Allotment update 18/6/2018

It’s a day under four weeks since my last allotment blog and it was the comparison in the pictures above that prompted me to do an update. The growth rate in the last few weeks has been something to behold. I am now harvesting quite a range of crops and a few more are very nearly there.

Strawberries have been good, almost untouched by slugs, meaning I’ve been able to let them ripen properly. Jam has been made. Lettuce, carrots, sorrel, spinach, spinach beet, rhubarb, beetroot, spring onions and courgettes have made it to the table. Early potatoes and peas will start this week. The only real disaster is that my garlic has rust.

For some strange reason the plots to either side of mine have had their peas ravaged by pigeons, while mine are completely untouched. I was a little earlier than they were but that seems to me the only difference. Not that I’m complaining.

I have mentioned before that I have real problems getting plants going from seed sown directly on the plot, almost everything being brought on in cell trays and planted out when an inch or two tall. Leeks, needing to be planted deeper, I did differently. I sowed them in a one litre pot then pricked them out about an inch apart in a ten litre pot when they were about 2 inches tall. They were then grown on until they were big enough to plant out. They are in the top right picture, beside the spinach beet at the far left.

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The top half of the plot here still has brassicas covered with mesh to stop root fly. The cover will need to come off those on the right very soon. From left to right I have celeriac, first time I’ve grown it, seems to be doing OK. Above that is sorrel, a perennial I grew from seed last year. It is great in mixed leaf salads. Annual spinach serves the same purpose, along with lettuce. The very dark lettuce is Oakleaf Navara, a great success, the lighter one is Lollo Rosso. Green Salad Bowl was in the earlier picture. Between the lettuces is beetroot, a golden form called Boldor. This cooks far quicker than Boltardy and is sweet and tender. I’ll grow it again.

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To the right of my windbreak are onions. Furthest on are Rumba, grown from sets started in cells in mid February and planted out in April. They’re planted quite close, we find medium sized onions more practical. I did two sowings of onion Armstrong, the later ones in early March, planted out in May, have caught up with the experimental earlier ones. They look fine but are way behind Rumba. Red onion Red Baron are at the same stage as Armstrong though they have suffered more slug damage. You can see my rusty garlic, Provence, with four good sized elephant garlics in the foreground.

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Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navara’ and Onion ‘Rumba’

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In the top half of that section are courgettes, potatoes, sweet corn and runner beans. I sowed all the courgettes in the packet, they all germinated and they were all planted out. I figured to get up to speed quickly then remove plants when the glut kicks in. I’ve only grown first early Charlotte spuds this year. In the four years I’ve had the plot I’ve had one decent crop of maincrops, every other year blight has flattened them. I’ll start harvesting any day now.

I’ve grown two varieties of sweet corn, sowing them about four weeks apart. I’m hoping for a longer picking season. They’re closer than it said on the packet but I figured on a wide open south facing slope I’d get away with it. I run the beans along the top of this section, same place every year, because they are not throwing shade over any part of the plot. I haven’t seen much difference between north and south side of the bean row. The beans are Firestorm, with six odd ones given me by another plot holder who got them in France. A week after he gave them to me, he apologised because his own sowing of them had failed completely so he’d realised they were duff seeds. I sowed 20 and 19 germinated. He wasn’t very happy when I told him, he’d gone out and bought plants. I suspect he’d used poor compost, or had them at too low a temperature, but you never really know.

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Runner beans ‘Firestorm’, Courgette ‘Ambassador’, Carrots ‘Romance’ and ‘Autumn King’

Carrots I have continued to successionally sow in one litre deep pots, planting out as a clump as soon as the compost will hold together. Germination is faultless, fairly slow but always around 100%. Slugs are the enemy, I have had pots of seedlings razed overnight by a single slug in the glasshouse and one clump disappeared overnight just after planting out. The tricky bit is sowing them thick enough to have the roots hold the rootball together for planting but thin enough that they grow to a decent size. I aim for about twenty in the pot, but it’s usually more.

On my other plot (I’m greedy, I have two) I am growing Dahlias, Sweet Peas and Butternut Squash. (There are strawberries there too but I can hardly claim to be growing them). The ground is poor and very weedy. Several months of being covered with Mypex failed to kill nettles and buttercup. I sprayed part of it. The Sweet Peas and Squash are struggling but the Dahlias are doing rather well. I have three rows, all grown from seed collected from my own ‘Orange Cushion’ (rows 1 & 2) and ‘Veritable’. The middle row are from a 2016 sowing, the others from 11th March this year. I’m pretty chuffed to have flower buds forming even on some of those. I’m expecting most if not all to flower this year. I’ll keep you posted.

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Dahlias among the weeds. I started weeding after I took the picture, honest.

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Buds on plants sown 11/3/2018

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Sweet Peas and Butternut Squash. I have high hopes.

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Allotment update – 22/5/2018

The weather has been settled for a week or two, so I’m more or less up to date on where I want to be on my plot. Peas, potatoes and parsnips are the only things I’ve sown directly on the plot, everything else has been raised under glass and planted out. Peas and potatoes are up and away, parsnips were late to go in, on 8th May, and are not showing yet.

I’ve been watering newly planted stuff every two or three days until well established, then largely backing off.

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It’s all pretty functional. I don’t have raised beds, just beds about a metre wide with half metre paths between them. I have enough carpet strips to cover about half the paths. They stay put until the weeds are dead then get moved to another section. For the life of me I cannot see what advantage raised beds would give me. It would just be more work, more expense and more places for slugs to hide. Better to leave the trees standing. Lettuce, peas, broad beans and Rhubarb are in the foreground.

The two enviromesh tunnels are covering cabbages. Last year I was wiped out by cabbage rootfly, in spite of using paper collars. This year so far I have had no such problems, though several small plants were eaten off within days of planting, probably by slugs. The carpet strips are holding down the mesh, which is laid over 4mm wire hoops.

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I have pulled back the mesh here to replace the eaten cabbages, fortunately I had a few spares. The very dark lettuce is Oakleaf Navarro, which I shall certainly grow again. When it is gone, I will fit in another row of brassicas. I should have removed the primrose, but until recently it was very pretty.

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The plot is divided into three sections, the fruit cage to the right of this picture, plus the two vegetable plots separated by a windbreak. I have my runners along the top of this section; that way they don’t shade anything else.
The left hand bed is planted with seed raised onions, next are onions from sets, variety Rumba, then garlic and finally carrots. I removed a block of garlic Solent Wight yesterday from where the fork is because it was riddled with rust. The four rows are Provence, which held out for a while but then went down with it too. The four large plants at the bottom are Elephant Garlic and at the moment they are clean.

The carrots were raised in one litre deep pots and planted out with minimal disturbance as soon as they had enough root to hold together. I will dig them as clumps. The only problem last year was that they pushed up above the soil a bit; this year I have planted them a little deeper.

In the top half of the bed are courgettes and sweet corn Earlyking, both planted in the last few days. The Charlotte potatoes were planted 9th April and need earthing up. As a no digger I tried just covering them with a deep layer of compost last year. It wasn’t very successful, encouraging slugs and not covering the potatoes effectively.

It’s tempting providence to say so, but the season is going well, having got off to a shaky start.

 

Allotment update – 11/4/2018

I read allotment blogs out of curiosity  about what other people are up to rather than to learn how to do things. Now and then an idea will come up that I will try out but on the whole I have found ways that work for me and am reluctant to depart from them.

This then, is what I am up to at this stage of the season. Just in case you’re curious too.

April is perhaps the fastest moving time of year in the vegetable garden and with the cold weather of a few weeks ago fading into memory, there is a lot happening.
The soil on my plot has been wet and cold and the only thing I have “sown” direct so far (9th Apr)  is my early potatoes, Charlotte again this year.

Most of my vegetables I start off under cover, usually sowing seed in 9cm pots then pricking off into cell trays. Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navarro’ followed this route and went out on the 9th too, along with Broad Beans, sown direct into 9cm pots and Onion ‘Rumba’ sets, planted into cell trays on 17th Feb.

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Assorted seedlings growing on in cell trays.

Growing on in cell trays now I have a fair list of things, some nearly ready to go out, others just pricked off, namely:
Lettuce ‘Lollo Rosso’, ‘’Sald Bowl’, ‘Oakleaf Navarro’
Cabbage ‘Delight Ball’, ‘Huzarro’, ‘Kalibos’
Beetroot ‘Boltardy’ and ‘Boldor’
Spinach and Spinach Beet
Welsh onion, Onion ‘Armstrong’, Spring Onion ‘White Lisbon’
Celeriac ‘Asterix’

I have carrots in 1 litre deep pots and Pea ‘Twinkle’ in 9cm pots, some of which have emerged today. The rest of my peas will be direct sown, probably in the next few days.
I checked through my seeds today to see what else needed sowing and there wasn’t very much. Parsnips need to go in very soon; Runner Beans, Kale, Broccoli and Squash in a few weeks time. Courgettes and one variety of Sweet Corn I have sown today. Successional sowings will be made of Carrots, Lettuce, Spring Onions, Beetroot and so on, but there is a strong sense that the growing season is well under way.

 

The list below is what I have sown so far.

Beetroot Boldor F1 04/03/2018 11/04/2018
Beetroot Boltardy 31/03/2018
Broad Bean Masterpiece Green 03/02/2018
Brussels Sprout Brendan F1 30/03/2018
Cabbage Delight Ball F1 04/03/2018
Cabbage Huzaro F1 04/03/2018
Cabbage Kalibos 30/03/2018
Carrot Early Nantes 17/02/2018 19/03/2018
Carrot Romance F1 19/03/2018
Celeriac Asterix F1 17/02/2018
Chilli Apache 03/03/2018
Chilli Ring of Fire 03/03/2018
Chilli Tabasco 03/03/2018
Courgette Ambassador F1 11/04/2018
Cucumber Carmen F1 31/03/2018
Flower Sprout 30/03/2018
Garlic Provence 02/10/2017
Garlic Solent Wight 02/10/2017
Leaf Beet Perpetual Spinach 04/03/2018
Leek Blue Solaise 30/03/2018
Lettuce Lollo Rosso 19/03/2018
Lettuce Oakleaf Navara 03/02/2018 30/03/2018
Lettuce Red Salad Bowl 19/03/2018
Lettuce Salad Bowl 19/03/2018
Onion Armstrong F1 03/02/2018 04/03/2018
Onion Red Baron 04/03/2018
Onion Rumba sets 17/02/2018
Onion White Lisbon 03/02/2018 30/03/2018
Parsley Plain 30/03/2018
Pea Twinkle 01/04/2018
Potato Charlotte 09/04/2018
Spinach Matador 30/03/2018
Sweet Corn Earliking F1 11/04/2018
Tomato Sungold 19/03/2018
Welsh Onion 11/03/2018

Allotment update – 28/3/2018

I’m into my fifth year of recording seed sowing dates for both veg and flowers. It gets a bit more patchy at the pricking off stage and worse still for planting out. I thought it would tell me how far behind I am this year, but it actually tells me very little.

It feels like a late season, I suspect they all do.

I have broad beans, sown in 9cm pots in early Feb, ready to go out. I want to get early potatoes in. I will soon want to get onions, started from sets in cells, out, with seed raised plants not so very far behind. I have lettuce, beetroot and spinach beet in cells, perhaps a fortnight from planting size.

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Broad Bean ‘Masterpiece Green’, sown into 9cm pots, 2 seeds per pot, 3/2/2018. Being moved out of greenhouse daily to harden off.

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Onion ‘Rumba’, planted in cells to get started, will soon need to go out.

Most of my seed I get from Kings. Why? well for no better reason than that I piggy backed someone else’s discounted allotment society order five years ago, got acceptable results and if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it. I feel unadventurous, especially when I read other people’s blogs and they’re getting all sorts of stuff from all over the place.

I have tried a bit. I did a small order to Real Seeds last year and a small order to Sow Seeds this year. It’s unfair to just pick at the margins of their ranges while getting the bulk from a big firm. I got mixed results, one out of three chilli varieties from Sow Seeds has not come up at all, against 100% on the other two. The Liria onions from Real Seeds did very well but didn’t keep nearly as well as Rumba from Kings. The sorrel is a perennial so I still have it, not that I use it much. Giant Goosefoot was not popular and the runners were nothing special.

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Chillies on the window ledge, pricked off a week ago. Two varieties germinated 100%, the third not at all; same conditions.

What I want is to get a decent return for the money and effort I invest in the plot. I don’t think my growing conditions are optimal so reliability is important and a high proportion of failures would eventually make me give up. All my experimentation goes into my growing methods rather than different crops. I’d rather succeed with something common than fail with something exotic.

 

 

 

Last year I bought a bag of Melcourt’s sowing and cutting compost. This year I have used their regular potting compost. This is the same peat free compost as is used by an increasing number of commercial nursery stock producers. I have seen no difference between the seed and potting composts, in appearance or in results.

I don’t sow much directly into the ground as I find most things fail, usually being eaten by slugs when very small. Planting out from cells is also easier when the ground still has the remains of a winter mulch on it, which most of my no dig plot does. The ground also gets another month to dry out and warm up before I try to grow anything in it.

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Remains of my autumn mulch are still protecting the soil surface of the plot. Weeds are only a problem if allowed to seed, which won’t happen. My Rhubarb is well away.

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Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navara’, looking good but will soon need to go out.

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Carrots ‘Early Nantes’ will go out as soon as there is enough root to hold the compost together. They will then get planted just as they are. I may thin them slightly, to about 15 per pot.

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Cabbages were pricked off into cells from 9cm pots; beetroot and spinach beet sown in cells and will get planted as small bunches. Onions will get pricked off into cells very soon, one per cell, as will Celeriac and more lettuce.

Allotment update 11/2/2018

I made a quick visit to my allotment earlier. The wind was slicing across the very open site and, seeing very little that needed doing urgently, I didn’t stay long.

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Spinach, leeks, rhubarb and weeds, lots of weeds.

My leeks were a dismal failure; almost all of them produced flower stems. Sown too early seems to be the verdict. Spinach beet is OK, though it is very battered. There are parsnips in the ground, though they are pathetically small. Mesh over the top stopped root fly but cramped leaf development.

All the bare ground was mulched in autumn with compost, mostly from my compost heap, some fresh shredded material. It has done its job of protecting the soil surface over the winter but because my composting isn’t on a scale that generates much heat, there is a lot of weed to pull out.

 

In the first winter that I had the plot I sowed Italian ryegrass as a green manure. It was very effective but needed digging in. Since I adopted a no dig regime it has not seemed viable. I am going to try it again in autumn 2018, sowing it on the beds that will not be needed until relatively late in the spring. It should mean I can spread my compost a little thicker on a reduced area. The rye I will cover with mypex a couple of months before I need the ground. Hopefully that will be long enough to give me a good kill.

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More weeds, plus parsley, kale and garlic.

As well as not having as much compost as I would like, the stuff I do have doesn’t have the nutrients in it that my crops need either. This is a fairly high rainfall area and the ground is free draining, the more so because I am maintaining good soil structure. I suspect I am losing nutrients to leaching. I also shred a lot of woody material and put it into the compost. It resists decomposition and is effective all winter at protecting the soil surface, but at best it is poor in nutrients, if it isn’t actually drawing nutrients out for its own breakdown. I will feed more this season than I have in the past.

 

The one thing I did do when I was up there today was to open 2018’s account with my mole population. There are too many for my liking. I’m not bothered by their excavations so much as their impact on my worm population. I’m convinced it’s because I have far more worms than my neighbours that they seem to be mostly focussed on my plot. I set two traps though my success with them in the past has been dire. I have also scattered seed of caper spurge around the margins; supposedly it deters them. I sowed a couple of cell trays with spurge too.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Moles. Their hills are all along the edges of the plot but their tunnels are everywhere.

Allotment update.

During the summer I was up to my plot at least every other day, now it’s more like every other week. Such crops as I have still standing seem to include several that have not covered themselves in glory this year, rusty leeks, piddling little parsnips, moth eaten spinach. Cauli’s were not bad, but you only want so much.

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Skanky spinach, gone to seed leeks, piddling parsnips.

 

A good part of the ground is empty and has been mulched with compost to protect it over the winter. Mulch does prevent damage to soil structure from winter rain but not loss of nutrients from leaching. Green manure would do that but then needs digging in, which conflicts with my no-dig ambitions, or smothering, which takes time I don’t have in spring, or spraying, which I am not going to do.

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Weeds. I can weed from the path where the pot is, I never step on the cultivated bit.

 

My compost is weedy. It is made from material from various sources, some of which are full of weed seeds. The quantities I have mean it doesn’t get hot enough to kill the weeds effectively, so where I mulched a few weeks back I now have weeds. I don’t want them going to seed and I don’t want them to get so big I have to dig them out; other than that they are holding onto nutrients and providing further protection for the soil. On closer inspection, there are a few that, even in November, are threatening to flower and seed as very small plants. Annual meadow grass, bittercress, pearlwort, groundsel, chickweed  and petty spurge are all included. Then there were grasses, dandelions and buttercups that needed out while still small and manageable.

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Clockwise, pearlwort, annual meadow grass, hairy bittercress, petty spurge.

 

I weeded that bed. There is another that needs doing too. I spread more compost too. Everything gets shredded so it breaks down quickly, I will try to get more spread in the next couple of weeks, it will do far more good on the ground than in the heap. Because a significant part of its volume comes from shredded leaves and twigs, its nutrient content is not great, so I will apply fertiliser at a moderate rate in the new year. Some of the shortcomings I’m seeing in what I’ve grown this year are for lack of nutrition.

I find myself deviating from the no-dig template in its classic form but consider myself to be responding to my local conditions in as constructive a way as I can.

On not digging.

In a few days time I shall be 65. Digging is either good exercise or hard work, depending on your perspective. Mine is that it is hard work and getting harder, so it seems to me that if I can get results as good without digging as with, why would I dig.

Like many people, my no-dig guru of choice is Charles Dowding, who has been promoting no-dig vegetable growing for many years and has spoken, written and blogged about his techniques at great length. I have read some of his stuff, he is not overly prescriptive about his techniques, saying that people must tailor them to their own circumstances. This I have done in the much shorter length of time I have used the no-dig approach. That length of time is in fact less than two seasons and I am very aware that it is early days and I have much to learn.

I tend to think of no-dig as a method, not a philosophy. I am doing it because it is giving me the results I want with an input that I can manage and hopefully will be able to manage for many more years to come. Part of that longer view is that my soil is being kept in good shape, but I primarily see that as a means to an end; sustained production; not an end in itself. If soil health were the end, I would have a wild flower meadow or woodland, neither of which are permitted under allotment rules.

So much for the backdrop. At a practical level, my method is very simple. I have a standard sized allotment which I have divided up into beds about 4 feet wide, separated by paths about 18 inches wide. The beds are marked only by canes at the ends of the paths, there is no structure, no timber edging, no raised beds, no path surfacing. I walk on and work from the paths and avoid stepping onto the beds as far as I possibly can, especially when the soil is wet.

In the autumn I spread a layer of compost over all the unoccupied beds, aiming for 1-2 inches depth of material. In the spring I either sow or plant into the beds, usually in rows along the length of the beds. I have had very much better results with growing seedlings in modules or pots and planting them out than with direct sowing. The only things sown directly in 2017 were parsnips and peas. I even did one variety of peas in pots and will likely do more next year.

I tried last year to follow my early crops; peas and potatoes, with later ones; spinach, chard and brassicas. It wasn’t a great success in that the late crops didn’t make enough growth by the winter to be usable or to stand well against winter weather. I’m trying a few different things this year but expect to have more empty ground than last year.  Where there are growing crops I cannot apply a compost mulch in autumn, so I have been putting it on as soon as the ground is cleared in spring. Sometimes there is a period of a few weeks before I want to plant an area, sometimes not. Rather than planting through the compost layer I have used a fork to work it into the top few inches of the bed, pretty much in lieu of worm activity.

Where I have had brassicas growing, the ground seems to become far more compacted than elsewhere. In my four year crop rotation I have potatoes following brassicas and under traditional cultivation the ground would be heavily manured for them. Other than pulling up the previous crop I haven’t disturbed the ground but have planted the potatoes and then covered the bed with 3-4 inches of compost. I don’t think this has worked well; the potatoes have not grown as well as I would have liked. Next spring I will disturb the ground with a fork but not turn it over, then mulch, working some of it into the top few inches.
I have read that brassicas don’t support the mycorrhizal fungi  that most other veg do, so digging after brassicas will not be destroying them.

I generate as much compost as I can, taking material from the allotment, my garden, the kitchen and anywhere else I can. Practically all of it goes through a shredder before going on the heap. I have three heaps and when one is finished I turn the newest one into the space and start again. The new material always goes into the middle bay and is then turned over into an outer bay when one is emptied. I am not much bothered how long it has been composting, it makes no difference to its effectiveness as a protective layer on the soil and younger material probably retains more of its nutrient content. Sometimes there can be a preponderance of dead leaves or shredded woody material and I suspect that there is some nitrogen lockup in the areas where this ends up, but I try to mix it up when I turn the heap so it hasn’t been a major issue.

I have on occasion spread soft shreddings and grass clippings directly onto the ground. The impression I have is that it provokes something of a feeding frenzy in the soil fauna, particularly the bigger members like worms, and gets incorporated, consumed and broken down very quickly. I would do more but a) I am afraid of encouraging slugs, b) it is material that is mostly available in the growing season when there isn’t much bare ground to spread it on, and c) if I spread it green, it will not be available as compost in the autumn.

In most areas of my plot I would say that the soil structure is excellent. It is easy to plant things and just as easy to pull them, and the weeds, out. Cornwall is a relatively high rainfall area so I think the amount of nutrient loss from leaching is bound to be a bit higher than in lower rainfall areas.
As effective as organic matter may be at retaining nutrients, some will always be in the soil water and available to plant roots. That fraction of the soil’s nutrients must be vulnerable to leaching and will be replaced from the reserve of nutrients that is loosely combined with organic and clay particles in the soil. The rapid passage of water down through my well structured soil will increase the leaching losses, at least when the soil is at field capacity, which it should be in a normal winter.
The consequence of this is that as much as I would like not to have to add nutrients over and above those contained in my compost, I do have to if I am to get maximum yields from heavy feeding crops.

One additional factor is moles. Both my plot and compost heaps are plagued by them. On the assumption that most of the hard work that I am saving myself from is being done by worms, I see moles as serious predators of my workforce. I shall try growing caper spurge next year, to supplement my largely unsuccessful trapping.

So, in summary, no-dig is a method where you put organic matter onto the surface and the “cultivation” is done by the soil fauna working it into the soil profile. The compost should provide all the nutrients required by the crop. Broadly I find it works well, but occasionally I find a small amount of cultivation by myself is required. I also believe that some additional fertilizer is needed to get the best yields.
To some extent I think I am still undoing the damage done by previous years of conventional cultivation but I am pleased with my results so far. There are some indications that while my results are being sustained or improving, others on the site are doing less well.

Time will tell.