Gentle Grain – 1st Attempt

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Native Americans had an abhorrence of ‘ploughing’, declaring it to be a barbaric assault on our ‘mother’ who sustains us:

You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. (Smohalla, Nez Perce Indian, c.1850)

This attitude is reflected in other sayings where the earth is recognised as the life-nurturer:

[The Lakota] loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. (Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Indian, c.1900)

and

The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise. (Big Thunder, Wabanakis Nation, c.1900)

The quotations are taken from Touch The Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence. It is tempting to think there is a degree of Romanticism in such views, but it is difficult to see how Native Americans would have come under that movement’s influence. It is much more likely they are genuine reflections of this ancient, aboriginal culture.

However, it is not difficult to reconcile these attitudes with the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, or Moses having to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground in Exodus 3. Nor with the realisation that Christ is the second Adam, the ‘gardener’ discovered by Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel. In particular, the thorny issue of the meaning of ‘dominion over creation’ in Genesis 2, that has taxed Christians over the centuries, when understood with reference to the nature of ‘lordship’ exercised by Christ, himself, that of sacrifice and service, is startlingly illuminated in them. It seems we have something profound to learn from them.

The idea, therefore, seemed a good one – to grow grain gently, without digging or using machinery to prepare the ground for planting, by suppressing grass growth through mulching. Our approach was an adaptation of a method pioneered and used very successfully by the late Japanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, which he describes in his book One Straw Revolution. It is an inspiring read.

Like the Native Americans, but on the other side of the globe, Fukuoka (who died in 2008) lived by the premise that we can learn all we need to know from carefully listening to creation. If we are attentive, we will see the natural forces of life and some of the myriad interactions that are a living ecosystem. Then, with trepidation, we can begin to join the dance, encouraging this, redirecting that. It took him many years, but he became an inspiration for several generations of people who wanted to relearn how to grow food naturally.

Fukuoka, however, was not starting with a field full of Cumbrian ‘reshes’ and creeping buttercup! His field was already cultivated – he merely changed his method of continuing the cultivation from one year to the next.

In April 2009, in a field loaned to us by a local church-member and farmer, we attempted an experiment, consciously trying to learn from his approach. We laid three strips of woodchip on pasture, each about 6m x 2m x 5cm thick. This was to suppress the grass underneath, without digging it over, provide a water retentive matrix on which to grow, and yet allow the roots of seedlings to reach down to find the soil. Scattered on top of these we spread seed mixed with moistened compost and bonemeal. One strip had wheat, one oats, one barley, with fuego beans mixed in to all three, as nitrogen fixing legumes. Fukuoka developed the seed-ball method to stop birds eating the seeds, since he wasn’t ploughing them in or covering them in any way, and to provide a growing medium for them when they germinated. Our attempt at making them into mud or clay balls didn’t work, and the broadcast turned out fairly lumpy.

Each week we inspected our beds to see if the seeds had germinated. Would the experiment work? Was that blade an oat seedling poking through, or something else?

We discovered three unfortunate facts as the summer progressed:

  1. wind dried out the woodchip matrix relatively quickly, frequently leaving the young plants drought-stricken
  2. the woodchip mulch wasn’t thick enough to suppress the very vigorous grass beneath
  3. the farmer’s in-breaking sheep preferred young grain grass to the surrounding rye grass and sheep’s sorrel

This combination meant we were going to struggle with anything resembling a harvest. In the early stages it looked a complete disaster. Oats, wheat and barley are all forms of grass, so it was impossible for us to tell whether any of our seeds were growing.

The middle strip, containing oats, swamped by emergent grass growing through the mulch.

The middle strip, containing oats, swamped by emergent grass growing through the mulch. The mounds either side are of potatoes planted in gathered mole-hill soil. June 2009

Nevertheless, the plants grew up in among the grass that forged through the mulch and, towards the end of the summer, fruited, at last becoming visible.

Barley in among the grass. A lone fuego bean plant also lifts her head. August 2009.

Barley in among the grass. A lone fuego bean plant also lifts her head. August 2009.

Come harvest, however, there was little to do. We gathered a few oats, no wheat, no barley and no beans. The wheat had not taken, the beans turned black, and the barley vanished. (We were only able to be on site 2 or 3 times a week). Was it the sheep that kept breaking in?

Disappointing as failure is, that was an experiment. We know mulch needs to be serious enough to suppress grass, that woodchip is not an ideal medium for growing seed, drying out too quickly in the wind, and that sheep can be a real pain! It also helps to be close to your land, which we weren’t.

So in 2012, our first year at Greenholme, we had a second go…

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Greenholme - an experiment in permaculture

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