Dominique is an organic grower. There’s very little waste on the land- weeds and food leavings go to the compost pile, where they’re picked over by chickens before rotting down into plant food. Stale bread goes to the rabbit, with the vegetables that are too small to cook, and specific weeds they like are saved from the pile. The donkey gets the deformed carrots, the leafy tops and the gone-to-seed cabbages. You get the picture.
But when it comes to her own land she has little patience for ‘extremists’; her term for a range of permaculture, no-dig and hugelkultur obsessives who occasionally pass through. She uses crop rotation, manure and composting to keep the soil fertile, and creates lasagne beds to start a new crop on tough soil. She’s also very definite about weeding. It has to be done properly, and throughout the entire bed. None of this fashion for leaving the weeds in to maintain soil quality and biodiversity in the garden. The weeds are fine in the corners of the fields. If they raise their verdant heads in Dominique’s fruit and veg plot at planting time, or any time outside the dead of winter, they are toast.
Far from being an extremist myself, I’ve always been a bit of a Facebook farmer. Stridently advocating the urgency of everybody growing their own food, but never getting my own hands in the soil. I know several people like this. We generally share more links online than the smaller group who are outside getting dirty.
Sam’s had more experience of food growing. He’s established an orchard on his mum’s land and created a self-watering permaculture allotment, with mixed results. He’s even better versed in various organic theories, having done thorough internet research before settling on forest gardening with small grass fed animals & horticulture as his ideal strategy for our dream smallholding. He loves gadgets and contraptions, especially if they require minimal energy inputs and create virtuous circles of benefits for all the elements involved.
Sadly for him, his first task in Dominique’s garden was to dismantle a Hugelkultur bed a previous WWOOFer had installed.
“I was ill in bed, I didn’t know what he was doing. He dug up all my rhubarb and put it in that. What is the use of it?”
Sam was quite enamoured of the structure- a heaped pile of soil studded with concentric rings of slates heaped over a base of rotting wood.
“The wood releases nitrogen into the soil gradually, and the slates shelter the seedlings from the wind and keep them warm when it’s sunny. In theory”, he offered.
Dominique let out a very Gallic ‘Hah!’
“I like to garden with hard work, not theory.”
After a woeful hour deconstructing the bed and marveling at the lovely loamy soil, Sam discovered the errant WWOOFer had forgotten the vital element of manure over the wood base, which provides a shorter-term nitrogen supply while the wood rots. He felt the loss less keenly after that.
The spread of useful information is great, but as Rob Hopkins puts it far more eloquently, practice is what’s needed to really test the efficacy of any of these growing methods. Part of the philosophy of permaculture as I understand it is about responding very precisely to the specific demands of the piece of land you have to work with. This can only be done in 3D and over time.
I think sometimes the kaleidoscope of information about urban farming, edible windowboxes, the astounding fertility of forest gardens, lulls us into thinking we can start tomorrow. Or next week. Or, oh, now it’s winter and I’ve been sharing links on Facebook the whole growing season. Next year maybe? Nature’s bounty will still be there for me to stuff my face with. And in the meantime there’s always the shops.
But what if you don’t actually believe that the shops are eternal, or that they will always have what you want to eat at a price you can afford? There may be less time than you think. What if you find that the first year or three, you’re a crap gardener? Easier to suck it up, learn and move on if you’re not already scurvy from rocketing fruit and veg prices.
Dominique has worked that one piece of land since she was a tiny girl in her grandmother’s footsteps. 50-odd years is a research period I can respect. I do my weeding diligently.
My main worry was whether I was even going to like the work. Having decided working some land will be an important part of my future, will I find I really prefer editing video on a laptop and sharing links about guerrilla gardening to show off my awareness?
I loved it. My back and legs ached for the first three days, which after the winter of hiding out on Joker felt like a much needed massage. My mind roamed, dreamed, then snapped back to the present as a toad hopped past, as millipedes and worms undulated through the soil, as I waged sweaty war on an enormous dock root and finally yanked it like a stubborn tooth, dropping me on my ass.
I loved planting beans in the polytunnel, so shallowly that ‘they can hear the gardener walking away’.
I loved feeding the animals in the mornings, checking they all had what they needed, changing their water. Shutting them up in their beds at night against the predators.
I loved the way the give and take of life was so simply illustrated. Expending my effort, eating the food. Taking from the land, giving to the animals: Scattering seed in the mornings, then the weeds and compost for the chickens to pick over. The geese grazing their grass to a lawn fit for a golf course. Giving to the land, spreading compost and manure. Clearing a space for the artichokes and watching them stretch out, freed from choking weeds. Taking from the animals: collecting up to 17 eggs every day from the musty henhouse. Scooping fresh milk from the tank. Coming in famished from the work and eating buttery biscuits made from the eggs and the cream.
When it rained, gathering apples from last year’s pile in the yard and peeling and coring them for bottled compote.
I actually loved it so much, when I did switch my laptop on in the evenings, I was nonplussed. Why did I spend so much time on this? It’s not real. There are no nettles, no tiny red spiders randomly wandering around in here. What is it for?
It’s clearly a lot of work. Much more than the 4 hours we’re required to do here, if it was our place. But I think I could do it- if I get the chance.
I know very few people have the proceeds of a house sale with which to shop for land. There are still many options: allotments, community gardens, WWOOFing holidays, windowboxes, volunteering on local CSA farms, getting involved with Reclaim the Fields, finding and planting a neglected bit of green space in your area on the quiet. The more of us have practiced doing this stuff, the more bounteous we can make those abandoned shopping centres and cracked motorways when the time comes.
Facebook Farmers, unite! We have nothing to lose but our inexperience.