One Straw Revolution

Mon 29 Mar 2010

After a lot of recommendations I have just finished the seminal 'natural farming' text 'One Straw Revolution' by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukoaka, who for some 50 years pioneered a form of 'hands-off' cultivation on his mountain site which gave yields equal to conventional intensive rice-paddy techniques. In a nutshell, this was achieved by allowing 'weeds' and beneficial green manures to colonise all space between rice or grain plants, and by mulching all harvested fields immediately with the straw of the harvested plants before sowing the follow-up crop. He also advocates growing vegetables in semi-wild mixed areas, allowing self-seeding. He apparently transformed his arid mountain soil over a decade of this cycle. This approach is embedded (as he explains in the book) within a holistic lifestyle of respect for natural cycles, foraging for wild foods, eating according to season.

Having spent time in the mountainous farming village of Toge in north west Japan, I can vouch for the intensive rice-farming still practiced by diminishing numbers of elderly Japanese farmers. As I was there mid-summer, I didn't witness the busiest times but it was clear how hard it was to maintain these vertiginous paddies and to produce the prized rice. The endeavour of food production brought the whole community together year-round, and it was an intensely moving experience to live amongst them and feel this intimate connection with land even for a short time.

I haven't yet looked into how Fukoaka's evident success was disseminated amongst the Japanese farming community, but in his book he cites many clashes with chemical companies and government agencies. It would be depressing reading if it were not for his moving accounts of the satisfaction he gained from his simple relationship with his land.

With memories of the Toge villagers' excitement at spring's earliest murmers, and thinking of Fukoaka's belief in the spirituality of foraging on one's own patch, instead of disposing of the many Arctium Lappa (burdock) seedlings coming up in our fruit cage, I carefully pulled them out. These have now been boiled lightly and pickled in a mix of mirin, soy sauce and rice vinegar.


Now onto working out a way to translate his agricultural techniques to the northern European climate of Lawson Park....

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Winter's last roots gathered
Winter's last roots gathered

You see mud, I taste apples

Mon 22 Mar 2010

Thanks to the heroic endevours of our new land intern Ed Bailey we have finally got around to preparing the unlikely looking bit of land at the top of our SW-facing meadow, which will become a small orchard next year...Inspired by planting a wall of fruit at Abbey Gardens in London a few weeks ago, and by thinking 'If we'd planted an orchard when we first moved in here we'd be eating apples by now!'

The site will be a challenging one -200m above sea level, and rather exposed if sunny, so I'll also plant a surrounding hedge inside the dear-dissuading stock fencing - probably hawthorn as it's so twiggy and in leaf so early too. Much as I fancy shaped espaliers and fans they'd be decidely out of place up here and - more seriously - I know that with the emphasis on labour-saving we are best to choose the standard tree shape, below which -in the future - animals can graze and people can picnic.

Being organic, our ground prep (the meadow was cropped a few months ago by some hungry Exmoor ponies and is usually maintained for wildflower interest) consists of rotivating (now) the hedge-line and a 1m square for each tree (they should eventually reach circa 3m in height each) about 3.5m apart. We'll then spread a thick layer of well-rotted cow manure on this newly exposed soil, then cover with a light-excluding mulch of carpet or plastic, and let nature do the rest for the next 8 or 9 months. Then next winter I'll have a fork about under the mulch and we should see a decent if thin top soil level to plant into in Feb / March time.

I now have the delectable task of trawling through books and websites to choose the toughest apples I can find - I've decided to create the United Appledom of Grizedale by choosing 6 varieties each from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - and by all accounts for the rare ones you need to get your orders for next winter in now. I'll be looking for early ripening varieties, and ones from the wetter parts of those countries. Any variety recommendations welcome!

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Looking east from the farmhouse, new 'orchard' on left
Looking east from the farmhouse, new 'orchard' on left

Last weekend saw us turn some long-standing piles of brash and rotting timber into useful bark chips for informal paths in various spots around the land, at last opening up George's Dell properly - this is an atmospheric woodland space around a natural stream, initially created by former gardener George Watson and home last year to an amazing show of Himalayan blue poppies.

And Adam got to use a big orange machine all weekend, which he secretly enjoyed.