Saturday morning. 8.30am. A field on the banks of the Thames. Not the our usual start to the weekend, but in early October Jo, Lisa, Gill, Katy & Lucy headed down the M4 to Tolhurst Organics near Pangbourne for this year’s Organic Growers Gathering, organised by the Organic Growers Alliance and Vegan Organic Network.
We enjoyed a fascinating programme of talks and were privileged to sit in on the Reboot Organic panel discussion with organic experts of long standing Lawrence Woodward, Mark Measures, Andy Dibben & Iain Tolhurst. The coffee and vegan food were outstandingly delicious. However the major draw for us was the venue itself.
We had long yearned to visit Iain Tolhurst’s farm, legendary among organic growers. A pioneer in stock-free farming, ‘Tolly’ manages his land using seven-year rotations including diverse green manures & wildflowers alongside a range of crops. He spreads nothing more on his land during each rotation than a thin layer of composted woodchip and a small application of ramial woodchip. Ramial is fresh woodchip from young small-diameter growth, in Tolly’s case much of it from white willow. Tolly divides his fields with beetle banks. These wide strips sown with a mix of native grasses and plants, are left in place for 15 years as habitat for beetles and other insects. Part of the farm employs an agroforestry technique of alley cropping between rows of mixed fruiting and other trees.
The results in terms of soil quality, biodiversity and natural pest and disease management are nothing short of astonishing. Carbon is continually being added back into the soil and is measured at 82 tonnes per hectare down to a metre depth. Earthworm populations stand at 1500 per square metre (15 million per hectare!) at their peak in each rotation. A team of macro lepidopterists who survey the site annually have counted more moths species there than on any other site they have studied. Red kites glide over the fields and numerous other important species of bird, mammal and insect abound.
Tolly measures his success in managing the land by the number of weed species present. Unlike conventional farmers, however, who might perpetually seek to reduce weeds on their land, Tolly celebrates diverse and plentiful native weed species as a mark of healthy biodiversity in balance.
Our visit – in perfect, warm early autumn sunshine – reassured us that we are already doing good things for our soil and biodiversity here at Organic Blooms. But we always view our organic certification as a starting point rather than the destination, and our day at the Organic Growers Gathering amongst the luminaries of the organic growing world provided inspiration in spades for us to do more.
Find out more about our organic growing practices here at Organic Blooms.