How time flies! It seems like only yesterday that we were unpacking the transit van into our new little flat in Llanidloes with the wood burner firing away. Now the sound of screeching swifts fills the air, the front door is ajar and the summer pollen is wafting through the window. (OK I wrote this last week, it’s now raining!) This post is about how we have started to learn how to feed ourselves. We make no pretence of being anything like self-sufficient; but would we like to self-reliant-ish. This is the start of an exciting journey, every minute we spend reconnecting with the soil rather than blogging and looking at facebook means more empowerment in our own futures. We want to learn important life skills and that isn’t how good you are at powerpoint presentations or conference calls.
We moved here with hopes to grow some vegetables but arrived too late to really get anything growing over the winter. For that you need to have planted veg earlier and it was probably a good idea that we didn’t try as last winter was one of the longest, hardest and coldest of the last 50 years. This two part blog post is a little update of what we’ve been up to over the last six months.
We spent the winter months preparing our beds. When I say “beds” I mean grass. And not just any old grass; grass on a slope incorporating such delights as couch grass, dandelions, bindweed and nettles. Oh and sticky damp clay soil too!
On the 10th we attempted to design some beds optimally for the available space. We had wanted to make raised wooden beds but for now we just raised the level of the beds and lowered the paths. You don’t want to be stepping on your beds ever! Then hopefully we can just add organic matter to the top each year and never have to dig them again. Joy Larkcom recommends soil paths wide enough for a wheelbarrow to pass through the main area of the plot with little side paths maximising the space available. So off we went with a tape measure and some string and measured it all out. We ended up with something that looks a bit like “211”.
Then we had to dig it all out. We took the top layer off and stacked it all next to the fence to create a turf stack. The idea being that all this would be covered for 1-2 years leaving the stack to rot down; the weeds to die and eventually end up with a nice pile of top soil. Luckily a bit of frost made it much easier to slice off the top layer of grass/soil. Once most of the top layer was gone, we covered the beds in cardboard, and then added a layer of manure/grass clippings to the top and then covered it all with compost. In hindsight I wouldn’t have done this again as we just ended up picking out chunks of cardboard when we came to remove the weeds. On the 18th the ice came and winter was thrust upon us. We left the beds hibernating for the winter, the carpets suppressing the weeds and left winter’s icy fingers to break everything down for us….
On the shortest day of the year we prepared the polytunnel by removing all large stones, riddling the bed and adding a good layer of leaf mould. We did this as the snow drifted down from a white sky and settled all over the garden.
Not much happened outdoors during January. The winter evenings were spent wrapped up on the sofa in front of our wood burner flicking through the Real Seeds catalogues and imagining the taste of all the vegetables we were going to grow in the year ahead as the temperature outside plummeted to as low as -20c.
More digging. We didn’t think it was going to be easy and part of our philosophy is to use our own muscle power rather than relying on machines. Digging the ground for a couple of hours on a crisp winter’s day is actually very enjoyable, costs nothing and beats the soulless fitness centre. We dug over each bed twice to carefully remove any perennial weed roots. I can’t pretend that this was that much fun! And despite all the work we put in, we still keep finding dandelions, thistles and buttercups creeping up amongst the vegetables. At least we’re learning what baby perennial weeds look like in the wild..
We riddled the polytunnel further and added manure at the back to break down for cucumber planting. We also took a trip to Machynlleth to the annual Seedy Sunday – a good chance to swap seeds and listen to seed saving talks.
Not much life yet, just the potatoes chitting away in egg boxes on the window sill.
With dry warm weather during the day, we began to improve the paths and slightly terrace some of the beds using slates from the old house roof and large branches. We are eager to progress with actually growing things but the cold nights and short days forced us to be more patient! Next year we should have lots of overwintered oriental salads and brassicas but for now we’ll just have to buy them from the shop.
A most welcome visit by Leanne’s Dad and Elaine on the 9th of March allowed us to build a new 2 bay-compost heap. We used old pallets, nails and managed to build a passable bin in the space of an afternoon. One bay was filled completely with annual weeds, food, manure and left to rot down. Compost is the ultimate building block of the garden, we have had to buy in compost this year but with 14 acres of land, one would hope that we could produce enough good quality compost for the whole community, not just our beds…
The top herb garden was cleared down and rearranged, this took 4 of us nearly 2 days so a lot of weeds were extracted from the soil. Still in maintenance mode we cleared leaves (which should have been done in the autumn) and filled the leaf mould bins.
By the time of the Spring Equinox, the daffodils were starting to come into blossom. I followed the advice of Charles Dowding’s Salad Leaves for all Seasons book and planted two module trays of seeds that should be good for late Spring eating. These included lettuces, spinach, sorrel, pea, coriander and dill.. We also sowed our first row of land cress, rocket, turnip green, mizuna, radishes directly into the polytunnel.
Meanwhile Leanne built a cucumber frame, planted out some mange tout, peas and beans as an experiment in the polytunnel as well as radish, rocket and carrots. Leeks and celery were sown in seed trays and more beans and peas in toilet roll tubes. Her other plants included Lupin, Sweet Peas, Parsley, Calendula, Nasturtium, Giant Sunflowers, Tomatoes, Dill and Chilli.
By the end of the month things were starting to sprout; we hadn’t really thought things might actually grow so it was exciting to see all the trays coming to life.
It was also about this time that a new visitor turned up in the house, befriended Leanne, and asked if they could hang out in the allotment on a permanent basis. Who were we to refuse such a request…
You can read Part 2 here.