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.
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.
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.
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.
Winter is the best time for tree work. Hazel trees should be cut down to ground level. New shoots will grow up from the base, re-invigorating the root system and old wood. A hazel tree coppiced regularly in this way can live for thousands of years.
We first cut the above bank about seventeen years ago, prior to that it had been allowed to become overgrown; each hazel had multiple trunks that were intertwined with each other, and bramble plants were rampant, growing up through the trees and bending young branches down under their weight. Some of the trunks had died, and had started to rot down to the base, leading to a lack of vitality at the heart of the plant. After the initial cut, regrowth was quite slow – not comparable to the growth seen in properly-managed coppices – but we kept cutting the brambles, and the young shoots started to gain some vigour. We cut the bank again about eight years ago, and again this year. The trees are now starting to regain a classic hazel coppice dynamic, producing straight poles, and a mass of fine twigs that are ideal for making into faggots. The deer managed to eat some of the young shoots growing up from these stools before we had got round to protecting them with wire netting, but even so, some shoots have grown five or six feet over the summer. We have other, mature, hazel coppices on wetter parts of our land, and they can produce up to nine foot of growth in the year after cutting.