Monday, 12 December 2011

Fertilizer and Philosophy

Looking at whole natural systems; lessons to be learnt for farming

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book by Michael Pollan entitled; The Omnivores Dilemma, the search for a perfect meal in a Fast Food World. In this book Pollan follows his next meal from land to table, tracing the origin of everything consumed and the implications for ourselves and our planet.

In one section he discusses the shortfalls of farming systems where plant nutrition is reduced to the application of simple artificial fertilizers as opposed to organic systems where soil fertility is increased using compost and manure like we do on the farm at Posada del Valle.

Turning compost in the winter and letting the soil biology work

It was the German chemist called Liebig who set agriculture on its industrial path when he broke down the quasi-mystical concept of fertility in soil into a straightforward inventory of the chemical elements plants require for growth. At a stroke, soil biology gave way to soil chemistry, and specifically to the three chemical nutrients Liebig highlighted as crucial to plant growth: Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium or to use these elements from the periodic table N-P-K. I studied horticulture at Bath University in the 70’s and we had plenty of classes on soil chemistry but never anything on soil biology, a reflection of this thinking.

The N-P-K mentality embraces a good deal more than fertilizer; it fosters the wholesale reimaging of soil (and with it agriculture) from a living system to a kind of machine. Apply inputs of NPK at one end and you get yields of crop at the other. Since treating the soil as a machine seemed to work well enough, at least in the short term, there no longer seemed to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus.

But as we have come to realize on the farm at Posada del Valle there is a huge biological process involved in plant nutrition a sin fin of symbiotic realtions between billions of big and small organisms that inhabit a spoonful of earth some of which can be seen when we turn the compost.

Leaves decomposing on the soil surface

Rather than reducing farming to the application of a few “essential” elements we should be imitating whole natural systems as seen in the forest and prairie. Leaves drop from the trees and decompose on the soil surface; hence we apply our compost on the soil surface and don’t dig it in. Bare soil is rarely found in nature so we avoid it by sowing a cover crop. As opposed to thinking in lineal systems like a machine which takes in resources and spews out goods we need to be thinking in loop systems. A simple example of this is crop waste which we don’t treat as waste but use it to make compost which produces more crops.

Imitating natural systems may sound more like philosophy than science but mimicking natural process precedes the understanding of them. When working in the vegetable garden certain things just “feel” right and with time many of these feelings have been proved to be true: plants grown on composted soils are more nourishing than plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils and such plants are more resistant to disease and insect pests. We have so much to learn from nature!

Healthy and tasty food grown on vegetable garden and "fertilzed" with compost.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Inntravel Discovery Day 2011

Our stand at the Inntravel Discovery Day

I got back from the UK yesterday where Sam Andres and myself had been to exhibit at the Inntravel Discovery day whilst Joe stayed in Spain and opened the hotel during the Spanish holiday week. Inntravel is the major travel agent with whom we work and specialise in independent holidays, with a bias towards people who are interested in walking, good food and authentic accommodation.

Every 3 to 4 years they organise a travel fair where all their suppliers (destinations and hotels) are invited to exhibit their products. This year they celebrated it at the Mercedes Benz World near Weybridge in Surrey on Saturday the 3rd.

It wasnt all work; the gala dinner in the evening

In total there were about 60 stands (including ourselves) and it was attended by over 1,400 people, not bad considering entrance is by invitation only. The hotels supply information about what they have to offer; the accommodation, destination, activities etc. and normally have some products for the people to sample. This year we took our own apple juice and some local cheese and home made apple jelly for people to try. We served over 400 glasses of Apple juice in less than 6 hours! Sebastian had prepared some very good posters and leaflets especially for the occasion which were much appreciated

Dancing after the dinner!

All in all I think it was a very successful event, with lots of interest being shown by people about Asturias and what we are doing. In the evening there was a gala dinner with dancing for the suppliers and all in all we had an enjoyable, if not tiring, time.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Mulching and living compost

Broad bean plants in the process of being mulched

The weather has still been surprisingly mild and sunny for mid November and I’ve been out working in the vegetable garden (with the help of Mari Carmen) mulching some of the vegetable beds.

Peppers mulched in the summer

Mulches are an integral part of our no dig growing systems for the hotel vegetable garden. We usually apply the mulches at the beginning of the crops growing season, and the most common mulch we use is our compost. First we remove the smaller weeds from the vegetable bed and then apply 10 to 15cms of compost carefully spreading it around the plants.

Mulched cabbages coming to maturity

The mulch has a wide range of benefits including stabilizing soil, suppressing weeds, retaining moisture, and increasing the organic matter content of the soil.

Broad beans mulched last Saturday

We avoid mulching very small plants with our compost particularly if it is a bit“coarse”, but having said that, the effects on the crops we mulch with our compost can be quite spectacular. I often admire the plants a few weeks after they have been mulched and ask myself what is it that makes them respond so well?

Different types of healthy brassica enjoying their mulch!

Could it be the humus? This makes up a large portion of the dark material in compost and is very valuable for improving the chemical and physical quality of the soil. Humic substances are a large range of complex molecules, but you can actually buy soluble “humic acids” from the chemical companies, sold as wonder potions for intensive crop production. In my previous career as a crop productionist I used them, but never found them to work.

Wheel barrow load of beautiful compost full of life.

So often it’s not a single factor which constitutes to the health of a plant but it is the result of the many different components of a natural system working together. It’s not just the chemical components of a compost which are important to a plant but also all the different living organisms which it contains and their interaction with the soil and the plant. Mulching with “living compost” helps towards a healthy soil and thus healthy plants which in turn gives healthy food for us to eat.


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.