June 18, 2012


During last week's unpredictable weather, it was impossible to book our neighbour in to mow the meadows. So, in the brief gaps between, we began doing it ourselves by hand using scythes.

Scything is an age old technique - a long, half moon blade attached at right angles to a gently curved wooden handle with a hand grip at the end and another about a body's width down. Scything requires your whole body, feet firmly planted as you turn, gently swinging to find the momentum that allows the motion of your body to move the blade with precision and ease.

We soon realised that it was not nearly as hard as it looked and that progress was good. The larger areas were very satisfying to work, the grass being optimum height for cutting and a good variety of growth. Many border areas however are thick with nettles and tough grasses and the work became strenuous and tiring. (Our attentive neighbour over the stream arrived at the crucial time with a hand-held mower to blast the last bit – a huge relief but also rather abrasive after our scythe meditation).

Here in the Oberlausitz they have a saying that 'hay dries on the rake'. These last few days have been scorchers and we very soon experienced the truth of this, raking the freshly cut grass into ridges, then forking it over, spreading it onto dry ground to the side, then raking once again, keeping the rapidly drying grass in motion, fluffing it up and spreading it further, allowing it to absorb as much heat as possible, and the soft wind coming to our aid to give the hay a final boost.

And then the wind changed. Within the space of less than an hour, the sweltering heat gave way to a strong breeze and an ominous black cloud appeared at the crest of the hill. We frantically hauled in as much of the finished hay as we could, and then all hell broke loose. Amidst raucous thunder and lightening, the rain came lashing down in vertical sheets. It was no normal rain. Hail stones as big as marbles pelted the ground with a vengeance and the wind forced its way into every cranny, shattering the glass of an open door.

Then just as suddenly, it was all over. The pattern has continued with glorious days transforming into darkening afternoons with sudden (although less dramatic) downpours. If rain soaks hay that is very nearly dry, it is practically ruined. Much like if you let a tea bag get wet - once it has dried again the goodness is washed out. Yet if it rains onto freshly cut hay, it can always continue to dry the following day (if you're lucky!). It is crucial to store the hay when it is totally dry. Many a barn has burned down due to slightly damp hay overheating as it decomposes, then igniting dry hay in the process.

Today we cleared out the hay loft above the tool shed and with speedy team work (thanks to a well timed visitor!) managed to bring in our first batch of perfect hay. The two large pastures still need more drying so the challenge was on to scoop all the drying grass into huge heaps, raking and rolling amidst sweat and laughter before covering the heaps with all the tarps and scraps of plastic we could lay our hands on, before weighing them down with heavy poles and old planks. This will save a large amount of our crop, certainly enough to see our future animals through this first winter.

Finally, we’ve stumbled upon a miracle cure for aphids: hand rolled cigarette butts soaked overnight in water with half a dozen roughly chopped cloves of garlic, then strained and decanted into a spray bottle. Sunflowers sprayed once were entirely free of the stifling black army by the following day! We will certainly make use of this for our elderflower harvest next year - riddled this season, rendering many flowers totally unusable.

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

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