purpose of this experiment was to learn how the polyculture approach to cultivating crops compares to conventional methods, specifically in terms of time and energy expenditure, the yields harvested and associated biodiversity. Surprisingly, little data exists for polycultures and Paul hopes that the conclusions from the project will be used to replicate similar ecological practices on a larger scale. What Paul wishes to demonstrate is that small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens are a practical, accessible and realistic way of providing food for humans whilst preserving and promoting biological diversity in the environment.