February 24, 2012

mud on the track

The snow has now completely melted, save a few stacked up piles in odd corners and high places. The town is back to normal (as if winter had never happened) and today we spotted the first snowdrops in the back yard - sleepy white heads almost ready to peep out. Spring at last!

Out on the farm, winter has left us a surprise: as we approach our turn off we notice two hazard posts on the road. Turning into the muddy drive we immediately see swathes of mud clinging to tufts of swampy ground - rich, silty mud nestling where it landed, displaced by torrents of water.

Over the last few days all the snow from the hill behind has been rapidly melting into streams which have washed straight down the huge open field right into the natural dip that forms our northern border and which continues down through the lower pasture. The journey is clearly visible by the mud slide heading straight down to the road.

It is a sad sight and it is clear that the huge monoculture field above is responsible. So much of its fertility has simply been washed away. Not so long ago - we met someone our age who can still remember it so clearly - that huge field was all orchards which would have acted as a natural drainage system absorbing any excess water. Now there is nothing to take it up, and it is the land intended for cultivation that suffers the most.

The good news for us is that it has happened now and not after having already implemented lots of plans (and that the washed-away-top-soil has landed right in our territory and not in someone else’s). Examining the shape of the mud traces in the lower pasture near the farm house, we begin to see an area that would lend itself perfectly to a series of small, interconnected ponds – an opportunity to cultivate watercress, grow willow for weaving, encourage wildlife diversity and maybe even breed some fish!

Looking up at the big field you can see the water channel running directly between two springs. The one on the right is our neighbour's and the other is ours. This line is approximately the edge of our property. We will lay a wide hedge along this channel to form our boundary and to reinstate a natural drainage system. The hedge will follow the northern boundary upwards until it meets the western boundary where it will continue whilst rapidly reducing in height and size to maximise the warmth and light coming in from the south. We will plant this field with green manure for a couple of years to allow it to recover from intensive cultivation, pesticides and fertilisers.

Above the house to the left behind the cluster of fruit trees, is a large flat area perfect for cultivating vegetables. The poly-tunnel will fit nicely in the far corner without being too visible, yet open to enough light. Further across is a patch that has already been used to grow vegetables last season. It has all been mulched over with hay, but it is possible to see a few rows of rather sorry looking strawberry plants that may just revive with the spring.

Most of the rows have been dug over and then mulched to keep the soil rich and free from prying weeds. Lifting layers of mulch you can still see ice clinging to the strands of hay just a few inches from the surface.

We cleared one row today to allow it to thaw out a bit and release any excess moisture. This row will be for the elephant garlic bulbs that we have carried with us on our journey from England in a basket in a corner of our caravan. They have spent the last couple of months in a box of earth in the attic above our flat where they got a proper frost, enabling them to send out shoots ready to multiply.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published at www.porkandgin.com

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