Due to the long, long winter, spring came late here and the last daffodils have only just gone over mid-May. Looking at pictures of the garden this time a few years ago, it was much greener and fuller.
But given our slender means, we are happy for summer to slide in slowly as we spend 5-8.30pm most days now on the land, weeding, sowing, dividing and planting. The legend that is Mr James Herd has been back rerouting the front Farmhouse Garden pathways and retaining walls, creating a rather more formal and rather more massive border than before - about 100 sq metres - almost all filled with propagated plants from existing stock. I'm trying very hard to minimise maintenance all over the garden, using more shrubs where I can and mulching like it's going out of style, using old chipped wood (almost free but ugly) and spent mushroom compost (good looks don't come cheap). A short-term Japanese intern, Mi, has gamely saved the day by planting the orchard hedge with the already in leaf hawthorn James donated to us - it seemed a terrible shame not to get a season ahead with the plan but the scale of the challenge had beaten me and I had resigned myself to postponing it. As long as we water the plants well we can hope it will thrive.
Vegetables begun in the polytunnel and now planted out include pak choi (about to bolt due to too long in the trays I fear), broad beans 'The Sutton Dwarf' (no staking apparently), and spinach 'Bordeaux'. Verdant Leaf beet 'Oriol' has been extraordinarily hardy, the only vegetable to survive the winter's snow and hard, hard frost and still going strong. French shallots (first in in March) are doing well and spring onions and Chinese radish are both showing now.
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....
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!
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.
The last few days up here have been nice enough to get out into the garden for a few hours each day, almost the first time since the end of November, which if you remember was the monsoon-like predeccessor to the Siberian winter that followed. Our Kitchen Garden here is undergoing a few changes as we grow more and more vegetables in quantity in the Paddies down the track, and as we (veryreluctantly) give up on the asparagus that we planted in 2006, the first thing in the Kitchen Garden to go in. It's never thrived and - as a coastal plant - you can guess why up here in the wilds. So that bed will end up as Asian vegetables this year. Some ongoing drainage issues in the fruit bed have caused us to discard our summer raspberries in favour of just keeping the autumn ones, and the eBay chicken wire we used on the fruit cage has to be replaced asap before the birds get in there and eat the fruit buds.....
Worried about whether the 2 borrowed ponies were going hungry under the 18" of snow, here's Adam throwing them the tops of the Christmas brussel sprouts.
.....but inside Lawson Park it's spring, thanks to that new-fangled underfloor heating.
The GA Xmas Party on Friday went with a swing, we welcomed interns Ellie, Matt and Sophie back and combined the celebrations with Adam Sutherland's 51st birthday!
Thanks to Lisa & Sally we have two Exmoor ponies on our
wildflower meadow, eating up all the old grass and flower stems
over the coming weeks.
Our meadow is too steep and wet to cut with machinery, and though we had a fair bit of fun strimming it en masse a few years ago, we managed to cut just about a third in 4 days! You soon realise that the 'wildest' bit of your garden could easily be the most high-maintenance if you do as the books say - which is generally one or two cuts a year with all the debris removed to minimise soil improvement (the enemy of the wildflower).
The Cumbria Wildlife Trust gave us some management advice recently which stated that occasional grazing could be an acceptable way of keeping the grasses in check, and as ours is a late-flowering meadow this is the time of year to do it.
Just got to remember to poop scoop regularly!
We are still eating every day from the garden - and picking cut flowers including May-sown sweet peas, scabious and rudbeckia 'Marmalade'. Vegetables still going strong include runner beans, mangetout, broccoli, courgettes (outside and in tunnel) and tomatoes.