Diggers All

“It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect – and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage. The use only of our bodies for work or love or pleasure, or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exalt…But a man with a machine and inadequate culture…is a pestilence. he shakes more than he can hold”. – Wendell Berry, Damage
This year, my growing activity has “scaled up”, from 1/2 acre to the 12 acres at Hawkwod. How to work that much more space? Well, for one thing most of the production will be more “extensive” – perennial fruit and vegetables, and field veg – alongside the high maintenance salad leaves and glasshouse crops. Then there’s People Power, big happy gangs turning up for hard rewarding  tasks like fencing, tree planting, raised bed building. We are welcoming in new hand tools, those used in broader scale horticulture, such as scythes, wheel hoes and seeders. And then there’s powered machines.

We’ve bought a Goldoni Jolly walking tractor, as used by small farmers and peasants over Europe and beyond. I like its relative lightness and the fact that when using it you still have your feet firmly on the ground.

Roger has managed to get the abandoned and condemned old council tractor up and running. It’s a beast of a machine and is unsurpassed when it comes to transporting large bulky loads, such as woodchip and compost, around the place. Huf, the “Buildings and facilities” co-ordinator, has among his rare claims the fact that he has build a biodiesel plant, so we have the potential to run vehicles off “waste” veg oil. To this end we have been patronising the local chippy, in a bid to ingratiate ourselves with future suppliers, with considerable vigor over these cold barren months.

Last week we hired a mini-digger to accomplish some of the larger earthworks. In permaculture, “mechanical solutions” like this are regarded as acceptable one-offs in setting up structures and systems which then enable more effective biological processes to continue.  It made light work of digging a swale across the Entrance Field, but created a huge mess on the West Terrace, churning and compacting the sodden clay until finally, the digger itself acknowledged the hopelessness of the exercise, slumping resolutely into the mud bath.

I had visions of having to hire a bigger digger to try to fish it out, leading us into a farce that might climax with the world’s biggest digger crunching over the glasshouse to the rescue. In the event, it only took four people, one tractor, 20 jute sacks, 8 scaffold boards, 14 swear words and 2 hours for digger and hard standing to be reunited. We are just beginning to learn the limits of machines, of the land, of each others’ patience.

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The early peas in the glasshouse , which were laid low by the penetrative frosts a mere week ago, are showing signs of recovery: many are clinging for dear life to their mesh suppoet, their threadlike tendrils winching them up towards the glimmer of light. Often plants have a way of expressing what’s going on as well as any human.

In the adjacent “East Wing”, the shoots of garlic (garlic and peas aren’t considered good neighbours in companion planting orthodoxy, the glass doors are shut and I don’t think they’ve seen each other yet) are altogether more assertive in their thrusting out of the ground, you have to admire their confidence , but their progress is tortuosly slow.

Clare’s been striking our first hardwood cuttings (blackcurrant and worcesterberry). Striking is a magnificent verb to perform, and people don’t get to do it enough nowadays.They’re going into pots for now whilst we are digging a nursery and cuttings bed to the west of the glasshouse. This has meant painstkingly re-homing hundreds of the lawn’s current daffodil bulb inhabitants, their shoots looking identical to those of their garlic cousins. Every piece of ground, however unpromising, has within it life, history and spring.

The Sleeping Year

The prolonged period of snow and ice have served to enforce the short days’ reminder to gardeners and growers that this is the time to rest, reflect, take stock and make plans for the future.

Such a sentiment would have raised a few wry smiles at the Organic Producers’ Conference I attended last week, where many had been up all hours harvesting frozen produce from the fields in order to skid vegeboxes around rural ice tracks. And, whilst at such conferences people are often curious and baffled by the notion of being a grower in London, this is a case in point for the urban growers’ vision of “garden cities and eco-villages” being a sound one for rural, as well as urban, development.

I read recently that in Tudor times Norwich was described as “either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city”, and this sounds to me like an appealing landscape for all kinds of reasons. To this day, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City  retain much of that aesthetic, if not productive, quality. Surely a sustainable, fair society would be characterised by such  gently peopled landscapes, not our current extremes of rural isolation and urban density?

As for immediate plans, Hawkwood being a new site, we’ve got them in spades: the trick is going to be to bite off as much as we can enjoyably chew this coming season. We may be in the depths of winter but the time for ordering bulk seed potatoes is rapidly passing. Meantime, I am struggling to work out how to triangulate walking tractor width with wheel hoe blade length with plant spacings in order to arrive at the optimum bed widths for the Entrance Field, and thence how many spuds we are going to plant. At the same time, the plan to excavate and build/ sink beds for salads on the West Terrace remain resplendently on the drawing board.

On the positives, we have opened up more ground in the glasshouse, so there’s room for more than one four-course rotation, meaning that we can grow tomatoes AND peppers for the stall and box scheme. Maybe that will make up for the lack of early East London spuds.