mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Stoned again

This week, I have been picking up stones from my vegetable bed. When I say vegetable bed, what I am referring to is a semi-circular patch of about 400 sq m that has been nominated for the purpose of growing our food and herbs. I have some issues with this land – the first being that it is not particularly accessible to the living area, and thus falls short of the permaculture zoning principle.

In permaculture, the idea is to split up the land into zones (and in fact just about anything else you can think of – I’ve seen permaculture models applied to town design and life coaching). Very roughly speaking, zones go from zero to five, with zone zero being the area of the most intensive human activity, ie the house, and zone five being where rare or no human intervention is needed. Nearest the house – zone one – are those elements in the system that require frequent attention and need to be visited often – salad crops, bins and the greenhouse, for instance. This follows a more or less commonsense pattern through the zones. In fact, a recent new acquaintance dismissed permaculture as a pompous word for commonsense, which basically it is – but we like it all the same.

For me to attend to my veg plot, I currently have to walk out of the awning, collect tools from the tent-cum-shed en route, walk around the hideous trailer, walk past the veg plot to the field entrance to collect the missing half of the tools, which are currently deployed in gate-hole digging and stone-spreading activities, and then walk back to the veg plot otherwise know as a barren expanse of mud. We definitely need to work on our zoning.

So, as far as I can see, the veg plot is not in the right place – but I understand that when we have buildings with something as grand as, say, a door, we will be facing the plot and thus it will be nearer. This just leaves my other problem, which is the volume of geological matter it contains. For it is covered with thousands upon thousands of stones.

A quick trawl through Devon geological history on the county council website, throws up some fascinating facts. The distinctive red colour of the soil dates from the Triassic time period a mere 200-250 million years ago – when much of Britain was desert. I should add a caveat here, that I am on very hazy ground and for further information please see someone who knows what they are talking about, or visit Devon Geology.

Anyway, in layman’s terms, the red soil comes from Triassic rocks, which, apparently, were covered with a strata of greenish-grey mudstones and limestones. This is interesting, and demonstrates beautifully that time is a continuum in which nothing much changes, because my veg patch continues to have its own strata of greenish-grey mud and limestones interestingly mixed with what appear to be seaside pebbles.

Given less environmental principles and some ready cash, the answer to this would be to hire a digger and remove the top foot of earth and replace it with some nice topsoil from the garden centre. However, ours is an exercise in sustainability – as few inputs as possible and as little waste generated. Therefore the stones must be picked up by hand and reused elsewhere on the site. And with the amount we have, we could probably reuse them to build a small castle in the Norman tradition.

So, I started to worry away at a small corner – picking up just the surface stones of an area about 2x2 metres took hours. Then, I had a bright idea and employed a rake. This produced more stones because the prongs dislodged rocks lying under the surface – and I now had as many as before I began. I realised that here was the sort of exercise they used to make prison inmates undertake in the Victorian age – a monotonous, repetitive task with no end in sight. Apparently, a villager told me, people used to think the stones grew, because no matter how many they picked more always appeared.

It was at this point that I abandoned all hope of planting anything in the immediate future. The ground needed some serious cultivating. Not only were the stones a problem, but new plant matter was beginning to spread across it, and none of it welcome. Ploughing the ground had activated all sorts of floral activity that needed to be stopped in its tracks. Furthermore, my horticulturalist brother explained that pests lived in the soil of pastureland that would dine happily on anything I planted. Organisms such as leather jackets and chafer grubs, that would normally chomp away on grass roots, but would be equally happy tucking into a brassica or two. They needed to understand that the time had come to move on – encouraged by a little starvation.

This tallied with advice from my new friend, Alan. Mr Titchmarsh comes in for some heavy criticism from various quarters, but I have to say he knows how to explain this gardening milarkey with clear use of the English language. I had taken The Kitchen Gardener out of the library and been disappointed to read that his recommendation with pasture or rough grassland was to do nothing with it for several months except fork it over and hoe to allow weeds and pests to be removed over time.

Although I am desperate to provide food for the table, I can see the wisdom in not growing anything for a while – and serendipitously this ties in neatly with next year’s growing season, when if I keep whittling away at the stones and the weeds and the pests, I should have a decent bit of ground in which to begin planting. Moreover, it gives me time to get my head around what I am going to plant and how. I like the idea of mixed vegetable – or polyveg – planting, but can’t quite divorce myself from the idea of crop rotation and neat beds in straight lines.

So, I shall be picking up stones and digging for several months almost single-handedly. I have an offer of help from my youngest, Matty – who has negotiated an eye-watering rate of tuppence per stone. He very quickly picked up ten very small stones. ‘No,’ I said – they have to be bigger. ‘How big?’ he asked. ‘Just bigger,’ I said, uncertain of the answer but sure that I was not going to be done out of 20p for a handful of pebbles. I shall wait with interest to see if his innate indolence overcomes his desire for new bits of Lego – meanwhile, back to work…

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