Lazy Beds.. We tried out the traditional Irish spud-growing technique

This is a post I wanted to write back in April, when we actually made the lazy-beds, but I didn’t have a blog back then, or time to turn around.. but I did take photos for a time when I did have a blog, so I hope you can learn something from our experience.

To re-cap on our situation for those who haven’t read earlier posts.. Our aims for this season were basically to grow a little bit of everything and see what was successful, giving us a guide to what we should concentrate on, should we decide to start a commercial operation in coming seasons. One crop we wanted to try on a larger scale was potatoes, simply because they are pretty low-maintenance [supposedly] and a staple in all our diets, we also wanted to try a few different blight-resistant varieties, and we were going to try a few different cultivation techniques, until we ran out of time and at the last minute we opted for lazy beds only.

Now I had never used this system, Marcus had tried it once before with mixed success, and Stuie hadn’t grown much at all previously, so we were feeling our way in the dark. I was expecting it to be quite easy, given it’s name, but that turned out to be a case of false advertising.

We had a 15 x 6 metre plot to play with, so we decided to make 15 metre-long beds. The varieties we experimented with were either blight resistant or blight hardy, and included “Orla”, “Coleen” and  “Sarpo Mira”, all from Fruithill Farm in Cork. In hindsight, we realise our mistake in mixing blight resistant with not-so resistant, because the variety that wasn’t resistant, became infected and the blight then spread to the other varieties. It wasn’t a total loss however, we salvaged some quite reasonably-sized spuds, and the beds are now well-prepared for the next crop.

The main ingredients for a lazy-bed are;

-lots of well-rotted manure or compost of another type.. the coastal dwellers of olde Ireland used seaweed to great effect.

-piles of cardboard, preferably not coloured or plastic-coated.

-a strong back and a good spade. There is apparently a special shaped spade-head for this job, but we made do with what we had.. helps if they are sharp though.
We marked out our first bed and guessed that it should be about 1 metre wide. The trick is to actually lay the string a sod length wider than the desired width on each side.. because you will be cutting along the string and then flipping the sod into the middle, so your string needs to be outside the trench that results.. [see photos below]

This shot shows exactly how much manure we used, and the distance between the string line and the cardboard edge

This photo also illustrates how the bed goes together. After laying the string lines, we laid the cardboard, to within a sod’s width of the line, not right up to it, as shown left. Then we spread a light layer of well-rotted chicken manure over the cardboard. Not knowing how much to use, we went easy on it.. you can over-do it and burn the tubers with too much raw manure.

The next step was to place the spuds in position. We spaced them around 30cm apart and made two rows, as you can see above, but in later beds we did three rows, staggered so they were still well-spaced.

We worked our way down the bed, one person on each side, cutting the turf along the string line, then dividing the strip into manageable sods [about 20 to 25cm wide]. The crucial action was lifting these sods without breaking the hinge that would form the side wall of the bed, and flipping them upside-down into the middle. The key here is too cut the sod as thin as possible before lifting, otherwise the tuber will have trouble growing through the sod.

The idea is that the sod covers the seed potato, and you are left with two lines of inverted sods about 30cm apart. This means you have a valley down the middle of the bed, which can be filled in with the loose soil in the newly formed trench.. a picture paints a thousand words though..

This shows the general profile as the sods are turned over. You can just make out a valley in the middle.

The important thing to remember is that anywhere the sods are not snugly fitted together, the grass will grow up between them from the up-turned sod. We severely under-estimated this possibility, and even though we were careful to close the gaps, we did end up with very grassy lazy beds.

Lessons learned:

Unfortunately I can’t give a concise conclusion on the level of success attained from this method, because ALL varieties were hit hard by an early blight and we needed to cut the haulms well before the tubers were mature. On first noticing the tell-tale signs, we consulted our bible, Joy Larkom’s classic “Grow Your Own Veg”. She advised removing the entire plant if more than 10% of the foliage was affected. The tubers are left in the ground for 2 weeks after this, to allow the skin to harden for storing.

As mentioned above, we had a big problem with grass growing up through the sods. We’re not sure if this was because of a flaw in our technique, or if this is usual, but one strong recommendation I would make, would be to mulch heavily and earth up constantly to avoid this problem. Having some experience growing potatoes in drills, I can say the earthing-up process is much more simple with drills. Our lazy-beds had a surface of inverted grass sods, the high clay-content making them bake solid as bricks.

On the plus side, we now have three lovely raised beds prepared for next season. When the spuds are all lifted. we will cover the beds with black plastic to kill the remaining weeds, then they will be ready for the next crop.

Another advantage of the lazy beds was drainage. As you can see from the photos, this is an extremely water-logged site, in an extremely wet summer, so the deep trenches were essential in keeping the beds well-drained, although we did have to dig run-off ditches to avoid the pooling of water in the trenches.

Next season we would like to try some different techniques and compare them. We will also be using more blight-resistant varieties, most-likely the Sarpos. I have heard others getting good results with the tasty Blue Danube. Shown below is a nice poster I came across recently.

http://www.facebook.com/SPUDS.research

The organisation responsible for this poster, “Sarvari Trust” is based in North Wales, but perhaps it’s days are numbered due to a funding cut by the government, to pay for more research into GM.. probably. The Savari Trust has been conducting invaluable trials and breeding programs since it’s inception, resulting in huge progress in it’s aim to produce a natural blight-resistant selection of spuds. Hopefully they can find a way to fund themselves and continue this vital work.

To wrap this up, I just want to add that the crop we harvested so far.. from half of one bed, look very healthy and taste delicious, perhaps more so than if they had reached maturity. {I have found that most vegetables taste better when they are immature} In any case, there will be enough to feed our families and friends. The taste of these tubers and the looks on other faces when they take their first bite, is worth all the labour in the world.

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About microfarmer

On a mission.. to share my passion.. for growing pure food in a thriving soil.. other related passions include.. agroforestry, woodcraft, natural materials, alternative/ appropriate tech., travelling and learning, food and herbal medicine. Working co-operatively to create meaningful livliehoods and innovative solutions
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6 Responses to Lazy Beds.. We tried out the traditional Irish spud-growing technique

  1. Kiran says:

    Nice post – hope it goes better next season – blight is hard work! We’re actually going to do a raised bed in our back garden for a few veggies – any tips? Thank you.

    • 3dirtytree says:

      Thanks Kiran, When you are building a raised bed, remember to make it a good size for working on, measure your own comfortable reach.. and your children’s.. the standard width is 1.5 metres, so your reach would need to be 75cm.. comfortably.. and leave plenty of space around the bed for wheelbarrows and manoeuvring. Clean the area of weeds and grass, or put down a weed suppressant membrane before adding topsoil. Be careful not to incorporate sub-soil if excavating from another spot. For walls you can use old scaffold boards, or railway sleepers, or whatever you can find that holds the soil in.
      Good luck and keep those great recipes coming

      • Kiran says:

        Thanks for the great response! It’s really appreciated. We’re going to try and get a small raised bed up this week, (experimenting with radishes and spinach) so this is really helpful!

  2. charltonestatetrust says:

    Great blog, thank-you!

    • 3dirtytree says:

      cheers charlton. just read your beds blog.. two thoughts. the beds seem quite shallow, are you only growing salads and shallow rooted stuff? also, it looks like you filled the frame with store-bought potting compost, is there any reason for doing this rather than using topsoil with some sweet stuff mixed in?

  3. charltonestatetrust says:

    I agree, at this point in time the bed are shallow, but I am doing the no-dig method so over time my friends the worms will be digging and stratifying the soil for me. I will be adding top-dressings periodically. Initially, I will be growing shallow rooted plants.

    The reason I am using shop-bought compost is firstly I want some organic matter in the bed because the soil I have is clay. And also out of convenience because I have used-up my home -made compost.

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