Sunday, 28 August 2016

Polyculture Project - Market Garden Study - Update 8

High summer almost seems as if time pauses, as if time itself goes on summer holiday and we linger in stasis on the hot, dry days that blend seamlessly into each other.  Every now and again though, with a bluster of wind or cool breeze the approaching autumn is revealed, and time resumes its eternal march......

Here in Shipka it's been a hot and dry summer with no significant rain to mention in the past 10 weeks. Our tasks have been largely routine - mainly irrigating, harvesting and processing.

Thank you to Pauline Lousteau, Biljana Kostovska and Sandra Koljackova and family for your help in the gardens and special thanks to Ute Villavicencio for your ongoing support and for taking care of everything while Soph, the boys and I got some beach time in. We also say goodbye and thank you to Natasha Barbier and her wonderful array of unusual wines, all the best Natasha :)

Market Garden 

The gardens are producing very well with the hot season crops peaking now. The basil and tomatoes appear to be doing particularly well this season after getting off to a shaky start during the long and unusually cool spring period.

Produce from Zeno

One of my favourite tomato cultivars this year has to be a Mirabel Yellow Cherry, another great cultivar given to us by our friends Flori and Georgi. A Oxheart version of Bulgarian cultivar Rozava Magia  was also given to us by fellow market gardeners Anni and Stoyan, who are growing some excellent vegetables for CSA.

Here's the list of  tomato cultivars we're growing this year.

Common nameCodeColorMaturity
E, M , L
Genetic typeSizeShapeGrowth
Rozava Magia T1Pink LargeBeaf heart Indeterminate
Citrina T2YellowMediumPlumIndeterminate
Black Krim T3Black Red M-L - 69-90HeirloomLargeBeefsteakIndeterminate
Ukrainian Purple T4Purple M -75-90HeirloomMediumPlum Indeterminate
MarglobeT5RedM -75-90HeirloomSmallStandardIndeterminate
Anna RussianT6Pink M -75-90HeirloomMediumHeart Indeterminate
Tigerella T7Orange M - 75Open PollinatedSmallRound Indeterminate
Green Zebra T8GreenM - 70–80Open PollinatedMediumStandardIndeterminate
Mirabel -Yellow CherryT9YellowSmall PearIndeterminate

Comfrey Records 

On 29th July we cut the Comfrey for the third time this year,  45 days after the previous cut. The total biomass from 42 plants in the 13 m2 bed weighed in at 29.9 kg (710 g per plant). The plants had been flowering for over 10 days. According to the original Comfrey crusader, Lawrence D. Hills, who literally wrote the book on it, we should be cutting before the flowering period to obtain maximum biomass. So far we have let the Comfrey flower each time for at least a week as a wide variety of bees are voting by action in favour of that. It would be interesting to compare cutting regimes to see how much more productive cutting before flowering is, for next year perhaps.

Dylan and Archie cutting the Comfrey
We have been leaving some native plants to grow among the Comfrey in the beds, namely Cichorium intybus - Chicory and Arctium lappa - Greater Burdock. Both of these plants have the same deep rooting behaviour and are thought to feed from the sub soil in the same way that Comfrey does. Greater Burdock also produces good quantities of biomass, although being an biennial once the plants flower they die. You can encourage continued growth by prohibiting the plant from flowering with regular cutting.    

Feeding the Comfrey 

Comfrey needs to be fed in order to keep producing well. We currently feed the plants trimmings from the surrounding area and the old leaves left over from making the comfert liquid fertiliser. We are also growing nitrogen fixing shrubs and trees for future chop and drop feed for the beds - read more about this here.

Following the cut we mow the White Clover - Trifolium repens pathways and plants growing on the edges of the beds and apply the trimmings to base of the plants.  As a rough estimate every 1 m2 of mown surface may produce 5L of material, but obviously this depends on the size and type of the vegetation you are cutting, length of time between cuts and a range of environmental factors. I'm basing this figure on mowing after each Comfrey cut, i.e, every 30 - 40 days.

Here's a short clip of how the Comfrey is looking 15 days after the cut.


In hot and dry conditions such as our's this year, it is essential to irrigate the annual crops once per week. Our preferred method of irrigation is to flood irrigate as we are fortunate to have access to water from a nearby mountain stream. We can divert this water into the garden where it flows along the paths between the beds. We raise the water level in any particular bed by placing a barrier (sack filled with sawdust) at the end of a bed and the water is absorbed into the soil and can travel vertically via Capillary Action. We still need to make adjustments to the path gradients in order for the flood irrigation to reach the entire length of the beds and have been watering by hand from the pond the areas that the flood irrigation does not reach. The difference from the flood irrigated section and hand watered section is very noticeable with the flood irrigated sections looking much better.

Paths that double up as water channels 
Our irrigation goal with the hand watering is to apply approx. 500 L per bed (per week without rain)  from summer - early autumn. That's a total of 3000 L of water each week for all the annual crops in the study area (6 beds 1.3 m x 23 m).  The pond we recently installed can hold around 8000 L.

It can take quite some time to flood irrigate contour beds as the water needs to permeate deep into the soil to reach the crops in the center of the bed as well as the plants on the edges. I'd estimate at least 1.5 - 2 hrs per bed are needed to achieve this, and this can cause problems for us as the stream is in high demand from other growers during very dry periods. By having the pond, we can fill it up during periods when the stream is not being used such as late at night and during the midday heat.  This provides us with a useful back up plan.

Wildlife and Irrigation Pond 

Forest Garden

There is an influx of produce coming out of the forest gardens in August with hazel nuts, plums, black berries, figs, late raspberries, apples, peaches and grapes . It's been a bumper year for plums!

Some August Fruits from the Forest Garden

We're just about managing to keep up with the harvesting and processing. Sophie and Ute have been making some excellent jam, chuntney and pesto, and we've been freezing, drying and canning like the man from del monte :)

Pest and Disease  - Orange Rust 

A blackberry bush that growing in the forest garden has been looking unwell of late. The plant has been the picture of health the last few years and has flowered and fruited prolifically. This year however, over the last few weeks we have observed that the leaves of the 2nd year growth have become mottled and a yellow powder has coated the undersides.

Orange Rust on our Blackberry.  A thorn less cultivar, name unknown.
A quick google search revealed the culprit as Orange rust a fungal disease that occurs only on brambles, particularly blackberries and dewberries. Unfortunately once this systemic disease sets in the entire plant is infected for life. 

The disease is not known to affect red or purple raspberries which is great as I have just planted a patch of these no more than 3 m away from the infected plant.

The infected plant is one of four blackberry plants I propagated from the  mother plant in the home garden.  None of the other plants have been infected including the mother plant which leads me to believe that the plant's position on top of an irrigation swale that is frequently full of water has provided  the conditions for the fungi to take hold and is something I will bear in mind for future water side plantings.

Disease cycle of orange rust. From the American Phytopathological Society (APS Compendium of Raspberry and Blackberry Diseases and Insects)

References  -

Our plant and seed orders are coming in for Autumn delivery. If you would like to purchase some plants this year to avoid disappointment order early as we have limited stock available.

 Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Polyculture Project - Market Garden Study - Update 7

It's the heart of summer here in Shipka and production in the gardens is really getting going. The polyculture study team have done a fantastic job preparing the garden, planting out the crops, tending to the seedlings and keeping records. We've really enjoyed having Kata Prodanov and Alexandre Duclouet on the team. Thanks guys, goodbye, good luck and come back soon :)

The Market Garden Polycultures

I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the new polycultures Epictetus and Ares are performing so far, but pondering the worth of scaling up Zeno, a polyculture that thrives in the smaller beds and shelter of the home garden but is struggling in the market garden. For more on this polyculture see here

(For a list of crops in our polycultures see below)

Produce from Epictetus

In terms of individual crops there have been some pleasant surprises in the garden this year as well as some disappointments.

My favourite plant so far this season has to be the Dwarf Bean cultivar 'Roquefort', delivering plenty of delicious golden-yellow pods 15 - 18 cm long, excellent in salads and when cooked. 

Dwarf Bean 'Roquefort' great for filling gaps between "cut and come and again" greens or low growing beetroot and Kohlrabi. 

Another excellent french bean - 'Cobra' (a climber) that continues to produce all season, grows brilliantly in our home garden year after year. It's not been doing so well in the market garden the last few seasons with very low germination rates, although the ones that do make it don't let us down.  

Kohlrabi 'Purple Delicacy' are also doing well this year and is definitely something we will grow more of in the future. They seem to be enjoying the shade provided by the Paulownia saplings, as do the Parsley plants.

Ares - Paulownia tomentosa 'Shan tong' providing shading for Kohlrabi and Parsley. The giant leaves also make excellent mulch, preventing weed competition and enriching the soil. 

Tomato Woes - The tomatoes slowed by a cool and wet spring have caught up during the hot June and July weather, but many of the plants showed withered leaves and growth defects. The problem seems to be widespread in the town although I'm happy to say our home garden plants are largely unaffected.

Wilting tomato leaves - Photo by Ute Villavicencio

I thought at first it  might be one of the wilts, Verticillium or Fusarium fungal pathogens that can seriously damage/destroy a tomato crop, but the symptoms do not match entirely.  Although the plants look terrible, growth continues with many flowers forming but none of the flowers appeared to be forming fruit. We considered pulling the plants but decided to watch a little longer before acting and it seems as if fruits are forming now.   

Comfrey Fertilser - Comfert is a liquid fertilizer concentrate from Comfrey leaves that we grow on site for applying to our crops. "Comfert" is made by packing fresh-cut comfrey tops into an old bucket, weighing them down, covering tightly, and waiting a few weeks for them to decompose into a black slurry. We dilute this comfrey concentrate 1 part comfert, 15 parts water, and apply a minimum of 500 ml to each tomato plant that is setting fruit or any plants that look like they need a boost.

A word of warning! If you get comfert on your hands you will literally have to wait for your skin cells to shed before you get the smell off. I'd describe the smell as a rotting vegetarian cat and recommend wearing gloves!  

Comfrey - Symphytum x uplandicum 'Bocking 14' - smells great btw. 

As a rough guide, a single cutting from a healthy Comfrey 'Bocking 14' plant of approx 1.3 m height and 80 cm width can produce around 3.5 L of comfert dilute.  

For more on Comfrey see our previous post here.

Kata and Natasha donning latex gloves to apply comfert to the toms in 500 ml yogurt pots.
Photo by Ute Villavicencio

Veggie Boxes

Our Veggie Boxes are back!! We're super happy to be sending out fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables to our customers. For seasonal subscriptions or to order weekly send an email to:

All products in our boxes are grown from our gardens. For more information see our webpage here

Balkan Ecology Project Veggie Box

Each week we also offer a range of herbs, fruits, vegetables and plants via the excellent platform of Trustika food co-op. 

Early July Garden Produce 

Biodiversity Study

The last 3 years we have been gathering data to look at the inputs and outputs of our gardens (see here). We'd also like to build a picture of the biodiversity associated with the gardens and this year we are beginning to explore this with three entomological surveys headed up by my brother Peter Alfrey. June saw the second survey of the year, Thanks to everyone who took part.

A few snaps from the survey.

In the shade of the fruit laden canopies, the forest garden is the perfect place to work in high summer. Here's what we've been up to the last few weeks:

Living Fence - We've been growing a living fence on the northern boundary of the garden composed mainly of  Robinia psueodacacia. The purpose of the hedge is to function as a boundary, a windbreak, nitrogen fixation and biomass souce for use as mulch in the forest garden.

5th year Robinia pseudoacacia flowering profusely in May,  excellent bee forage.  

The trees have grown incredibly fast and in five years have formed a dense upper canopy on the boundary of the forest garden that is beginning to cast a heavy shade on the newly planted hazelnuts, plum trees and blackcurrants in the lower canopy. We want to maintain the border and windbreak, but also want to allow more light in to reach the lower canopy and shrub crops so we reduced the height of the trees to 2 m high. This autumn the plan is to fill the gaps between the trees with raspberries and currants, and prune annually or biannually to keep the height low and provide plenty of biomass for mulch.    

Left - hedge following reduction.
Right - biomass from hedge used to mulch a swale (photo taken a week after cutting hence the dry material)   

The five year old trees  provided some good round wood timber and plenty of leafy herbaceous material that we use for mulching perennial crops or preparing new ground. 

Pruning Prunus - Other tree pruning work we carry out this time of year includes lifting the lower limbs of Prunus spp. such as Cherry Plum, Sour Cherry and Damsons to allow more light into the shrub layer and better access within the garden. Summer is the recommended time to prune members of the Prunus genus i.e Plums, Almonds, Apricots, Nectarines, Peaches, Gages etc. The reason for this is to minimise the risk of silver leaf infection. Silver leaf is a fungal disease and its wind-borne spores are released from late autumn through to spring when they can enter fresh pruning cuts.

Damsons , Sour Cherry and Cherry Plums in the Forest Garden

Watering Young Trees  - July is always a bit sparse on fruit in our forest gardens. There are plenty of wild Cherry Plums, Damsons and Sour Cherries in and around the gardens but we could be enjoying a lot more variation so last year we planted early fruiting Apricots, Pears, Jostaberry, Cornellian Cherries and some old Bulgarian plum cultivars.
With no significant rain for the last 14 days we applied a good 20 L of water to the newly planted trees, weeding out any plants that have managed to grow through the mulch and topping up the mulch where necessary. We'll repeat this watering schedule every 10-14 days without rain until late September and for the following 2 years, after which time the trees should be able to find sufficient water.

The Annual Polyculture Crop Lists 

ZenoEpictetus Ares
Common Name
FamillyCommon Name
FamillyCommon Name
African Marigold AsteraceaeCourgette Zucchini
Pot Marigold AsteraceaeCourgette Zucchini
Black Beauty
Courgette Zucchini
Black Beauty
CucurbitaceaeDwarf Yellow Bean
FabaceaeRed Onion Amaryllidaceae
Squash Waltham ButternutsCucurbitaceaeDwarf Borlotto Bean
Lingua Fuoco Nano
FabaceaeWhite Onion Amaryllidaceae
Summer Squash
Yellow Bush Scallop
Black Beauty
SolanaceaeDwarf Yellow Bean
Autumn King
ApiaceaeDwarf Borlotto Bean
Lingua Fuoco Nano
French Climbing Bean
Cobra Beans
Rainbow Mix
Delicacy Purple
French Climbing Bean
Hristo's Beans
FabaceaeKale - Borecole
BrassicaceaePaulownia tomentosa Paulowniaceae
SolanaceaeKale - Borecole
Black Krim
SolanaceaeSwiss Chard
Rainbow Mix
Ukrainian Purple
Rainbow Mix
Saved seed
White Gem
Anna Russian
SolanaceaeKohlrabi - Delicacy Purple Brassicaceae
Sweet Genovese BasilLamiaceaeChilli Pepper

We're looking forward to the Regenerative Landscape Design Course next month. We still have some places left so why not join us ?

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Saturday, 25 June 2016

Polyculture Project - Market Garden Study - Update 6

Here's a little of what we've been up to during the Polyculture Market Garden Study the last few weeks.

With a welcome break from the cool damp conditions the gardens are really starting to get going and all of a sudden, summer has arrived :)

Photos from June 

We said our farewells to Marika Wanklyn (it was great having you on the team!) and a big thank you to Johannes who joined us for just a week  during his ZIS trip ( If your adventurous, curious and 16 -20 years old ZIS  provide a great opportunity for travel). We're delighted to welcome back Ala Pekalska who helped to turn some of the garden produce into delicious meals during our Edible Ecosystem Design Course.

The Market Garden Polycultures   

The gardens are coming along nicely albeit a few weeks behind. Tomato, Squash, Chilli and Beans are in flower and the first fruits are setting.  The leafy crops are producing well and the trees and shrubs are filling with fruits and nuts

Our earliest fruiting cutivar is Tigerella. A reliable cropper with very few problems 

We generally don't experience pest problems, however we do keep a close eye on a few organisms in order to prevent them from causing significant damage. Cabbage White are one such organism.

Pieris brassicae - Cabbage White

Pieris brassicae - the large white, also called cabbage butterfly or cabbage white have been flying since early June - always a clear signal to keep an eye out for their eggs on the underside of our Brassica crops which this year include Kale, Borecole and  Kohlrabi.  One adult female can lay up to 600 eggs and a small batch of the larva (20-30) can obliterate a 40 x 20 cm leaf in a few days so this is one potential pest we pay careful attention to.

Large White - Pieris brassicae eggs and new hatched larvae on underside of Kohlrabi leaf

One advantage of polyculture is that it's more difficult for the butterflies to locate our crops among the other crops and they spend more time in flight where that are more likely to be caught by one of the many birds that use the garden as a feeding ground. Some butterflies do manage to mate and lay eggs so we check the underside of leaves every 4-7 days. If we fail to remove the eggs and the larvae emerge they need to travel around various other plants before they can locate another brassica food plant and are again more likely to to be located by the teams of pest predators we work with on the site i.e birds, frogs, toads, ground beetles, predatory wasps etc.

Our Permaculture Market Garden Polycultures 

Comfrey Harvest 

Second Comfrey Cut from the biomass patch 

This second cut of the year was taken from the same 13 m2 trial bed consisting of 42 plants precisely 37 days after the first cut.  For information on the first cut see here. The plants were flowering for 5 days before the cut and full of pollinators as usual

Natasha, Ute and Kata cutting and weighing the 'Bocking 14' comfrey patch 

The biomass weighed in at 32.2 kg. Not far off 1 kg of growth per day  and almost 10 kg more than the previous cut probably due to the longer days and higher temperatures.

We just about managed to squeeze the biomass into a 200 L barrel. This should convert to 15 -20 L of comfert concentrate which can be diluted further to 150 - 200 L of liquid fertliser.

We're using a fast growing hybrid Symphytum x uplandicum 'Bocking 14' - Comfrey in our gardens and for this trial and will publish the full records from the biomass patch at the end of year. For more information on these super plants and how to establish and manage a patch see our previous post here.

Forest Garden

Fruits from the Forest Garden

Plenty of fruit coming out of the gardens this month including raspberries, strawberries, currants, mulberries, cherries and early plums. The main work in the forest garden is cutting back growth around the establishing plants,  maintaining the pathways and harvesting the fruits to eat fresh, preserve and for our Trustika - food coop customers.

Mulberries - a challenge to find in the market due to their short shelf life. Our Mulberries arrive to our customers less than 20 hrs after shaken from the tree.  

Mulberry Harvest   

Here's a video made by my youngest son Archie of a mulberry harvest in the garden.

Paulownia Coppice

We've been experimenting with Paulownia spp. in the gardens for the last 4 years and are seeing some excellent potential for biomass and stake material for the market garden. We're currently focusing on using the plant as a nurse species for vegetable production and  to grow 1.5 m tall tomato support stakes.  I'll be writing a more detailed post on this in the near future, but for now here are some photos of the 4 month old regrowth we are seeing from these plants in our gardens.

Paulownia elongata - 4 month old coppice regrowth  

Pigs and Ducks 

Late spring marks the arrival of new animal residents to the garden. A small flock of ducks and two Bulgarian white pigs join us for the summer.  

Karl and Marx  

The Quackers 

Edible Ecosystems Design Course

Thank you to the wonderful participants of this year's Edible Ecosystems Design Course and for all the crew that helped out. You can check the photos from the course here.

Edible Ecosystems Design Course June 2016 

Now we're looking forward to the Regenerative Landscape Design Course in a few months time. We still have some places left for this course. Find out more about this unique course here.

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