Roots & Manure – continuing the debate

I posted in April about the ubiquitous advice on not sowing carrots & parsnips in manured ground, & suggested we should return to older practices for evidence. Some readers took my suggestions & are planning to keep an eye on what happens with their crops, others just reiterated what I would describe as received opinion. I decided to review the evidence further, although I still can’t find any current research on the effects of manure on root crops, especially carrots & parsnips, but will keep searching [links to current research most welcome]. However, I’ve a few points to share.

I’ve talked to a number of experienced growers in Brighton (UK) who have been growing food crops seriously for well over a decade or more, & for whom growing is what they do. Simon (@handsinthesoil) suggested that we’ve forgotten the old practice of double digging, or digging 2 spits (spades) deep, filling the trench with rotted manure, then re-filling with earth. This is very much the practice I reported from Jersey [here] about Parsnips.

Several documents about allotment gardening I’ve found from the early 20th Century also indicate this might be the case. Percy Elford & Samuel Heaton, in The Cultivation of Allotments, 1917, offer this advice on growing carrots:
Carrots. The soil for carrots should be well trenched or dug in during the winter and if any stable manure is applied it should be well rotted and should be placed at the bottom of the trench. (Elford & Heaton, 1917, p.27.)

This guidance in using manure to grow carrots,offered in a guide to growing by Sutton & Sons, Reading, 1921, reinforces the distinction between the application of manure to the surface of your beds & incorporating it during double digging :
For the main crops double digging should be practised, and if the staple is poor a dressing of half-rotten dung may be put in with the bottom spit. But a general manuring as for a surface-rooting crop is not to be thought of, the sure effect being to cause the roots to fork and fang most injuriously.

The other issue is use of fresh rather than well-rotted manure. Could this be the problem, not the presence of manure itself? Another friend stated that we shouldn’t be using fresh manure anyway, as it’s more efficient to use it in the compost heap than on the earth when it’s fresh.

I suggest that perhaps our understanding of gardening practices over the years has been damaged, with a break in the handing on of knowledge & experience due to the fall in popularity of allotment gardening during the 1960s up to the 1990s. As a consequence, we have a broken line of understanding about growing practices, a failure of memory, a void that is now filled by gardening programmes & publications on ‘grow your own’ as a lifestyle choice; also a proliferation of web-based advice & blogs. But what often happens is a repetition of ill-digested information. We would benefit from a return to autodidactism, exploring, sharing & debating issues to do with the land, food & the ecology of growing things. We should create & share knowledge through practice & our own research: a generous dose of citizen science!

3 thoughts on “Roots & Manure – continuing the debate

  1. For what it is worth the growing of carrots where I am in France is limited to those who have old compost heaps left covered and untouched for at least 5 years. Any notion of planting directly into the ground – forget it and parsnips are just a big no-no (seen as animal fodder as with most beets – being a Scot I do try and convince otherwise but fail miserably!).

    What you say about the loss of knowledge in regards gardening can be brought into the wider land management arena. We have failed to research our forebears methods to huge cost (particularly in terms of water management). One hopes the new and burgeoning ‘landscapist’ movement will add pressure to some academic and scientific research – but in the meantime citizen science as well as actually listening to practitioners working in their place will help us progress in this. Here I am surrounded by the methods of yesterday – which work better than any dribble suggested by the UK gardening celebrities! Great read – thanks.

    Pip Howard

    • I was encouraged to read such a considered response to my small effort at debate. The cultural differences (in both senses) re: carrots & parsnip growing was interesting & something I may explore further. I was curious to know more from your comment about water management – links would be welcome. Also, I dont understand what the ‘landscapist’ movement is but it sounds like something I should know more about.
      On citizen science & local knowledge: there has been a professionalisation/compartmentalising of knowledge & ‘local/vernacular’ knowledge is no longer recognised or is treated as an endearing trait of older people or the labouring classes, rather than the grounded, ‘deep’ knowledge that it can turn out to be. I’m not nostalgic about the past & know how bizarre & mistaken some ‘knowledge’ can be, but we’ve also lost the ability to listen & trust experience.
      Have tracked back to yuor website & been enthralled by your posts – particularly liked the one about the consequences of pissing on trees!!

      Feel now we have a small & perfectly formed readership to write for \(@ @)/

  2. I mentioned water management because to me it is the first clear example where by ignoring the land management of the past has resulted in a situation for the UK where it is now far too susceptible to drought or flooding. Awards for innovative proposals are laid out – but why, when we only need to look more closely at the construction of swales, dry stone walls, hedgerows etc., which evolved to maximise the benefits of water year round to the benefit of the land surrounding such structures. Ignoring the advice of the old boy leaning on his spade who has managed the same land all his life has been a catastrophe for progressive land management – propelled and still perpetuated by NGOs who have to stamp ‘expert’ opinion on everything – how can they be experts when we are so very far from having anyway near a full knowledge of our cultural heritage in terms of the land, let alone biodiversity. The landscape approach is a simple concept – as defined in the European Landscape Convention, which basically stresses the need to consider all factors – most importantly people in a landscape. David Crouch is one of many heavyweight UK academics who have helped the ELC to develop and is sad to watch it so deliberately ignored in the UK.

    The following is an excerpt from a discussion I was having online which I think is relevant here – ‘I live in a country where peasants (or certainly peasantry) still exist – they create the highest quality products from a landscape they are in charge of, recognised in law (terroir). Try to match this with the culture and even the economy of the country as a whole and you will fail as the research into this is only just started to happen – because of the new influence of landscape as a separate academic discipline. As an example take ‘lunar gardening’ – it is not uncommon to hear people say our forebears had an incredible and mystical knowledge of the gravity of the moon and how it could make their plants grow – but this is utter bollocks; peasants had no watches but they had an innate relationship with the night sky – it was their calendar and they used it as a guide to ensure optimum growing periods. It is best to apply real logic and not depend on those who have written or publicise such writings of those who know how to use a more exciting hypothesis or instead install a myth for greater effect and wider audience. The real facts are found by those who have innate relationship with an element of the landscape and can therefore understand what their forebears would do.’

    But for me one huge step forward asides from listening to those who have managed our land before us is to properly study the remnant features on the landscape that still abound and are treasured for their contribution to our heritage. When in Cornwall we did a lot of research on Cornish hedges and discovered that these contained soil derived from compost and were clearly built over very long periods of time – the planting on top of some walls was into the very best of soil and would have produced very high quality, supplementary produce, whilst acting as a boundary also as well as a buffer zone for surface water run off – good sensible sustainable thinking. The biggest and most damaging myth of our time is to assume that our ancestors back as far as the end of the Ice Age were stupid! They clearly weren’t and looking at the mess this world and certainly the UK is in now – it is us who are stupid and incapable of living sustainably to the extend where many believe it to be impossible, it isn’t and it is actually a very nice way of living.

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