Pruning and Felling

This row of trees hasn’t been coppiced for a very long time, and needs a lot of work to bring it back in shape. The ash trees had outgrown everything else, and needed to be cut to the ground. There was also a lot of holly which also needed to be cut. A couple of smaller oak trees, however, could be left, and their lower branches removed, in order to help them make long, straight timber.

Restoring Banks

bank-workThis photo shows part of a field which is about 3 acres in size in total. The part on the left has been allowed to lie fallow for the past four years – just being cut once per year. It had previously been used to grow cereals, and had been ploughed once or twice a year, and regularly treated with inorganic fertilisers, herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide. As can be seen from the picture, very little is growing apart from a few clumps of grass, ivy and moss.

The ground to the left of the picture was used as horse pasture until a year ago; it has been ploughed periodically over the past thirty years, and has been treated with nitrogen fertiliser, but has not been intensively farmed. It has a fairly good covering of grasses, interspersed with dock plants.

The first step to restoring soil fertility is to divide the field up into smaller sections with banks and trees. Trees find it difficult to become established in compacted post-industrial-agricultural soil; young roots find it difficult to break through the soil, and suffer through lack of air and supportive micro-organisms. Trees planted directly into these types of soil will survive, but it may take five or six years before they start to put on any serious growth.

The process can be speeded up by building rudimentary banks: the trees can be planted into the field itself, and earth then piled up around the trees, to create a bank. The tree roots will spread out into the bank, which will be well-aerated, and will host more micro-organisms than the surrounding soil. This will boost the tree growth, and in following winters, more soil can be added to the bank. The bank will slow down the drainage of water from the field, making it easier for the young trees to get the water they need in the drier summer months, and helping to extend their active growing period.

In time, the bank will start to develop its own range of flora (wild flowers, fungae, mosses, shrubs) and fauna (insects, tree-nesting birds, frogs, toads, small mammals), which will have a positive impact on the fields themselves.

Once they have attained a certain size, the trees on the bank will draw up minerals from the subsoil, and will start the process of regenerating a layer of healthy topsoil in the fields.

Cider Apples

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November is the month to collect apples for making cider. Cider uses apples that are a bit bitterer than eating apples, and should be left for several weeks to become soft before they are crushed and pressed.

A common mistake made by newly-installed smallholders is to plant lots of apple trees, all of which yield different varieties of eating apples. In fact, there is a limit to how many eating apples anyone can consume, and two or three good eating-apple trees close to the house should be enough to meet anyone’s needs. These can be supplemented with a few trees, such as Bramleys, that produce apples suited to cooking, and the rest of the apple trees should produce apples for cider making.

It takes about twenty, half-hundred weight (25kg) bags of apples to make one barrel of cider (one barrel is 120 litres, 210 pints), which means that you can make productive use of your whole apple crop even if you have planted twenty or thirty trees, and they all have a good year. Apple trees do not do well in shade, and will do better if scattered around the farm in suitable places on the banks around the fields, than if they are all kept together in an orchard. When coppicing a bank, the productive apple trees are left more or less untouched (perhaps they can be given a light pruning), and this helps them to keep ahead of the more vigorous hazels, oaks, etc. that they might be growing amongst.

The Vegetable Garden in October

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The vegetable garden in October. Phacelia is growing on the left, as a green manure, then leeks and chicory.

The work done earlier in the year can be seen to be paying dividends as the summer progresses. The picture above was taken at the beginning of October, when the vegetable garden is at its peak; chicory and leeks can be seen in the foreground, green manure (phacelia) has been sown on the left where a few rows of potatoes were harvested earlier in the year, and a row of parsnips are visible on the top right. A small patch of sweet corn is growing at the bottom of the garden, and in front of that, there are courgette, cucumber, and chilli pepper plants.

The vegetable garden requires a fairly small amount of work, but a good deal of intelligence. All the crops visible in the picture will have to be cleared over the course of the winter, and the ground given a generous covering of mulch and compost. Strips of the garden can then be thoroughly worked with a hoe, and raked prior to the planting of each crop. When the seedlings first come up, they may have to be weeded by hand, and thinned out, and then have to be kept free of weeds by regularly hoeing between the rows. In dry periods, the seedlings need to be watered.

If the work is done well, the vegetable garden will be the most productive area of the farm, and its fertility is maintained by giving it the best, and the most, compost. The most important work done for the vegetable garden is not done in the vegetable garden itself, it involves cutting, wheeling and stacking vegetable material from wherever you can on the farm. The heaps are then turned regularly until they have turned into soil-enriching compost.

Cutting Buckwheat

Buckwheat is cut, made into bundles and left to dry for a week or so in the field, before being threshed.
Buckwheat is cut, made into bundles and left to dry for a week or so in the field, before being threshed.

Farmers used to grow a greater variety of crops than they do now – buckwheat, for instance, was once widely grown in many parts of Europe and Asia, and formed a staple part of the diet in many areas. Crops such as buckwheat have fallen into relative disuse because they do not fit in with modern farming methods. It was traditionally used at the end of a rotation cycle, before a field was given a new dose of fresh compost; the plants do well in poor soil, not growing too big, and putting more of their energy into seed production. If you treat the crop with inorganic fertilisers, vegetative growth is stimulated, the plants get too big, the stems are too weak, and the crop falls over, making it impossible to harvest with a combine harvester.

Also, unlike cereals, buckwheat has a long flowering period, and some of the grains ripen weeks before others. This is countered by cutting the crop, tying it into bundles, and standing the bundles in the sun, in the fields. The immature grains ripen, whilst the mature grains are held in place in the centre of the bundles. The plants can then be threshed on a fine day, to give the maximum yield. This system also helps to dry out the buckwheat straw, which can be used as a thatching material, or to cover woodpiles, etc.

A crop of buckwheat helps to clear a field of weeds, it is planted late – May or early June – giving you a chance to hoe up the winter and spring weeds, and grows very rapidly, so that it shades out the summer weeds.

Drying wheat grains

After threshing, wheat grains are spread out on a sheet to dry in the sun, before being bagged away.
After threshing, wheat grains are spread out on a sheet to dry in the sun, before being bagged away.

The basic principals of cereal growing are quite simple: select the seed, sow it in well-prepared ground, harvest it, thresh it, winnow it, and grind it – and you have flour from which you can make your own bread. In practice, things are a little more complicated, mainly because farming works best as a communal activity rather than as an individual enterprise.

The first difficulty is the selection of the seed. Over the course of time, farmers have selected varieties suited to every different locality, and have been able to share their seed grain with each other, so that it has been preserved through good times and bad times. The benefits of this work – which took place over thousands of years – have largely been lost. The world’s agro-industry now has an active agenda to try to stop people growing local varieties, and to rely instead on freshly-generated varieties that instead of being adapted to local conditions, are designed to respond to inorganic fertilisers, agricultural chemicals, and large-scale agricultural equipment.

Wheat and poppies

A more tradtitional variety of wheat, maris wigeon, grows alongside poppies.
A more traditional variety of wheat, maris widgeon, grows alongside poppies.

Traditional farms were not weed-free. Weed seeds are present in the soil, in the compost that you spread, and even mixed in with the seeds that you are planting – which is probably the case with poppies. Over time, however, the plants that one does not want to see in the fields – such as nettles, thistles, brambles, vetches, and docks – are gradually exiled to the fringes of the farm, and other plants that grow happily beside and amongst the crops become a fixed feature in the fields.