At the “fag end of the year”(as one John Moore termed it), comes the light at the end of a long journey in the Entrance Field. This was the week the sheet mulch finally reached the swale.
The Entrance Field looms kindly down on everyone who passes through the nursery gates. It’s just shy of an acre, leans west-southwest, and is the fabled “open, sheltered site” of gardening text book mythology. It’s a far cry from the same literature’s “fertile, free draining, moisture retentive soil” though. Nonetheless, it has been selected as our main area of field vegetable production, due largely to its proximity to the glasshouse and warehouse – the centres of energy; but with some consideration for the pleasing sensation an acre of mixed vegetables might create in people who two seconds ago were in London town.
The standard method of converting pasture/ meadow to annual plants would be to get in a man with heavy machinery to plough it up. But this takes its toll on soil structure, plus we like to Do It Ourselves here. Instead, we opted for the permaculture method of sheet mulching. In this instance, this involves laying sheets of cardboard on top of the grass, laying a couple of inches of green waste compost over it; adding a layer of time – six to twelve months; then planting through the mulch into the dead and rotted lawn beneath.
Two other ingredients are essential: crazed cardboard collectors called Forest Recycling Project, and a small village worth of hands. It was one Open Day in summer 2009, when Growing Communities’ grower Sara Davies and her visiting cousin, Robyn, began clearing the field, covering one small corner of a vast expanse. It took a good few trips back and forth from the far-flung compost pile to achieve this drop in the ocean, in the same time one man and his machine might have taken to turn half the field under.
But gradually, each month in the quieter seasons has seen the dark band of soil improver bleed gently up the hill, ushering up more rife vegetables and green manures as each year heats up.
As well as associated techniques such as sheet mulching, permaculture has a set of principles, based on observation of natural systems. “Use small and slow solutions” is one; “Everything gardens” another. Over two years after Sara & Robyn’s first small step for vegetable kind, Stefan and Jo stood at the top corner, and rolled out the final strip of black carpet. The bit in between was done by dozens of people of all ages, nations, abilities, walks of life, boot sizes and wheelbarrow driving styles. Very few people have set foot in Hawkwood in the last three autumns, and managed to leave without being pressed into peeling parcel tape from cardboard boxes, or schlepping a barrowful of green waste up a slippery slope. All to a soundtrack of bird song, heavy breathing, and laughter.
The Entrance Field, its beautifully darkened skin streaked green with agricultural mustard and cavallo nero, now stands as a monument to People Power. Of all the powers that be, this one holds my hopes for the future.