Here at White Stone Farm we are often presented with challenges. The hot, dry summers, very wet winters, poor drainage over most of the property, heavy frosts in winter, the house that needs a bit of TLC…but one of the biggest challenges we face is our lack of good topsoil. The farm is situated on an ancient alluvial floodplain of heavy clay, with some of the oldest soil this Earth has to offer (Ordovician soil, circa 500 million years for those playing at home…). In winter the clay holds water, in summer it cracks and dries as hard as concrete, the clay shrinking and expanding depending on moisture content.
Prior to our purchase of the land, the property was also overstocked with horses, creating further compaction of the soil. It makes for one slippery clay-ridden landscape in the depths of wet winters and is in desperate need of some more organic matter to boost the growing capacity of the land. Phew…so glad that we like a good challenge!! On the positive side, clay already has a number of nutrients that we can build on for our soil structure, we just need to improve the drainage and help it along a bit with some more organic matter. Hey, at least it’s not sand!
To counteract the immediate problems with drainage and lack of good quality topsoil, we decided to grow higher than the flat ground level, by building raised mound beds of manure, worm castings and soil. We also tried to utilise the benefits of the water-holding capacity of the clay by digging a trench to capture water, filling it with branches and green material for nutrients and then filling it over with a mound of earth. This ‘hugelkultur’ raised mound technique is proving very popular in permaculture and has been a long held growing technique in Europe for hundreds of years. (Ducks are optional…).
Another method we were interested in is the use of semi-decomposed haybales as grow beds. When combined with some additional nitrogen and watered in well, this provides a ready resource of nutrients as the hay breaks down and the raised height gets the plants off the water logged ground (and easier to access, similar to raised garden beds). Hmmm…but we needed a ready resource of hay bales on a very limited budget…
Enter the Great Wall of Hay. A huge structure of half fallen over, decomposing hay that had been stacked in someone’s paddock years ago and had become an interesting landmark between Clunes and Creswick. The bales looked perfect and we had spent the last 18 months eyeing them off as we drove past, thinking of the wonderful mulching value of such semi-decomposed vegetative material.
After making a few inquiries, we finally tracked down the owner of the hay – and it turned out to be a neighbour who leases extra land down there! He happily told us to take as much as we wanted, just lock the gate when you go. Woohoo! We celebrated as if we had won Tattslotto…for us, it’s nearly the same thing! Now to logistics…
The bales, although in various states of disrepair, were massive. Each bale weighed up to 200kgs. This would be no easy task and we would need a big truck, truck driver, two tractors and time. As the festive season holidays offered us the rare occurrence of time off together, we organised to rent a truck, I dug out my Medium Rigid truck licence and we enlisted the help of another neighbour and his whizz bang tractor to assist in off-loading the bales back at White Stone Farm. Stace pottered the 10 kilometres down to the site in Laurall, his old workhorse of a tractor (she’s named after the beautiful property we got her from) and we picked up the truck – and I quickly had to remind myself how to drive such a monstrous beast of a thing with its ancient gearbox!
For two solid days we hauled hay. I built up muscles in my left arm and shoulder that I didn’t know I had whilst fighting with the truck’s gear box and Stace became an expert on how to gently pick up and manoeuvre a bale with the forks of the tractor without it falling apart and without breaking the precarious, weather damaged baling twine (he had LOTS of practice!!).
Load after load was gently hoisted up onto the truck then secured and I would make the slow and careful drive back to the farm. Then Stace (or our wonderful, helpful neighbour Rod) would help to get them off the truck with the borrowed tractor. It was hot, dusty and windy work. We were up with the sun and on-site early to tackle the next mountain of hay and tumbled into bed sore and exhausted late each night. Not the most relaxing way to enjoy your Christmas holidays, but a very rewarding and productive couple of days. Stace spent an additional day loading up the tandem trailer with a couple of bales at a time for an extra day to maximise the ability of having a tractor to load and unload at each site.
And voilà! After all that hard work, we now have gorgeous rows of raised hay bale grow beds!
The haybales will decompose for a couple more weeks, to allow them to warm up with the decomposition process and then cool down. Then they will be ripe for planting! We have some seedlings in the Thermal Mass Greenhouse that are just waiting for a lovely new grow bed…
As you can see, our newest trial with toilet rolls as seedling pots is also going well…these can be planted straight into the ground, as the cardboard will rot away once buried, preventing the need to remove the fledgling plant from the pot and possible root shock.